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Newport News: 1941

Newport News: 1941

March 1941. Newport News, Virginia. "Shipyard workers going home at 4 p.m." Medium format acetate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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Many women - just not in sight here!

(EDITED to remove typo. ORIGINALLY posted a few years ago.)
This photo just doesn't show the right building or gate for all the women employees to be making their way out of the buildings to go home. There were/are different buildings where the white collar workers - management, secretaries, administrative assistants/private secretaries, file clerks, the typing pools, other clerical workers, etc. - had the offices where they did their vital work, and design divisions had their facilities, working in large open office spaces where their drafting desks and other equipment was kept, and where they did their work everyday, Monday through Friday.

Not a computer to be found, or even a pocket calculator. Yet. I'm sure there were all the IBM, other bookkeeping and office machines were being used to the utmost, keeping up with the work of production, repair, refitting, calculating contracts, payrolls for all the thousands of workers, and so forth though!

My dad's "tools of the trade" were drafting pens and pencils and slide rules, and all the other drafting tools needed for his work, calculating and drawing to the nth degree the placement and bend of every pipe and conduit for his assignment at the time, on submarines. There were plenty of ladies working in those office spaces too.

And, not every category of worker worked the same shift everyday. Production workers down in the yard, such as these men shown, worked one of three standard shifts, days, evenings, graveyards, and a five day shift out of any given seven days. My uncle worked in the welding shops, five evenings a week, always getting home about 11:45PM. My aunt always had his "dinner" waiting for him when he got home. I used to spend weekends there with my cousins as a kid when I could, and he was usually not home at least one evening until quite late. "QUIET" while he was sleeping during the early part of the day was an unbreakable house rule!

The office workers worked the standard 9-5, Monday through Friday's, where the production personnel worked 7-3, 3-11, or 11-7, part of seven days a week. And there were also the Apprentice School students, who worked their time in the school proper for their four or more years, just like any other college program, but also worked in the yard itself, or in the design divisions, or whatever other division coincided with their area of interest or focus, as part of their training as well. Their schedules were always a mystery! And there were also the predictable city bus routes which included the shipyard stops as part of their daily routes.

Staggering shifts like that was the only way they could get a handle on the amazing traffic tidalwaves that were part of getting people to work and back home again everyday. There are (or at least there were) specific parking areas near the buildings down in the yard where they were working, and surface lots for the use of specific classes of workers close by the buildings where they worked.

"No Pedestrian Traffic"

A 1940 newspaper want-ad for a waitress position at the Huntington Cafe (lower left) gives an address of 3600½ Washington Avenue, which means Vachon was standing near the intersection of Washington and 37th Street, facing south. There is still a gate to the shipyard at that corner, but "no pedestrian traffic" signs in place of crowds of workers headed south at shift change. Today, there are acres of surface parking lots behind Vachon's location.

Nary a woman to be seen!

I don't see any women yard workers in this pre-WWII scene. That would change during the war.

Eight O'Clock

The A&P is gone, but I still drink Eight O'Clock coffee.

Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.

In the 1940s A&P was at the height of its success - so much so that it was charged with antitrust violations. Because of management mistakes, it started sliding in the 1950s and disappeared in 2015.

N.N.S.& D.D.Co.

The Shipyard - Newport News Shipyard & Dry Dock Co.- has been a definitive workplace of generations of local (and not quite local) families since the end of the 19th century.

My stepfather began working there as a full time employee just after WWII, when he graduated from 4 years at the Apprentice School in 1950, through the auspices of the GI Bill, and became a Piping Designer in the Submarine Division. He was a part of the development of the nuclear submarines from day one. Hyman G. Rickover was a seemingly permanent fixture of that section, ruling with an iron will. Stories about him were regular parts of every day's dinner table conversation! Dad worked there until his Union went on strike in the late 70's/early 80's and never went OFF strike. He continued working for another company who was a contractor for the shipyard for a long time, until he retired. He passed away this past spring. Asbestosis was a major player in his passing, after spending decades in that shipbuilding environment, making frequent journeys from his office space to the outside buildings where "mock ups" were located, and actual construction in the dry docks took place, where there was little to no breathing protection provided or even acknowledged in those many early years. He recieved legal asbestosis "benefits" from various class action law suits, but in the end, no amount of money could repair the damage inflicted by those incredibly tiny, dangerous fibers that permanently scarred his lungs.

His father - my paternal grandfather - had worked there, beginning in the Sail Shop, in the late 1920's, which was actually after sails were no longer part of ships, but handled all the textile components of ships, and the yard itself. He fabricated upholstery on ships and subs, awnings on buildings, and other items. He retired in 1968.

He has three sisters, two of whom married men who would become permanent employees of the shipyard through their retirement. The other one was associated through shipyard contractors. I have numerous cousins, brothers, nephews, and many school friends who either have worked for the Yard in all its incarnations, ownership, changes, etc., and still do, or have done. One uncle gave his all, who was an official photographer for the Yard, when he had a sudden heart attack during lunch with coworkers in a little cafe across the street from the yard, and didn't go home again.

In the 1960's, taking Dad to work across town from as far as Denbigh so Mom could have the one car on Fridays so she could do all her shopping is something I will always remember. Being part of all that craziness of early morning traffic and back again for the madness of afternoon shift change, with the thousands of cars from everywhere, and what seemed like hundreds of charter busses from as far as North Carolina transporting the employees on their way in and on their way home again seemed to be just another normal day.

The shipyard has been a permanent fixture of most of my early life, from the age of 6, until I married at 19, and moved away to the Midwest at 20, in 1977. It still continues to move on as it provides submarines and aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy, as well as numerous other projects that keep "the yard" humming.

(Original 7/2/2020)

Huntington Cafe

The street appears to be Washington Avenue. According to an ad in a 1940 edition of the local newspaper, the Huntington Cafe was located at 3600½ Washington Ave. In the ad, the restaurant was looking to hire a waitress.

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