Kaiser Permanente member cards – paper, plastic, or pixels?

posted on February 3, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Permanente Health Plan card, 1942

Permanente Health Plan card, Kaiser Richmond shipyards, 1942

Every Kaiser Permanente member receives an ID card. It looks like a credit card, with embossed lettering and a magnetic strip on the back, and is the first thing asked for when arriving at a Kaiser Permanente facility. Just last year, Kaiser Permanente began launching a “digital membership card” that lives on a smartphone to supplement the prosaic wallet card.

But even the physical cards have changed over time. And the Kaiser Permanente heritage archives would like your help in better understanding their evolution.

KP Member card, NW region, 1961 [circa]; [KPNW discrete collection II]
Northwest member card, circa 1961.

When the Health Plan was first set up to serve the World War II workers in the West coast Kaiser shipyards and Fontana (Calif.) steel mill, employees were issued identification cards as members of the 50-cent-a-week non-industrial health plan. A shipyard newspaper article advised:

Flash your identification card when you go to Permanente Field Hospital: it’ll save you time. These I.D. cards are given Health Plan members when they first go to the hospital, and have the patient’s chart number on them. On subsequent trips to the hospital, treatment will be stepped up if a person can just show his card, speed the location of his record in the chart room.

Reporter 1962-07

New member cards, article in July 1962 Reporter

Later the health plan was extended to family members in 1943 (Portland, Ore., area) and 1945 (Richmond, Calif.). Still a benefit of employment, the plan identification was through the primary working adult. An article in the Richmond shipyard newspaper Fore ‘n’ Aft noted:

All members of the Family Health Plan have been asked to have the badge number and yard number of family member at hand when applying for treatment at Permanente hospitals. The director of the family plan, Dr. Kuh, asks that badge number be handy in order to forestall delays in treatment. All records on patients are kept in the order of badge numbers under the yard in which the family member works. When the wife or child of a worker who has signed for the family plan shows up at the hospital without this information delay results while the personnel files are checked at the yard.

Sample new plastic KP membership card, NW region, Pulse 1969-03

Sample new plastic Northwest membership card, March 1969

When the war ended and the plan was opened to the general public in 1945, surely some form of ID card was issued – but we don’t have any examples.

Our earliest card comes from around 1961, a simple little paper ID with name, file number coverage, group number and date enrolled. But in 1969 credit card technology took over, and for the first time cards could be mechanically processed. The Pulse, a monthly publication by and for employees of the Kaiser Foundation Medical Care Program in Oregon, published this article March 1969:

The Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Oregon announces an important new step which will speed the handling of medical records and make things easier for everyone.

Within the next 30 days all subscribers and enrolled family members will be mailed new plastic identification cards. The new cards are imprinted in raised letters and numbers with name and chart number together with other identifying information necessary for the medical record.

Using the plastic card, which looks like a charge plate or credit card, this information can be quickly and easily imprinted on any record going into the permanent medical chart. It will save time and will mean that the patient will not have to answer the same questions each time a visit is made to a Kaiser facility. All around, it will make for faster, more efficient service.

KPNW member card, original plastic, scan from photo; 1980 [circa]

Northwest member card, original plastic, scan from photo; circa 1980

By 1980 the cards sported the Kaiser Permanente logo, but were otherwise pretty much the same. At some point a magnetic strip appeared on the back, and the coverage details were dropped. It turned out that when Plan member groups changed benefits, Kaiser Permanente ended up having to reissue thousands of cards, especially during Open Enrollment.

If any readers have vintage member cards we could include in our archives, drop us an email and we can discuss details. We certainly don’t want you to expose personal health information!


1942 member card image courtesy the J. Porter Shaw Library of San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, special thanks to Steve Gilford.

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/1R2xWYt


In defense of Henry J. Kaiser’s World War II ship quality

posted on January 28, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

SS Schenectady failure photo, 1947 "Final Report"

SS Schenectady failure photo, 1947 Final Report

In the book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (now a motion picture), authors Tougias and Sherman set the stage for the sinking of the SS Pendleton, which was launched from a Kaiser shipyard. They make the case that this T-2 tanker, which broke in half on February 18, 1952, was a disaster waiting to happen.

