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Two For The History Book

Today’s West County Times went historical about Richmond’s rich history, covering two seemingly diverse stories that have a common thread in the City’s role in the WW II Home Front. Both stories are copied below.

First is an update on the Red Oak Victory, part of the Rosie the Riveter WW II Home Front National Historical Park, being restored by a dedicated crew of volunteers and the Richmond Museum of History. The ship, built in Richmond in 1944, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Click on Audio Slideshow: Rebirth of a Victory for a great slideshow about the Red Oak. Click on http://www.ssredoakvictory.org/calendar.htm for information about events at the red oak, including a Veteran’s Day dinner and memorial service on November 11.

The second is a move to save at least a remnant of the once thriving Japanese nurseries that once lined San Pablo Avenue along the Richmond El Cerrito border near what is now Home Depot as well as in North Richmond. How does this thread coincide with the Richmond WW II Home Front story? In 1941, some members of these same Japanese-American families were actually part of what became the Home Front, working in the Richmond shipyards, building Liberty Ships to support the allies. After Pearl Harbor, they were shipped off to internment camps, but many volunteered for military service and eventually served with distinction. One of the most poignant stories is how some of their neighbors and former competitors cared for and operated a few of the nurseries in their absence and returned them in good shape after the war.

But other nurseries were abandoned and vandalized. In an ironic twist of fate, wartime leaseholders of many of the nurseries found they could reap greater profits by renting the structures out as temporary housing to shipyard workers.

After the war, the returning internees, some who had become war heroes, struggled to successfully rebuild their businesses. Eventually, competition from low-cost flowers imported from Mexico and parts south made locally grown roses, carnations and other cut flowers uneconomical. One after another, the nurseries shut down and became big box stores and houses. The last of these were the Oishi and Sakai nurseries located near Wall Avenue and South 47th Streets.

The Historic Architecture Evaluation (Ward Hill, Architectural Historian, 2004) states:

The Richmond Japanese-American nurseries are historically significant as Nikkei (Japanese immigrant and their American-born descendants) community centered around an industry important to this ethnic group surviving from the initial wave of immigration of the 19th Century into the late 20th Century. The Sakai and Oishi properties are the only extant cut-flower nurseries begun by Japanese-Americans before WW II in the entire Bay Area and are also the last remaining of Richmond’s community of Japanese American flower growers. The properties are rare surviving Bay Area nurseries, a once prominent industry in the core Bay Area counties that has been almost entirely displaced by development pressures during the last thirty years.

The former Sakai, Oishi and Maida-Endo nursery properties are now owned by the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency and slated for residential development in a project the Agency call “Miraflores.” Unfortunately, the evocative name that recalls the property’s historical use has been the Agency’s only recognition of its history. The Agency would like to simply tear everything down. The Historic Architecture Evaluation, however, makes a modest recommendation of saving one of the homes, the (water) tank house and at least one greenhouse and providing a permanent interpretive exhibit to communicate the history. The historic ensemble could be easily and economically integrated into the new development, giving it more than just a name to recall the site’s historically significant past.

The shrillness of metal on metal blurs with a chugging air compressor and creates a cacophony that seems to reach from Richmond across San Francisco Bay to Angel Island and back.

On a ship once left for dead, 70-year-old Charles Stephens' work produces sounds and vibrations of life.

He and dozens of senior citizens, retired sailors and veterans toil to complete a nearly decade-old volunteer effort to convert the vessel to a museum in tribute to the 747 World War II ships built at Richmond's Kaiser yards.

As the years pass, it has become increasingly apparent that their race is against more than marine decay and unrelenting salt air and water. Many wonder what will come first -- their end or the end of their work.

"We have to hurry," says Lois Boyle, president of the Richmond Museum Association, the ship's owner. "These dear sweet men. They are getting feeble. If we don't get this done in the next two years, I am going to be very upset. We're losing them."

They say aboard ship that they could use a dozen more like Charles Stephens. The saying is more than a recognition of his hard, unrelenting work. It is also an acknowledgment that when he is blasting away, they all know they're still going.

Wire scrapers rip into gray paint. Paint and ship metal, some of it reduced to the size of sand grains, fall away. A broom, half its straw worn down, lies on the deck next to a white bucket half filled with grindings.

Below, in a hold where shells for the big guns of battleships once were hauled to war, scores of barrels sit filled with the remnants of Stephens' labor. And yet more thick, gray marine paint peels from the Red Oak Victory like skin from the back of a badly sunburned child.

Stephens hunkers below a thick panel on the ship's port side that blocks a cold west wind. He wears sky-blue coveralls, heavy work gloves, a mask over his nose and mouth. His gray hair peaks out the back of a faded 49ers cap. Pink plugs are pushed deeply into his ears. Sound protectors that look like headphones cover them.

