The four women were sitting on a bench, their hands placed softly in their laps, as the audience in front of them eagerly awaited their speeches. Each of them was wearing a navy fleece vest, white sweater and a red-and-white spotted handkerchief around their neck. Each had a vast array of pins adorning their vests. “We can do it!” read one. A heart-shaped, crystal-encrusted American flag was pinned proudly in place on another.
Catherine “Kay” Morrison stood up. “In 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed we were devastated,” she said. “We thought “How could something like this happen on our soil?” … I wanted to go to work for my country. I wanted to work in defense.”
Morrison and the other three women are some of Richmond California’s last remaining “Rosies,” women who went to work in what were once considered men’s jobs as part of the World War II effort. They’re named after Rosie the Riveter, a US cultural icon, most commonly associated with the famous poster featuring a woman wearing a red bandanna, denim shirt, and one arm curled into a flexed muscle.
Today, half a dozen Rosies still regularly visit Richmond’s shipyards, but no longer as welders—they’re volunteers for the Rosie the Riveter, World War II Home Front National Historical Park Visitors’ Center. Every Friday the Rosies hold a storytelling event and meet and greet, at which visitors can learn about life during the war and the work they did for the war effort.
At the event held on April 7, Morrison said that after her husband was turned down by the Air Force, they decided to move to the Bay Area. “Naturally, because here was Kaiser’s four shipyards,” she said. At first, Morrison was denied work: “No women and no blacks,” read the sign at San Francisco’s Union Hall. But by January, 1943, the sign was gone and Morrison was employed as a journeyman welder in Richmond’s Shipyard Number 2.
She worked the graveyard shift, from 11 at night until 7 in the morning. “I want you to know, it was a very hard job,” she said. “I loved every minute of it.”
Morrison still remembers working in the shipyard down to the most intricate details, including her uniform. “I wore leathers, heavy leathers … and also leather gloves that came up to your elbow,” she said. “And I wore boots, high-top boots, and I recall they were called ‘Chippewah’ and they had the steel toe. I think they were as heavy as the leather jacket.”
During World War II an estimated 6 million women went to work in the war industries, building planes, bombs and tanks. In Richmond alone, the city’s population swelled from 20,000 before the war to 100,000 in 1945. Tens of thousands of women worked in the shipyards, doing jobs such as riveting, welding and draftsmanship. Without the women workers, America’s shipbuilding industry would have crumbled, leaving the war effort faltering.
97-year-old Agnes Moore was a welder in Shipyard Number 2 during the war, and a few years ago she was reminded of how vital her work was. After being interviewed for a newspaper, which included her picture and the work she did at the shipyard, a man contacted Moore to thank her for saving his life.
He told her that his military unit had been fighting against the Japanese on Okinawa island, and that a big battle was imminent and they had run out of supplies and weapons. The next day, they looked out across the ocean and over the horizon came a whole fleet of American-made supply ships, war ships, submarines and troop carriers. They were saved.
“And he said, ‘You women built those ships … we most certainly would have died’ because the Japanese were fierce fighters and they had the equipment to fight with,” Moore recalled.
The sun beamed through the window at the visitor center and reflected off the pins on her vest. One was a small framed photo of Moore during the war, encircled with the words “Richmond Shipyard Number Two.” Despite the photo being over 70 years old, she still remembers a typical day in the shipyard like it was yesterday. As a welder, Moore’s job involved being deep inside a ship’s hull. She recalls how the sparks would fly all over her, despite their heavy leather uniforms. “No matter how tight you have your collar, your shirt collar … the sparks would get down through your collar and go on down to your chest and they burned,” she said.
In 2014, after 12 years of letter writing to the White House by Rosie Phyllis Gould, who worked in the Richmond shipyard’s and Pennsylvania resident Rosie Mae Krier, the Rosies were official recognized by the government for their work during the war. A federal resolution was passed in the US Senate on March 15, 2017, and March 21 is to be known as “Rosie the Riveter Day” —though that resolution is yet to be approved by the House of Representatives and must also be signed by the current President.
All of the Rosies who volunteer at Richmond’s visitor center said they feel incredibly humbled by the recognition for their work during the war. “I knew that it was an important job, but we were just doing what we thought was what we should do,” said Moore. “And also what was needed to be done.”
The name of the Richmond Visitor’s Center and the information regarding the legal status of “Rosie the Riverter Day” have been corrected.