My daddy spent the first part of the war working at a shipyard in New Orleans.
It wasn’t the famous Higgins yard, the place that Dwight Eisenhower said won World War II for us with its innovative beach-landing craft. He worked at Delta Shipbuilding on the Industrial Canal. They built cargo vessels — the famous Liberty Ships — and oil and coal carriers.
He started there shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out that his uncle was a fireman at Delta at the time. I don’t know if his uncle greased the skids (a phrase that has relevance to shipbuilding, by the way) to help him get hired. But he probably wouldn’t have needed much help anyway; defense industries were desperate for any able-bodied men and women they could find.
The rush to put inexperienced people to work had consequences. My dad once described to me how the bottom of a hull under construction would sometimes be pooled with blood because of the number of work accidents happening above.
He also remembered an early launch of one of the ships, which were put to sea by sliding the whole ship sideways down wooden rails. No one realized then that the ship would send an incredible wave crashing onto the pier next to it, where well-dressed onlookers were standing.
He said those rails — skids, really — were greased by smearing bananas along them. I don’t know if this was a way of conserving oil for the war effort, or if the bananas just happened to be handy because there were so many of them being shipped into New Orleans then. There was an unintended consequence, however; rats really liked those banana-smeared rails.
Memorial Day is the day we are supposed to remember those Americans who died in the service of their country. In practice, we’ve widened that to a remembrance of anyone who served in wartime. The classic-movie channel will have its annual war-film marathon; some of us may picnic or travel or barbecue; many of us will raise flags we don’t normally put up.
Even if we may have forgotten the original purpose of Memorial Day, it’s good that we’re remembering the sacrifices people made, whether or not they died making them.
We shouldn’t forget the efforts of people on the home front, either.
Though my daddy was stateside early in the war, his family was still feeling the pain of the conflict. His brother and his closest cousin were overseas. The brother of his girlfriend (later his wife and my mother) also was in uniform.
Eventually, he joined up himself, serving in the Navy in the South Pacific for the last two years of the war. There, one day, everything came full circle for him.
The island unit he was stationed with was close to running out of fuel when someone spotted a ship on the horizon. They hoped it was bringing them fuel but were disappointed when they realized that it was “only” a Liberty Ship.
But my dad told them how at Delta they had ingeniously rigged some cargo ships to carry oil. Some really smart person realized that since the enemy would target oil carriers before bothering with a cargo ship, an oil carrier that looked like a cargo ship might be able to slip through hostile waters.
And when the ship finally came in, my dad and his Navy buddies were happy to find that it was in fact an oil carrier disguised as a cargo ship that had arrived to save the day.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.