He raises himself slightly from a decrepit red stool, uses a knee to knock it a few inches to the side, and he sits again. He tugs the grinder, its red air hose suddenly lurching like a surprised serpent, and he gives it another blast.

Four or five hours at a time, two, sometimes three days a week, he climbs the Red Oak's gangplank, dons his work clothes, and reduces paint and metal to dust.

"I pour myself into this more than I should," says Stephens, a retired electrical inspector for Lockheed Martin. "I demand too much of myself."

He isn't alone.

Time growing short

One volunteer encapsulates asbestos that wraps old pipes. Another works behind Stephens, painting the scraped metal. Deep in the engine room, others crawl inside the ship's dormant boilers, preparing them to again make the steam that will turn the propeller shaft.

A few plan what they jokingly call "raiding parties" to "pillage" mothballed victory ships in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, where the Red Oak was mothballed for nearly 30 years and where the government sometimes lets them scavenge other ships for parts.

An act of Congress in 1996 that granted the Red Oak to the Richmond Museum saved the ship from scrapping. It was chosen because it was built here, and because it was thought to be in the best condition of ships available for donation.

"They won the war right here, you know," says Bruce Waygood, a 70-year old sailor from New Zealand who spends part of the year living in San Ramon so he can help in the restoration effort.

Without the vessels built in Richmond -- mostly unglamorous but vital cargo ships and troop transports -- the Allies could not have fought a two-front war, Waygood says.

The volunteers have, for years, gotten by on little money, raising most of it one pancake at a time at Sunday morning breakfasts, but they are buoyed by the recent promise of a state grant of $1.1 million -- somewhere between a third and a fifth of estimates of what is needed to make the ship seaworthy.

It will be used to pay for painting, repairs of the ship's bathrooms and work on the engines. The volunteers hope the grant also will make the ship eligible for more funds.

But while money is always a worry, time is the greatest concern. Most of their time, they know, is at the bottom of the hourglass. Money to finish their work won't matter if no one is left to do it.

The ship has been tied up in Richmond for eight years now, and still they climb aboard and go to work, and there is so much more to do.

One volunteer slipped on the wet deck and broke his hip. Another walks with a cane. A man who served on Victory ships and cooked meals for the volunteers in the Red Oak's galley, died recently.

Once a week, a husband and wife drive down from Lake County, pick up the wife's sister in San Pablo and meet two friends. The five of them work to refinish the ship's wooden doorways and bunks. They are old, and the work and the drive can tire them. After a few hours, they rest.

A lifetime aboard ship

Out on the foredeck, 88-year-old William Jackson, who spent his life at sea and carries the title of ship's engineer, watches a crew using one of the ship's booms to lift and reposition a winch that weighs several tons.

A 3-inch gun, long rendered impotent, sits nearby, its barrel pointing across the Bay. Cables and masts rise into the sky. The winch is slowly lowered as half a dozen sets of eyes watch.

Richard Gifford, whose title is boatswain and who everyone calls "Boats," stops working to shed a sweatshirt. "Too hot for you, Boats?" Jackson says loudly, smiling.

Gifford, who is lean and ruddy-faced, wears a white cap called a Beacon Street Stetson. "West Coast sailors wear white hats. You can always tell them," Jackson says.

Jackson watches the work, then leans in to speak with Dick Bezman, a retired Chevron chemist in a yellow hard hat who is attaching bolts to the winch with a large wrench.

"Make sure you put the grease on," Jackson says. "Listen to the old man and you'll learn."

Jackson entered the Merchant Marine as an Oakland High School student in the 1930s. All a black teenager could do then was work in the galley.

Then came war. He tried to enter the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but a recruiter told him the Army wasn't taking African Americans. Jackson went back to sea, determined to make a life of it.

In May 1943, a merchant ship to which he was assigned supported troops invading the Japanese-held islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian archipelago. Enemy submarines and bombers lurked nearby.

Jackson told his captain, "I ain't gonna die serving food." He was assigned to the engine room, where racist officers gave him the most menial and filthy jobs, little more than cleaning up oil on the deck.

But he learned, eventually earned an engineer's license that is still valid, and sailed the world, visiting more ports than he can remember, working aboard all sorts of ships.

In 1990, when reserve vessels were activated to haul cargo to Saudi Arabia in support of the first Gulf War, some of the ships were so old that no one knew how to run their steam engines.

Jackson's phone rang. The country that once told him he couldn't join the Army asked him to come back and make steam. At age 72, he returned to active duty in the Merchant Marine and is thought to be the only World War II veteran to serve in Operation Desert Storm.

