Shipyard plays important role during World War I

November 6, 2018 – November 11, 2018, marks 100 years since the armistice was signed ending World War I, known at the time as “The War to End All Wars.” The armistice also brought to an end a period of extraordinary effort at Navy Yard Puget Sound, the Navy’s Pacific Northwest ship construction and repair facility that would later come to be known as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility.

The hostilities among more than two dozen countries began in 1914 at a time when the United States was unprepared militarily and staffing and supplies were at the lowest level since the Civil War. During this period, the Army was kept at peacetime levels, but the Navy was expanded. For example, between 1914 and the end of the war, the Navy Yard Puget Sound took on a hefty workload of building, repairing and maintaining hundreds of vessels.

Public sentiment changed as the war dragged on, with President Woodrow Wilson’s reframing of the war’s purpose as “a war to make the world safe for democracy.” The president declared war on the German Empire on April 2, 1917, with Congress following suit April 6. A declaration of war against Austria-Hungary overwhelmingly passed in December. The nation then ramped up to equip the 4.7 million Americans who would serve, 2 million of whom fought overseas. All told, about 25 percent of American men between the ages of 18 and 31 served, with 116,000 of them making the ultimate sacrifice and another 200,000 wounded.

The number of people needed to support the war effort was enormous; by the summer of 1918, the U.S. was sending 10,000 men per day to France. This need ultimately led to policy changes that turned the course of history. Officer training camps were created to fill the need for military leaders, which in turn revealed that a large number of African-Americans were qualified for commissions. The African-American school established in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, graduated 639 students leading thousands of African-American enlisted men who were limited to segregated ranks and units.

In addition, shortly before war was declared, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, which led to 236,000 registering for the draft and 18,000 Puerto Ricans ultimately serving. Although most Native Americans were not considered citizens, thousands enlisted anyway, including those who became Code Talkers, using traditional languages such as Choctaw to transmit secret messages.

Women were also a vital part of the effort. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels authorized women to serve as yeoman, popularly known as “Yeomanettes” over their objections. By war’s end, more than 11,000 female yeomen, along with 1,713 female nurses and 269 Marines (Marinettes) had served. It was the first time women had the same rank, respect, pay and promotion potential as their military male counterparts. Some of the yeomen even served aboard ships, and scores of them served in the shipyard. Later as civilians, 12 went on to work at the shipyard during World War II. This groundbreaking program was implemented three years before women were granted the right to vote and blazed the trail for other women to follow in their footsteps.

At the shipyard, only six women were employed in 1917, but by the end of the war, the number had increased to 200. Women filled new positions supporting the war as well as positions previously occupied by men who had gone to war. Some of these women continued to work after the war, throughout the second World War and beyond. This included Fay Turpin, wife of John “Dick” Turpin, one of the first African American chief petty officers and master divers, and Esther Bielmeier, who is immortalized in a statue in the park outside of the PSNS & IMF Bremerton gate.

The shipyard was integral to the success of Allied forces in World War I, as it will be in future conflicts, and continues to build on its legacy of support to the nation’s warfighters.