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95 Julia and Alice Delk From Rural Life to Welding at the Charleston Navy Yard in World War II Fritz P. Hamer • • • During World War II, two sisters from South Carolina, Julia and Alice Delk, were among the thousands of women who transformed the traditionally male world of the Charleston Navy Yard (cny) “for the duration.” At its peak employment period in 1943 and 1944 the facility’s workforce had nearly five thousand women on the production line, almost 20 percent of the total employed. War industries around the nation desperately sought workers as the United States expanded and accelerated its war production for the final assault in Europe and the Pacific. In February 1942 the Department of the Navy ordered the Charleston facility and all other navy yards in the nation to recruit women for production jobs. Until Pearl Harbor, a few months before, the production line had been a male bastion, but with the advent of a national emergency, practical concerns suddenly superseded tradition. As they responded to their nation’s call, the Delk sisters found themselves in a new environment with responsibilities, challenges , and financial rewards previously unimaginable for women, especially in the South. In interviews later in life, Julia Frances Delk Webb and Alice Delk Ray recalled how working in the navy yard transformed their lives even as women transformed the navy yard.1 Julia and Alice Delk grew up in a rural environment in west-central South Carolina. They worked at the cny from spring 1944 until late 1945. The war ushered in major changes for them and their family, as it did for thousands of others like them. As war began, South Carolina was one of the poorest states in the nation, and opportunities for women who sought employment outside the home were severely limited. War work in jobs previously occupied strictly Julia (left) and Alice (right) Delk Courtesy of Alice Delk Ray, West Columbia, S.C. Julia and Alice Delk 97 by men exposed these women to many challenges and hazards they would not have encountered otherwise. The Delk sisters accepted all of this with a strong sense of adventure and duty and with few complaints. At the end of World War II, Julia and Alice Delk, similar to many women working in war-related industries in South Carolina and throughout the nation, left their jobs for domestic roles with little protest. The war had, however, produced enduring changes in gender roles in American society that were not readily apparent in the war’s immediate aftermath. Until 1942 the largest contingent of female wage earners in South Carolina was employed by the textile industry, the state’s second largest employer next to agriculture. In these jobs, concentrated in Upstate centers like Greenville, Spartanburg , and Rock Hill and further south in Columbia, Camden, and Winnsboro , many women were employed as low-level operators on spinning frames and looms and in clerical work. In all cases they were subordinate to male workers and supervisors and were paid less than their male counterparts, even when they performed similar tasks. Only white women were permitted to work in these positions. For African American women there were few opportunities outside of farm work except as domestic workers in white homes—including mill workers’ homes—or as custodial workers in the mills. The American Tobacco Factory in Charleston was highly unusual in the state for hiring black women in the industrial sector. Of its work force of about eight hundred more than half were African Americans. Teaching in the public schools was the only professional opportunity open to significant numbers of women, black or white.2 In 1941, before the United States entered the war, the only women employed at the cny were clerical staff. The rest of the growing work force consisted of approximately six thousand men employed in several different departments or shops. Many had long experience in some aspect of shipbuilding as shipfitters, pipe fitters, or in the loft or machine shops. Prospective hires were required to pass a written test; if they passed and were hired, then they would have to complete a strict apprenticeship. One male apprentice remembered that when he began work in 1941 he spent part of his week in the classroom and the rest in the machine shop, learning how to make basic parts under the watchful eye of a veteran machinist. Once the nation was at war and the navy accelerated its shipbuilding program to meet the growing wartime demands...


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