“Whether they give or refuse, it delights women just the same to have been asked.”
Ovid, (Publius Ovidius Naso) (43 BC – 17 AD)
Macie Vance stepped off the bus and walked tentatively toward one of the access gates to the Newport News Shipyard and Dry Dock Company. The huge sign overhead read:
Gate 4 – Main Entrance
She followed the surge of shipyard workers flowing toward the gate and noticed an almost equal number emerging from the huge shipyard facility. People young and old, mostly men but some women, moved quickly with a sense of purpose. They were the shipwrights, welders, electricians, pipe fitters and machinists who toiled long and hard to give America a new navy to defend her shores and defeat her evil enemies.
As Macie approached the gate she stepped to the side and allowed others to pass so she could gather herself before approaching the guard shack. Her clothes were glaringly out of place compared to the jeans and coveralls the women workers were wearing. Most wore colorful bandanas rolled up and knotted in the front to keep their hair out of the way.
Macie, on the other hand, wore a pink flowered print dress and black high-heeled shoes with ankle straps. Her long black hair was neatly rolled up in a hairnet and she held her clutch bag in white-gloved hands. This was her best Sunday outfit and she decided to travel to Newport News dressed ‘to the nines’. Compared to the men and women walking by, she felt conspicuous. She was too well dressed, too tall and too young.
Her first stop upon arrival was her assigned apartment in Hilton Village, three miles north of the shipyard in Warwick County. Hilton Village was the nation’s first Federal War Housing project; a planned community sponsored by the U. S. Shipping Board and the Newport News Shipyard. Upon arrival at her apartment she met her roommate Nora Lee.
Nora was an ex-telephone operator and a sassy blond from Richmond. She was one of the first women employed at the shipyard. She was shorter and a year older than Macie. Her job in the Electricians Department was wiring instrument panels and switchboards. This complex work was done in the shops and the finished components installed on the ships as they were completed. Nora liked the work but was hoping to get promoted to the Joiners Department as a drill press operator with a higher rate of pay.
“This place isn’t all that great but it’s cozy and it’s close to the yard,” Nora explained as she walked a slightly nervous Macie quickly through the tiny apartment. “This whole complex was built by the shipyard during the first war for the workers and they’re out of space already. That’s why we have to share the place. Everyone’s doubling up. I don’t know where they’re going to put all the workers they have to hire but that’s not my problem.” Nora walked through a doorway and pointed into a small room with a bed, chest of drawers, nightstand and a lamp. “This is your bedroom.”
Macie nodded and put her suitcase on the bed. “I’ve seen worse,” she said with a look that Nora realized was not an exaggeration.
“It’s not that bad. We work ten-hour shifts, six days a week. We’ll rarely see each other. And most people work the seventh day as overtime because there is nothing else to do,” Nora explained. “The money is great but with rationing and shortages, there’s not much to buy.” Nora reflected for a second. “Except bonds. You have to buy war bonds. Everybody does.”
“Okay,” Macie smiled. Nora had a way of quickly making people like her.
“What did they hire you to do, Sweetie?” asked Nora.
Macie reached into her handbag and pulled out her offer letter. “I’m going to welding school.” The letter assigned her to Welding School Number 2 with nineteen other young women.
“That’s great,” Nora commented. “You know, the men here haven’t really accepted us yet. Some of them can be real bastards with their smart remarks. I don’t take their shit. I just give it back to them in spades.”
“Well, the men will just have to get used to us,” Macie replied with just a touch of attitude. “We’re here to stay until we win this war. The world is changing and people will just have to change with it.” She immediately recalled her last conversation with Jake, which did not go that well. “Of course,” she continued almost absent-mindedly, “that includes my boyfriend who’s not at all too happy right now that I’m doing this.”
“Where is he? What does he do?” asked Nora.
“He’s in the army soon to be a paratrooper.”
“Oh, I love their uniforms.” Nora’s mood suddenly turned glum as if she suddenly remembered something she wanted to forget. “My boyfriend is in the army too. He’s in the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment in the Philippines. I haven’t heard from him since the surrenders.” She was referring to the surrender of the Bataan Peninsula to the Japanese on 9 April and the adjoining island of Corregidor on 10 May 1942. Those surrenders ended effective American resistance in the Philippines with almost 100,000 Filipino and American soldiers becoming prisoners-of-war. To make matters worse for Americans back home, there were rampant rumors of ruthless and cruel treatment and atrocities being committed by the Japanese. “I just pray every night that Butch is safe, wherever he is.”
Macie was at a loss for words. She was instantly sorry she had brought up the subject. “The faster we build these ships, the faster we can get our boys back home,” was the best she could think of.
“Right, girl!” Nora finally smiled again. “That’s the spirit. Screw them all! The Japs, the Germans and those small-minded bastards who are scared we women are going to take their precious jobs.” Nora seemed to recover. Macie could tell Nora was summoning up some inner reserve of strength to get herself past this awkward moment. Nora glanced at her wristwatch. “I’d love to chat, Sweetie, but I have to leave now. I’m working the swing shift this week.”
Though it was Sunday and she was not to report until the following day, Macie decided she would take a dry run to the shipyard to be sure she would not get lost on her first day on the job. “Can I tag along?” she asked. “ So I know my way tomorrow?”
“Sure, Macie. It looks like we’ll be working different shifts anyway so we probably won’t be seeing much of each other. That makes this small apartment a little more livable.”
“That’s too bad,” answered Macie. “I think I’m going to like having you as a roommate, Nora.”
Nora got off the bus at Gate 3 and explained to Macie where to go and what bus to take back. The busses ran continuously so getting back should be easy, Macie thought.
Macie took off her gloves and put them in her handbag. She took off her shoes and immediately felt less noticeable. Walking barefoot did not present a problem, as her feet were thick with calluses. With her offer letter in hand, she took a deep breath and approached the security shack.