Women support war efforts through shipyard work
ALICE RIDDLE IS a member of the Springfield, Ore., chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA): women who did what was considered “men’s work” in defense plants, shipyards, etc., during World War II.
Riddle, 90, was a shipyard welder and member of former Boilermaker Local 568 in Tacoma, Wash. She worked at Washington’s Seattle-Tacoma shipyards from 1941 to 1943. A shipfitter for a year, she then became a welder on the finishing dock “because it paid more money.”
Marjorie Jean Thorsen, 94, was a steel burner in 1944 at the California Shipbuilding Company (Cal-Ship) in Wilmington, Calif. A member of Boilermaker Local 92 (Los Angeles), Thorsen was married at that time to William Seineke, a private in the U.S. Army. She went to work at the shipyard because there was not enough money coming in from her husband’s Army paycheck to support their family.
Thorsen’s brother-in-law, Bill Bollman, worked at Cal-Ship and suggested she take a job there to earn some extra money. It wasn’t long before her talent as an artist came through in her new work as a steel burner.
“I would set the template on the steel, burn as many as six holes in each sheet, and then just tap each one. The circles of steel would fall almost simultaneously from the sheet,” Thorsen said.
Her ability to burn perfect circles in four-inch steel came to the attention of shipyard management, who selected Thorsen to demonstrate her burning skills to military personnel. The Air Force was so impressed that they offered her a job. But by then her doctor was recommending that she stop burning due to a heat stroke she had suffered. She has been plagued by heatrelated problems ever since.
Thorsen often talks of her days working in the shipyard — about salt tablets at stations throughout the shipyard, overhead cranes that could cut people to pieces if you got in the way of the swaying steel, dehydration, and burning boots. She described the area where they worked as cavernous — like an airplane hangar.
“This allowed the huge cranes — which were probably about one story high — to travel in and out on their way with plates of steel. The plates were so large that they would sway from side to side as the crane traveled on tracks through the building. One man had his face sliced open by the swaying steel when he wasn’t watching out for the crane,” Thorsen recounted.
Unlike Thorsen, whose husband served in Europe during the war, Riddle’s husband was a certified welder working at the shipyard where he got his wife a job as a shipfitter. Corolous, now 96, continued that work throughout the war.
Mementos from that time — ID badges, Boilermaker union buttons, her welder’s mask, his shipbuilder’s helmet — are displayed with pride in the Riddle home, a 400-acre ranch in Oregon where the Riddles moved to in the 1950s and once farmed.
As a shipfitter, the slightly-built Mrs. Riddle helped carry heavy six-foot by eight-foot templates, laying them atop slabs of iron that would become parts of ships’ hulls.
“We’d punch and hammer through the holes in the template onto the steel, then remove the template and chalk where we’d marked,” Riddle said. “Then the burners (like Mrs. Thorsen) would burn around the chalk marks to cut the shape needed. Then cranes set the slabs into place at the dock to be welded together.”
On the finishing dock, Riddle tack-welded sheet metal on ships being refitted.
“I wasn’t a certified welder,” Riddle said. “I made small welds to hold the pieces together ; then a certified welder did the long, continuous weld.”
Riddle, who worked swing shift, particularly remembers “sometimes getting to work up on the top deck, where the beams came together. Some nights, in the moonlight, it was such a delight to be on the top deck.”
Thorsen worked the night shift, riding the “Red Car” home at 3:00 a.m. (The Red Car refers to the electric railway lines operated for 60 years by the Pacific Electric Railway in the Los Angeles area.) Thorsen and her sister and brother-in-law, Jill and Bill Bollman, shared a home in Compton, Calif., and worked different shifts so they could help care for each other’s infant. Thorsen had a six-month-old daughter, Susan, at that time. The Bollman’s child, Gerry, was also six months old.
For health reasons, both Thorsen and Riddle left their work at the shipyards before the war ended.
“We got busy raising our families,” said Riddle, who raised six children. Thorsen had one more child with her husband, Seineke — a son, Erik, born in 1946.
Editor’s note: Marjorie Jean (Seineke) Thorsen, one of the two women featured in this story, passed away shortly before this issue went to press. We extend our condolences to her family and friends — and our thanks to the late Ms. Thorsen for sharing her experiences.
Excerpts from a story on Mrs. Riddle by Gini Davis for the Creswell Chronicle are reprinted here with permission.