“…These ships had gained a more dubious nickname, and some critics referred to them as “serial sinkers” [referring to the conventional non-military ship designation SS, for “steam ship”] and “Kaiser coffins.” The trouble with T2 tankers dated back nearly a decade, beginning on January 17, 1943, when the Schenectady split in half while still at the dock! The ship had just completed its sea trials and had returned to port at Swan Island, Oregon, when suddenly she cracked just aft of the bridge superstructure. The center portion of the ship buckled and lifted right out of the water, leaving its bow and stern to settle on the river bottom. Like the Schenectady, the Pendleton had been built hastily for the war effort.”

“But the ship’s strong outward appearance concealed the subpar welding methods used in its construction. As in many T2 tankers built during that era, the hull of the Pendleton was most likely put together with ‘dirty steel’ or ‘tired iron,’ in other words, steel weakened by excess sulfur content.”

“The ship had suffered a three-way fracture in the bulkhead between number 4 starboard and center tanks just one year before in January 1951. The three-way fracture had never been repaired. Amazingly, the Pendleton passed its last Coast Guard inspection on January 9, 1952, in Jacksonville, Florida, with flying colors.”


T-2 tanker damage Illustration from 1947 "Final Report"

T-2 tanker damage illustration from 1947 Final Report

Alarming though these statements may be, some of these criticisms are erroneous or exaggerated. In the interests of a balanced historical record, here are some counterpoints:

1. The “Serial sinkers” and “Kaiser coffins” references were not commonly applied to the T-2 tankers, or even to the Liberty and Victory class cargo ships – they referred to the Kaiser’s Escort Aircraft Carriers, or their naval hull classification CVE. These vessels, with initials that were derisively said to mean “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Explosive,” were built for the Navy yet were thinly armored. This was a deliberate design compromise giving them speed and maneuverability.

2. Missing from Tougias’ and Sherman’s account is the fact that in July, 1951, the SS Pendleton ran aground in the Hudson River near New York and refloated the next day. The part of her hull impacted by the grounding was the same section where the ship was to break nine months later. Whether the grounding was a factor in her breaking up will never be determined.

3. Wartime shipbuilding was always a work in process, with hard lessons and new advances occurring on very short timetables. During World War II, fabrication of ships by welding (rather than riveting) was still new, and the civilian workforce – even though trained and certified – was relatively inexperienced.

It must be pointed out that the Schenectady, launched in late 1942, was the first all-welded tanker built by the Kaiser Company. Improving productivity without risking worker safety was a major priority, and this was effectively accomplished as the war progressed. War materiel produced during war is never expected to last very long, just long enough to do the job. There is no question that the massive volume of ship output, only possible with these new construction methods, was essential to the Allied victory.

4. Manufacturing steel for welded ships was also a work in progress, and at the beginning little was understood about the impact of “brittle steel,” especially when exposed to cold-weather duty (the air temperature when the Schenectady broke was 23 degrees Fahrenheit). As problems arose, manufacturing and processes improved.

5. Perhaps most importantly, the overall record of all the wartime-built ships was impressively good. In July 1945, the Secretary of the Navy established a blue-ribbon panel to look into this problem; in 1947 they issued their Final Report on a Board of Investigation to Inquire into the Design and methods of Construction of Welded Steel Merchant Vessels.

Their review of the 4,694 merchant vessels built during the war concludes that only 25 sustained a complete fracture of the “strength deck” or bottom. Of those, eight were lost at sea and two – including the above mentioned Schenectady – broke in two but were not lost. And the human cost? A total of 26 lives were lost as a result of structural failures.

T-2 tanker failure, SS Valeri Chkalov, 1947 "Final Report"

T-2 tanker failure, SS Valeri Chkalov, 1947 Final Report

The Board’s conclusions were laid out on the Final Report’s page 10:

(a) The fractures in welded ships were caused by notches and by steel which was notch sensitive at operating temperatures. When an adverse combination of these occurs the ship may be unable to resist the bending moments of normal service.

