The Southeastern Shipyards in Savannah at the height of the Liberty Ship building enterprise.
By ART CHANCE
My father was born in rural Georgia in 1920 to a farmer and a teacher. He was born with a congenital deformity called “clubbed feet,” which was a sentence to a life as a cripple and likely dependency.
Somehow my grandparents made contact with the newly established Shriner’s Hospital in Atlanta and arranged to have corrective surgery for him. I still give the Shriners Hospital money every year.
In the 1920s, any surgery was exceedingly dangerous due to infection risks. The first widely used antibiotic, penicillin, was not invented until 1928 and didn’t see wide use until World War II.
An infection from a surgical procedure could lead to gangrene, sepsis, and a lingering, miserable death.
I have some of my great-great uncle’s letters home as he lay dying of gangrene from a wound from a Yankee musket ball in his ankle; was remarkably stoic, but it is a tough read. I can barely imagine the fear my grandparents held as they approached this surgery on their son.
Even today, clubbed feet occur in about 1 in 1,000 births and in spite of modern medicine, correction is not always completely successful and requires years of aftercare.
In my youth we still had a set of the heavy steel braces that my father wore for years. In modern days, rural America, and especially the rural South, is a tough place to have any sort of weakness; I can hardly imagine what a little boy on crutches and wearing braces went through.
I grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s and what today is excoriated as horrendous bullying, we thought of as play; “what doesn’t kill you makes you strong.” Dad was smart and had educated, loving parents and he made it through high school and on to a couple of years of college before the war came along.
His partially corrected physical deformity made him unfit for military service; for those who remember draft exemptions, he had a “4-F” deferment, but he could work and he was smart.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration spread war production all over the country, for both political and strategic reasons.
The War Production Board established a shipyard in Savannah, G.a, one of many to build what became the standard U.S. freight transport, the Liberty Ship. The War Labor Board worked with the Selective Service System (the Draft Boards) to allocate labor and tailor draft exemptions for strategically important skilled trades.
(For my Alaska friends, a side note: The Alaska-Juneau Mine closed in 1944 not because it played out, but because the U.S. determined that gold was no longer a strategic material and they cancelled the draft deferments of the A-J’s workforce.)
By 1945, the U.S. had 12.5 million men in uniform, out of a population of about 130 million at the time, and the civilian workforce giving them provenance was a combination of draft exempt workers who had strategic trades, draft exempt workers who were for some reason unfit for service, and women, the famous “Rosie the Riveter.”
At the onset of World War II, U.S. Highway 80 was new, two lanes of concrete from San Diego, Calif. to Savannah, Ga, the first truly transcontinental federal highway.
My hometown has the singular distinction, perhaps its only distinction, of being the first place in the U.S. that two transcontinental highways intersected; U.S. 1 from Maine to Key West and U.S. 80 from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Savannah was 93 miles down U.S. 80.
My father made his way from there to the offices of the Southeastern Shipyard looking for a job. He might have seen the ocean and an ocean going vessel at that time in his life, but that was probably the extent of his knowledge of shipbuilding.
The workforce available to Southeastern Shipbuilding was draft-exempt skilled tradesmen, people who were exempt because they were for some reason unfit for service, and women. Most of the available workforce had never worked for wages, never punched a time clock, and had never seen an ocean-going vessel. In the rural South of the early 1940s, the world ran more by the phase of the moon than by the calendar or the clock.
My father had a bit of algebra and trigonometry, so he got snapped up to be a part of a crew of gunlayers who installed the anti-aircraft and in some cases anti-ship guns on the Liberty Ships.
They built a shipyard from scratch and then built 88 Liberty Ships and 20-odd auxiliary vessels between 1942 and 1945. Eight of the vessels my father worked on were in the invasion fleet on D-day.
I used to teach Introductory Labor Relations to State supervisors. After the movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out, I started the class with reminding the participants of the scene on the day after the invasion as the sea is covered with ships from horizon to horizon, the sky is filled with airplanes, and the beaches and countryside are covered with men, vehicles, and materiel.
Then I reminded them that the only things in that panoramic scene at the beginning of the movie that existed on Dec. 7, 1941, were two battleships in the bombardment fleet and the men themselves, most of whom were in high school on Dec. 7, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Everything else off the coast of Normandy had been built between Pearl Harbor Day and D-Day.
I have a rather dark attitude towards today’s culture and politics, but I take comfort in the fact that one of the late 1930s classes at University of Oxford firmly resolved that they would “never fight for King nor Country.”
Many of those men became the few to which so many owed so much.
For those who’d like to explore this more, I heartily recommend Tony Cope’s “Swing Shift,” the story of the Southeastern Shipyard.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.