WWII Memoirs – 1942 – The Sleeping Giant

I registered for the draft in May 1942, and having nothing to do until my number came up, I took a job with the Oregon Shipbuilding Company in north Portland on the Willamette River. This firm constructed Liberty Ships, the best-known cargo ship of World War II. The pay was good, no prior experience was required. I made more money on that job than on any other until I graduated from college six years later.

Liberty Ship, Wikipedia

Liberty Ship, Wikipedia

I was assigned to the “swing shift” (5:30 P.M.- 1:00 A.M.) as a shipfifitter’s helper. The main task of that job was to “tack” for the shipfitter. This simply required putting a “touch” of weld at several spots on the bulkhead to hold it in place until the permanent weld could be done. That was a boring routine, so I asked the welding leadman if I could transfer to his crew. He asked me to take the welder’s test, which required running vertical, overhead and flat weld seams. Cross sections of these seams were then examined for the proper quality. I passed on the first try, and became a “production” welder (welding decks, prows, etc.), which included a pay increase.

I remember my first night in the “shipyards,” as we now referred to my new place of employment. The place was alive with activity. Wherever I looked, something was happening. Mechanical noises mingled with the shouts and instructions of people, interrupted intermittently by jack-hammers and chippers. The flashes from welders arcs could flare up in an instant. And always there was motion.

It always made me uneasy to have a two- or three-ton piece of prefabricated deck go drifting by “out in space,” so it seemed, but really overhead, being carried by an overhead crane on tracks located high on either side of the bay. However, in a few minutes it was out of the bay and on another form of conveyance, on its way to to the ” ways” to become part of a ship. But I was always ready to scramble to safety when one these “monsters” passed overhead.

The entire place was well-illuminated, and the bright lights reinforced the feeling of energy and action. From a distance the yard probably gave the appearance of an amusement park. We were fortunate that there was no air raid danger, because the yard was very visible, and a prime bombing target.

And down on the river, ships were being launched regularly. To show its prowess in shipbuilding, the Company had one of its Liberty ships assembled and launched in ten days!

The process never stopped. Twenty-four hours a day, broken into three shifts. Seven days a week. Days off were arranged to assure that a particular job was always covered.

The Japanese Admiral Yamamoto was referring to the United States and its industrial might when he said, upon his fliers triumphant return from their infamous raid on Pearl Harbor, “I fear we have awakened the sleeping giant.”

I was looking at that “giant” that evening and he was fully awake and throbbing with energy.

The “giant” had his counter-parts right here in Oregon. Up the Willamette River at Swan Island, the Kaiser Company was building tankers, and across the River the Willamette Iron and Steel Company was constructing sub-chasers.

But is doesn’t end there. The “giant” had counter-parts in many other States across the nation. Not only were they building ships, but bombers and fighters, tanks, Jeeps, submarines, aircraft carriers, trucks and endless quantities of guns and ammunition.

Its unfortunate that the leaders of Japan could not have toured our factories and shipyards before attacking us. They may have had second thoughts about arousing the “sleeping giant.”

The shipyard was so large and sprawling that I became aware of only two of its main operations. One was the assembly bays, where I worked and where we fabricated large components of the ship, such as sections of the deck, the prow of the ship, and the deck house. The second was the “ways,” were the ship was “assembled” and from which it was launched.

Many of the components of the ship were prepared by departments like ours, but I had no contact with them. For example, I never witnessed the installation of the engines or saw where and how the steering mechanism was fabricated, or how a whole array of other fittings were handled.

I loved working in the shipyards. Yes, it was directly helping the war effort, but also it was something big and new and exciting. And I was part of it. Remember, I was 18, and and only fourteen months out of high school, and had until that time lived in rural surroundings all my life.

And all this was temporary and the excitement and newness would end when the war was over. But before all that could occur, Uncle Sam notified me that he had another job for me. So I turned in my welding equipment and went off to war.

But the ships we had been building had been going off to war, and usually into hazardous waters, long before I signed up for the draft. Most Liberty ships were used to transport food and war material to our allies, but mostly to the British. With the Nazi controlling much of Europe, the British were largely isolated, and in desperate straits.

The ships sailed in convoys and were guarded by sub-chasers and other naval craft, but in spite of these protections, many Liberty ships were sent to the bottom of the Atlantic by German torpedoes, some on their first trip. But many got through, and the Liberty ship played a significant role in Britain’s survival and the allies ultimate victory.


The reference to Britain’s survival in the statement above, reminds me of the of the many ways we were reminded of the life-or-death struggle daily facing those desperate people. One such reminder came from the jukebox. Each night after my shift in the shipyards I would stop for a late dinner (near 1:00 A.M.) at a place on Union Avenue (now renamed Martin Luther King Blvd). Invariably the following song would be played:

“There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see…….”

And as the music continued, it assured us that……

“The shepherd will tend his sheep
the valley will bloom again
and Jimmy will go to sleep
in his own little room again”

“There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see”

The line, “and Jimmie will to to sleep in his own little room again,” refers to the decision the British made to move their children into the rural areas to avoid the German’s nightly aerial bombing of the cities like London. It was a little like their being in foster homes.

Unfortunately, the “tomorrow” that the song refers to was a long way off. Many of those British children would not be sleeping in their own little rooms again for another three or more years. The war in Europe didn’t end until May 1945.


Next Entry: WWII Memoirs – June 21, 1942 – The War Comes to Oregon, Ford Stevens
On the evening of June 21, l942 a Japanese submarine surfaced near Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast...