Sunday, December 30, 2007

RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) — Fog drifts across the old shipyard, casting a veil over empty factories where thousands of women once thronged, welding and hammering and typing and filing as they put a lipsticked smile on the face of the war at home.

This is the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park, a sprawling tribute to the sacrifices of a generation located in what was once a wartime boomtown on the shores of San Francisco Bay.

As recounted in Ken Burns’ recent documentary “The War,” which details the effects of the war boom on cities including nearby Sacramento, Northern California was as swept up in the home front mobilization as any region of the country.

“There is no more charged period in history — hate, love, fear, despair, everything that goes along with a human emotion is just heightened during a period of war. No one was left untouched by this experience,” said Lucy Lawliss, a National Parks Service landscape architect who is among the people working to establish the park.

The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter is of a cheerful, blonde housewife. But many Rosies didn’t fit that image.

For Betty Reid Soskin, a black woman already living in the San Francisco Bay Area when World War II broke out, life on the home front meant confusion and change.

Workers, male and female, were recruited from across the country to work in the shipyards, including people from states where blacks and whites wouldn’t share drinking fountains for another 20 years.

Looking back through the prism of the civil rights movement, she sees it differently.

“When you’re in the middle of that, you don’t have a sense of what you were involved in historically. I certainly didn’t,” Miss Soskin said. “But now, at 86, I look back and I can see the pattern as it swept across the country and can have the pride in that heroism of the people who suffered through that, who learned from that.”

The Rosie the Riveter park is a work in progress. A memorial walkway, flanked by metal structures meant to evoke the hull of a ship, was dedicated in 2000.

Visitors get a map and directions to the park’s landmarks, such as a housing development built for shipyard workers and Shipyard No. 3, home to the USS Red Oak Victory, an ammunition ship built in Richmond that’s being restored by a volunteer group of World War II veterans.

Among those who have visited the park is Kate Grant, a former Rosie who recalled her experiences in a phone interview from her home in Moore, Okla.

Mrs. Grant was a tack welder and used to go 40 feet down to the bottom of the ship to lay beads of hot lead on seams. She worked the graveyard shift, 12 a.m. to 8 a.m., getting home in time to take care of her baby.

Her husband, Melvin, joined the Marines and was shipped overseas. She can laugh now about the can of Spam she sent him as a care package.

But there was a serious side to her work.

“I said, ‘Honey, I feel like I’m building a ship for you to come home in.’ ”

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