Onetime pulp-fiction writer Chauncey Del "Chat" French pays tribute to the men and women of the Henry Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver, who built nearly 1,500 vessels for the Allies during World War II (30 percent of total U.S. production) in two-thirds the time and at 25 percent less cost than the nation's other shipyards. French's memoir is lavishly illustrated with art, photographs and memorabilia from the period. Most prominent are the paintings of two Corvallis brothers, Albert and Arthur Runquist, artists with leftist leanings whose work was underwritten by the Depression-era Oregon Art Project. Regrettably, the Runquist style comes across as that of a high-school art student trying to emulate the Ashcan School of the early 20th century, with all of the ugliness but none of the energy that characterized that movement.
More compelling is the work of Kaiser staff photographers Louis S. Lee and C. Herald Campbell, who employ stark closeups, stunning camera angles and startling juxtapositions of men with machinery to capture the grandeur of wartime industry. Haunting, too, are the propaganda posters of Kaiser illustrator Douglas Lynch: "It a trade, shipbuilders...," taunts a skeleton in Nazi war helmet and Hitler moustache, "...you waste 1 minute, I'll take 8 more lives!" Never mind the poster's dubious math.
French, who died in 1967, writes in the terse prose style of the pulps, undercutting the romantic image of female workers as Rosie the Riveter. Instead, women in the shipyards performed the most grueling, demeaning labor-painstakingly scraping rust from finished ships and sweeping up the metal scraps, cigarette butts and sandwich wrappers left by their male counterparts. At the peak of employment in December 1943, the Vancouver yard listed almost 39,000 on its payroll-but since about 120,000 employees worked there at some time during the course of the war, that translates into turnover of well over 200 percent. Editors Lois Mack and Ted Van Arsdol, in publishing French's story more than 50 years after it was written, have created a book that succeeds admirably as memoir, if only marginally as a coffeetable art book.
By Chauncey Del French (OSU Press, 209 pages, $24.95)
Editor Lois Mack will appear at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St. 7:30 pm Wednesday, May 25. FREE