Descriptive Essay San Francisco

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Can you guess what draws in more San Francisco tourists each year than the Golden Gate Bridge?

Chinatown, of course!

San Francisco's Chinatown is renowned for being the largest in the world. In fact, it's the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, with thousands of ethnic Chinese calling the neighborhood home.

No trip to San Francisco is complete until you've walked past market stalls, the telltale hanging red lanterns, and little old ladies haggling with shopkeepers in Chinese. It really is like walking into an entirely different country.

And that's the point, of course. This isn't really meant to be a tourist attraction — it's a living, breathing Chinese community, where the rest of us are just visitors.

I spent an afternoon wandering all through Chinatown, enjoying the foreign-ness of it all. I put my phone (AKA my map) away, and turned down every random alley I found. I hopped on a bus and was the only non-Chinese person aboard. It was a fantastic afternoon.

Since this is definitely the sort of place that's best illustrated in photos as opposed to words, here are some of my favorite photos from San Francisco's Chinatown:

Possibly my favorite photo.

Some Chinatown street art.

At the fortune cookie factory. It smelled delicious.

Ross Alley

Lanterns and a lamppost.

An ornate bank.

Little details.


I could have easily spent all day roaming these streets — there's so much to see and smell, hear and taste. If you're even in San Francisco, don't skip a visit to this unique neighborhood!


Which of these Chinatown photos is your favorite?



Traveler. Blogger. Photographer. All-around adventure-seeker. Amanda is just a small-town Ohio girl trying to see the world.

Text-Only Version

Please note that this text-only version, provided for ease of printing and reading, includes approximately 75 pages and may take up to 20 minutes to print. By clicking on one of these links, you may go directly to a particular text-only section:

Essay on Seacoast Defense
Essay on Mobilization
Essay on Port of Embarkation
Essay on Shipbuilding
Essay on Women at War
Essay on Preservation
List of Sites
Begin the Tour
Learn More


Dear Virtual Visitor,

Welcome to the San Francisco Bay Area! This National Park Service Virtual Travel Itinerary will help both locals and visitors navigate the Bay Area's historical World War II treasures.

The Bay Area is renowned for its scenic beauty, great weather, and urban attractions. The Bay Area is also famous for its accessibility to the natural wonders of California's coast, redwoods, and mountains. The Bay Area is also a leader in technological innovation, an incubator for social change, and a model for cultural diversity.

World War II was profoundly felt in the San Francisco Bay Area. If America was the "Arsenal of Democracy" during those times, the Bay Area was the arsenal's shipyard. The Bay Area served as a coastal fortress, a pipeline to the Pacific, and as a center for cultural and social innovation. WWII caused so many dramatic changes in the Bay Area that the war years came to be known as the "Second Gold Rush" in California.

People from across the Nation came to the Bay Area to help the war effort. Military men and women sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and felt much as their counterparts on the East Coast felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty. Many wartime newcomers stayed in the Bay Area after the war ended. As a result, they enriched Bay Area communities with new cultures and traditions. Many of those who passed through came back to visit again and again, drawn by their memories of the wartime San Francisco Bay Area.

Many of the historic landscapes, buildings, and ships from World War II can still be seen and visited today. These landmarks from World War II contribute to the history and character of the Bay Area. They provide an added layer of meaning to the local citizenry, to the visitors interested in heritage tourism, and to school groups looking for tangible sites to help in understanding intangible ideas.

I hope you enjoy your virtual visit to the World War II sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. I also encourage you to visit them in person. Whether you are a local or a visitor, you will learn much about California's history from these important landmarks. Either way, this National Park Service Virtual Travel Itinerary will ease your journey.


Barbara Boxer
United States Senator


The National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, assisted by Rosie the Riveter--World War II Home Front National Historical Park, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, the Organization of American Historians, San Francisco Public Library and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, proudly invite you to explore World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area. World War II dominated the social, economic and political landscapes of the mid-20th century, setting in motion momentous events that still shape the world we live in today. The communities that ring the San Francisco Bay were irrevocably altered by that wartime era and still bear its visible marks in the remains of military bases and coastal defense fortifications, ships and shipbuilding facilities, worker housing and day-care facilities. This travel itinerary highlights 31 historic places listed in the National Register of Historic Places that reflect the San Francisco Bay Area's role as the "Arsenal of Democracy."

Preparations for mobilization to create "Fortress San Francisco" were massive. Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite ringed the tip of Marin County, while Fort Point mounted guard on the Golden Gate Straits. Inside the bay, bases abounded including Fort Mason, the principal Pacific Port of Embarkation, the Presidio, Fort Miley, Hamilton Field and Moffett Field. The San Francisco Bay Area's major contribution to victory during World War II was shipbuilding. During the war, men and women working in Bay Area shipyards, like Kaiser's Richmond Shipyard Number Three, built 1,400 vessels--a ship a day, on average--like the SS Red Oak Victory. Mare Island Naval Shipyard provided well-established repair and shipbuilding facilities. The converted Richmond Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant prepared tanks for shipment overseas to the Pacific War, and the Benicia Arsenal manufactured the munitions for these and other weapons. During World War II, tens of thousands of Bay Area women challenged common perceptions about their capabilities, and for the first time were faced with the problems of being working parents--finding daycare and housing. These historic places remain today as an indelible imprint of this time and remind us of the dramatic changes brought on by the Bay Area's participation in World War II.

Three months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the relocation of Japanese Americans living in coastal areas, who were at the time considered a security risk. In the weeks that followed, local newspapers carried almost daily reports of proclamations, plans and restrictions to civil liberties issued by Lieutenant-General John L. DeWitt out of Building 35 at the Presidio, such as Civilian Exclusion Order No. 20, which required 660 people living in the area bounded by Sutter and California streets and Presidio and Van Ness avenues to report to the Japanese American Citizens League at 2031 Bush Street for registration, and then, on April 29, 1942, for removal. Headlines from the San Francisco News at the time provide a sobering view of the swift expulsion: "General DeWitt Announces Military Exclusion Zones" (March 3); "First Japanese Ready to Leave Coast" (March 19); "Aliens Get One More Night Out" (March 25); "Goodbye! Write Soon!" (April 7). Internees were first transported to one of 13 "Assembly" centers throughout the state, including Tanforan race track in San Bruno--since demolished--where 8,000 Japanese Americans were detained in converted horse stables and makeshift barracks between April and October 1942, then on to permanent camps inland such as Manzanar, which is now a National Historic Site. In all, nearly 100,000 Californians of Japanese descent were removed from their homes and livelihoods for incarceration during the war until 1945.

The World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area travel itinerary offers several ways to discover the places that reflect the area's World War II history. Each highlighted site features a brief description of the historic place's significance, color photographs and public accessibility information. At the bottom of each page the visitor will find a navigation bar containing links to six essays that explain more about Seacoast Defense, Mobilization, Port of Embarkation, Shipbuilding, Women at War and Preservation. These essays provide historic background, or "contexts," for the places included in the itinerary. In the Learn More section, the itinerary links to regional and local web sites that provide visitors with further information regarding cultural events, special activities, and lodging and dining possibilities. The itinerary can be viewed online, or printed out if you plan to visit the San Francisco Bay Area in person. Visitors may be interested in Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, located in the San Francisco Bay Area.

