Today, The Boston area’s Hingham Shipyard is home to hundreds of people of varying ages. Many make use of the ferry for shorter commuting to work, while some go to Menchies, Wahlburgers, and Patriot’s Cinema. Others stroll around, looking in the stores, or at the breathtaking views of the sunset on the waterfront. But from December of 1941 to 1945, Bethlehem-Hingham was a fully functional shipyard.
It was founded after the U.S. Navy designed a new ship, the destroyer escort. The Bethlehem Steel Company was assigned the construction of the vessels. Because of the large wartime demand for ships, all of Bethlehem Steel’s shipyards were running at maximum capacity. Hingham was close to deep water, had a utility railway running throughout it, was close to an airport, and had many jobs available for eager citizens. The company employed workers to clear 150 acres of land and construct a steel structure for the shipyard.
Bethlehem Steel was in need of more workers to help assemble ships. At the time, only 8,000 people lived in Hingham. Almost all men over 18 were in the fighting, so many young boys and injured men did the work. As it took thousands of people to build a single ship, Bethlehem Steel transferred 400 men who had worked for the company for many years to the new shipyard. They trained new employees in ship construction.
By the end of the first year, 15,000 men and boys were at work on the ships. Soon, more than 23,500 people were working daily at the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard, more than the current population of the town. The shipyard allowed women to make money while contributing to the war effort. After the first year, more than 2,700 female workers were employed at the shipyard.
Ralph “Chick” Papile of Hingham was one of the workers who lived in Quincy during World War II. During his enrollment at an engineering school in Quincy, Massachusetts, Chick learned how to weld and work with sheet metal. His expertise came in handy when he was on a destroyer escort when the engine lost all power. He was able to weld a part of the engine together, and the ship was able to return to port. That day, he saved 122 lives.
Chick’s responsibilities at Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard included pipe fitting, welding, and cutting sheet metal. He recalls taking the bus to work five days a week when he was 16 years old. He worked at least eight tiring hours a day to help the war effort. Some days, Chick would pay the crane operators 25 cents, about $5 in today’s money, and they would put him in the basket and lower him on the other side of the fence. He would escape to baseball games and hang out with other work colleagues. The workers covered each other’s work when they were put across the fence for the day.
Claire Sheehan’s father worked as a shift manager at the shipyard because he was considered too old for enlisting in the armed forces. Claire recalled coming to the yard to see a couple of ships being sent off. “You would stand on the dock, and schwapoo! The glass would break, champagne went everywhere, and the crowd went wild! I think it was the wife of whoever the ship was named for who broke the champagne.” Claire’s father helped with the important task of testing ships. The ships would go out around the harbor for a couple of days up to a couple of weeks. Claire recollects, “Oh, he went around the harbor on some [destroyer] escort, oh, what was its name? Ah, yes—the USS Buckley.” The Buckley (DE-51) was the lead ship in her class of destroyer escorts.
Though Chick did not live at the shipyard, some men did, including Claire’s father. Claire, her brothers, and mother lived in Quincy and would visit their father on the weekends. “At Hingham, the blocks had accommodations only. Men billeted there were given a special victualling allowance of $1.50 per day and were expected to feed themselves,” writes Donald Collingwood. The blocks referred to barrack-like buildings in which workers could sleep. Other shipyards allowed men to eat, drink, and hang out. Bethlehem-Hingham settled for giving workers their allowance for them to go into town to get three substantial meals. Collingwood states that not all of the generous allowance was used for food, but on entertainment.
The Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard produced the Evarts, Edwal, Cannon, and Buckley-class destroyer escorts. Bethlehem Hingham specialized in the Buckley class, hence the street name USS Buckley Place. The Buckleys were narrower, faster, and had a longer range. By the end of the war, 154 Buckleys had been built. Around half of those were made in Hingham.
Upon entering the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard, one would notice destroyer escorts lined up in different stages of completion, some surrounded with wood, others being boarded for a voyage to deliver the ships overseas. The shipyard set a record for building a destroyer escort in 23 days and five landing ship tanks in 50 hours. The shipyard received a rare honor, The Army-Navy E Award. Only about 5 percent of companies had received the award by the end of the war. The awards were handed out to shipyards that excelled in quality, efficiency, and record keeping. The Navy ordered 60 ships to be built in 1943. The workers were able to make 90 ships that year, which gave them the award that year. They then went on to get one the following year as well.
Men and women had different jobs around the shipyard. Some were nurses, welders, painters, riggers—the list goes on. An important job in the shipyard was that of shipfitter, a metalworker who focuses on durable materials such as aluminum and steel. Shipfitters assembled all structural parts of a ship, a job that the whole ship was built around. Shift managers coordinated all of the workers and monitored progress on ships. They also were tasked with testing the ship’s durability, speed, and comfort for the troops. They also used heavy machinery such as presses up to 750 tons.
Another essential shipbuilding role was that of the metal workers—one of whom was Chick Paplie. He remembers, “We would get the metal in full sheets and had to work it until it was to the right consistency. There were no mechanical tools by the time I started working, so we went to work with saws and hammers. Eventually, machines were added when the demand increased for more ships.”
A tedious but necessary job in the shipyard was that of the checker, who would count the rivet holes and mark them with chalk. James Kilroy, from Boston, would draw on the ships, most notably, the phrase “Kilroy was here” with a head looking over a wall. He worked in the Fore River Shipyard and then the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard.
The Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard was able to build 227 ships to help the war effort. Thanks to the service of the hardworking men and women during World War II, we are able to enjoy freedom in the Hingham Shipyard, and our entire country.
1. Donald Collingwood, The Captain-Class Frigates in the Second World War (London: Leo Cooper Ltd., 1998).
2. Bruce Hampton Franklin, The Buckley-Class Destroyer Escorts (Berkshire, UK: Chatham Publishing, 1999).
3. Hingham Shipyard Marinas, documentary film Remembering the Hingham Shipyard.
4. Ralph “Chick” Papile, interview with the author, November 2019.
5. Lawrence S. Rines and Anthony F. Sarcone, “A History of Shipbuilding at Fore River,” courtesy Thomas Crane Public Library.
6. Eric Rivet and Michael Stenzel, “History of Destroyer Escorts,” Destroyer Escort Historical Museum, 22 April 2011.
7. Claire Sheehan, interview with the author, December 2019.
8. Paul H. Silverstone, U.S. Warships of World War II (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1968).
9. War Department Bureau of Public Relations, “Army-Navy ‘E’ Award Termination Sees Award Granted to 5% of Eligible Plants,” 5 December 1945, (courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command).