“Rose Doyle Keefe.” The petite thirty-two-year-old lifted the lapel of her tan wool coat to display the badge that identified her as an employee of the Pushey Shipyard Corporation, Brooklyn.
The uniformed military guard nodded absently as his eyes traced the outline of her coat lapel and came to rest on the open neck of the dark blue canvas coveralls she wore beneath it.
. Rose Keefe,” she amended.
The guard hastily returned his gaze to the badge, scribbled something on a large clipboard, and, without making eye contact, nodded Rosie's admittance.
Stepping from the cobblestones of Beard Street through the doorway of the nineteenth-century red brick building, Rosie followed the sound of male voices to the massive, windowless holding area. There, by the dim glow of the factory lights, foremen issued the day's directives and workers waited for the horn blast that signaled the end of one shift and the start of the next.
Rosie stood in the back of the room with the other female employees. Although the still predominantly male staff of Pushey Shipyard understood that the draft was making young male workers increasingly scarce, they refused to take the new, and decidedly temporary, female hires seriously. Shipbuilding was hard, dirty work and no one of the weaker sex could ever excel at it; to infer otherwise was an insult to the profession.
Fearful that cheap women's labor would replace them or lower their wages, and resentful of the special labor laws that afforded women longer rest periods and newer washroom facilities, even the most decent of men harbored some mistrust or animosity toward the new recruits.
And so, instead of chatting with each other like coworkers, the two genders remained separate. The women huddled together at the back of the room, watching silently as the men told jokes, discussed their families, and regaled each other with tales of their latest sexual conquests.
Even amid the din of boisterous male conversations, one voice rose far above the others, that of self-appointed political pundit Tony Del Vecchio. “Did you hear Roosevelt on the radio last night? Now he's breaking the army into three different groupsâone for air, one for land, and one for supplies. It's like tirty tree all over again with one bunch of people doing this, another bunch of people doing that, and no one getting anything done. Next thing you know, he'll be giving them letters of the alphabet, like WPA, NRA, NLRA ... Jeez, if the guy worried half as much about killing Nips and Krauts as he does about naming things, the war could be over before the year is out.”
Michael Delaney, a familiar face from Rosie's childhood, nodded his head in agreement. “You said it, Tony. The
burned in the harbor just two month ago and they still haven't figured out who did it. For all we know, it could have been a Nazi. The whole city could be crawling with them, but all FDR cares about is housekeeping. If you ask me, we New Yorkers have to take matters into our own hands.”
“Yep,” Del Vecchio concurred. “Though my old lady could learn something from Roosevelt. If she did half as good a job at putting things in order, I'd be a happy man.” Delaney chuckled in commiseration.
Rosie, meanwhile, shook her head in silence. The only “old lady” in Delaney's life was his elderly, ailing mother. Barring a minor miracleânamely, the demise of every other man on the planetâthat situation was not likely to change anytime soon.
Rail thin and ratlike in countenance, Michael Delaney did not possess the genetic traits that most women considered “swoon worthy.” On the contrary, his wiry black hair, deep-set eyes, and rather prominent nose had, since childhood, garnered negative attention from both sexes, often earning him such unflattering nicknames as “Ichabod” or “Crow.”
Such ridicule might have caused a less determined or less clever child innumerable problems. But Michael Declan Delaney was a master of self-preservation. Adopting the policy of “If you can't lick 'em, join 'em,” Delaney learned at an early age that he could ward off potential tormenters by befriending the loudest, biggest, and dumbest kid in St. Cecilia's schoolyard. Due to relocation, rising uniform expenses, and growth spurts, the identity of that “kid” changed from year to year, but Delaney's skill at playing the faithful lackey never wavered. Given his current friendship with Tony Del Vecchio, it still hadn't.
“Now Frankie-Boyâoh, excuse me: âMr. President' âis saying the
might have been an accident,” Del Vecchio continued as the men, now silent, gathered around him and Delaney, their insulated work jackets engulfing the two men in a sea of blue. The women, meanwhile, remained clustered in the back of the room; however, they listened and watched with rapt attention. “Accident? You and I were both there, right, Delaney?”