World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area is the latest example of a new and exciting cooperative program. As part of the Department of the Interior's strategy to promote public awareness of history and encourage tourists to visit historic places throughout the Nation, the National Register of Historic Places is cooperating with communities, regions and Heritage Areas throughout the United States to create online travel itineraries. Using places nominated by State, Federal and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the itineraries help potential visitors plan their next trip by highlighting the amazing diversity of this country's historic places and supplying accessibility information for each featured site. World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area is the 33rd National Register travel itinerary successfully created through such partnerships. Additional itineraries will debut online in the future. If you have any comments or questions, please click on the provided e-mail address, "comments or questions" located at the bottom of each page.

Seacoast Defense

A historian once described San Francisco during World War II as "a giant cannon aimed at the Pacific," likening the millions of tons of cargo and munitions coming out of the port to projectiles sent against the Japanese military forces. To protect the all-important entrance to the harbor, the Golden Gate and its famous bridge, the U.S. Army and Navy arrayed a vast network of coastal fortifications, underwater minefields, antiaircraft guns, radars, searchlights, observation posts and patrol aircraft. Today, the still-impressive remains of that network can be seen at many locations in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Beginning during the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, the U.S. Army had been continually constructing, expanding and modernizing harbor defenses surrounding the Golden Gate and intended to keep an enemy from capturing the port with its strategic military and industrial sites. In the early years, French and British fleets were most feared by American planners, and large masonry forts armed with scores of smoothbore cannon were constructed at Fort Point in the Presidio of San Francisco and on Alcatraz Island in the middle of the bay. During the Civil War and the years immediately following, additional masonry and earthwork fortifications were constructed along both shores of the Golden Gate straits. Well-preserved examples of these semipermanent fortifications can still be seen at Battery East in the Presidio and at Battery Cavallo at Fort Baker.

In the 1890s the army began a major modernization of the Nation's coastal fortifications and, because of its strategic importance, San Francisco Bay was given number two priority behind New York Harbor. (Actually, defense appropriations for San Francisco defense projects frequently exceeded those of New York.) This rearmament project resulted in the wholesale scrapping of smoothbore artillery and the introduction of modern breech loading artillery protected in concrete gun emplacements. Construction of these fixed defenses had a dual role: first, the improved fortifications made the Nation's ports much more secure and ready to deal with the threat from modern armored warships; secondly, the strong shore defenses freed up the U.S. naval forces from their reluctant role as "floating coastal forts." This strategic change allowed our navy to sail the globe freely and extend our military presence--and U.S. influence--to foreign countries. By 1910, nearly 120 coast artillery guns were mounted in the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco. Ranging in size from three-inch rapid-fire weapons to 12-inch long-range guns, these fortifications were designed to meet the threat of any size vessel from a small patrol boat to a heavily armored battleship. These new weapons and fortifications would form the backbone of San Francisco's coastal defenses until after the end of World War II.

As Europe headed deeper towards war in the 1930s, isolationist America reluctantly began to upgrade its coastal fortifications once again. In San Francisco, this program lead to the construction of two batteries mounting the largest guns then in American arsenals: 16-inch caliber rifled guns mounted on high elevation carriages, capable of firing 2,100-pound projectiles nearly 26 miles. To protect the weapons against the growing threat of aerial bombardment, each battery of two guns was constructed as a subterranean fortification with the guns aiming out from the sides of heavily camouflaged, manmade hills. Up to 20 feet of overhead concrete and earth cover provided protection for the guns themselves along with a labyrinth of connecting corridors, ammunition magazines, power plants, crew spaces, and assorted storage rooms. To protect the new batteries, antiaircraft guns were concentarted nearby to ward off attacking enemy aircraft.

Completed in 1940, Battery Davis at Fort Funston and Battery Townsley at Fort Cronkhite were the prototypes for all subsequent fortification designs adopted by the U.S. Army. On the eve of World War II, these two batteries formed the state-of-the-art defenses not only of San Francisco but also of the entire United States.

On December 7, 1941, the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco Bay comprised a mixture of modern batteries as typified by Batteries Davis and Townsley; aging--but still potent--coast artillery emplacements constructed at the turn-of-the-century; mobile tractor drawn field artillery and antiaircraft guns; and the underwater minefields that still protected the shipping channels. Manning these defenses were an assemblage of "old army" regulars from the Sixth Coast Artillery Regiment, newly-formed units such as the 18th, 54th and 56th Coast Artillery Regiments, and National Guard Regiments from as far away as Minnesota and Texas. When news reached San Francisco of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, all off-duty personnel were recalled to their units and the harbor defenses put on full alert. Soldiers moved out of their barracks and into the batteries, and began filling sandbags, stringing barbed wire and constructing beach defenses at a fevered pace. Up and down the coast, observers in tiny concrete observation posts scanned the horizon for the approach of a Japanese fleet that would never come.

As the days and weeks progressed, the initial fear of imminent invasion settled into a long-term commitment to defend the harbor by every means possible. Mobile antiaircraft guns, searchlights and radars were positioned on virtually every hill and knoll overlooking the Golden Gate. The U.S. Navy stretched an antisubmarine net across the inner harbor extending from the Marina in San Francisco to Sausalito in Marin, and stationed a navy tugboat to open and close the net to allow friendly shipping to pass. Soldiers assigned to the fortifications and observation stations constructed extensive earthwork trenches on the hillsides near their batteries, and in some cases tunneled into hillsides to construct unauthorized but comfortable underground quarters. Everywhere, camouflage paint was daubed on concrete batteries and wood barracks, and acres of camouflage nets were stretched over fortifications to obscure their presence from high flying enemy planes. Overhead, navy blimps armed with depth charges patrolled offshore waters searching for Japanese submarines but only attacked the occasional unfortunate whale.

The command center for all these activities was an underground facility covertly constructed at Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio of San Francisco and dubbed the Harbor Defense Command Post/Harbor Entrance Command Post (HDCP/HECP). The HDCP/HECP was little discussed but its role was crucial, for here inside the bomb proof command center army and navy senior staff coordinated their resources both to defend the bay against enemy sea or air attack (the army's role) and also to track and coordinate all shipping traffic in and out of the Golden Gate (the navy's responsibility).

No enemy has ever attacked San Francisco, and by 1944 it was obvious to the army-navy commanders that invasion was a far distant likelihood. The soldiers of the harbor defenses were needed on battlefronts elsewhere, and starting that year the HDSF began to phase out its operations. With the signing of the peace treaty with Japan in 1945 the army reevaluated its need for fixed defenses, especially in light of a new age of long-range bombers and nuclear weapons. The phase out was speeded up, and by 1948 the last of the army's San Francisco coastal artillery fortifications had been scrapped.

Today, the remains of "Fortress San Francisco" can still be found throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In the Presidio of San Francisco, Battery Lowell A. Chamberlin at Baker Beach displays a rare six-inch rifle on a 1903 disappearing carriage, and an adjacent display gallery tells the story of the bay's harbor defenses. Fort Point, a veteran of the Civil War, was pressed into use during World War II for a battery of three-inch guns, and its museum also tells the story of the harbor defenses of San Francisco. At Forts Funston and Cronkhite, the empty casemates of Batteries Davis and Townsley can still be explored although their unlit interiors are closed for safety reasons. Below Battery Townsley at Rodeo Beach in Fort Cronkhite, visitors can see the preserved 1940s "mobilization barracks" complex where the coast artillery soldiers lived.

