“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.”
Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC)
“Can I help you, ma’am?” The sentry at the gate was a white-haired older gentleman wearing a security guard’s uniform. He was busy observing the credentials of the swarm of workers that were entering the facility. He deduced immediately, by her clothes and body language, Macie Vance was not a shipyard worker.
Macie handed him her job offer letter. He read it quickly. “Congratulations and welcome,” he smiled. “But security administration and the welding school are closed today. They’ll be open tomorrow.”
“I know,” she smiled back. “I was hoping to look around just a teeny bit, so I could find my way a little easier tomorrow?”
The security guard smiled. “I can give you a temporary visitor’s pass but you’ll probably be stopped by Navy SPs who patrol the yard.” He was referring to the Shore Patrol, the navy’s version of the army’s Military Police. “Just show them your offer letter and this pass.” He signed and handed her the pass. “The security building is on your right.” He pointed to a building about a block away on the thoroughfare that led through the gate. “The welding school is a little further down on the same cross-street.”
“Where are the big ships being built?” she asked.
“The dry-docks are straight ahead then left when you reach the river.” He smiled. Everyone at the yard took pride in the construction of the big warships. “Follow the big cranes. You can’t miss them.”
She began to walk straight ahead, still self-conscious but mixing in with the throng of workers entering the yard. In a few minutes she was facing the security administration building. This would be her first stop tomorrow. She began to sense the excitement of embarking on this great, new personal adventure.
The shipyard was laid out like a miniature city with avenues and cross streets. She followed the directions, began walking down a cross street and easily found the white wooden building that housed Welding School Number 2. After she fixed the location in her mind, she backtracked to the main thoroughfare and proceeded toward the river.
The Newport News Shipyard was built on over 500 acres of a narrow strip of land flanking the James River. The river ran northwest to southeast into Hampton Roads Bay before finally spilling out into Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. On the south side of Hampton Roads Bay was the city of Norfolk.
It was nearly dusk and there was a slight chill in the air as she approached the river. Passing the many buildings, shops and warehouses, she could now see the huge cranes that pointed skyward over the wharves like giant sentinels. A light breeze whipped up as she neared the water and she could smell the salty air. As she cleared the last building before the James River, her eyes fell upon the most spectacular sight she had ever seen.
Before her were three enormous dry-docks stretching well out into the river. Within each dry-dock stood the unfinished skeleton of a ship towering well into the sky. One ship appeared nearly finished. Workers were everywhere, pouring over, inside and outside of the partially completed structures. They reminded her of bees building a honeycomb, each individual knowing exactly what to do and contributing unselfishly to the task at hand. The motion was constant and ceaseless. From the bowels of the three huge skeleton structures showered the sparks of the welding torches. The rhythmic clanging sounds of some unknown machinery, the harmonic beat of unseen motors and the pervasive hissing of the copious welding torches amplified the fantastic surreal sight before her. As the sun fell into the west and streaked the heavens in purples and pinks, the darkening sky silhouetted the streaming sparks into an incredible fireworks display. She stood there in awe of the incredible sight before her. It was no small comfort to realize this scene was being played out and repeated in every foundry, factory and shipyard across the vast breadth of the United States. The industrial giant that was America was awakening. Tomorrow she would take her first step in helping to build ships like the colossal hulks taking shape before her. This is why she came. This is what she had to be a part of. This is what Jake didn’t understand. She stood there at the edge of the dock, exhilarated by the moment, and took it all in.
Before Pearl Harbor, Macie was mostly concerned about getting by. She was delighted Sheriff Abbott arranged for the job in Mrs. Gillaspie’s boarding house but the job was menial and she soon tired of it. Nevertheless, she was grateful and continued to work hard. She spent her leisure time at the local movie house. Films such as Citizen Kane, Sergeant York and The Grapes of Wrath sparked her imagination.
