Homefront Veterans Archive

South Portland Shipyard Oral History Project: Homefront Veterans & Liberty Ships

Ferry Village in South Portland was a quiet fishing village before WWII.  There were local shops, a church, a movie theater and a cannery.  Many families made their living on the water or worked directly in their neighborhood.  When the war broke out in Europe, a shipyard was constructed in Ferry Village to build 30 Ocean Class merchant vessels for the British.  This shipyard displaced homes that had housed families for generations, but many felt that world security was at stake and very few people protested this issue.  Plus, the good paying industrial jobs were welcome after the Great Depression.  Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 and the U.S. entered the war.  Once the thirty British ships were completed, the shipyard was turned over the American Maritime Commission and a second yard was built to build merchant ships to transport goods and supplies to Europe.  Nearly 30,000 people worked at the South Portland shipyards and 3,700 of those workers were women.  People came from all over the state and New England to work in the yards.  The result was housing shortages and a sudden spike in population for Portland, South Portland and the surrounding towns.

The Homefront Veterans Oral History Project documentary series

WMPG-FM and Portland Harbor Museum interviewed 35 people who worked at the Liberty shipyards in South Portland during WWII.  From those interviews, we created a five-part documentary series of stories about the workers and their lives during the war.  This series was produced by Stephanie Philbrick.

Episode 1: This segment is an introduction to the New England Shipbuilding Corporation.  Former workers talk about the first months building Liberty ships during WWII and former residents of Ferry Village remember what the neighborhood was like before the shipyards.

Episode 2: We look back at WWII as a very patriotic time and it was.  But, the big incentive to work at the shipyards was the good paying jobs.  Workers talk about the good wages and how having money affected their lives after the Great Depression.

Episode 3:  3700 women worked at the South Portland shipyards during WWII.  This episode looks at what it was like for women to take on jobs as welders, riveters and crane operators.

Episode 4:  There were two yards in South Portland.  Known as the East Yard and theWest Yard, the two shipyards employed nearly 30,000 people between 1941 and 1945.  Former workers talk about the differences in the two yards and about the types of work it took to build the Liberty ships.

Episode 5:  The jobs at the Liberty shipyards were heavy industrial jobs.  The working conditions could be extreme working outside in all kinds of weather and facing the real dangers that come from working in industrial situations.  Former workers talk about the conditions at the South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation.

Extra audio clips

There were so many great stories from these interviews.  We couldn’t use them all in the series, but we’ve included a few of the extras here.  (LINK TO Extra clips coming soon)

A heartfelt thank you goes out the following people who share their stories with us for this project:

Gus Barber
Earl Bennett
Ralph Bonville
Doris Burney
Ernest Jim Darling
Nicholas Davis
William DeCosta
Mary Derrig
Rita Desilets
John Deveau
Lloyd Doughty
Franklin Emery
Charles French
Alexander Frustaci
Marshall Jack Gibson
Mabel Belle Graney
Earl Howard
Gertrude Jordan
Henrietta Hentie LaRou
Malcolm Lyons
Robert McKenney
Lawrence Nickerson
Lucille Nutt
Jean Robbins
Frank Rodway
Parker Savage
Clifford Smith
Ralph Smith
Gloria Stover
Raymond Verrier
Esther Walker
Raymond Weed
Gordon Windle
Paul Zdanowicz

WMPG and Portland Harbor Museum received a federal grant to conduct 35 interviews with WWII shipyard workers and former residents in the Ferry Village neighborhood where the shipyards once stood.  The project is funded by a 2005 Partnerships for a Nation of Learners grant, jointly funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  For a description of our project see below.

Working in cooperation, WMPG and PHM recorded interviews with the Homefront Veterans who built Liberty Ships for the WWII effort and with area residents who found their neighborhood overrun with shipyardworkers between 1941 and 1945.   Employment at the yards was transformative for the workers, neighbors and for all of South Portland and the Greater Portland area.  Many of these workers are in their eighties so it’s imperative that we capture these stories now.

This project is a true collaboration.  WMPG & PHM worked with two 11th grade history classes from Cape Elizabeth High School to record a number of the interviews.  Students learned interviewing skills and interviewed former workers about their experiences during WWII.

We’re preserving the interviews for the future.  The interviews have been transcribed and archived in the PHM collection so that future researchers will have first-hand accounts of these stories.  Many of these workers are in their eighties so it was imperative that we capture these stories now and thanks to IMLS and the CPB, we did.  Further support has been provided by The Shipyard Brewing Company.

Our project description.  2005 Partnership for a Nation of Learners Community Collaboration Grants .  The Portland Harbor Museum in South Portland, Maine, and community radio station WMPG-FM collaborated to document one of World War II’s untold stories — the New England Shipbuilding Corporation, which produced 236 Liberty ships for the U.S. Emergency Shipbuilding Program during World War II. The collaboration produced a radio program that will air in five ten-minute segments in early December, 2006, and a traveling kiosk exhibit for use by libraries and other community organizations. The radio program included interviews of former shipyard workers, many of which will be conducted by high school students, forming the basis for an intergenerational community learning experience. The interviews will be preserved at the museum where they will complement the museum’s existing collection of shipyard documents and artifacts.

For more information:

Portland Harbor Museum: http://www.portlandharbormuseum.org/

Partnership for a Nation of Learners: http://www.partnershipforlearners.org/pnlgrants.php

Corporation for Public Broadcasting: http://www.cpb.org/

Institute for Museum & Library Services: http://www.imls.gov/

Congressman Tom Allen’s press release about the grant: http://tomallen.house.gov/showart.asp?contentID=1724&IssueID=1&ID=

Senator Susan Collin’s press release about the grant:  http://collins.senate.gov/public/continue.cfm?FuseAction=PressRoom.PressReleases&ContentRecord_id=4F3AA122-802A-23AD-4B3F-BAD769708306