On July 26 a dozen or so Institute members and friends visited aboard the SS Red Oak Victory ship moored in Richmond (an exhibition of the Richmond Museum of History). This Victory ship, built in 1944 at the Kaiser Shipyards, was one of ten built for the Navy. (Compared to the Liberty ship, the Victory was faster, longer, and with a greater cargo capacity.) After World War II the Red Oak was transferred out of the Navy. Although in the Reserve Fleet (i.e. in “mothballs”) on three different occasions, the Red Oak saw duty during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The ship was retired again to the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay. In the 1990s as ships were being moved out of the mothball fleet and shipped to China for scrap, a campaign began to save her as an historic ship, the only Kaiser-built ship remaining.
For fifteen years, work has been taking place to restore and make the Red Oak operational, as is the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two Liberty ships remaining. Her two lives as an armed auxiliary Navy ship and as a merchant ship are being preserved as much as possible. It is a challenge. The aim is to show enough of the armament to show the ship’s Navy heritage, but without installing all the 20mm anti-aircraft guns that were carried. “We do have the forward 3″ gun, and hope to acquire a proper 5″ gun for the aft gun tub” our docent told us. “There is a 5″ gun stowed in the hold, but it has the wrong type of mount, designed for a shore installation.” Finding funding is a constant challenge. For example, the Navy has offered guns which are free, but money needs to be raised to pay for their transportation.
We then enjoyed lunch before visiting the Home Front Museum run by the National Park Service. The museum highlights the transformation of Richmond from a small town (24,000) to a boom-town (100,000) of shipyard construction and other war-time production. Among Henry Kaiser’s visionary solutions to the problems of this very large work force was the creation of an employee health plan and childcare facilities for one-year-olds and up. The museum had interactive exhibits that appealed to all ages. The highlight was hearing 93-year-old park ranger Betty Soskin speak of her experiences working in the shipyards and how the war shaped the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and beyond.
– Kathleen O’Connor