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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2019 812 Magazine

Shipyard invaders


The men, women and children who built the LST helped tear down cultural walls in the city of Evansville.


The year is 1942. In the news, two black players, Jackie Robinson and Nate Moreland, request a tryout with the Chicago White Sox and they are allowed to join. A helicopter makes its first cross-country flight. The lasting effects of the Great Depression are still lingering around the country like an early morning fog. To top it off, the biggest war in American history is brewing.

The country is on the brink of social change. Race and gender discrimination is the topic of many media outlets across the country. Evansville is no stranger to this tension. International Steel Corporation has a plan to boost the economy in the region and give Evansville Mayor William Dress the key to his reelection. Both get their wish when correspondence from Washington D.C. requests the past 90 years of weather and river data. It isn't final but they are sure a shipyard is coming to Evansville, but to build what?

This July marks the 70th anniversary of the first keel laid at the Evansville Shipyard. The USS LST Memorial is planning an event in July to remember the stories of the ship builders who, through innovation and perseverance, overcame adversity in the presence of social norms. The Evansville Shipyard Invaders had the challenging task of building a new war ship. It was called the Landing Ship -Tank, known as the LST. The LST was a mystery in the beginning. A ship that before 1942, did not exist. Engineers had designed this barge-like ship from scratch in only five months. The LST and the shipyard would create new challenges for the shipyard workers and this southern Indiana town.

"The LST was an integral war ship and was a major force that led to the success of America and Britain in World War II," says Tom Lonnberg, curator of the Evansville Museum. Built by the Evansville Shipyard as well as other Midwest or "cornfield" shipyards, the LST, with a mere 13-foot landing draft (the amount of hull under the water line), could drop off tanks, war vehicles, personnel and supplies directly on shore for a battle. This was done with a mechanical door in the front of the ship. "This construction was unprecedented at the time and proved to be vital in World War II battles," Lonnberg says.

It wasn't easy making an LST, he continues. Shipyard documents cite more than 30,000 items to make an LST. The design called for a 328-foot-long hull with only a 21-inch variance. Each weld, fixture, hinge, wiring and tensile was inspected thoroughly. The LST was one of the most inspected ships in production. For a short time in 1943, authorities stopped launching LSTs temporarily, in the middle of the war, because an inspector was unsatisfied with the welds, Lonnberg says. Although the inspector was reprimanded at the time, he was later commended on his quality control efforts.

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These new ships had their strengths, but there was one clear-cut weakness. The LST's defensive capabilities would be like taking a slingshot into a gunfight. Curt Coffee, now xx, helped build the LSTs. "Over the aircraft radio you would hear the pilots refer to them as 'Large Slow Targets' or ducks," Coffee says followed by a slight chuckle. Its best defense for incoming bombers was weather balloons attached to a cable. Pictures of the LST in battle show a fleet of aircraft and ships protecting the LST on its mission to make its on-shore delivery. The LST was the US Navy's queen bee. Protect her at all costs. Without the queen, the hive is lost. Without the supplies, the war is lost.

Coffee had been working at a rubber company when the shipyard came to Evansville. "They needed welders," he explained in a slow voice. "The war couldn't wait, so the first hull of the LST 157 was poured at International Steel." Evansville's 45-acre, $6 million shipyard needed trained workers, so welding schools were built all over town. "People started flooding in," Coffee recollects. "People came right out of the farms and cornfields into these welding schools because they wanted to help with the war."

Coffee was one of them. "I was so thankful to learn how to weld. I was able to use these skills to get a better job later in life."

The shipyard needed guards, ship fitters, leadmen, gang foremen, inspectors, janitors, cooks, maintenance, transfers, writers and most importantly, welders. "If a worker was able to master the three main welds -- vertical, horizontal and overhead -- they were known as a 'three-position welder.' If they could weld stainless steel, like me, then you were a 'four-position welder.' he says with a smile.

But it wasn't just men like Coffee who found jobs in the shipyard. Before the war, women, African Americans and immigrants would not be given welding or other skilled positions, but with so many men at war, even unskilled applicants had opportunities. World War II historian Harold Morgan has conducted years of research on the Evansville Shipyard. "This is the first time in the history of American labor where women became essential in meeting production goals," Morgan says. "Flocks of them went to the Evansville shipyard looking for work." It wasn't the easiest environment to penetrate, however. Many shipbuilding companies had a "No Women Wanted" policy until well after Pearl Harbor. A popular women's magazine did a story ridiculing the anti-feminist attitude of one of the larger shipyards and sparked the beginning of a radical change in the industry.

