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A Purpose Filled Life – The Bill White Story
Part Two – A Riveting Situation

Last week my column led you, the reader, through the beginning years of the Bill White family legacy. I ended that story by indicating that this week I was going to delve deeper into a specific two year sojourn that Bill made to the West Coast as a young man.
I am very keen to share Bill’s life story in its totality but I found that this part of his young life, spent in Vancouver in 1942/43, was just too fascinating to not explore in depth. I have tried to imagine being a fourteen year old and taking the decision he did.  It seems that while listening to the radio with his father back then, he heard the announcer issue an urgent plea for young boys to come to Vancouver. “Come to the Burrard Inlet.” the radio guy said, “we need young boys to help the rivet crews. Support the war effort.”
Bill said he had some money set aside and told his dad Fred right there and then, “I want to go Dad; I want to help the war effort.”  I mentioned last week that he bought a train ticket to the coast and showed up there with just $10 in his pocket. There he signed up with the Burrard Dry Dock Company to be part of a remarkable ship construction legacy.
And a legacy it was. Bill rolled into a situation unlike any other that has occurred in Canadian history. Initially he took work as a riveter’s helper and eventually became a heater of rivets or “cooker.” Bill said the steel heater or “coke pot” they used was about 24 inches across and 2 inches thick, stoked by air and used coke for heat. According to Bill A riveting “team” consisted of as many as seven people and included the heater, one or two passers, the catcher, the riveter, two reamers and the bucker up. Bill tells me reamers were necessary to make sure the rivet holes were just right.  The process is pretty well self explanatory, with the heater heating the rivets and the passers throwing them to the catcher who caught them in a special tapered bucket and then used tongs to place them in the hole. Then the riveter drove the rivet in and the bucker up held the rivet from the other side and flattened it as it cooled.  Heat, toss, catch, place, burp and flatten repeated hundreds of thousands of times.
A white hot rivet was not something you would want to miss catching especially when working at some height with workers below you. You had to be fast to maximize production and it sounds like Bill was one of the best as the team leaders would always want him on their crew. It is entirely possible that Bill White heated rivets using coke produced here in the Pass. It is also ironic that he would eventually return here to work in the mines to produce the same coal that may have been used to make that very coke.
The goings on in Burrard Inlet in 1941 were in fact a herculean effort to construct freighters en masse in order to replace the ones that German submarines had been taking such a terrible toll on in the Atlantic. Britain could not produce enough replacement freighters on its own and being isolated after the fall of France desperately needed to replace those hundreds of cargo ships sunk by German U-boats. She turned then to her allies, the United States and Canada, who launched a massive shipbuilding boom to help maintain the supplies and equipment needed in the European and Asian theatres of war.
The shipyard employee workforce in North Vancouver’s four shipyards exploded from a few hundred to over 28,000 in 1942 and 1943.  The men and women at the Burrard Dry Dock worked in three round-the-clock shifts producing standardized 10,000 ton merchant vessels. Just like here in the coal mines, whistles signaled shift change and passenger ferries and street cars stood ready when thousands of workers would pour out of the yards. Since many young men had joined the armed forces it was older men and younger boys like Bill that were the mainstay of the workforce.
The speed with which they produced these vessels astounded me. It took on average about a hundred days from when the keel was first laid to launch and eventual delivery. As you can imagine there was a very specialized assembly system but unlike later years when ships were assembled in prebuilt sections, these were labour-intensive piecework because the wooden cranes in the dry docks could only handle 5 tons.
Once the keel was laid and the bottom was finished the fabricated pieces cut in the plate shops were swung into position and then the process of riveting the hull would start. I can’t imagine what it would sound like throughout North Vancouver with that noisy continuous thudding going on at all hours. Each Victory ship, as they called them, required about 383,000 rivets to hold it together. The American Victory ships were welded, which made them lighter but it was a new technology back then and apparently some all-welded ships later split at the seams. So for Burrard the tried-and-true construction with rivets was simpler, more reliable and had better quality control.
The logistics of this massive assembly juggernaut were complex and required superb organization. There were large warehouse areas built adjacent to the docks that held machine and pipe shops, sheet-metal and electrical shops and steel fabricating and pattern making shops. There were huge inventories of cargo-vessel parts stockpiled nearby so that nothing would hold up that four-month production schedule. Everything was standardized and interchangeable and 95% of materials came from Canadian manufacturers including 5.64m (18 ft) in diameter propellers, 135-ton 2,500 horsepower steam reciprocating engines and Scotch marine boilers.
To keep track of this huge work force the Burrard Dry Dock Company provided each employee with a numbered brass badge. The number was used by the employee when punching in and out on time clocks. They were kept pinned on their chest or their hats and were like a security device during wartime. If you were not wearing one you were suspect because, after all, it was wartime. The irony surfaces once again here in that Bill White wore a brass tag in Vancouver and then came back here to wear yet another brass mine tag into the Mohawk Mine.
Each employee’s numbered tag was used for payroll purposes and that personal number was also used to punch in and out on time clocks. And oh what beauties these were, as you can see by the picture. There was only room for 150 numbers on each clock. Do the math on that logistic and you realize there were hundreds of them positioned at numbered gates. Try and picture if you will the lineups. Each employee had to move the lever on the clock to their number then press it and a bell would ring and record the time on paper tape inside these contraptions.
My research revealed an all-important fact in that women played a significant part of this effort. Hiring preference was given to young and single women, some of whom worked as rivet passers or finishing tasks in the electrical shops like armature-winding or small-motor assembly. But others worked as plate markers, carpenter’s helpers, derrick signalers, store helpers, hammer drivers, bolt threaders and many other positions that were usually reserved for men. When each ship was completed, custom dictated that the finished freighter be christened by a woman with a bottle of champagne across the bow.  Canadian shipyards built 354 emergency cargo ships during the war, more than half of which were built at Burrard. That’s a lot of champagne.
Another interesting note of White connectivity was revealed to me by Bill. His Uncle Lambert White, who had apparently taken training as an electrician in the Chicago Coyne Electrical College also heard the call. Bill said Lambert jumped in his 1928 Chevy Coupe and promptly drove to Vancouver to find work in the dock’s electrical shops. The ships he and Bill helped construct were built more for function than beauty.
All were painted grey and what they carried to the theaters of war was vital. According to the Museum of North Vancouver website (monova.ca), “Each ship was able to hold 6,270 tons of bacon, ham, cheese, flour and canned goods; 2,150 tons of steel bars and slabs; enough Bren-gun carriers, tanks and motorcycles to equip an infantry battalion; 1,900 tons of aircraft bombs; enough lumber and nails for 90 four-room cottages; two complete bombers; and the aluminum required to build 310 medium bomber aircraft.” Wow!
So Bill White immersed himself in this amazingly coordinated and important effort until late in 1942 when he returned home to his family in Hillcrest. Next week we will follow Bill into the mines and also retrace some of his remarkable career stories in later years.

Authors Note: In reviewing the story with me Bill told me that he came back halfway through his time there in Vancouver as his father was having life threatening surgery. Fred survived and Bill returned to Burrard but took seven Pass boys with him, all of whom got jobs at the dry docks. At 94 years of age he named all seven, first and last names. Now that’s a memory.

Riveting tools- catch bucket, air riveter, tongs, rivets

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Riveting team in action

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Bill White with Uncle Lambert Bill White archive photo

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Riveting tools- catch bucket, air riveter, tongs, rivets

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