I have volunteered at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) for three years, working on projects that make collections on OHS Digital Collections more useful for researchers. While working on the Oregon Journal project, I searched through microfilmed issues of the newspaper to help add details to previously unidentified photographs. Recently, I finished working with the OHS Research Library’s Bo’s’n’s Whistle collection. For that project, I helped write descriptions of the articles in each issue of the paper so researchers can more easily search for specific information within the collection.
For those not familiar with the Bo’s’n’s Whistle, it was an in-house publication distributed to employees of the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, owned by Henry Kaiser, between 1941 and 1946. At its peak, the paper was distributed to 90,000 employees in shipyards in Washington and Oregon, with over 4,000,000 copies printed over its lifespan. Its distinctive name comes from the bosun’s whistle, an instrument used by naval boatswains to alert crewmembers to ship commands.
The Bo’s’n’s Whistle provides us with a glimpse of shipyard workers’ lives in the Portland-Vancouver area during World War II. Between 1941 and 1946, the paper kept workers connected and informed at the three Kaiser Shipyards: Oregon Shipyard in St. Johns; Swan Island Shipyard; and Vancouver Shipyard. In 1945, for example, readers learned that a Vancouver Shipyard-built escort aircraft carrier U.S.S. Guadalcanal, called Baby Flat Top, captured a Nazi U-boat in the Atlantic. Some articles described how modern welding techniques ensured that more Kaiser-built vessels survived combat and continued to serve with fewer repair issues. Welders were always in demand, so workers could sign up for welding classes. Based on all the activities covered in the publication, these shipyard workers are proof that World War II is aptly described by historians as a total war.
Kaiser Company shipyards, managed by Henry Kaiser’s son Edgar Kaiser, usually operated seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, with few holidays. Workers lived in company-built communities that included housing, schools, community centers for recreation, services (such as health clinics), occupational and recreational classes, as well as a bus service. The Bo’s’n’s Whistle kept readers informed about these services and more.
After laborers ended their workday, they could pick up their children at child service centers along with prepared meals. Leisure activities could include raising victory gardens and livestock such as rabbits and chickens to supplement family meals. There were nighttime food canning classes and sessions for women. Bo’s’n’s Whistle articles also encouraged workers to buy war bonds and give blood. One war bond drive featured a house with homeowner’s insurance as a prize. Children were encouraged to participate in paper and scrap drives. Older children were even recruited to work in the shipyards
The Bo’s’n’s Whistle included a sports page covering baseball games, tennis matches, boxing matches, and other activities for men, women, and children. The paper also had notices for concerts, art exhibits, shows, dances, and movies. Former Swan Island Shipyard workers, John Hawkins and Ward Hawkins, wrote a story that became the Hollywood movie, Secret Command. Summer was the time for picnics. Shipyard visitors included President Franklin Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, comedian Jack Benny, and boxer Jack Dempsey. Other articles covered Henry Kaiser’s vision of an industrialized postwar West that ensured plenty of jobs.
Among featured stories were those of champion Swan Island Shipyard welder, Joy Wilson. The 21-year-old from Longview, Washington, earned top honors as the East and West Coast welding champion. She competed against men and women welders. Her brother, Tom, one of several family members who worked at Swan Island Shipyard, convinced Joy to become a welder.
For me, the paper brings back memories of growing up in postwar Portland where my first home was an apartment constructed for shipyard workers and then made available to civilians after the war. I revisited this experience when my family and I moved into another of these apartments in 1981, slightly updated as student housing, at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Who knew temporary wartime housing would last forty years? Our apartment was just the place for me to continue my research into World War II naval warfare.
During this volunteer project for OHS, I returned to the shipyards and wartime housing through the Bo’s’n’s Whistle collection. In a joint partnership between the Oregon Historical Society and Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources, the Bo’s’n’s Whistle is now available to view on OHS Digital Collections. If you want to learn more about WWII from the homefront and the war’s defining influence on modern Portland, roll up your sleeves and dive in.
Efficient use and reuse of supplies is a common theme of articles in the Bo’s’n’s Whistle. Readers were reminded not to be wasteful of resources and the shipyards sponsored scrap drives to gather additional metal and rubber scraps for use in constructing ships. This cover shows a man with a rivet gun alongside a soldier wearing a helmet and holding a machine gun. The text reads, “Give ‘em both barrels. Every rivet is a bullet...Every welding rod thrown away is ammunition wasted…Stop waste! Shoot Straight!”
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_OSC19420130_0202.
Safety first! Workplace injuries were a major concern when working in the shipyards. For many employees, working for Oregon Ship Corporation was their first time in an industrial setting. Articles in the Bo’s’n’s Whistle regularly featured reminders and instructional articles about on the job safety.
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_OSC19430506_0309.
Prior to the war, Portland did not have the medical infrastructure to meet the demand of the tens of thousands of new residents moving to the city to work in the shipyards. Henry J. Kaiser set up a series of clinics and hospitals to serve his workforce. Shipyard employees and their families could buy memberships into the Permanente hospital’s health plan to receive treatment at the facilities.
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_SIE19450706_0527.
Political cartoons and comic strips drawn by shipyard employees were a popular feature in most issues of the Bo’s’n’s Whistle. Stubby Bilgebottom by Ernie Hager was a regular series touching on topics such as worker safety, anxieties about the war, and adjusting to women in the workplace.
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_OSE19450209_0506.
Mary Carroll was one of the first women to report for duty in the Kaiser Shipyards. Her portrait was featured on the cover of the August 13, 1942, edition of the Bo’s’n’s Whistle, which also contains an article chronicling her typical day working as a welder in the shipyards.
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_OSC19420813_0215.
Housing the thousands of new residents moving to Portland to work in the shipyards required substantial efforts to construct war housing. The largest of these war housing efforts was the construction of Vanport, which at the height of its occupancy was the second largest city in Oregon.
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_OSC19430520_0310.
In March 1945, Portland became the “City that Launched 1,000 Ships,” with the completion of the S.S. Notre Dame Victory. During the course of the war, the Oregon Shipyard Corporation was renowned for their speed of production. Shifts worked around the clock to launch new ships in as little as 10 days.
OHS Research Library, BosunsWhistle_OSE19450316_0511.
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