The City of Richmond does not leap to mind when considering World War II heroes, but it, and many of its citizens, were just that.
Its well positioned waterfront location, combined with a deep-water harbor and abundant work force, made it the ideal spot to ramp up production of ships to fuel the war effort.
Today those long-abandoned shipyards are home to Rosie The Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, established in 2000 to honor civilian contributions on the home front between 1941 and 1945.
While San Diego churned out fighter planes, workers at Richmond’s four Kaiser shipyards produced more 747 battleships than any other location — 519 Liberty ships, 15 landing ship tanks, 142 Victory ships, 35 troop transports, 24 small Liberty ships and 12 frigates.
Many of the employees were women who took up jobs traditionally done by men. Earning the nickname “Rosie the Riveter,” they tied their hair with scarves to avoid injury while working as riveters, buckers, welders, electricians and more.
After the war ended, Richmond leased part of its port to Contra Costa College, which used some of the Kaiser buildings. Of approximately 40 original structures, only five remain.
In 1997, the Rosie the Riveter Trust formed in Richmond to help establish a memorial and a national park in Richmond. Legislation was signed by President Bill Clinton on Oct. 24, 2000, and a museum and visitor center was opened in 2012 in part of the Historic Ford Assembly Building Complex.
The plant opened in 1931 to produce Model As and, until World War II, was the West Coast’s largest Ford Motor Company assembly plant. It soon was converted to produce military vehicles, one of only three such U.S. plants. During that time, workers assembled 49,000 Jeeps and outfitted 91,000 Sherman tanks and other combat vehicles. After the war, the plant went back to civilian manufacturing and finally closed in 1955.
Emeryville-based Orton Development Corporation purchased the complex in 2004, redeveloping one building for office and industrial clients and a second as the Assemble Restaurant. As part of a unique public/private partnership, it restored a third building to house the Rosie the Riveter Museum and Visitor Center, leasing the space to the City of Richmond, which leases it to the National Park Service.
It’s a good idea to begin your tour at the Visitor Center. It opened in May 2012 in the former Oil House, which stored oil for Ford’s assembly-line generators. Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects of Richmond has won historic preservation awards for the sleek design.
Begin by watching “Home Front Heroes,” a short film about Richmond during World War II. Using a combination of film footage and photos from the era, it further answers the question, “Why Richmond?” Real-life Rosies are on hand most Fridays and some Saturdays to tell their stories and answer questions.
On one recent day, 92-year-old Mary Torres of San Leandro told her story. After graduating from high school in Donora, Penn., she saw in the local paper that war workers were needed in California. She took a five-day bus trip to Sacramento and found work as a welder at Moore’s Shipyard in Oakland from 1943 to 1945. She married her boss, raised two sons and became a beautician.