Could we do it now? Could Americans muster the kind of industrial might and intestinal fortitude demonstrated during World War II?
That is one of the lingering questions after viewing a small new exhibit at Pearson Air Museum. The museum has added a couple panels highlighting the Kaiser shipyard that transformed Vancouver during World War II, helped decide a global conflict, and then disappeared. Before the war, Vancouver had 18,000 residents; by 1944, the shipyard alone had 38,000 employees and the population of the city had tripled.
In “Images of America: Downtown Vancouver,” local historian Pat Jollota writes, “Vancouver boomed as never before, becoming a 24-hour-a-day city. New businesses opened. Wages were high, and people had money to spend. With rationing in effect, there wasn’t much to spend it on. Except war bonds. As they had done during World War I, people crowded into the banks to buy bonds. Schoolchildren bought savings stamps in class. Thousands of soldiers passed through the barracks and came into town for last flings before shipping out. Restaurants, bars and night clubs thrived.”
The Vancouver Housing Authority was formed and wartime homes were constructed at Fruit Valley, Ogden Meadows, Fourth Plain Village, Bagley Downs, Burton Homes and McLoughlin Heights, which Jollota claims was the largest wartime development west of New York.
The genesis was Henry J. Kaiser’s shipyard. His role in turning Vancouver into a modern city cannot be overstated, a fact that makes the shipyard and its history endlessly fascinating. Kaiser created mini-cities to serve his employees, with schools, child care facilities, and hospitals; his health care plan for workers survives today as Kaiser Permanente.
While all of this is significant in understanding the history and development of Vancouver, it also generates broader questions of national importance. You know, like, “Could we do it now?”
World War II often is lauded as the pinnacle of American achievement and influence, as a bucolic era of national perfection fueled by “The Greatest Generation.” This is somewhat overstated, with a towering victory over tyrants and despots allowing national resolve to overshadow the nation’s pockmarks at the time.
After all, we emerged from World War II as the world’s lone superpower, but still were tainted by institutional racism and Jim Crow laws in much of the country. It is difficult to insist that America was at its best when many citizens could not use a particular drinking fountain or restroom. It is hard to claim that the United States was living up to its ideals when citizens of Japanese descent had their possessions seized while they were sent to internment camps.
That’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgment that history is never as shiny and unblemished as we sometimes like to pretend.
The story of Vancouver
Yet the tale of the Vancouver Shipyard — at Ryan Point, slightly upstream along the Columbia River from where Beaches restaurant now sits — represents a microcosm of an enormous story of shared commitment. The facility churned out ships around the clock, building 50 escort aircraft carriers (“baby flattops”) and dozens of other vessels by the end of the war, reflecting a sense of national purpose not seen since.
Consider this: Americans during World War II were subject to the rationing of food and supplies. In contrast, President George W. Bush launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while simultaneously enacting sweeping tax cuts. The implicit lesson was that we can conduct wars by proxy, without commitment or sacrifice from average Americans — a lesson that undermines this nation’s greatness and obfuscates the horror that is war.
All of that might be reading too much into three panels at Pearson Air Museum that help tell the story of Vancouver. But in pondering that story, it is worthwhile to consider how it fits into the larger tale of the United States.