The writing of ‘On The Swing Shift’:
The author grew up in downtown Savannah during World War II, close enough to hear the whistles from The Southeastern Shipbuilding Corporation, and to see the lights at the yard at night from his second floor bedroom. However, the shipyard closed immediately after the war ended and, as happened with most Savannahians, years passed and those memories faded. Few remember the shipyard today – remember that during the almost four years of its existence, more than 46,000 people worked there, building cargo ships that carried weapons, ammunition, raw materials, food and troops across the Atlantic to Europe, and to the battle areas throughout the Pacific. Today, thousands drive by the site where 10,000-ton ships were built on six giant ways, where huge cranes lifted prefabricated ship parts into place, and where men and women came from all over the region to work together as part of Savannah’s defense effort. Yet those passing by now have no idea of what took place there.
The author, too, was one of those thousands, driving past the site twice a day with no thought of the huge defense plant that once dominated the riverfront until, in the early 1990’s, he was asked to Chair the local committee which would assist the national effort to create The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah. A visual presentation was needed to use in civic clubs to help create interest in the project so the author asked Archie Whitfield, the city editor of the Savannah Morning News, to include a request in his daily column for photographs of Savannah during World War II. A very nice lady, Mrs. Evelyn Finnegan, called the author and told him that she had a framed set of six photographs of her mother, Mrs. Nonnie Skinner, christening one of the Liberty ships built at the shipyard. On seeing this set of photos, which also included the ribbon with which the bottle of champagne had been wrapped, the thought occurred to Cope that something really special had taken place in Savannah during those war years – something that very few remembered.
And so began a project that has taken a number of years, but has been nonetheless fascinating.
Following leads from person to person, the author made use of taped interviews with over 120 shipyard workers, U.S. Navy armed guardsmen and merchant seamen, and dock workers on both sides of the Atlantic. Workers like welder Shorty Beasley – who was too short to become a gunner on a bomber, but who was the right size to work in the confined space of a ship’s inner bottom, Ruby Clifton, whose salary from the shipyard helped her husband start a very successful business upon his discharge from the army after the war, and Walter Simmons, a cafeteria worker who at the age of sixteen was having the time of his life driving a truck carrying food around the yard to the various canteens; seamen like Capt. Clifford Thomas who was third mate on a Savannah-built Liberty which helped to sink a U-Boat, and Andy von Dolteren who helped to build, and then shipped out on, the first Liberty launched at the shipyard. Through those interviews and the use of letters and official documents the author presents an authentic and moving account of the working conditions and lives of those who built the Liberty ships in Savannah.
Hopefully, On The Swing Shift will help others of a certain age to remember the role played by defense plants in Savannah and throughout America during World War II, and provide an opportunity for those who are too young to have been around during those war years to understand the sacrifices made by their forefathers in the struggle for victory over the Axis powers to end a war that killed millions and devastated vast areas of the world.