Delaney nodded his head in earnest. “Sure were.”
Again Rosie silently shook her head. Tony Del Vecchio could claim to have kissed both Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable in the same night and Delaney would swear it was true.
“We both saw it, didn't we? First the black smoke, thicker than anything I've ever seen.”
“Everyone saw the smoke, Del Vecchio,” finally Rosie piped up, causing all eyes to turn toward her. “It covered most of Manhattan.”
“Yeah, but not everyone saw the boat go over, did they?” Del Vecchio challenged. “It was the middle of the night, but we saw it, Delaney and me. The fire was out by then, but all of a sudden the thing lurched to the port side and kept on going. I've worked on the docks all my life and I ain't never seen a ship do that.”
“Me neither,” Delaney said.
“The minute we saw it, we both said that it was no accident. Nope. No way that was an accident,” Del Vecchio repeated, much to the delight of his audience. “Mark my words: someone sabotaged that ship. That's why the fire hoses didn't work. Someone cut the hoses so that the fire would be out of control by the time anyone could get there.”
“Nazis,” Delaney said. “Had to be.”
“Of course it was Nazis. You can see their U-boats from Rockaway or Jones Beach.”
“The Jersey shore, too,” a man remarked from the crowd. “My sister has a place down there.”
Delaney again nodded, this time with arrogance. “What the hell is the navy doing letting the Krauts get that close? How many ships have to burn before ol' FDR takes notice and does something other than housekeeping?”
“Housekeeping,” Del Vecchio muttered. “Only thing reorganizing the military does is makes it impossible to find anyone. I got a cousin who signed up for the army and he thinks they might move him to the air force. Do you know where your kid brother's gonna wind up, Delaney?”
“Nah. I don't think they've told anyone for sure yet. But then again, with my brother you never know.” Delaney looked in Rosie's direction. “How about you? You know where your husband's gonna be?”
Billy Keefe had been the bane of Michael Delaney's existence ever since their school years. Handsome, charming, and a consummate liar, Billy excelled at everything Delaney didn't, including winning Rosie's heart.
Reluctant to discuss her absent husband and possibly reignite a childhood rivalry, Rosie feigned deafness.
Delaney, however, was his indefatigable self. “Say, Rosie,” he persisted. “Rosie. Doyle ... I mean, Keefe. Rosie Keefe!”
His voice, combined with the stares of her coworkers, proved impossible to ignore.
She leveled a stare at Delaney that was far blacker than the smoke of the
“Hi ... Rosie,” Delaney grinned nervously. “Say, do you know where your husband's gonna be when they split up the army?”
Like spectators at a tennis match, the seventy-odd employees of Pushey Shipyard turned their attention to Delaney and then back to Rosie, who stood, arms folded across her chest, at the back of the room.
“No,” she answered flatly. “I haven't heard from him.”
“What?” Delaney put a hand to his ear.
“I don't know,” Rosie repeated in a voice just softer than a shout. “I haven't heard from him.”
The crowd again turned to Delaney.
He nodded. “Yeah, the mail is slow in coming. Driving my ma nuts. How long's it been since your last letter?”
Volley. Back to Keefe.
Rosie drew a deep breath. “I ... umm ... I haven't had a letter. Or a phone call,” she added.
“Huh? You saying you haven't heard from your husband since he was called for service?”
Rosie gazed at the faces staring back at her. She wanted to run, hide, bury her head in the ground, but she knew that doing so would cause her to lose her job. “Michael Delaney, your mother is friends with my mother. You know darn well Billy wasn't drafted. He enlisted.”
This time all eyes remained focused on Rosie.
“How long ago was that?”
Rosie scratched her head through the dark blue kerchief that covered her auburn hair and avoided all eye contact lest she break into tears. “Let's see ... when did we declare war on Japan?”