(b) The serious epidemic of fractures in the steel structure of welded merchant vessels has been curbed through the combined effect of the corrective measures taken on the structure of the ships during construction and after completion, improvements in new design, and improved construction practices in the shipyards.

(c) Locked-in stresses do not contribute materially to the failure of welded ships.

(d) Existing specifications are not sufficiently selective to exclude steel which is notch sensitive at ship operating temperatures.

(e) A tendency for certain ships to incur repeated casualties can be measured but the trend is not great and the effect is not significant.

(f) The basic analytical method used in calculating nominal stresses in the main hull girder under a known bending moment is valid.

(g) The overall strength of the Maritime Commission ships is satisfactory.

The official government conclusion supports the position that, dramatic and tragic though the SS Pendleton’s sinking may have been, it was not representative of the quality of the vast majority of merchant ships built during World War II.


An excellent source on this subject is Ships for victory; a history of shipbuilding under the United States Maritime Commission in World War II, by Frederic Chapin Lane, 1951. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Short link to this story: http://k-p.li/1nRLJWr

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Henry J. Kaiser, postwar housing visionary

posted on January 15, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Kaiser Community Homes, Santa Clara, San Jose (Calif.), circa 1947.

Kaiser Community Homes, Santa Clara-San Jose (Calif), circa 1947.

In previous blogs we have looked at Kaiser Community Homes, Henry J. Kaiser’s partnership with Southern California housing developer Fritz Burns. Here we let Kaiser express, in his own words, his vision behind this bold project.

The 1944 speech was published in the beautiful handmade book Twenty-Six Addresses Delivered during the War Years, but it’s important to know that he was already thinking about this a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And in a previously unpublished 1945 speech in San Francisco, a city currently experiencing a housing crisis of a different sort, he announced the formation of KCH. It’s impressive that a major developer would express such concern for aesthetics, social benefit, and affordability.

There was even the idea of linking KCH home ownership to discounted membership in the Permanente Foundation Health Plan. This was proposed in an unpublished 1946 Kaiser report about expanding hospitals in the Los Angeles area, but it was never implemented:

Occupants of the Kaiser Community Homes are another potential membership source. On this basis the Health Plan would be sold along with the house. This could be optional or mandatory and sales or collection costs of the Health Plan (approximately 15%) would be eliminated, thus making the payments more attractive to the buyer.

Unfortunately, despite an ambitious start (5,319 homes in the Los Angeles area alone), KCH didn’t achieve the momentum that Kaiser had hoped for. The housing shortage turned out to be less than anticipated, prefabricated construction was less efficient than hoped for, and by 1948 West Coast based KCH was surpassed by the Levitt brothers, East Coast competitor developers whose Levittowns became the postwar planned community standard.

Below are three iterations of Henry J. Kaiser’s views on postwar housing.


Kaiser community home drop cap, from “Twenty-Six Addresses”

“Kaiser is back – Post-War Plan Will Not Harm War Effort,”
San Francisco Chronicle, December 11, 1942

“We’ve got millions of new homes to build after the war. What kind of homes? What will they look like? How will they be built? We’ve got to sit down and figure that out – and start doing it right now.”

He described one type of housing “of particular interest to us” – a prefabricated steel house, three rooms, fully furnished and equipped with all sanitary and disposal facilities. It can be erected by eight men in one day and would cost $1,500 completely furnished. It can be moved readily to new locations and set up again with ease.

ELP 1945-03-09-4-lg

“You like pre-fabbed cars – why not houses?” illustration by Emmy Lou Packard, Fore ‘n’ Aft 3/9/1945.

“Building the future: An address before the Conference of the National Committee on Housing, Chicago, Illinois,” March 9, 1944 (excerpts)

Prefabricated houses might provide as little as five per cent of the total during the first five years of peace. But prefabricated units are a different story. In the Ladies Home Journal for January of this year, Richard Pratt, the architectural editor, gives us a stirring preview of the possibilities: a bathroom “completely prebuilt and equipped, would come ready to be fitted into its preplanned space and be fully connected within an hour.” Such a room, cast almost in one piece out of plastic, is no idle dream. From what we know about economies of mass production, it is reasonable to suppose that the cost would be one-half, or even less, that of present installations…The prefabricated unit will enjoy an immense popularity, and the economies will be substantial.

