The time: May 1944. The place: the new Kaiser shipyard at Vancouver, Wash.
On her first day on the job, an 18-year-old high school graduate from South Dakota climbs scaffolding 30 feet above boilers, planning to weld sections of metal inside another quickly-assembled ship for the Navy.
Born in 1925, Doris Nelson Lilja said, “With my welder’s hood on, I couldn’t see anything until I got the welding arc moving. And I was scared of heights. The scaffolding I was on was only two planks wide with no railing.”
Wearing her leather overalls, leather gloves and high-top boots, she was protected from the penetrating sparks.
“Our leathers got so stiff that it was difficult to move in them,” she said.
On her evening shift (4 p.m. to midnight), she made $1.32 an hour. Doris’ wages were better than other American wartime production workers: women: $31 a week; men- $54 a week.
“By 1943, this Kaiser shipyard had 38,762 employees, almost all women; the lead people, though, were men,” she said. “We women didn’t complain because at least we had jobs.”
The start of her job would always involve dragging heavy hoses up or down several staircases. The ship was built from the bottom up and all supplies were on the top level.
Because Doris was only 5’2” and weighed 105 lbs., she was a desirable worker. She could weld in small, tight places that were impossible for others.
This shipyard was built 47 days after Pearl Harbor and in nearly four years, it would build 141 vessels of five different types. One ship was completed in only 52 days — a record for America. In October 1945, the yard completed its last ship for its Navy contract for WWII.
A popular song in 1942 was “Rosie, the Riveter,” including the following lines:
“All the day long, whether rain or shine,
She’s part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie, the Riveter.”
Ironically, the ships at the Kaiser plants were not riveted; they were welded. However, Doris will always be “Rosie, the Riveter.”
Note: A time of sacrifice
Doris’ late husband, Ed Lilja, was the youngest of five brothers, all Marines. The three older ones fought in the Pacific. Two died there in 1944. Parents were told that a third son had died; however, he was found three days after a battle with one leg blasted off. Miraculously, this brother survived and was able to have a long, productive life.