She looked forward to Jake’s frequent trips home. Those visits were the highlight of her existence and she awaited them with great anticipation. Jake would always leave her some money to be sure she had enough. She fastidiously banked it. They spoke of marriage and Jake was waiting to get his discharge from the army so they could start their lives in earnest, get married and raise a family. That all changed with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Macie was just nineteen years old. She was not worldly but astute enough to know there was a lot about the world she didn’t know. The Movietone Newsreel was updated weekly in the movie theatres and was the primary source of visual news for all Americans. The news, however, was heavily censored and the prevailing feeling among most Americans was the truth was always worse than what was reported. The Movietone News was usually tardy; the first films of a viciously devastated Pearl Harbor were not shown in theatres until February of 1942.
Macie often heard the names of places she had never known before. Places where America or its Allies had been badly defeated. Places like Wake Island, the Philippines, Malaya, Libya, Burma, Java, Bataan and others. She read the local newspaper, The Bedford Bulletin, much more thoroughly and listened to the nightly war news on the radio. She started visiting the local library to look up places in the atlas whose names were unfamiliar. Much of what was happening was still somewhat confusing to her, although she was learning more every day. The more she learned the more she realized that America was in grave danger of losing the War.
The first snippet of good news came in May when the newspapers excitedly proclaimed that American B-25 Mitchell Medium Bombers had bombed Tokyo on 18 April 1942. The reports electrified the American people who were starved for any morsel of good news. Macie listened to the stirring broadcast by Gabriel Heatter on the Mutual Radio Network on 10 May. It surprised her at how good the news made her feel. The United States had finally struck back and that was a great morale boost to a dispirited population. The details were top secret. It was not public knowledge that only sixteen bombers participated in the raid and the actual physical damage to Japan was negligible. “The Tokyo Raid” wouldn’t signal the end of bad news but it was a long awaited and welcomed first bit of good news.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so elated that he joked to the newspapermen that the planes were flown from “Shangri-La”, a mythical kingdom in the contemporary Hollywood film, Lost Horizons. But most Americans, as well as the Japanese, realized that the navy had figured out how to launch bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier and after the planes dropped their payloads, they headed for China. That the bombers were launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet (CV-8), escorted by the carrier Enterprise (CV-6), was top-secret until well into the War.
While Macie was learning from the newsreels and newspapers, changes were taking place before her eyes that drove home the urgency. Ration books were issued to all civilians limiting the consumption of everyday items such as rubber, nylon, sugar, gasoline, meat, butter and shoes. Older men volunteered as air-raid wardens and could be clearly seen wearing their air-raid helmets and walking the streets of Bedford alongside busy school children collecting scrap. Schools conducted special drives to gather rubber, cooking fats, aluminum pots, tin cans and other scrap metal. Tin was particularly helpful in weapons manufacturing and the scrap drives provided half of all the tin required. The saying heard most was “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without”. The sign on the side of the scrap pickup truck read “Slap the Jap With Scrap.” The country was slowly working its way out of the grip of a national panic.
America’s population was 130,000,000, half of which lived on farms or in small towns. Many planted Victory Gardens to grow vegetables to ease shortages and make more food available for the troops. Gardens sprung up everywhere from the White House lawn to Alcatraz Island; from Copley Square in Boston to New York’s Ellis Island. All manner of land was used including front yards, baseball fields, parks, vacant lots and unused commercial real estate. Rich and poor alike planted their seeds in fire escape flowerpots and country estate window boxes. The government hoped to encourage the citizens to plant 5,000,000 gardens. It got 20,000,000. By 1943 one third of the 30,000,000 tons of produce consumed in the United States came from Victory Gardens.
With all of this working on her mind and psyche, Macie began to grow up. She was a witness to great events and they were changing her. That Jake hadn’t noticed was hardly her fault. When she tried to explain how the movie film Mrs. Miniver affected her, Jake was barely listening. He had become angry with her when she traveled ninety miles to Charlottesville. Sheriff Abbott secured the round-trip bus ticket so Macie could attend a fundraiser sponsored by Greer Garson, the star of Mrs. Miniver. Macie got to meet her in person and even got an autograph.
