As the United States entered World War II in 1941, England was facing defeat by the combined forces of Germany and Italy, her supremacy of the seas threatened by the German U-boats that roamed the Atlantic. On land, the Nazis had conquered France and were preparing to invade England. The entry of the United States changed the course of the war drastically.
Although many U.S. ships were sunk, the Battle of the Atlantic had a telling effect on the outcome of the war. The U-boats, undaunted by their failure to win this major battle, moved from the familiar shipping lanes and entered U.S. waters. Lying submerged offshore, they could concentrate on the convoys moving out to sea loaded with military equipment and food for the Allies. Sunken ships soon dotted the U.S. coastline from New York to Florida. The German armed forces overran Austria in early 1938, just before the surrender of Czechoslovakia. The Nazis overran Poland in the fall of 1939 and the Netherlands in the spring of 1940.
The people of the United States, suffering from a prolonged economic depression, showed little interest in the distant war until awakened by the collapse of France. The U.S. government, concerned with its own problems of unemployment and unrest, also ignored the Nazi takeover until the United States recognized the ominous threat to England.
On 3 September 1939, England, fearing an invasion, declared war on Germany. Assured of her navy’s superiority in strength and numbers, England wanted to protect the shipping lanes and to keep them open for the material needed for war. This was successful until German U-boats arrived in large numbers and began sinking merchant ships. Thus began the Battle of the Atlantic.
In the meantime, the United States, at the time unprepared for war, moved rapidly to initiate the draft and rebuild its Navy. Workers and servicemen at the New York Navy Yard, also known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, during World War II made many sacrifices to contribute to the war effort.
When I joined the workforce at the New York Navy Yard in 1939, the light cruiser Helena (CL-50) and the 35,000-ton battleship North Carolina (BB-55) were under construction. The drydocks were filled with destroyers that needed overhaul and updating, and the Labor Board was humming with applicants—including painters, clerks, musicians, barbers, and other tradespeople—seeking work unavailable elsewhere. Most were hired and trained for specific jobs.
In 1940, rumors of war began to spread, so security in the yard was tightened. Marines appeared on top of many of the buildings, and antiaircraft guns pointed skyward. Signs that read “Loose Lips Sink Ships” hung on bulletin boards throughout the yard, and workers were cautioned about talking about activities that were under way.
When the battleship North Carolina was commissioned in 1941, several supervisors, including me, left Norfolk, Virginia, on board for her first shakedown. We were not at war, but the captain took the precaution of conducting most of the tests in Caribbean waters. We spent several days at the Navy bases in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Kingston, Jamaica.
Building the Iowa
On 27 June 1940, the keel for the one of world’s largest battleships, the Iowa (BB-61), was laid. The public, aware that war was imminent, began lining up in the early morning hours outside the Labor Board, looking for jobs. The shipyard was working three shifts and on weekends. On 22 February 1943, the 48,000-ton Iowa was commissioned and, in early 1944, headed for the Pacific Ocean to combat the Japanese.
Construction on the battleship Missouri (BB-63) began on 6 January 1941; she was launched three years later, on 29 January 1944. Large crowds always attended these launchings, and because this was a major event, then-Senator Harry S. Truman and his daughter, Margaret, were there for the christening. Margaret had the enviable job of breaking the champagne bottle on the bow of the Missouri. During the construction of these heavyweights, several aircraft carriers and numerous other smaller vessels were completed.
Meanwhile, the U-boats continued to attack U.S. ships as they departed for foreign shores. The warships protecting the convoys paid a high price; many were sunk and others were damaged seriously. Those that could be saved were escorted to the New York Navy Yard for repairs. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was the largest shipyard in the world at the time, and at the peak of the war, it employed 75,000 men and women as shipfitters, welders, and riveters. Its seven drydocks, two building ways, and piers were in constant use.
As the war continued, foreign ships that needed repair or engine overhaul began arriving in the shipyard. The Navy, unprepared for this additional workload, put out a call for volunteers to be trained as divers. Many of those that applied were production welders working on the battleships.