Now, he sometimes sleeps in a refurbished cabin on the Red Oak rather than go home at night. He's endured a five-valve heart bypass operation and cancer that he says is "under arrest." He desperately wants to make the Red Oak seaworthy, to once more steam through the Golden Gate into the Pacific's grandeur and dream of the world beyond.

"I want to sail it. I figure I got maybe four years left," he says. He climbs below decks and walks slowly through the engine room, a warren of pipes, vents, pumps and grated ladders.

Jackson leans against a sign left over from the Cold War that says "atomic attack instructions." "It wouldn't take us six months to get up to steam if we had the money," he says.

First, the ship would need to go into a dry dock where its hull could be cleaned and inspected. Jackson talks with caution about all that needs to be done.

"I ain't about to get this ship flooded," he says.


Some of the less-critical, but historically important, work is finished.

Up in the radio room, Tom Horsfall, at 61 one of the younger volunteers, sits behind a massive green box with glowing tubes and dials. It took six months to restore the ship's communication system.

It picks up the bleats of Morse code sent by someone in Southern California who has encoded Bible verses and programmed a computer to broadcast them.

Horsfall, who sports a white beard that obscures most of his face, wears a blue baseball cap with sparks printed above the bill. On ships like the Red Oak, radio officers were called "Sparks" or "Sparky."

He is a self-described "ship freak" who retired from Lawrence Berkeley Lab and devoted himself to the Red Oak after volunteering on the restorations of several other vessels. He leans back in a chair. A beat-up Underwood typewriter once used to record messages that were passed on to the ship's captain sits before him.

The radio is the original issued to the ship in 1944. It was restored with a few scavenged parts. "You don't go to Radio Shack and buy this stuff," Horsfall says.

Having worked on other successful projects, like the restoration of Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien in San Francisco, Horsfall understands what is needed to finish the Red Oak.

"You have to have dreamers," he says. "And everybody has to believe in the dream."

Honoring the sailors

Among the dreamers are members of a group who call themselves the "Red Oak strippers."

Unlike most of the Victory-class ships, the Red Oak was built with wooden doors and bunks. Door by door, bunk by bunk, the "strippers" brush those doors with a gooey varnish remover that fills the narrow, dim hallways with a thick chemical stench.

They wait a few minutes, then scrape it off. All of the wood is oak, but they are quick to point out it isn't "red" oak. (The ship is named for the city of Red Oak, Iowa, which lost dozens of native sons in the North African campaign of 1942).

Marjorie Curtis Hill, whose father worked as an accountant in the Kaiser shipyards, says she thinks of all the sailors who passed through the doors that she restores. Her work, she says, "is kind of my way of honoring them."

Next to her, Ella Gralund wears a floppy white hat, a gray sweatshirt and faded jeans. Soiled yellow rubber gloves cover her hands and extend nearly to her elbows. She is working on a door above which is a sign that says "Petty Officers Shower."

It is Gralund and her husband, Hugh, who drive down from Lake County on Tuesdays. Her sister, Edith Louise Cook, joins them.

Hugh's grandfather was a Kaiser cabinetmaker. In his heart, he believes his grandfather helped make the items he restores, something he says is unverifiable.

The sisters' mother also worked in the Kaiser yards, a place to which they sense a deep kinship. To contribute to the restoration, they say, is to honor their heritage.

To a person, the volunteers speak in similar phrases. They say they carry a deep need to finish what they started, to know that one of Richmond's ships will remain here long into the future. They also acknowledge that they could use a little help.

With more money, larger tasks could be hired out, said Tom Bernard, who helps run things and carries the title of port engineer. But no one thinks, he says, that someone will just show up one day and write a check.

What Bernard really would like are "more welders. And we need metal fabricators. We need electricians. People who can wire a lamp," he says, sitting near the ship's stern on a September afternoon, bolts, boxes and chains scattered around him.

"We need a storekeeper. We have a lot of parts in buckets," he says.

Bernard is a realist and also "only" 60. He has time that he knows some of the others don't. "I worry about burning out the volunteers. I worry about people not coming back to the ship."

A new coat of paint

Among the most dedicated workers is Millie Frederick, who trails so closely to Charles Stephens that she, too, wears ear protectors. She doesn't remove paint. She applies it.

Two coats of primer, then two coats of gunmetal-gray paint covers the metal that Stephens renders bare. Frederick, 64, wears pink gloves and blue pants and a heavy work shirt.

Her brush dips into a dented coffee can and then she works it over a rail, dabbing, reaching, stroking.