This trip and all Macie discovered profoundly affected her. Lane High School, in Charlottesville, sold enough war bonds to buy nearly fifty jeeps and a bomber. She learned the government was financing half the cost of the War by borrowing money from American citizens. Nearly everyone bought bonds. They were designed not only to fund the War but also to soak up the excess money that would otherwise send inflation soaring in an economy fueled by growing wages and a shortage of consumer goods. Macie also learned other countries like Poland, England and France had suffered tremendous casualties among civilians and soldiers. If America hoped to avoid this devastation, she could not lose this War.
It was on the bus ride home that Macie, inspired by all that she had been exposed to, decided she needed to personally contribute more to the war effort. It seemed like everyone else was doing something. Even her favorite movie star, James Stewart, joined the Army Air Forces in March 1941 despite having just won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story. If Jimmy could do it, so could she!
As if answering her prayer, the next morning there was a young couple sitting at a table at Mrs. Gillaspie’s Boarding House. She poured them coffee and put some homemade cinnamon rolls on the table.
“Nice, steady hand,” the young redhead said to the blonde man, commenting on Macie’s pouring.
“That’s hardly the acid-test, Roxie,” the man answered. “But it’s certainly a place to start.” Then he looked directly at Macie. “How would you like to have a job in a shipyard, young lady?”
That’s how Macie Vance met Roxanne Rawls and Derek Edson.
Macie was stunned but immediately slid a chair out from under the table, placed the coffee carafe down and sat. “Tell me more!”
The pair was on a recruiting drive through the east coast states in an effort to locate and hire shipyard workers. They were particularly looking for older men and young women since they were the only reliable sources of much needed labor left in America.
At first Macie was dubious about her own qualifications, especially her limited education. But apparently that was the reason Roxanne was part of the team. With neatly cut short red hair, green eyes and a cute round freckled face over high cheekbones, Roxanne’s perpetual expression was a knowing grin. There was something about the way she looked right into Macie’s eyes and carefully listened to every word that elicited a great deal of trust in a short period of time. The conversation between the two women became personal and comfortable with only an occasional glance toward Derek to seek validation of a comment or a point, to which he always dutifully nodded his agreement.
After speaking with Roxanne for a short while, Macie became convinced that not only could she be trained to become a welder, but that the shipyard and her country needed her to become a welder.
Her conversation with Roxanne relaxed her. The idea of being needed was new to Macie. She was always the needy one and now someone or something actually needed her. It was a good feeling and it inspired her. She glanced over at Derek. He was hunched forward, his hands on his lap beneath the table. She noticed he hadn’t touched his coffee and said with a broad smile, “Are you going to drink that?”
He was caught off guard. “Uh, no. I…uh…don’t drink coffee.”
She glanced furtively around the room. There were no other guests and Mrs. Gillaspie was still in the kitchen. “Would you mind, then?” she asked as she slid the coffee over to her side of the table and took a long sip. “This stuff’s in short supply,” she joked.
“Not at all,” he smiled back. She seemed like a bashful girl but was fighting through her shyness to engage in the conversation. He liked that.
“You’ve been pretty quiet all this time,” she said as she placed her cup back into the saucer. “What do you think?”
