Sunday, May 29, 2016

Battleship Steering

My father’s parents lived colorful lives, filled with adventure, fueled by alcohol. For a time during World War II, my grandmother led a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ existence at the Naval Shipyards in Puget Sound. She landed the job after leaving her husband in Anchorage, Alaska with some attendant extra-marital drama.

I learned this through conversations with my father during the last three years of his life. My erstwhile inner journalist resurfaced and the research allowed me an accurate timeline of their lives. I'm writing a book about them, a creative non-fiction family memoir. Memorial Day reminded me of this excerpt. My grandmother was 31.
  

CHAPTER 14
 
Monday, April 12, 1943  
Navy Yard Puget Sound
Bremerton, Washington


The first thing she noticed was the Navy frogmen, diving and resurfacing to ensure the wounded battleship was lined up correctly with the bilge and keel blocks secured to the floor of the soon-to-be dry dock. The caisson gate seals on the business end interrupted the natural flow of Puget Sound into the dock. It drained like a bathtub. A 1,030 foot long, 147 foot wide, 54 foot deep bathtub.

It momentarily took her back a dozen years. The Bonita negotiating the locks at Keokuk, Iowa on the Mississippi.

Even damaged and patched, the U.S.S. West Virginia cut an impressive jib. As the water drained, the ship’s underbelly was revealed. Victoria thought it strangely beautiful, in a mosaic of colors kind of way. Battleship gray, speckled with the pinks, oranges and browns of oxidation.

The lead men and all the shift supervisors were there. The journeymen, quarterman laborers and every one of her female colleagues, too. Victoria was friendly with all her peers, though friends with none of them. Polite to the men in charge and deferential, but only to the point where she let them know if they were interested in anything from her other than ship welding, they were barking up the wrong tree.

When it came to extra-curricular activity and ship welding, Victoria harbored a notion that they need us a helluva lot more than we need them.

She leaned on a pipe fence lining the enormous dry dock and bummed a smoke from the girl standing next to her. Cigarettes were a bit harder to come by this deep into a world war, so she made a mental note to repay this favor. 

All the women wore company-issued navy blue overalls. Victoria had two pair to which she had taken the needle and thread, cinching in the waistlines to allow for a more flattering impression of her figure. The ensemble was made complete by a matching big floppy hat with a brim, which she wore backwards when working, to accommodate her welding mask with a hinged dark tinted glass rectangular-shaped viewing window. 

++ 

On the best of days, it was a full hour and fifteen minutes from the time she arose, until she was in the shop, welding torch in hand. She had developed a routine. Walk eight blocks to the ferry port. Make efficient use of the commuting time by bringing along mending or some other portable chore, eight hours welding, more portable chores on the ferry trip back to Everett, eight more blocks of walking, then a couple of hours of mother and son domesticity.

Victoria had fixed her son a pallet in the corner of the living room and sold it by telling him it’d be like camping. Champ did not complain.

My grandmother's high school graduation photo.
As exhausted as she was, it could be worse, she figured. She could have swing shift or graveyard. As it was, she was up before dawn and home after sunset. Victoria developed a habit of enjoying a libation each night before retiring. Straight rye bourbon whiskey. Two fingers neat.

Helps me sleep. God knows I need it. 

Point #2. Check. 

++ 

Point #3 would take a little longer than they had planned. Paul Slater would stay in Anchorage at least another year. The M-K bosses had asked and he could not say no. They were careful not to be too specific with him, in terms of an end date.

Victoria’s disappointment that there’d be no reunion for Champ’s 10th birthday was countered with a tinge of pride over Paul’s loyalty to M-K and commitment to a cause greater than himself. She wished she could be more benevolent that way. 

It was exactly the same sentiment the shipyard bosses were hoping to instill, as the workers clustered around the U.S.S. West Virginia at the dry dock. The WeeVee, as its sailors called it, had just arrived from Pearl Harbor where six torpedoes and two bombs scuttled her on the Day That Will Live In Infamy (FDR’s caps). The severely-damaged battleship was salvaged from the murky depths of Pearl Harbor about three months after Victoria and Champ left Anchorage.

The West Virginia was among six battleships that survived December 7th. Five were re-outfitted and re-made battle ready, here at Bremerton.

The company’s motivational speaker that day was a Presbyterian minister from Seattle, known for his fiery, anti-Japanese sermons since the start of the war. On this day, before this congregation, he was dressed like the rest of the workers. Hard hat and overalls. He used a megaphone so everyone could hear. I guess he is sort of a cheerleader, Victoria thought. He led with a gut punch.

“More than a hundred men lost their lives on this battleship at Pearl Harbor.”

The times demanded horrifying detail and the good reverend was only too happy to oblige, describing the West Virginia’s captain, mortally wounded by metal shrapnel as the bombs and torpedoes ripped holes in his vessel. The man refused to leave the bridge and bled to death, giving his life for crew and country.

During repairs at Pearl, they found nearly 70 sailors – “your sons, your brothers” – trapped below decks in flooded compartments. Some were found lying atop steam pipes, the only space they could find air. 

“Three of your husbands – your fathers,” were found in a storeroom compartment. A calendar indicated they lived through December 23. Didn’t make for much of a merry Christmas, he lamented.

“Who did this?” He was closing the deal. “Who did this to your husbands, your brothers, your fathers, your sons?” He lowered the megaphone. A solitary Navy bugler in dress whites blew Taps.

Many of her peers were wiping away tears as they filed back into the shops. No weeping for Victoria, but she put her arm around a woman who was, leaned in close and offered some encouraging words. Victoria whispered a prayer for the souls of all the dearly departed and especially those poor guys below decks. They lived for more than two weeks after December 7. No one knew they were still alive. What a way to go, she thought.

She tied up her bandana, donned her floppy hat backwards, and pulled down her welding mask. Victoria Maday Matson ‘Slater’ fired up her welding torch and did her best to imagine she was applying the flame directly to a particularly sensitive area of each of the eight individual slant-eyed bastards who dropped those torpedoes and bombs. It was not difficult.

Some women cried. Others imagined roasting Japanese fighter pilot kintama

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