The only clue to Jean Robbins’ past hung discreetly on cupboard knob in her kitchen: a potholder depicting World War II’s feminine ideal, Rosie the Riveter.

Robbins, now 86, was one of millions of women who replaced men in the work force when it was drained during World War II. During the war, Robbins worked in the South Portland shipyard as a welder, building the Liberty Ships that brought troops and supplies across the Pacific Ocean to the European war zone. Robbins’ story, along with 39 others, is being documented by Portland Harbor Museum for a radio show on Portland community radio station, WMPG, in December.

With a $41,000 federal grant from the Partnership for a Nation of Learners, the museum is collecting stories to recreate the life of the shipyard, which built 274 liberty ships, each of them 441 feet long, in the early 1940s. American history juniors at Cape Elizabeth High School are helping conduct interviews of 35 people connected to the shipyard.

Stephanie Philbrick of WMPG radio and the Cape students will interview everybody from a cop who patrolled the shipyard neighborhood, then referred to as “Ferry Village,” to people who lived there, and even one man who lost his home to the shipyard, but was later employed by it.

Jean Robbins, one of 3,700 women who worked at the South Portland shipyard, applied for a job after she was laid off from the dry cleaning industry. It was 1943 and not difficult to get a job at the shipyard, said Robbins.

“They had to hire women. They didn’t have any men,” said Robbins.

‘A steady hand’

From 1943 until the yard closed in April 1944 Robbins was a “rosie the riveter” among millions of American women during World War II. “I was one of them and proud to be,” said Robbins.

Rosie, an image born of government propaganda, depicted women as blue collar workers in what was formerly considered men’s work. Rosie, a hallmark of World War II, inspired millions of women to leave the home and venture into the workforce to aid the men in war.

For Robbins, it was a good time. She was 22, single and living independently on Mellen Street in Portland. The welding job at the shipyard paid more than what she made at the cleaners and as a welder, she was paid not by the hour, but by the rod.

“The more rods you burned, the more money you made,” she said.

Although the prospect of working in the shipyard was at first frightening for Robbins, she soon grew confident in her skill and took pride in her work. “You had to have your weld smooth. Fortunately, I had a steady hand,” she said.

Robbins got so comfortable at the yard that she never feared her job when she took one of the ships out for a joy ride.

“I worked on it, I wanted to try it out,” she said.

Instead of clearing the deck when the last liberty ship, the Jeremiah O’Brien, was launched Robbins and a friend stayed aboard for the test cruise around Casco Bay.

“What pleased us most was the thought, ‘we got away with it,'” she said.

Although she and her friend escaped unscathed from that excursion, the ship didn’t. Rather than careening smoothly back to the pier, the O’Brien crashed into it.

Changing lives and the world

Robbins always knew her position at the shipyard was temporary. She knew the war would end at some point and the men would eventually return, which meant the end for the shipyard. This brought conflicting emotions.

“Nobody wanted to go but we wanted the war to come to an end,” she said.

Robbins is very matter of fact about her work in the yard. It was necessary and important. What she did wasn’t anything special. It was just what she and others had to do at the time. It was necessary. It was her contribution to the war effort, and it allowed her independence. However, she does believe recognition is due.

“A lot of people think, ‘so what,'” she said. “They don’t stop to think it made a change in the world.”

As a child, Robbins’ son, Nick Knights, didn’t understand the impact of his mother’s work, but age has given him perspective. Knights found the Rosie potholder in Portsmouth, N.H., and gave it to his mother as a Christmas present.

“You can put two and two together and see it’s an important part of history,” said Knights.

The youngest of the World War II Liberty Ship builders is now in their early 80s, which is why it’s crucial to document their stories now, said Hadley Schmoyer, Portland Harbor Museum Curator.

“For many it was a life changing experience,” said Schmoyer.

Jean Robbins, of South Portland, worked on the liberty ships in the South Portland shipyard in the early 1940’s. Robbinses story along with 39 others is being documented by the Portland Harbor Musuem for a radio series about the life of the shipyard. Juniors recording story of real-life ‘Rosie’

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.