Derek seemed surprised by the directness of the question. Everything about him looked young, in his early to mid-twenties, except the crow’s feet in the corners of his green-gray eyes. Somehow, his eyes looked older than the rest of him. Macie thought him to be extremely handsome and assumed most other women agreed. Derek nervously brushed a wisp of blond hair from his forehead with his left hand and answered her while avoiding her direct gaze. “Roxie knows what she’s talking about.” He smiled feebly at Roxanne. “She took the welding course to prove it can be done by a woman.” He was not speaking loudly but his baritone voice was convincing. “Together, me and Roxie have been touring the countryside speaking at high schools, colleges, churches, community groups…you name it.” He glanced over at Roxanne again and she nodded. He continued. “I’m one of many foremen in the Fitters Department and I supervise a group of welders who are building my ship.” Everyone in the shipyard referred to his or her work assignment as my ship. He hesitated for a few seconds. “And I have no problem with women working on my ship.” He leaned back and looked at Macie. “Without knowing you I can tell that you are interested, passionate and more than willing. Pass the course at the welding school and you’ll become a tack-welder. Fail the course and the worst that can happen to you is that you’re right back here where you started.” He waved his left hand around the room and shrugged his broad shoulders. “I don’t think you’ll fail but you have nothing to lose by trying.”
Macie realized there would be one obstacle to all this. Jake! She would eventually have to deal with that. As if to signal her decision, she stood up, took off her apron and asked. “Where do I sign?” It was 15 May 1942.
The next time Jake came home in early June she had a difficult time broaching the conversation. It was not that she feared him; on the contrary, she adored him. But she also knew how fiercely protective he was. She couldn’t recall how the discussion got started and subsequently tried as hard as she could not to remember the painful details. It was their first argument. She was surprised by the intensity of his anger. That he could not see or respect her point of view infuriated her as well. She could tell he was surprised by her forcefulness and stubbornness in defending her decision. The argument echoed in her ears. Words that she wanted to forget.
“Why are you doing this, Macie?”
“I need to do something Jake. We’re in a war.”
“It’s those damn stupid movies,” yelled Jake.
“Why don’t you respect what I’m doing?”
“You didn’t even talk it over with me. You just did it!”
“Because I knew this would be your reaction. You don’t understand that I need to do this.”
“You need to be here in Bedford where people can watch out for you. Where I know you’re safe. You don’t belong in a damn shipyard.” Jake was angry but pleading.
“Jake, pretty soon you’re not going to be able to get leave whenever you want to come home. You’ll be shipped out sooner or later.” She was grasping at straws, trying desperately to make him understand.
“All the more reason for you to stay here in Bedford where you have friends. And I can make more money. There’s a volunteer outfit in the army, paratroopers, that pays more. And it will probably keep me in the States for a few more months, maybe even another year.”
“Jake,” she screamed. “Don’t you do anything stupid or dangerous!”
Jake grabbed her arms as she burst into tears. “I need you to be safe. Just don’t do anything yet. Let me handle this.” He held her close to him as she sobbed.
What troubled Macie the most was the conversation ended without resolution. He didn’t agree not to join the paratroopers and she didn’t agree to cancel her plans to take the job. He walked her home while she was still sobbing and kissed her lightly on the cheek. The last thing he asked was that she not to do anything. That was four weeks ago and they had not spoken since.
For the weeks that followed that emotional argument, she replayed it in her mind. She relived it every day until it made her physically ill. Macie loved Jake and couldn’t accept that he didn’t respect her needs or wishes. Knowing how stubborn he was, Macie was sure he would volunteer for the paratroopers as soon as he could. They were both young and impulsive and were both doing exactly what the other one didn’t want them to do. It frightened her. Handling conflict was never her strong point and now she was dealing with the biggest conflict of her young life.
As she stood near the James River at sunset she was proud of her own resolve and the courage it took for her to be standing where she was at that moment. Once she made up her mind, she discovered a newfound tenacity. Jake would probably call it stubborn, she mused. In spite of her determination, she knew she was risking a great deal. Learning new skills in a different world far from her comfort zone would challenge her to her absolute limits. A little voice inside her kept telling her that she and Jake would be all right. Jake would eventually come around if she just didn’t give up on him. She had her work cut out for herself on both accounts.
Macie thought, enough for today, time to go back. As she began to turn around and take the long walk to the gate, she heard the deep voice behind her.
“Miss Macie Vance? Is that you?”