She is a retired Stanislaus County court clerk, a job she took after studying at the University of Washington but running out of money.

"My father sold Pontiacs," she says. "It put food on the table. It got us through the depression. The depression toughened people up."

She prefers the Bay vistas from the Red Oak's deck to her native Wyoming, where she was the youngest of nine children. "The wide open spaces are scary, ghostly," she says, sitting at a table in the officers' mess that is covered with a red and white checkered cloth. She is itchy to get back to work.

Once the grant money arrives, some of it will be used to pay a contractor, who will finish painting the ship's exterior. But that won't mean Stephens and Frederick will be finished.

There's plenty of scraping and painting left for them to do below decks, because on an old ship, an old ship that still needs so much, there is always work.

But when people like Stephens, Frederick, Jackson and their shipmates are gone, the question is, who will do it?

Reach Thomas Peele at 925-977-8463 or tpeele@cctimes.com.

Old nurseries deemed historic
Preservation panel approves plan to ask City Council to register Japanese-American greenhouses, other sites


Posted on Sun, Oct. 29, 2006

Efforts to acknowledge the last remnants of a piece of local history got a boost earlier this month when Richmond's Historic Preservation Advisory Committee voted to recommend that the City Council put a 14-acre site along Interstate 80 on the city's register of historic resources.

The site -- slated to be redeveloped with nearly 200 units of housing -- contains greenhouses and other buildings that are all that's left of a string of family-run Japanese-American nurseries dating 100 years. They once straddled both sides of San Pablo Avenue in Richmond and El Cerrito from Potrero to Macdonald avenues.

Because of its historic status, a consultant has suggested mitigations that include retaining a small number of buildings, thoroughly documenting the 40 greenhouses and other structures, and installing a permanent interpretive exhibit on the site describing the history of the Japanese-American flower-growing industry in the area.

But the site isn't just saturated in history. The soil under the nurseries is sufficiently contaminated by years of pesticide use and underground fuel storage to qualify for an EPA Brownfields grant, and hearings on the cleanup plan for the proposed Miraflores housing development were held earlier this year.

The cleanup alone would likely limit the amount of preservation possible.

"To me, (the recommendation) seems like a reasonable thing to do," said City Councilman Tom Butt, who sits on the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee. "It would be a credit to the neighborhood and a credit to the city if they do that."

The question is whether his council colleagues feel the same way. The council has the option of accepting, rejecting or modifying the committee's advice.

The Oct. 10 recommendation from the committee was made as part of a consultant's historic architecture evaluation performed for the Miraflores development, which would bring 80 affordable apartment units and 114 single-family homes to the site bounded by Wall Avenue, South 45th Street, I-80 and BART tracks.

The project still must undergo state and federal environmental reviews, and construction would not begin until late 2008 or early 2009, project manager Natalia Lawrence said.

The site is largely hidden from view at street level, but I-80 offers a good look at the last operations of their kind. Butt was among the thousands of motorists who noticed the site from the freeway and didn't know its background.

"I had been seeing those for years and had no idea what they were," he said.

Beginning in the early 20th century, flower-growing operations founded by Japanese immigrants were common not just in El Cerrito and Richmond but in a number of cities on both sides of the Bay. The oldest locally may have been the Adachi nursery, established in 1905 where the Home Depot store in El Cerrito is today.

The consultant's report for the housing development concluded that some structures on the former Oishi and Sakai nurseries appear to meet the criteria for inclusion on both the state and national register of historic places. The oldest buildings of both nurseries date from the 1920s and are the last of their kind in the Bay Area.

The Sakai nursery started in 1906 with an initial 2.5 acres in Richmond and a single greenhouse salvaged from Berkeley. The Oishi nursery started shortly after. Both grew as more land was acquired and more buildings were added, both shut down in 1942 during the World War II relocation of Japanese, and both resumed operations when the families returned after the war. Operations continued until fairly recently.

The historic aspect has caught the attention of the local National Park Service unit, which oversees the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.

"They're very interested in it," Butt said. "They see that as an integral part of the larger home-front story."

Groups such as the El Cerrito Historical Society also have taken an interest, and the society wrote a letter supporting the preservation recommendation.

If Richmond fails to take any steps to document or preserve any of the site, said society President Tom Panas, "people are going to be saying we had rocks in our head 100 years from now. Why didn't people take pictures? Why didn't they save one of those buildings?"

The society is making the nurseries the centerpiece of its meeting today, which will discuss historic preservation. A short film by Berkeley-born filmmaker Ken Kokka, filmed in part at the Oishi-Sakai properties, will be screened.

Reach Chris Treadway at ctreadway@cctimes.com or 510-262-2784.