Across from Fort Cronkhite is Fort Barry, site of several 1900-era gun batteries that were armed during World War II. Many of these batteries still display remnants of their green-and-ochre camouflage schemes applied shortly after Pearl Harbor. Also at Fort Barry is Battery Elmer J. Wallace, a 12-inch battery that was extensively rebuilt with overhead cover during World War II and now appears much like a scaled-down version of Batteries Davis and Townsley.

Throughout Golden Gate National Recreation Area are dozens of observation posts used by coast artillery troops. Officially known as "base end stations," these tiny structures housed a crew of observers whose job was to search the horizon for the approach of enemy ships and, in the event of attack, direct the gunfire of the big guns through telephone communication. These stations stretch along the San Francisco coastline from Point Reyes in the north to Half Moon Bay in the south. Some of the best examples can be found at Fort Cronkhite above Battery Townsley; at Fort Barry near Battery Mendell; and at Fort Funston near Battery Davis.

Perhaps the most visible remnant of the army's defensive system is the land itself, for in their efforts to construct ever more far-flung fortifications the U.S. Army purchased large tracts of land overlooking the Golden Gate and its approaches. Kept out of private hands, these lands eventually formed an unintentional but invaluable "green belt" around the entrance to San Francisco Bay. In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and included these lands within its boundaries. Today, the former World War II harbor defense posts of Forts Funston, Miley, Winfield Scott, Baker, Barry and Cronkhite provide some of the most spectacular and unspoiled open space surrounding any American city. Combined with the even earlier military posts of Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, Fort Mason and the Presidio of San Francisco, the U.S. Army handed down to today's generation a gift of urban parkland truly unrivaled anywhere.

Essay by John A. Martini.


World War II touched all of California very heavily, but nowhere more than San Francisco Bay. The war turned the Bay into a citadel, and in turn the cities made the fortress work.

Cities played several roles in World War II. They were targets of destruction and strategic advantage; they were distribution points for men and material; and they were centers of production. San Francisco Bay was prepared for the first role, but in the war, only played the second and third. Still, the preparations were massive, swiftly arming San Francisco. Forts Baker, Barry and Cronkhite ringed the tip of Marin County; Fort Funston stood at the ocean base of San Francisco, with gun emplacements in between. Fort Point mounted guard on the Golden Gate Straits. Inside the bay, bases abounded. Fort Mason, the principal Pacific Port of Embarkation, rested aside Aquatic Park; Moffett Field stood at Sunnyvale; Alameda Naval Air Station and the Army supply depot in Oakland faced San Francisco across the Bay; Hamilton Field stood to the north in Marin County. In the middle, Treasure Island housed the Naval Training Station. Camp Stoneman accommodated servicemen waiting to be sent abroad. The Bay had nearly every kind of base, up to and including one of the chief Pacific code-breaking stations, United States Intercept Station Number Two, at Petaluma.

Some 240,000 people built and repaired ships at Sausalito, Vallejo, Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco and South San Francisco. The converted Richmond Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant prepared tanks for shipment overseas to the Pacific War, and the Benicia Arsenal manufactured the munitions for these and other weapons. Servicemen and defense workers thronged the streets at shift change. Damaged navy ships plied the bay toward the naval shipyard at Vallejo. Thousands came to paint the towns, and thousands more jammed the hospitals for succor. The war was inescapable. It came over the radio, on billboards, in newspapers, from the military presence and in unique events like the exodus through the Gate on April 1, 1942, of the Doolittle Raiders, in Captain Marc Mitscher's timeless words, "bound for Tokyo."

The war imposed its own rhythms on the cities and its own ethos on their inhabitants. People worked the swing shift and then partied through the graveyard shift until dawn. Everyone faced the novel every day: other cultures, other workers, other work routines, other comrades at arms or work, other lovers. Then just as surely, these were replaced again as the workers left, the soldiers sailed and the lovers departed.

Loss was omnipresent and so was death. It came in the newspapers, letters, radio broadcasts and Western Union telegrams. The uncertainty meant that people lived for the moment, dancing at the Stage Door Canteen in San Francisco or unwinding to the black man's blues at the joints of Oakland and the white man's blues at the barn dances in Richmond. People walked into each other's lives, bonded over work, drink, or love and walked out again.

Yet if individual lives were fragmented, irregular and fleeting, the war effort was not. It rolled on unrelentingly. Somehow the mass of locals and strangers, blacks and whites, men and women, young and old, whole and handicapped came together in an extraordinary united war effort. The military and the managers of corporations created an impressive production achievement that kept men and products flowing out of the great San Francisco Bay. So did the cities. Cities had numerous superbly important latent resources for war, not immediately obvious to the untrained eye. World War II uprooted 15 million Americans to work in defense, and the Federal Lanham Act failed utterly to house them. So cities had to. San Francisco and Oakland became vast dormitories, as housewives rented spare rooms, basements, back porches, garages and garrets. People doubled up in apartments and single rooms; hotels took in some; converted warehouses, others; and aunts and uncles shoehorned relatives into their homes.

Somehow cities sheltered these employees. The resident women, retirees, high school dropouts, the blind and other handicapped, and African Americans who joined the labor force already had housing, places at school, transportation (many walked to work) and daycare. Even criminals received early parole for defense work, and the inmates of San Quentin and Alcatraz pitched in while still incarcerated. In special labor emergencies women, girls and retirees delivered the mail at Christmas or picked crops at harvest.

Cities could also mobilize these neophytes. Many drove their cars, but millions more than usual rode mass transit. War workers could get to work by bus, streetcar, cable car, ferry and interurban, in addition to cars. The infrastructure was not the least of the cities' contributions. The new Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Bridge and older bridges held the dispersed metropolis together and allowed it to function as a physically unified military unit from Camp Stoneman to Moffett Field. The military greatly benefited from huge, well developed urban harbors. The State of California had invested $86 million in the San Francisco port alone, and the Embarcadero there contained 1,912 acres of facilities. Bay Area harbors were partly laid out on artificial land created as early as the Gold Rush. Airfields supplemented these and often served military functions as did Oakland Airport, where planes were stored and prepared for dispatch overseas. City police helped train military ones, staffed the civil defense organizations and convoyed army trucks through the streets. Throughout America, urban and town water departments supplied military bases, and the San Francisco and East Bay Municipal Utilities District did the same in the Bay Area.

Camp Stoneman in the North Bay was literally an instant city of 10,000, which badly needed water. So did many industrial processes. These urban services had taken years to develop and the military would have been badly hampered if they had been forced to develop them in 1941. Because of the fall of the water from higher elevations, the urban water projects often came with a hydroelectric power component. City boosters prized this asset to keep power and therefore production costs low, and the military and defense plants inherited this cheap power too.

Open space in the parks and playgrounds served as a tenting space for the housing-strapped military before barracks could be built. Schools and colleges trained people in everything from welding to exotic languages. Even San Quentin became an educational institution, training parolees as welders or as chefs for the merchant marine. Cities are world-class junk piles and this scrap, like high-grade steel from abandoned trolley tracks, came in handy too.

Today, Californians take city advantages for granted, so it is instructive to think of the opposite case. During World War II the government had to site many installations in the rural South and West, where it had to build many of the services that urban areas already contained. The military tried to locate these institutions close to some kind of town, even a small one. In short, Bay Area cities supplied many of the most pressing military needs. In martial terms, they were a force multiplier.

