One of the innovations that emerged in the World War II Kaiser shipyards was the application of prefabrication on a massive scale. Unlike the way ships had been built for centuries, piece by piece from the keel on up, prefabrication used assembly line processes to dramatically speed up output. Ship parts – such as bow sections, double bottoms, deck houses – were built in separate facilities in the shipyard and brought together for final assembly on the launching ways.
It made sense on paper, but when dealing with massive hunks of steel that was easier said than done.
Enter the whirley crane.
Before entering the ship building business, Henry J. Kaiser had recently finished building Grand Coulee Dam on the mighty Columbia River in Washington, a project made possible through the efficient flow of heavy materials. During the six years Grand Coulee was under construction, a new type of crane was developed to get the job done. It was called a “whirley crane,” a fast, readily moveable beast capable of handling large steel supports, pouring big batches of concrete, and positioning heavy dam conduits.
The whirley was invented by Clyde Wiley (president of the Clyde Iron Works, established in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1889) in the early 1920s. He designed it so that the boom and “A” frame would turn in a 360 degree circle – thus the “whirley.” Before Wiley’s crane was developed, rolling bridge cranes and “hammerheads” had been used almost exclusively for building bridges, unloading ships and other heavy construction, but their function was limited.
When California’s Kaiser Richmond yards were built, seven “Clyde” Grand Coulee whirleys were disassembled and shipped down from Washington. Yard Two had four of these former dam-builders; Yard Three had two, and Yard Four had one. As the yards expanded, other manufacturers – Colby Engineering, American Hoist and Derrick, Browning – also manufactured whirleys. Eventually Yard One had 17 whirleys; Yard Two, 23; Yard Three,19; and Yard Four, four.
The whirleys held bragging rights in the yards. Just as the giant container-ship cranes dominate today’s Port of Oakland skyline, the whirleys defined the wartime shipyards. The Kaiser Richmond shipyard magazine Fore’n’Aft, described their appeal in their January 8, 1943 issue:
Whirley crane work is the most spectacular in the shipyards and always is one of the things visitors find most fascinating to watch, especially when two cranes get together for a big double lift.
They had a 200-horsepower electric motor for the hoist cable and another 50 HP motor for swinging the boom, which allowed the whirley to lift as much as 60 tons. The control cabin was 90 feet in the air, and skilled operating engineers communicated with riggers on the ground by telephone.
As shipyard production processes evolved, some assemblies began to use two, three, and even four whirleys operating together. Sometimes this was simply because the object was too heavy for a single whirley, and sometimes it was to gracefully flip over a subassembly that had been built “upside down” to speed up welding. Whirleys also were used for dropping and removing the giant dry dock gates in Richmond Yard number 3. The continual drive to reduce the number of pre-assembled components depended on the efficiency of whirleys. For the Liberty christened the Robert E. Peary (produced in a record four days, fifteen hours, and twenty-nine minutes after laying the keel), shipyard workers were able to pre-assemble hundreds of parts into a total of 97 units that the whirley cranes lifted onto the way.
Whirleys were used to bring in major hull components such as the fore peak and the stern, as well as engines and boilers. Once the main deck was in place, the ship was ready for five deck houses. These were prefabricated in the Assembly Building (where a complete set was turned out nearly every other day) and transported to the erection ways by truck.
Here’s a description of the efficiencies achieved in the Swan Island (Portland, Ore.) shipyard, from The Bo’s’n’s Whistle 11/25/1943:
Swan Islanders have clipped another week per vessel off their high-speed tanker program by prefabricating forward cofferdams on jigs and then installing each entire section as a unit on the keel. The huge 82-ton section is built as nearly complete as possible at some distance from the ways. It is then lifted easily by two whirley cranes and dropped neatly on the keel in the ways.
The new [construction] method saves 784 man hours on each unit compared to the old method which consisted of erecting 13 separate sections plus eight tons of piping, all of which had to be fitted together piece by piece on the hull.
Other types of cranes filled different niches within the yard. Bridge cranes (or gantry cranes, which move back and forth on a track but cannot turn) were the tallest at 84 feet high and rated at lifting 100 tons. A special hammerhead crane used two “arms” to sort and feed raw steel in the plate shop. Locomotive cranes were used in the steel storage yard. Other cranes performed mobile duties on caterpillar-tractor bases or on trucks.
Whirleys were even depicted as anthropomorphic characters in the shipyard magazines. Emmy Lou Packard featured a drug-addled whirley as part of a Nazi sabotage plot in the cartoon strip “Supermac” as well as an emotionally wrought character in the single-frame cartoon “Shirley the Whirley.”
Today, a lone whirley crane remains at Richmond shipyard #3 near the S.S. Red Oak Victory, guarding the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park Visitor Education Center.
It’s the last remnant of a mighty breed that ruled the yards during World War II. Crane CW-3204 was a Clyde Iron Works machine, built in 1935 and shipped down from Grand Coulee to Richmond in August, 1941. After the war the crane was purchased by the nearby Parr-Richmond Terminal and used until 1998; a companion crane is still in use by that company (now known as the Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation). In 2005 the crane was donated to the City of Richmond for use in the Rosie the Riveter Park. The City of Richmond, the Rosie the Riveter Trust, and numerous local businesses and organizations raised funds to move and install it at shipyard #3.
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As of March 2017 a webcam monitors an osprey nest at the top of the crane at right!
Thank you, Golden Gate Audubon Society.
Kaiser Permanente has a long history of honoring and celebrating diversity. In 2004, the Martin Luther King Legacy Association and The Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles presented Kaiser Permanente Southern California with the Corporate Responsibility Award in recognition of the organization’s commitment to diversity.