Young and eager to escape the daily routine of production welding, and gung-ho to try something new, they gathered at the main office for details. Some quickly lost interest when they learned the dangers involved with underwater work. It wasn’t fear of the dirty, murky East River, the solitude of working alone, or the bends. Most were fearful of losing contact with the crew on the barge, for at this time, there was no telephone communication between the crew and the diver. Jerking on the air hose or lifeline was the only way to attract the hose tender on the barge. Another concern was the air pump, which was operated manually and required two men to provide sufficient air to the diver. As an incentive for this hazardous work, the diver’s hourly wage was increased from 85 cents to $2.35.
Work and Play at the Navy Yard
Meanwhile, hundreds of servicemen roamed the Navy Yard and the streets of Brooklyn, waiting for their ships to be repaired. Repairs could take weeks or months, depending on the extent of the damage. Tired and bored, some took the subway to New York City, to be entertained at the U.S.O. Others got free tickets to the movies at Times Square. Still others visited the fun houses on Sand Street, just outside the main gate of the Navy Yard.
A band was organized to entertain the workers and servicemen at lunch hour and at launchings. This band was composed of yard workers, most of whom had played with the big bands around New York. After a hard day’s work, they rehearsed for the following day’s program. They frequently played for bond sales and at blood donations. Their appearances on Wall Street and in front of the old Paramount Theater always drew large crowds.
These Navy divers helped to raise the troop carrier Lafayette, which sank at Pier 87 in New York Harbor. The three men in the front row are civilian divers from the Navy Yard.
While the war continued, a divers’ training tank was built. It was 15 feet deep and designed to qualify the divers to a water depth of 150 feet. Portholes enabled the instructor to check on the divers’ progress. While a Navy lieutenant oversaw diver training, I was responsible for the welding and cutting operation.
When the diver was qualified to weld and cut metal in the tank, he transferred to a divers’ barge for additional training in open water. Working from the barge was not a pleasant experience, and it was a far cry from working in the clean, comfortable divers’ tank. A hose tender handled the diver’s hose and lifeline as he dropped off a short ladder into the river. In this open space, he was at the mercy of the elements, the river current, and the ever-present debris. Dropping to the bottom of the river brought another surprise— the diver could become mired hopelessly in the thick, glue-like silt. By opening his airvalve to gain buoyancy, he could end up spreadeagled and helpless on the surface.
Other problems plagued some of the inexperienced divers. Mired in the thick muck at the bottom, their visibility dropped to zero. Unable to move, they would lose all sense of direction and become panic-stricken and ask to be pulled out. In winter, ice floes packed around the piers and ships. Often, a crane had to open a hole in the ice to permit the diver to enter.
When divers became familiar and comfortable working in the open space, they worked with an instructor on a damaged ship. This could take several hours, and divers often stayed on the job until it was finished. This work went on night and day in accordance with convoy dates. When not needed for underwater repairs, the divers returned to production or worked on a fresh-water pipeline that ran from Staten Island to an island in New York Harbor, where Navy personnel monitored ships as they entered the harbor. This pipeline was installed in the early 1930s and had a history of leaking at the swivel joints under the rough water of the harbor. Although the divers faced the dangers of passing tugboats and ships in this busy harbor, there were no serious accidents. While the sailors often found their coffee had a salty taste, they took it good naturedly and drank bottled water or soda until the line was repaired.
In 1941, the Lafayette (AP-53) (formerly the Normandie), a converted troop carrier, caught fire and sank at Pier 87 in New York City. The sunken ship was a hazard to shipping and occupied space needed for other ships. The Navy erected a divers’ tank on the pier to train Navy personnel to install port and hatch covers on the sunken vessel. This was a long, tedious operation, but after several months they were successful. The civilian divers from the Navy yard worked in conjunction with this school on various welding and cutting techniques.
The work done by the yard divers was exemplary, and only one near-fatality occurred. A diver working on the battleship Arkansas (BB-33) needed a break and in ascending, came up under the barge. He became entangled in his hose and lifeline. His airvalve turned off accidentally, and he was unable to turn it back on. Unable to move his arm, he was near suffocation when he was freed.
The New York Navy Yard built 18 warships, including three battleships, five aircraft carriers, two cruisers, and numerous tank landing ships. The total number of ships repaired ran into the hundreds. The heroes that took part in this massive endeavor came from all walks of life. We can take pride in their accomplishment; they were winners from the very start.