But San Francisco Bay was more than just an arsenal and a production cornucopia. It was also the most important Pacific Theater symbol of freedom, home and America. For 1,650,000 men, it was the last part of the States that they glimpsed before they saw combat, and it was the first thing that they saw when they returned. It was also the voice of freedom until they returned, as was the British Broadcasting Company in Europe. Even American prisoners of war, at considerable risk to themselves, cobbled together clandestine radios in their lethal prison camps to tune in to a twice-weekly newscast from Treasure Island. The risk of a severe physical beating was less important than hearing the voice of San Francisco and home.

Essay by Roger Lotchin, Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

Port of Embarkation

"From the early days of the campaigns in the Southwest Pacific, when men and supplies available to reinforce our position were but a trickle, to the time when with added resources we were enabled to mount offensive operations with increasing violence," wrote General Douglas MacArthur, "the U.S. Army's San Francisco Port of Embarkation and its subsidiary Oakland Army Terminal, "gave magnificently of their full support--support which in no small measure contributed to the victorious march which carried our arms to the heart of the Japanese Empire."

During World War II, more than 4,000 voyages by freighters and over 800 by troopships emanating from the San Francisco Port of Embarkation carried nearly 1,650,000 soldiers and 23,600,000 ship tons of cargo to support the efforts of General MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific Area and Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Ocean Area.

But the Army's Port of Embarkation, which played so important a role in American victory in the Pacific Theater of World War II, already embodied great historical significance as the symbol of and an institution contributing to America's coming of age as a world power at the beginning of the 20th century.

Until the last three years of the 19th century, the United States had never fought a major overseas war, other than sporadic naval and Marine entanglements. The United States Army had never sent forces overseas. But in a five-year period beginning in 1898, the United States suddenly stepped onto the world stage and took its place among powerful European nations as a world power. First, war with Spain began in 1898, ending the following year, but while on the Atlantic side of the continent it involved sending American forces as far as the offshore islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the Pacific it meant sending troops 10,000 miles across the ocean to the Philippine Islands and Guam, both of which came under American rule.

Furthermore, a revolution sponsored by American business interests in 1893 had toppled the Hawaiian monarchy and installed a Republic of Hawaii. After unsuccessful attempts to involve the United States government, in 1898 the United States finally acquired the island archipelago as a territory, which stretched in the middle of the Pacific Ocean from the large volcanic island of Hawaii itself northwest to Midway and Wake Islands and beyond. In addition, although the United States had acquired Alaska by purchase from the Russian Empire in 1867, it had been regarded as an "icebox" of little value until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and 1899 in Canada's adjacent Yukon Territory, accessible principally across Alaska, led to gold discoveries in Alaska itself and the Nome Gold Rush of 1900. Not only was there gold in Alaska, there were copper and other resources which made Alaska a treasure chest rather than a mere icebox. Then in the Philippines, which U.S. forces had seized from Spain in 1898, a rebellion against the United States began in 1899 led by Philippine patriot Emilio Aguinaldo and others. Once that had been suppressed, another rebellion of Muslim people in the southern Philippines known as the Moro Rebellion broke out and continued intermittently down to the present day. An attack on the foreign embassies in Peking (Beijing), China, by rebels known as "Boxers" which took place in 1900, led to an international relief force including American soldiers marching to Beijing. Eventually a U.S. infantry regiment was permanently stationed in Tientsin and a U.S. Marine regiment in Shanghai, not to mention American Marines at the Embassy and navy gunboats patrolling the Yangtse River--navy, marine and army deployments that would continue for 40 years. Thus in a mere five-year period, the United States Army which had not previously fought an overseas war, suddenly had to supply, maintain and rotate troops to and from permanent overseas garrisons in the Philippines, Hawaii and China, and provide a much enlarged force in suddenly valuable Alaska Territory, and within a decade and a half, provide for garrisoning the Panama Canal.

Initially, the army accomplished this by renting commercial ships and piers. But as overseas involvement became permanent rather than temporary, spurred by the catalyst of the Earthquake of 1906, which destroyed or damaged piers and warehouses, the army decided to build its own port for seagoing ships in San Francisco Bay, and began to purchase its own ships under a new branch known as the Army Transport Service. There was no suitable location at the army's premier San Francisco post, the Presidio, for such a port, but there was at the northwest corner of Fort Mason, and by 1908 planning was underway to construct such a port, largely on filled land. In the decades that followed, the U.S. Army's Port of Embarkation, consisting of three piers, warehouses and railroad spurs connecting with the State Belt Railroad of San Francisco, hosted ships which came and went, carrying soldiers and supplies to Hawaii, the Philippines, China and Alaska. White-hulled U.S. Army transport ships with names such as the U.S.A.T.S. Grant, the Sherman, the Sheridan, the Thomas, all named for Union Generals in the American Civil War, regularly made calls at the Port. And when on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, dragged the United States into the Second World War, the army had a functioning port for shipping men and material to the far Pacific.

Of course World War II proved so large an involvement that the San Francisco Port of Embarkation soon was overwhelmed, and expanded onto land across San Francisco Bay in Oakland, California, where it built a subsidiary Oakland Army Terminal much larger than its headquarters. The port and its subsidiary, served by three transcontinental railroads, handled more than 350,000 freight car loads, and employed 30,000 military and civilian employees, not counting the longshoremen who loaded and unloaded cars and ships.

Because of the long distances involved, the Pacific War required a particularly long logistical "tail" to support the fighting troops at the "sharp end." As American troops island hopped across the Pacific from Hawaii and Australia towards the Philippines and Japan, a string of airbases and forward supply points provided aerial supremacy, control of the vital sea lanes and staging areas for combat divisions. Most of these soldiers, and many of the navy ships and personnel too, started their overseas journeys from the numerous military posts around San Francisco Bay. And many of the soldiers and sailors recalled the passing through the Golden Gate and under its spectacular bridge as the last memory of home and their first sight of homeland upon their return.

In the years following World War II, the army's Port returned to peacetime duties, now including the supply of permanent American garrisons in occupied Japan and South Korea, until five years later, a new war erupted on the Korean Peninsula, another war in which the Port played a large role. Thus the U.S. Army's San Francisco Port of Embarkation, including its Oakland Army Terminal, played a major role in World War II and in America's whole involvement in the Pacific Ocean region.

Essay by Gordon Chappell, Regional Historian, National Park Service


The San Francisco Bay Area's major contribution to victory during World War II was shipbuilding. Over 30 shipyards, large and small, and scores of machine shops, and metal and wood fabricators joined together to create the world's largest combined shipbuilding complex. Unlike major shipyards on the east coast that were concentrated in compact urban areas, Bay Area shipbuilding consisted of components sprawled across hundreds of square miles, from Napa in the north, Sacramento and Stockton in the east, to San Jose in the south.

In the decade prior to 1940, America's shipyards launched only 23 ships. In the five years after 1940, American shipyards launched 4,600 ships. San Francisco Bay Area shipbuilders produced almost 45 percent of all the cargo shipping tonnage and 20 percent of warship tonnage built in the entire country during World War II. The war lasted 1,365 days. In that span of time Bay Area shipyards built 1,400 vessels--a ship a day, on average.