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At the Evansville Museum, you can see Evelyn W. Cox, with her 5-foot-4-inch frame, wearing her bulky welding helmet and leather protection pants, in a photo after she became the first woman to complete welding school. Shortly thereafter, Emma Monroe from Oakland City became the first woman "three-position welder." But, June Knight, a blond actress from the '30s and '40s went through eight interviews before she was turned down due to "lack of skills." I wonder what she was asked in the 6th, 7th and 8th interviews. "I'm sure they were trying to get a full grasp of her 'mental" attributes, 'Morgan says slyly. The shipyard was said to have had some "foxes," he added. In only six months, the percentage of women workers doubled from 4.5 to 10 percent.

The numbers for African-American and immigrant workers are harder to find, Morgan says. In late 1942, an African-American newspaper reported that many minorities were writing to the paper about the disparity in getting wartime jobs. No company would hire them. Even the U. S. Employment Service cooperated with local law and customs although it was responsible for meeting wartime employment needs regardless of race, creed, color or national origin. But Missouri Valley and a handful of other large manufacturers were required to follow the federal provision that all companies with federal contracts must be color blind in hiring.

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African American workers primarily performed custodial work, which is what "they wanted to do," wrote author Andrew L. Clack in "A Cornfield Shipyard." During this time, segregation in the region was the custom. There were "whites only" public facilities. Minorities were only allowed to sit in the back of the bus. But the need to make ships superseded these customs and paved the way for change to come in Evansville.

The Evansville shipyard adopted "rather" equal hiring practices. Work environments were still segregated, but workers earned equal pay regardless of race. This attracted a wave of immigrant and minority workers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and other Southern states. "The population from 1941 to 1942 increased 440 percent, exceeding that of any surrounding city," Morgan says.

"Every morning, we would carpool to work because of the gas rations," Coffee says. "We were packed in the back of this van like cardboard boxes. But those guys were my family. We all had the same struggles and the same problems, so we stuck together." It took Coffee three hours to get to work. "It was fine. I had my buddies, and we just cracked jokes and sang songs all the way to work. We were a family.

"The days were long, and the pay was good. But that wasn't why we worked so hard. It was the respect and honor each worker had to be a part of the Evansville shipyard," Coffee says. "We were doing our part in protecting American and becoming "World War Champs!"

Lonnberg echoes that sentiment. "The Evansville shipyard was more like a community than it was a shipyard."

The culture at the shipyard ran deep. The launching of a LST was a ceremonious event, by invitation only, and limited cameras were allowed. As an incentive, employees of the shipyard were allowed to name a "sponsor" for every third ship. The chosen employee could name his wife, mother, sister, daughter or sweetheart as a sponsor, and she would break a champagne bottle on the hull of the finished LST.

The learning curve was high. As the war continued, up to 100 new workers a day learned terms on the job and made up their own slang. Instead of "fore," they would say "upstream end." Instead of "aft," they would say "downstream end." Missouri Valley executives published a list of ship terms, slang terms and definitions to help the new employees. This new cornfield shipyard became a city inside of a city. It had its own hospital, cafeteria, security force and monthly publication named "The Invader."

"The Invader" was published once a month and included the latest launching, news from the war front, safety tips and the scores of various shipyard team sports. The motto of the publication was "Loose lips, sink ships." Security was a main concern, so each worker had an authorization button. Coming and going from work produced huge lines. Mr. Coffee described the lines as "snake-like" with thousands of workers lining up next to the Ohio. "As soon as the bell rang, though, those lines were gone in less then 10 minutes, Coffee says."

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The sports teams reinforced the sense of community, with each unit of the shipyard having its own team. "I enjoyed playing basketball although I wasn't very good. I remember the coach taking me out of a game and asking me, 'What are you doing out there?' I responded lightheartedly, 'I thought playing basketball.'" The long hours of welding, rechecking welds and fears for those overseas are now just a blur to Mr. Coffee, but he remembers the shared experiences. "Today, many of us want to forget those harsh times, but we remember all the people we met and experiences we had at the shipyard."

Over four years, 70,000 "invaders" pushed out 160 LST ships in Evansville. "Out of the 1,051 ships built, only 13 were sunk in battle," Morgan says.

Today, the place where thousands of men and women worked as "Invaders" is a parking lot. "This sacred land that once pushed out a completed LST ship every week now serves as a resting spot for much more mundane vehicles," Lonnberg says. As quickly as the war created this cornfield shipyard, it closed it. With demand for ships over, 17,000 workers lost their jobs in a matter of two months. Some people went back to their hometowns, while many stayed, having built a family in Evansville. On January 26, 1946, a mysterious fire destroyed most of the remaining buildings in the yard. Authorities were not able to determine a definite cause.

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The only remaining structure from the culturally rich sub-community is a crane used to transport the hulls from bay to bay. The invaders now live on through documents, photos, videos and personal accounts of the men and women who became "World War Champs!" The USS LST Ship Memorial in Evansville keeps the stories and events alive.