“Before Christmas?” Delaney replied incredulously. “Jeez, I had no idea... . That was over four months ago.”
Four months, six days, and eleven hours
, Rosie thought. Outwardly, however, her response was one of carefree nonchalance. “Over four months? Really? I'd lost track.”
“Hey, did you say your husband's name was Billy?” Del Vecchio spoke up. “As in Billy Keefe?”
“Yes,” Rosie answered. “Why?”
Del Vecchio convulsed with laughter, his rounded abdomen quivering violently beneath his gray cotton overalls. “The Billy Keefe I know couldn't hold a steady job, let alone make it in the army. Every time I see the guy, he's tying one on with a good-looking dame. Last time it was a tall, cool blonde. The time before that, it was a cute brunette. That's why you haven't heard from him. He's probably shacked up somewhere with some broad.”
As the crowd gawked and whispered, Rosie felt the color drain from her face. She had always suspected that Billy stepped out with other women; so long as those suspicions remained unfounded, it was easy to push them aside and focus on the daily business of living. But now, here she was, surrounded by coworkers she had known for less than a week, listening to this odious troll of a man laugh as he confirmed her worst fears.
“Come on, Tony,” Delaney chided in an uncharacteristic display of backbone. “You don't have toâ”
“It's okay, Delaney,” Rosie interrupted. “I'm sure Del Vecchio has my husband confused with someone else.”
“I don't think so. This guy's five foot nine, light brown hair, and has a big mouth.”
“That describes a lot of men,” Rosie argued.
“Yeah, but not all of them hang out at The Cannery Bar on Court Street,” Del Vecchio countered. “That's where your Billy liked to go before he âenlisted,' right?”
“I ... I don't know where he used to go in the evenings,” Rosie stammered.
“This guy probably never worked any job longer than two weeks either. Ring any bells?”
Rosie had no time to confirm or deny the statement. Bob Finch, the shift foreman, stepped to the front of the room to announce the day's work assignments. “Miller ... Jones ... Murphy ... machine shop. Drummond ... Gaikowski ... Phillips ... Snyder ... Wallace ... graving plate. Nelson ... Scarlatti ... you'll be in the belly of the beast. Owen ... you'll assist them.”
“Mr. Finch,” a Negro woman called from the rear of the room. “I thought I was assisting at the bottom of the ship.”
“You know the rules, Jackson,” Finch admonished. “You have to weigh less than 120 pounds to be let down there.”
“But Iâ” Jackson began to argue.
“You heard what I said, sweetheart. Cut back on the meatloaf sandwiches, fried chicken, or whatever you people eat, and then we'll talk.”
Rosie felt her blood boil. Although she had grown up in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood in Greenpoint, childhood visits to a grandmother in the Bronx had introduced Rosie to people of different races and religions, many of whom helped to look after her grandmother when her health began to fail. It was a life lesson to take people one at a time, instead of as a group.
As Jackson, eyes wide and blinking back tears, shrank back into the crowd in stunned silence, Finch continued the morning's announcements with the cool reserve of a military sharpshooter. “Hansen, Heater ... Keefe, Passer ... Delaney, Bucker ... Del Vecchio, Riveter. Gang one, Pier number two.”
A “riveting gang,” as it was called, consisted of four members: heater, passer, bucker, and riveter, each of whom played a vital role.
At the beginning of the workday, each gang would be dispatched to their section of the ship. There, a safe distance from the ship's exterior, the heater would lay wooden planks across a couple of steel beams placed on the ground, thus making a platform for the portable, gas-burning forge in which he would heat the rivets. While the heater brought the forge to temperature, the three other gang members scaled the scaffold and laid planking along the area where they were going to work. Once they were firmly ensconced on the planking, the bucker and passer would drop a rope scaffold bearing the riveter into the ship and lower it until it was level with the exterior platform. Comprised of three two-by-ten planks, this rope scaffold provided just enough space for the riveter and his tools.