One pioneer Bay Area shipyard was Mare Island Naval Yard. It began with a single floating dry dock in 1854 and progressed rapidly as the only Navy yard for the Pacific Squadron and, in fact, the only repair facility on the entire Pacific Coast. In 1859, Mare Island launched its first ship, the paddlewheel wooden steamer USS Saginaw. In the years following, Mare Island Naval Yard built a score of vessels including tugs, colliers, barges, gunboats and, in 1883, the cruiser USS Mohican.

Compared to the big shipyards on the East Coast at Philadelphia and New York, San Francisco Bay's shipbuilding industry was minuscule in the early years of the 20th century. How was it possible that from this modest beginning, San Francisco Bay would emerge in World War II as an industrial giant? How was it possible to build so many ships in so little time? First and most vital was a nationwide commitment to win the war. All available resources were dedicated to that end. Industrial leaders and politicians had the good sense to recognize that only through cooperation could total victory be achieved. As a result, World War II shipbuilding was perhaps the greatest combined effort of government and private industry in the Nation's history.

The Bay Area was fortunate in one respect; two major local shipyards, Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation and Moore Dry Dock Company, had gained valuable experience in large-scale rapid production during World War I, and had on hand core management and labor groups when needed for World War II. Lessons learned during the first wartime shipbuilding program (1917-1922) had demonstrated to management what to do and what not to do. These two yards had long histories in steel shipbuilding and had managed to survive the depression years of the 1930s, a period when American shipbuilding all but ceased. In addition to these yards, Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Hunters Point Dry Docks provided well-established repair and shipbuilding facilities when the need arose. Navy contracts in the 1930s kept Mare Island capable of producing modern warships.

Industrial expansion and population growth after 1900 had given the Bay Area untapped resources at the outset of World War II. One reason the Bay Area was selected as the site of the Kaiser yards and Marinship was availability of workers. Big shipyards along the northeast seaboard of the United States drew on the dense population of that region for workers. By the time America entered the war, those yards were operating at capacity and local skilled labor was fully employed. The Bay Area also had many miles of relatively undeveloped shoreline that contained several excellent shipyard sites. Smaller existing yards and potential sites existed along the deep-water channel in Stockton, accessible to the worker population of the interior region.

Proximity to the Pacific war made the Bay Area a logical ship production site. Victory in the Pacific depended on ships; all men and material had to reach the war zone by ship. Aircraft at the time had insufficient range to operate from mainland bases and the only way to get air bases nearer to Japan was to take them by force through amphibious landings. San Francisco's Fort Mason was a well-established port of embarkation and Oakland had large (and expandable) army and navy shipping facilities. Fortunately America's rail network in 1941 was intact. Thanks to direct rail links between the Bay Area and industrial centers in the Midwest and East, a steady flow of steel and other material could sustain massive shipbuilding.

These four components--local experienced yards, ready labor supply and building sites, proximity to the Pacific war and established railroads--set the stage for what would become the largest concentrated outpouring of ships in the history of the world. But getting the job done required more than the proper setting. Organization, management and innovation were skills essential to success. In 1940 America had a number of men who epitomized the "can do" spirit prevalent in the early 1900s. In Bay Area shipbuilding, men such as Joseph Moore, Warren Bechtel and Henry Kaiser had that attitude in common, as well as the shared experience of holding things together in the 1930s, during the deepest depression in American history. While Joe Moore was a shipbuilder of long standing, Kaiser and Bechtel were new to maritime construction. But they were builders of big things, up to the task confronting them. Each had a team of experienced and reliable engineers and foremen. Each had the ability to organize and follow through.

At the top of the shipbuilding ladder was the U.S. Maritime Commission, five men appointed by President Roosevelt in 1936 and confirmed by the Senate the following year to direct America's shipbuilding program. The Commission's mandate was clear: "Develop and maintain a merchant marine sufficient to carry a substantial portion of the waterborne export and import foreign commerce of the United States on the best equipped, safest and most suitable type of vessels owned, operated and constructed by citizens of the United States, manned with a trained personnel and capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency."

While the threat of war existed in 1936, no one could have foreseen the magnitude of the Commission's responsibility over the next decade. Yet many shipbuilders and many members of Congress who passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 could vividly recall the previous wartime emergency just 15 years earlier. America had started too late. Over 80 percent of the tonnage authorized in the shipbuilding program was launched after World War I had ended and, thus, had no impact on the conduct or outcome of the war.

America would not make the same mistake again. The Commission adopted a long-range building program of 50 new ships a year for the next 10 years. America's moribund shipyards, including those in the Bay Area, came to life. Rehabilitation and expansion began immediately. In preparing for global war, the need for naval vessels was parallel to the need for merchant ships. Contracts for both types of vessels were awarded to Bay Area shipyards.

After December 7, 1941, the shipbuilding program responded to the shifting strategies and progress of the war. New types of vessels were needed, in particular, convoy escort warships in the early stages of the conflict when allied shipping was most vulnerable to German submarines. As the Allies gained the initiative, landing craft and other assault types became top priority. Managing the shipyards became highly complex. Juggling steel and manpower shortages, procuring needed parts and machinery, and balancing the needs of the Maritime Commission and the Navy provided ample challenge to administrators and planners alike.

Bay Area shipbuilders, from the giant Kaiser yards to the small boatyards around the Bay, found innovative ways to cut costs and save time, improve the product and work in cooperation with myriad Federal agencies. Obstacles to production, such as training inexperienced workers and housing and feeding emigrant workers and families, had to be met and overcome. In addition to delivering ships on schedule, shipyard management had to participate in dealing with labor unions and subcontractors, crime in shipyard boomtowns and racial and gender conflicts. Problems naturally arose, breakdowns and accidents occurred, mistakes were made. When negatives are weighed against positives, however, the result is remarkable. The ultimate measure of success is, of course, that decisive victory was achieved. By war's end, the many thousands of men and women who took part in building ships could feel justifiable pride in their accomplishment.

A map of San Francisco Bay and the rivers and estuaries surrounding it shows the nexus of land and waterways where shipbuilding took place. The varied shoreline of the Bay, one of the finest natural harbors in the world, provided equally varied shipyard sites. The narrow entrance of the Golden Gate not only protected the shipyards from storms and tidal surges, but from unseen enemies whose only course of attack by sea was through the narrow channel. The major wartime shipyards consisted of three types; established yards such as Mare Island and Bethlehem Steel, smaller specialized yards such as those at Stockton, and emergency yards, such as Marinship and Kaiser, built for specific jobs.

The major yards received raw materials by rail and pre-assembled components from Bay Area shops. Small parts, nut and bolts, and a thousand other pieces were supplied by large and small manufacturing facilities all across America. The big yards became assembly points where completed vessels were launched into the Bay. The entire network, with railway arteries and workers as lifeblood, became one giant single-purpose organism, highly adaptable and highly successful.