Kaiser Permanente was honored in this case for being one of the first health care providers in the United States to have racially integrated hospitals and waiting rooms, as well as an ethnically diverse workforce, including physicians and allied health professionals.
During World War II and afterwards, Oakland’s Permanente Foundation hospital (the first in what would later be called Kaiser Permanente) was a model for equal health care treatment regardless of race. In 1946, the year after the Health Plan was opened to the public, several local policemen visited it with an eye to join. Permanente medical economist Avram Yedidia recalled the event:
“. . . The police chief said to me, ‘You know, when we walked through, I saw that you had some Negroes and whites in the same room. I don’t think we like that.’ “As I can recall, I responded, ‘Do you know this plan started that way, with blacks and whites in the shipyards, and that’s the way it goes. They worked together, and they were sick together.’ ” I told the police chief: ‘Those who don’t like it shouldn’t join the plan.’ ”
Kaiser Permanente also made history in 1954, when Raleigh Bledsoe, MD, joined the then fledgling medical group in Southern California, as the first and only African-American board certified radiologist west of the Rockies.
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Kaiser Permanente’s archives serve as a source of historical content for many uses within and outside the organization. Two examples of “heritage on display” in 2014 included a large history wall at the new Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center and components of the permanent exhibition at the U.S. National Park Service’s Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif.
Two recent projects at Kaiser Permanente facilities are the latest to draw upon the rich materials in our archive to tell compelling stories.
The Garfield Innovation Center in San Leandro, Calif., which opened in 2006, connects groups who want to work collaboratively to develop technologies and facilities. The center contains 37,000 square feet of simulated care delivery environments and prototyping space designed to test and innovate clinical workflows, architectural designs, technology, interoperability, and products. Among its features are a mocked-up inpatient unit as well as an outpatient clinic and a home environment. The Center is not open to the public, but does offer limited opportunities for tours. Readers might enjoy seeing the Garfield Center’s virtual tour.
Recent remodeling at the center included various nods to Kaiser Permanente history, including photographs of founding physician Dr. Sidney R. Garfield and digital signage showing medical innovations over our 70+ years of health care practice.
Kaiser Permanente’s administrative headquarters in Portland, Ore., recently installed a stunning display of ten suspended 36” square Plexiglas panels with local history images and text that share the role of medical care in the World War II Kaiser shipyards and the postwar evolution of the health plan. The panels can be individually replaced over time to offer a more complete history.
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It’s well known that the World War II home front industrial work force accomplished remarkable feats, especially given that the traditional labor pool – healthy, young, white males – was off fighting the war. The seven Kaiser shipyards were at the forefront of this new workforce building ships in new ways in new facilities. But what has been difficult to discover is exactly which occupations these workers were engaged in and which unions represented them.
Part of the task of an archivist is to review existing content in a collection and glean newly desired information from those resources. In one such survey of the Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources archive I recently came across a handmade, unpublished report which had been previously overlooked, “Manpower, Housing and Transportation Studies – Richmond Shipyards, Richmond, California” dated April 10, 1943. Our copy was the originally the property of David A. Oppheim, an executive in Kaiser’s Aircraft Division in Oakland.
Among the remarkable data displays was a chart that listed every occupation under each of the 27 unions representing over 79,000 workers in the yards. All four of the Kaiser Richmond shipyards were fully operational by the date of this report, which was issued about the same time as the workforce peaked (women workers would peak again in mid-1944).
14 locals were under the Bay Cities Metal Trades Council of the Pacific Coast Metal Trades Council, and 13 under the Contra Costa and Alameda County Building Trades councils. The Boilermakers Local 513 was by far the largest trade, with more than 38,000 members. Some trades – such as shipwrights and blacksmiths – had only a few hundred; the smallest trade was the glaziers, with four members.
Though this data does not tell us how many of these occupations were held by women, we know the general contours. An excellent resource on this subject is Frederic L. Quivik’s Historic American Engineering Record report Number CA-326-M supporting the creation of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park:
In February 1943, women comprised 13.7 percent of all production workers at the Richmond shipyards, including 40.7 percent of all laborers, 37.1 percent of boilermakers, 19.4 percent of welders, and 18.8 percent of burners, 11.5 percent shipfitters, and only 4 percent of other production job categories. In addition, 48.2 percent of the office and clerical workers at the Richmond yards were women. Yard 2 had the highest percentage of women workers, both in production jobs (17.3 percent) and office and clerical jobs (62.1 percent). By June-August, 1944, women comprised over 27 percent of all laborers at the Richmond shipyards. They were 41.1 percent of welders and 33.4 percent of burners, while only 19.1 percent shipfitters and 17 percent of machinists were women. Peaks for the individual shipyards varied.
We also don’t know how many of the Boilermakers (full name: International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America) were hired under the shameful “Auxiliary Number A-36” created as a second-class entry for black workers. Before the war started, workers in the Boilermakers were entirely white and male, but as the available workforce shifted and pressure mounted for the union to change their practices they “solved” the problem of black workers in their ranks by creating a separate-and-unequal auxiliary.
This practice was much criticized, and violated federal regulations prohibiting racial discrimination in the workplace. Black workers at Bechtel’s Marinship shipyard in nearby Sausalito resisted the Boilermakers’ racist union membership policies; a lengthy court battle and intervention by President Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practice Commission finally resulted in a favorable ruling in early 1944, which was upheld in January, 1945 by the California Supreme Court. Unfortunately, by then the war, and shipyard production, was almost over.
The shipyards are long gone, as well as any vestiges of Kaiser Industries, but Henry J. Kaiser’s legacy continues in the health plan he was so proud of. And one of the smaller wartime shipyard unions is now the largest union in Kaiser Permanente’s Labor Management Partnership – the Building Service Employees International Union (the 93 janitors), which became the Service Employees International Union in 1968.
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