Furthermore, there shall be no repetition of that drab similarity which characterized the unhappy period when our forebears built block after block of shelters which had no more individuality than dread monotony. Today our architects, city planners, and builders are not only ready, but eager, to build for beauty, as well as utility.

Profits, as important as they are in an independent economy, must be secondary to that degree of social vision which will provide a vast volume of employment for the huge army of men who are skilled in the building arts. Such vision would grasp those things, which are in the realm of possibility, and even presume to recognize the good in human nature, rather than to emphasize its selfishness.

Modern American advertising, with its genius for eliciting responses to direct consumer appeals, could separate fact from fancy. But let us in such advertising be scrupulously honest with the American people…Many people in their eagerness to have new homes seem to forget that the cost of the dwelling does not include the cost of land and utilities; nor does it include taxes and upkeep. Perhaps if we hammered such points home, we could save a lot of foreclosures, in which everyone loses.

Kaiser Community Homes assembly line, Los Angeles, circa 1946.

Kaiser Community Homes assembly line operated by Fritz Burns, Manchester Blvd, Los Angeles, circa 1946.

Remarks at press conference announcing the formation of Kaiser Community Homes, San Francisco City Hall, May 9, 1945 (excerpts; a short published account also carried in the Oakland Tribune, May 9, 1945 “Kaiser to launch huge home building program”)

We have called this Press Conference today to announce the organization of a national home and community building enterprise. In this enterprise the Kaiser organization has formed a partnership with Fritz B. Burns and Associates, builders of homes in Los Angeles. The name of this new enterprise is the Kaiser Community Homes Corporation.

Kaiser Community Homes will build homes, grouped together in complete communities – including health, recreation, school, and commercial centers – for the families of America everywhere in America. Into the field of homebuilding, it will introduce industrial methods, comparable to those developed in other lines of production. Resultant savings will be reinvested in the homes to enhance its value and service to its owners. On this sound economic basis, Kaiser Community Homes Corporation expects to create a new home market among the majority of U.S. families who do not now own their own homes.

This national home-building enterprise will get under way at once. It will be spearheaded by the immediate construction of 10,000 homes grouped in several communities at West Coast centers of population. Sites for these initial operations already have been purchased by Kaiser Community Homes Corp. In order to command the efficiencies implicit in large-scale operations, the organization will build communities of 200 homes upward, with the average projected at 500 homes.

We have had to think about a lot of things during the last five years, but postwar employment has been for me the lode-star which drew us all toward this day when we could turn our thoughts from war to peace. In announcing Kaiser Community Homes today we are ready to make our first contribution toward that goal.


Also see:  Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis by Greg Hise, 1999.

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/1nogqSO


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The Home Front story behind “The Finest Hours” film

posted on January 6, 2016

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Newly launched T2 tanker at Kaiser Swan Island shipyard

Newly launched T2 tanker at Kaiser Swan Island shipyard being towed to outfitting dock, 1944. Still from “We Build Tankers” documentary film. [See endnote]

The Finest Hours is a major motion picture (release date: January 29, 2016) about the heroic 1952 Coast Guard rescue of sailors from two stricken oil tankers off the storm-swept Cape Cod coast. The events depicted are dramatic and true. Less dramatic, although equally true, is the rich World War II home front story of one of those broken tankers, the SS Pendleton. [For more on the phenomenon of World War II merchant ship problems, see followup essay “In defense of Henry J. Kaiser’s World War II ship quality“]

The Pendleton was the 49th “T2” model tanker built at the Kaiser Swan Island shipyard, on the Willamette River in Portland, Ore. T2s were the largest “navy oilers” of their time, just over 500 feet in length and displacing 21,100 tons when fully laden. Their holds could carry nearly 6 million gallons of oil or gasoline. The ship was named for the rural Oregon town of Pendleton, host of the Pendleton Round-Up – one of the largest and most prestigious rodeos in the world. It’s the real deal, held almost continuously since 1910.