Any industrial organism so large can not be laid across the landscape without consequential environmental and sociological impacts. At the time, unavoidable physical degradation of the land and shoreline was an acceptable cost. To accommodate new shipyards, hills and rocks were dynamited, channels dredged, wetlands diked and filled. Ironically, it is some of these hastily-formed features that today are the most recognizable physical remnants of the wartime shipbuilding industry. The myriad buildings, warehouses and shops left derelict by the closing of wartime shipyards were dismantled or put to other uses. Today, the few surviving buildings (and a few of the businesses) are part of San Francisco Bay's historic places, such as Kaiser's Richmond Shipyard No. 3 and Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

While all wartime shipyards fell under the control of either the Maritime Commission or the U.S. Navy, they drew their resources and materials from the same pool. Constantly changing situations and needs created an enormously complex distribution system of parts and labor. The various yards competed with one another, but all worked toward a common goal. Keeping priorities for materials straight and avoiding production bottlenecks was largely, due to wartime secrecy, an unsung tale of heroic proportions. Imagine, for example, the challenge presented by hundreds of freight cars daily rolling into the Bay Area from around the Nation loaded with vital parts and material for the around-the-clock shipbuilding program. Railway cars that left Detroit on Monday with parts destined for Kaiser, might have to be diverted on Tuesday to Moore Dry Dock to complete a Naval contract on time. Kaiser, meanwhile, would need to have parts diverted to the Richmond plant from another source so that Kaiser could complete its contracts on time. By the time the railway cars arrived on Wednesday from Detroit, they might have been diverted again to Bethlehem's San Francisco yard. It was a monumental game of musical chairs.

As the war progressed, some Bay Area shipyards evolved into repair and conversion facilities, where existing vessels returning from the Pacific underwent battle-damage repairs, received updated radar or weapons, or were converted from one specialized type of vessel to another. Yards that had begun as clear-cut navy yards or Maritime Commission yards (that is, building exclusively warships or cargo ships) found their assignments more diverse as time passed. Marinship in Sausalito, for example, was built specifically to supply fuel-oil tankers for the Merchant Marine. Because the tankers were still being designed when the yard was ready to begin production, a dozen Liberty ships became the first products of the new yard. When the yard shifted to tanker production, some of the tankers, with modified specifications, were built for the navy. Near the end of the war, Marinship built invasion barges for the army.

Innovation was fundamental to the success of Bay Area shipbuilding during World War II. Shipbuilding prior to the war tended to be bound by long-standing traditions and methods. The transition from wooden ships to iron and then steel was slow. During World War I, steel shipbuilding followed tradition, calling for riveted hulls with each vessel custom built on site, a labor intensive, relatively slow process. In 1917, for example, a typical steel vessel took 12 to 14 months from keel-laying to delivery. At the peak of production in World War II, the work could be accomplished in four to six days.

Much credit for the prodigious output of American shipyards during World War II has been given to the assembly line, the notion that ships were built like automobiles. But the analogy is not accurate. Most large-scale shipbuilding did not employ the assembly line as it relates to automobile manufacture. With cars, the chassis was pulled slowly along the line as parts were attached to the chassis until the finished product rolled off the end of the line. Ship hulls, however, were too big and heavy to drag along an assembly line. Instead a steady stream of component parts--pre-assemblies--were brought to the hull and lifted by large shipyard cranes onto the hull. In some cases small vessels, such as landing craft, were assembled much like automobiles. Each yard employed a variety of time and labor-saving methods, whatever it took to speed up the process without jeopardizing the end product.

Greatly speeding the shipbuilding process was the widespread use of pre-assemblies, such as deck houses and engines. The technique had been used in World War I, but not nearly as extensively. As the war progressed, the pre-assemblies grew larger and more complete, right down to the doorknobs on cabin doors and cooking utensils in the galleys. Installation of the miles of piping and wiring that go into a large vessel was made far easier by the pre-assembly process. While most parts were pre-assembled in the shipyards, some complex assemblies were made miles from the yard and shipped by rail. Anchor-winch assemblies, for example, might come from as far away as New York.

As useful as pre-assembly was in cutting production time, the real key to accelerated shipbuilding, however, was welding. Ships in World War I took longer to build than in World War II primarily because their hulls were riveted rather than welded. Welding had been introduced in American ships prior to 1918, although none had an entirely welded hull. Riveted ships were strong and durable. But riveted hulls had drawbacks. Chief among these was the time needed to align steel plates and drill holes for rivets, and to set and drive home the rivets. To place each rivet (150,000 for a typical hull) took two workers, one on either side of the plates being fastened. But to reach that point required the efforts of at least two other workers. A "driller" had to position each hole in the proper place and drill through the one-inch-thick hull plate. After the plates were aligned on the frames they seldom matched the pre-drilled holes precisely, so a "reamer" had to enlarge the holes to eliminate overlap and allow the rivet to fit. The combined weight of rivets needed to fasten hull and deck plates could add more than 300 tons to a ship's hull and subtract that weight from the vessel's payload. Strong as they were, rivets could pop loose under stress or when hull plates were damaged. Unless the exterior heads of the rivets were flush with the hull, they added drag that could slow the ship at sea.

The advantages of arc welding--low cost compared to riveting, speed of application and strength-- were apparent. One worker could do the work of two. Properly welded joints and seams were as strong or stronger than the surrounding steel. In spite of these advantages, however, welding was slow to supplant riveting. Not until World War II created demand for rapid ship construction did welding replace riveting as the principal means of joining steel. Automatic seam-welding machines and new alloys and welding methods added even greater speed to the process but also revealed some disadvantages. Welded steel plates tended to buckle and warp more than riveted ones. Uneven heating could result in stress fractures. Use of improperly sized electrodes could produce weak joints. Stories of welded ships breaking apart in heavy seas, or of welded joints failing under even mild stress, were partly justified.

A skilled welder can make a good solid seam almost anywhere, horizontal, vertical, overhead, angled. A novice welder, as many of the new shipyard workers were, had neither the skill or experience to match an old hand. Welding seams on flat deck plates with gravity helping the flow was simple enough but overhead welding was much more difficult. One solution was to position seams so that the welder could work in a "down-hand" position, that is, with the electrodes held at waist level or below to avoid fatigue. That often meant bringing the work piece to the worker. Large vertical parts to be welded were turned horizontal. Ceilings and overhead structures were welded inverted then reversed when completed. Scaffolding was built to place the welders in optimum position. Welding became the basic glue of steel shipbuilding, allowing for fabrication of almost any shape in any size. Without high-speed welding, much of the innovative methods applied to World War II shipbuilding would not have been possible.

The shortage of trained workers in the shipyards translated into an even more critical problem; rapid training of new workers. All experienced workers in the Bay Area already were fully employed when America entered the war. Tens of thousands of unskilled men and women were recruited to meet demands of new emergency shipyards. Years of training and experience necessary to make a journeyman shipyard worker could not be condensed into a matter of days or weeks, yet the war would wait for no one. The solution was to break the complex job of building a ship into the smallest possible components, train workers to do that specific task and let them gain experience through repetition. Trade unions objected strenuously to this practice, giving rise to deep conflicts between unions and shipyard management that remained unresolved throughout the war. Large and small classrooms sprang up in Bay Area shipyards where welding and other crafts were taught. Galling as this situation was to professional shipbuilders, there was no suitable alternative.

