World War II

The romance of steel

... shipbuilding at Quincy

by David Moreland

On February 19, 1942 the large field next to Bethlehem Fore River Shipyard was just bare ground. Then ground was broken and the first keel of a ship was laid 131 days later on June 29, 1942. The first ship was launched on September 24, 1942. This was 217 days after the yard was started. At that time the Quincy Fore River Shipyard was constructing the battleship USS Massachusetts now permanently moored at Fall River.

Remember we were just coming out of the depression and were at war. A wage at that time was $25.00 per week. I worked at the Plymouth Cordage Company and worked overtime on the Gil Spinners making twine for bailing wheat in the midwest. What friends I had were upset at my receiving $35.00 per week.

Everyone with any gumption went into war work. My mother worked at the munitions plant in Hanover, Mass.

The ship launched in September was a DE, Destroyer Escort. The yard was in full tilt. The purpose of the DE was to protect our larger Navy ships and the Merchant Marines whose ships carried men and supplies. DEs carried "ash cans" so called. They were steel drums filled with explosives. The radar would locate an enemy submarine by the "ping." This sound would locate where to drop the explosive charge off the stern. In turn many subs disappeared and the wolf packs dispersed. Before that period many of our naval and merchant ships went down.

I had done carpentry to pay my tuition at B.U. The personnel at the yard said that steel was like wood. You cannot stretch it, but you can bend it. I had some classes on shipbuilding and started climbing ladders. (I climbed many of them.) I did not go into shipfitting right off, but became a welder after passing the Navy Welding tests.

In welding I used Westinghouse rods that were longer than mild steel. I worked a full eight hours and welded 350 feet on prefabrication of (trans) bulkheads. I was on the swing shift and I would weld another 50 and give it to the war widows.

Next I went on the Ways where they built ships from the flat keel up. I went from an enclosed steel mill to open air. The winters in 1942 to 1944 were bitterly cold. I worked on the construction of LCIs (landing craft invasion) to DEs to LSTs.

Some men were not as conscientious as others and collected their pay for little work. I became a shipfitter first class and hull inspector, correcting and making alterations on work not acceptable to the Navy standards.  

One DE was built in 90 days. After launch the ship had to be outfitted in the wet slips and have a trial run before acceptance by the Navy. Even thought haste was made the ship had to be safe in regard to our Navy men on board her. A ship was always called a "she" because she had to be kept with so much powder and paint. There were 227 DEs and LCIs constructed and launched.

There were many skilled workers there. Quincy was great for quarries and men in the yard became chippers. Plumbers became pipe fitters. The riggers worked with overhead crane operators to place pieces of the ship in place.

Many anecdotes came from the era of shipbuilding.

Some workers would steal footage by erasing paint markers. To cure this inspectors found a competent Navy man whose name was Kilroy. After work was done the ship was marked "Kilroy was here." The taking of footage was abandoned and that phrase eventually was found its way in the armed forces in Europe and South Pacific. It had a home-like ring to it and the military liked the phrase.

An interesting problem arose in the lighting system around the ships. First they had light bulbs that had a left to right twist similar to the ones you have at home. The bulbs and even sockets disappeared by the dozens. Soon they replaced the sockets and bulbs with a right to left hand twist. The problem was solved.

Another interesting note was in regard to thunder and lightning storms. The ships were so well grounded in the ways where they were being built that no ship was ever struck by lightning nor were the men working on her.

Spray painters started out with brown coveralls, but by the end of the shift their coveralls were gray, green or assorted colors. The parking lot was next to the ships and one time the wind shifted and the parked autos came out the color of the sprayers' paint. The company had to pay for paint jobs on all the cars.

The company had large acetylene tanks in a small building at the head of the ways. I was working on the ground completing a bulkhead by tacking stringers (transverse T bars) when an accident happened. The tanks blew up and the flames raced by me toward the ships. I saw men jumping off the ships totally frightened. So was I. A Dixie Cup of acetylene could blow the side of a ship out of line even though the plating was an inch thick.

Occasionally in the winter a blizzard would come up between seven and ten o'clock and when it became too bad the company would send men home for safety's sake as snow on steel is very slippery. The company called it an Act of God.

Every Friday the men were paid and the fence around the yard had wives waiting for husbands to come and give them their checks through the fence for two reasons. First, the husbands would not have a lot of money to feed the horses and secondly, they would not spend time until 2 a.m. in the bar room where they built the ship three times over.

I knew a big rigger whose job was to signal the overhead crane man 60 feet above the ground to lower steel parts to the ship. I asked him why he came from the south to work at the yard and his reply was that his mother-in-law told his wife to keep him in Quincy. He originally came from Mississippi.

When I was in the steel mill the noise was tremendous. There were two yellow overhead cranes, each operated by a woman. Would you believe they talked to each other above the noise and din of the enclosed steel mill? We called them the two canaries.

Just before General Dynamics had taken over the shipyard, there were two ladies who worked in the yard since the war began. They were welders and both retired from the yard with pensions around 1960.

At the peak of production the yard had over three thousand workers.

To sum up the shipyard story there was little romance in it. It was hard work with a lot of jacking and bending to fit. This required hammering with wedges to aline parts of the ship before final welding. When I would be working on the stern the quarterman would say, "There is a five minute job up at the bow." By the time I got all my gear to the bow and did the job it was well over three hours as I had to cut a new piece of steel to fit. If some fitters were too slow the quarterman would say, "You know we are not building a watch."

May 7, 2004

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