The Bo's'n's Whistle 1944-02-11

Chief Willie Wo-Cat-Se and his interpreter, Chief Anthony Redhawk

The Pendleton’s launch ceremony was a tribute to Native Americans engaged in war production. It is estimated that during the war as many as 40,000 Native American men and women left their reservations for the first time to find jobs in defense industries across the nation.

When she slid down the ways on January 21, 1944, the event was considered one of the most colorful ever staged in those yards. The sponsor of the Pendleton was Princess Melissa Parr, a full-blooded Cayuse Indian and direct descendant of Chief Joseph. Chief Willie Wo-Cat-Se from Pendleton expressed his appreciation for the naming of the tanker. Chief Anthony Redhawk was his interpreter.

A two-page spread in the weekly shipyard magazine The Bos’n’s Whistle described the launching:

Indians in striking regalia staged war dances and beat their drums on the launching platform. Melissa Parr, descendant of Chief Joseph, was the sponsor, with Ramona Minthorn, matron of honor; Thelma Parr, maid of honor; and Vernita McKay, flower girl. Willie Wo-Cat-Se, Pendleton Round-Up chief, was a speaker. Indian workers of the yard were honored guests at the launching and the luncheon which followed. The yard took on a real Western flavor during the day, with Indian tepees drawing crowds of interested spectators. Rear Admiral Howard L. Vickery of the Maritime Commission made the principal address at the launching ceremonies.

The Bo's'n's Whistle 1944-02-11

Princess Melissa Parr

An audio recording in the Kaiser Permanente heritage archives lets us hear the praise offered for the diversity of the shipyard workforce:

Gathered here on the platform below, as special guests today, are Indians from various tribes of the Northwest. A good many of them work here in the yards and play an important part in the production of our tankers…We feel that this occasion, in honor of American Indians, is proper not only in view of their vast contribution on the battle front and the production front, but also in view of the fact that the American Indian was actually the first ship builder in the Northwest.

The Bo's'n's Whistle 1944-02-11

Indian dancer Robert Williams

Too often the American Indian is not sufficiently thought of when we speak of the various nationalities and races living harmoniously in America, yet they have shown that great attribute – forgiveness.

Reports of courage and skill of the American Indians in our armed forces is well known to us all. Their bravery has set an example to the most daring.

In this area, there are more than one thousand Indians contributing their skill and effort in the building of ships. Here, again, their performance ranks among the finest…The Indians, our first Americans, are still leading Americans.


It is unlikely that those shipwrecked sailors or the brave Coast Guard crew in 1952 knew of their vessel’s rich creation history, but the human spirit baked into that practical slab of steel was part of the SS Pendleton’s stirring story arc.


Audio link: (partial clip available online, identity of announcer is unknown)

“Launch recording #148-149” S.S. Pendleton, 1/21/1944: A tribute to Native Americans engaged in war production Rev. Earl Cochran–Invocation. Mr. Sprague H. Carter, Mayor of Pendleton. Pendleton Roundup Quartet singing medleys of cowboy songs. Bob Williams and Goose Williams –Native American dance, songs and speeches. Mr. Kaiser Introduces Admiral Vickery. Admiral Vickery–History of Swan Island. Rev. Earl Cochran–Invocation. Tom Hoxie–burning of the plates.


I clipped the image of the tanker being towed by a tug from the Kaiser Companies film “We Build Tankers.” and after looking at it in detail have learned the following:
1. The film shows two different tankers being launched – the SS Grand Teton, launched August 1, 1944, and the SS Fort Matanzas, launched July 11, 1944. The film doesn’t identify the ships by name, but these names are visible on the bows.
2. The ship being towed has no name on the bow. That was standard protocol – the names were painted out after launching, and never had them during war service for security reasons. So, we don’t know which, if either, of these two ships (or it could have been a third) are in that still.
3. The tug is the James W, of Portland’s Shaver Transportation Company, still in business and proud to be part of this history.

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/1mGkxJq

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