A sidelight to the transition from rivets to welds in shipbuilding was "Rosie the Riveter," a public relations creation that has, over the years, become synonymous with the home front effort during World War II. Rosie illustrated how women pitched in willingly to the war effort, and proved their competency at doing a "man's" job. Rosie, however, as illustrated by Norman Rockwell and others, was an aircraft riveter, not a ship riveter. Women workers in aircraft production plants handled all phases of fabrication and assembly, but it was the image of a woman punching small alloy rivets into aluminum aircraft skin that caught the public fancy. In addition to the thousands of women welders in the shipbuilding program, thousands of other women workers participated in almost every facet of shipbuilding. Shipyards invented a parallel to Rosie the Riveter called Wendy the Welder, but she never received the icon status of Rosie. Nonetheless, the essential contribution by women welders during World War II has been recognized.

The name Henry J. Kaiser more than any other stands out in Bay Area shipbuilding. Indeed, Kaiser gained national and worldwide recognition during World War II for his contribution to Allied victory. His maritime achievements are the more remarkable considering that before 1940 he had never built a ship or a shipyard. By 1945 he and his associates had built seven shipyards and delivered 1,490 ships, 747 at the Richmond yards alone. The four Kaiser yards in Richmond comprised the largest shipbuilding operation on the Pacific Coast.

Prior to the war, Henry J. Kaiser was known in construction circles as a tough, competitive highway contractor and builder of massive dams. Most notably, Kaiser was a prime force in the Grand Coulee, Bonneville and Hoover Dams. He sensed opportunity when, in 1936, the Maritime Commission was formed. With existing shipyards fully occupied with the revitalized merchant marine, new yards were needed. Kaiser, inexperienced in shipbuilding, knew how to build industrial plants. He teamed with Todd Shipyards, one of the Nation's largest, to secure a contract for five C1 freighters. In 1940, the new company received a contract from the British for 60 emergency cargo vessels, forerunners of the Liberty ships. Thirty were to be built on the east coast by Kaiser in partnership with Bath Iron Works in Maine. The other 30 would be built in a new yard in Richmond, already scouted by Kaiser himself.

The City of Richmond before World War II was a small industrial center built around a Ford assembly plant, a Standard Oil refinery, a Pullman railway car shop and a number of other smaller manufacturers. Richmond was selected as the site of a new shipyard by Henry Kaiser and the Maritime Commission because of its available waterfront, nearby industrial capacity and sufficient nearby population from which to draw a work force. As a consequence, Richmond suffered in a microcosm all the trials and tribulations of wartime America and was transformed forever by the experience.

As the Kaiser construction crews began cutting and filling for the marine launching ways in Richmond, the rapidly changing war in Europe triggered rapidly shifting national defense priorities. Just two days after the first keel was laid in April 1941, the Maritime Commission directed Kaiser to build a second shipyard in Richmond for Liberty ships for America, and have it operational by September. Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, changed priorities again; on January 9, 1942, the Maritime Commission and Kaiser began a third shipyard at Richmond to build big troop transports. By this time yards one and two were building the British freighters and Liberty ships, although none had yet been launched. By May 14, 1942, the first keel was laid at yard three. In June 1942, Kaiser got a call to build yet another shipyard, this one for invasion ships, called yard 3-A (later yard 4). This yard was unique among Bay Area shipyards in that it came closest to an auto-type assembly line for big ships. The type of ships to be built there, initially cloaked in secrecy, were LST's. Hundreds of these "Landing Ship Tank" vessels were needed as the mainstay of invasion fleets. Several eastern yards besides Kaiser in Richmond and the Kaiser yard in Vancouver, Washington, were contracted for their construction. In all, 982 were completed including 15 by Kaiser-Richmond, and 30 by Kaiser-Vancouver. More than 100 were completed as or converted to repair ships, casualty evacuation ships, boat tenders and service craft. When the LST contract was completed, Kaiser #4 switched to frigate escort vessels based on the Canadian Corvette. After building 12 of these, the yard turned to another type of coastal supply cargo ship. By war's end, Kaiser #4 had launched 51 ships including 24 coastal cargo carriers.

This essay is excerpted from Build Ships! San Francisco Bay Wartime Shipbuilding Photographs, by Wayne Bonnett, published by and available through Windgate Press, Sausalito, California.

Women at War

As growing numbers of men left for military service in the Second World War, government, industry and civic organizations used patriotism, guilt and the prospect of new opportunities and skills to recruit women to the domestic war effort. Woman power was the critical weapon in FDR's "Arsenal of Democracy," which was designed to overwhelm the enemy through superior industrial output. Approximately 12 million women worked in defense industries and support services across the Nation, including shipyards, steel mills, foundries, warehouses, offices, hospitals and daycare centers. Throughout the war, women from all backgrounds, and from all over the country, worked at jobs such as welding, riveting and operating cranes while maintaining their traditional duties as mothers and homemakers.

No region demonstrated these social changes more than the West Coast and the Bay Area, where women's contributions to the war efforts were crucial. The war's enormous social, cultural and economic impacts on women were most visible in the Western United States, which boasted the highest percentage of female industrial workers in the country. Women outnumbered men in the flood of migrants from the South and West who sought Bay Area defense jobs. This was because of economic opportunities associated with defense work, but also the number of women who relocated to be near men in the region's numerous military facilities.

The Bay Area's numerous shipyards hired the greatest number of women defense workers; towards the end of the war, 27 percent of Richmond's shipyard workforce was women, and 20 percent of the Moore shipyard in Oakland. Yet like most industries, Bay Area shipyards were reluctant to hire women until labor shortages required it. Women put pressure on defense plants for these well-paying jobs, including a demonstration in front of the Boilermakers' union headquarters in San Francisco. While doors ultimately opened wide to women in many defense factories, not all were recruited as eagerly. African Americans were usually stuck in lower-wage work once they landed a shipyard job, and were more likely to find employment in canneries, railroads and military supply facilities, which paid half of shipyard wages. Still the war moved many black women out of domestic service--as one woman put it "Hitler was the one that got us out of the kitchen."

Most women, regardless of ethnicity or race, also labored under the "double burden" of responsibilities on the job and at home, made all the more difficult by wartime shortages of goods, transportation, childcare and housing. Women defense workers in the Bay Area were more often married than single, and the largest shipyards estimated that up to half of their female workforce had children at home. Most defense plants ran around the clock, and many women worked a six-day week, leaving little time to manage the myriad duties of home and family in their meager "off" hours. For the thousands of women who migrated to the Pacific Coast states, securing adequate housing in West Coast boomtowns was a particularly difficult aspect of an already taxing new life. While much of a woman's overburdened daily life went unremarked, aspects of her duties were rephrased as weapons of the war effort. A woman's patriotic role came to encompass much of her waking activity, from the victory garden she tended, to the meals she planned to keep her family fit. Rationing of foods and necessary household goods made daily housework more arduous, while shopping for meals and clothing took on the air of a strategic campaign as women swapped ration coupons and carefully timed their purchases.

Although "Rosie the Riveter," outfitted in overalls and wielding industrial tools in a defense plant, was the most popular icon of the feminine home front, women's contributions toward allied victory were defined far more broadly than welding ships or riveting bombers. Women drove cabs and delivered mail, they refurbished railroad cars to carry troops and charted the positions of enemy aircraft. Bay Area women also volunteered to support the war effort through a variety of activities and organizations. They worked on war bond drives and "manned" civil defense programs. They promoted community health programs through the Red Cross and entertained troops at Canteens in public buildings that were rededicated to the war effort, such as San Francisco�s Ferry Building and the Native Son�s Hall. Hollywood stars like Lena Horne sang for Richmond shipyard workers and the Andrews Sisters entertained soldiers recovering at Oak Knoll Hospital. Female staff at the Berkeley Public Library collected and mailed 11,000 books to servicemen as part of the 1941 national "Victory Book Campaign."

Existing women�s organizations like the YWCA regrouped their efforts in support of home front mobilization; Oakland�s downtown �Y� converted part if its handsome facility into dormitories for service women passing through town, and offered an array of programs including dances for servicemen, forums on "Women in War Production," and Red Cross first aid classes. Newly-formed organizations such as American Women's Voluntary Service enlisted members to drive ambulances, organize mobile kitchens, administer first aid, watch fires and sell war bonds. While work in defense factories was granted higher patriotic status, women's role in boosting morale and organizing communities to cope with wartime problems was deemed critical as well.

Forces in wartime drew people together and pushed them apart. Enormous emphasis was put on preserving and strengthening family bonds as a refuge from and bolster to the strains of wartime. Yet, at the same time, the war disrupted traditional roles within many families. Job opportunities and economic advances for women put intense strain on many Bay Area marriages. Wives and children left behind by servicemen who embarked from the Bay Area for the battlefront formed new household patterns, often incorporating grandparents or friends in similar circumstances. Women and teenage girls lived with far less scrutiny of their behavior during the war, and anxiety about female sexuality became a public concern. Females who flouted conventional morals were called "Victory Girls" or "khacky-whackies" if they were thought to be on intimate terms with enlisted men out of misguided patriotism.

Mothers and children were frequently used as symbols of what the war was being fought to protect, yet they bore the brunt of social upheaval on the home front. Bay Area schoolchildren were enthusiastically enlisted into wartime activities, such as collecting scrap and buying Victory Stamps, but they were also identified as particularly vulnerable victims of wartime social changes. Outcry over "eight-hour orphans" accompanied the remarkable development of Federal-local partnerships to provide daycare for the first time to large numbers of working women. Communities and businesses, like Richmond's Kaiser Shipyards, took advantage of Federal Lanham Act funding to develop groundbreaking childcare programs.

Although popular accounts stress the common bonds holding together those who fought the "good war," the home front was also a place of struggle and conflict. Women faced and fought discriminatory barriers, such as exclusion from workplace unions, even as new opportunities were presented to them. Women of color were met with added discrimination and the incongruity of supporting a war "in defense of freedom" when their own civic freedoms were circumscribed on a daily basis. Japanese American women shared with their husbands, fathers and brothers the wrenching experience of economic loss and of being uprooted from Bay Area communities against their will when forced into relocation camps; yet they shared with other home front women the responsibility of sustaining a nourishing family life under adverse circumstances (for more information see our Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan on The War Relocation Centers of World War II). Sympathetic women in Berkeley and San Francisco founded efforts to support those interned and bring the conditions in which they lived to public attention. Their work was labeled "unpatriotic" by some, as were women activists in Bay Area pacifist organizations.

As the war wound down, public policy and rhetoric reversed support for women's participation in the labor force. Women, especially women of color, were the first let go by defense plants as government contracts shut down. Arguments against female employment reached a deafening pitch as government, labor unions and businesses worked to grant returning vets priority status and to return gender and familial roles to their prewar "norm." Yet, while many women welcomed the renewed emphasis on their central role in the family, others were not so eager to reclaim domestic responsibilities and prewar conditions. A survey by the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau found that 70 percent of Bay Area women wanted to keep their jobs when peace prevailed, and although one-fifth of working women were their family breadwinners, most found themselves unemployed. The greater independence and opportunities women found during wartime, and increased civil rights envisioned by people of color, meant that the social landscape of the West would never be the same. Women, both migrant and native to the Pacific Coast, did not just "live through" this transformative period, but helped to shape the events and the dramatic changes that left an indelible imprint on the West Coast.

Essay by Donna Graves. Graves is an historian and cultural planner based in Berkeley. She served as Project Director for the Rosie the Riveter Memorial.


When war broke out in the Pacific, the San Francisco Bay Area quickly assumed a prominent role in America's "Arsenal of Democracy." Older coastal batteries, airfields and military posts were supplemented by a network of hastily constructed barracks, warehouses and staging facilities stretching from Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg to Fort Cronkhite in Marin County. New shipyards were built in Richmond and Sausalito and existing yards were expanded in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda. Bay Area cities were unprepared for the massive influx of laborers needed to run factories and shipyards. The rapid migration of workers severely taxed housing, education and other services. And because they were scattered around the bay, getting workers to and from shipyards tremendously strained transportation systems, with Richmond, Vallejo and Alameda among the hardest hit.

The mammoth mobilization and production effort caused profound social changes and land use impacts that still affect us today. The Bay Area is rich in historic districts, sites, buildings and structures that chronicle the region's transformation, ranging from dry docks, cranes and shipbuilding facilities, to coast defense batteries and ports of embarkation. Although many of these historic places have been lost over time, remnants of the region's "military-industrial machine" have been successfully adapted to serve contemporary civilian needs. With the conversion of coastal batteries to picnic areas, shipyards to subdivisions, blimp hangars to movie sets and officers' quarters to wedding venues, the Bay Area's once-mighty "Arsenal" has been pacified through preservation.

Just as Bay Area communities struggled to absorb the initial impact of wartime mobilization, many have struggled to replace thousands of jobs and find new uses for these facilities in the aftermath of base closures since 1989. Among developers, the wholesale closure of landmark military facilities--including 10 bases in the Bay Area--was considered a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to build "large-scale new housing in communities on or near the bay that were either long since built out or shut off from new growth." 1

Multi-billion dollar projects are underway at former military installations throughout the Bay Area, including Hamilton Field, Alameda Naval Air Station and Mare Island Naval Shipyard. Other projects in the pipeline include Treasure Island, hailed as "San Francisco's next neighborhood," 2 and Hunters Point Shipyard, promising to deliver "jobs, homes and opportunity."3 More accustomed to plotting subdivisions on undeveloped land than building in dense urban settings, base reuse developers are sometimes reluctant to invest the time and money needed to come up with creative solutions for reusing "obsolete" infrastructure. All too often, historic places are sacrificed in the name of expediency.

Among local government officials and base reuse developers, historic places are alternatively viewed as a marketing tool and a key to revitalization or a deterrent to economic reuse. Bus placards advertising Bayport Alameda, "a new community that celebrates the heritage of Alameda," lure prospective buyers with a vintage photo of a Pan Am Clipper and the tagline: "Alameda was once home port for the China Clipper flights. Come see what has just landed."4 The website for Lennar Mare Island states that "preservation of Mare Island's historic resources [is] an integral part of the reuse plan,"5 although long-term plans call for substantial demolition in the island's historic district.6 Citing the need to eliminate "visual blight," all 22 buildings in the Oakland Army Base Historic District will be bulldozed for construction of a suburban-style office park.7

Hamilton Army Air Field (Novato)
Once known as the "country club of military bases" because of its climate, location and numeorus amenities, Novato's Hamilton Field was a major hub for coast defense patrols and air traffic to and from the Pacific throughout World War II. On the eve of the war, the air base looked more like a modern residential suburb of Spanish California homes than the army's command center for aviation in Northern California. Today it is a modern residential suburb, with stucco architecture from the 1930s interspersed with an "eclectic collection of stylish homes" built over the last decade.8

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