My mother’s life-long love of photos must have begun the day she was born. Her father (Grampie Robinson) worked for local photographer Minnie Libby, who constantly used him and his family as subjects when making lighting and setting adjustments. As a result my brothers and sisters and I grew up with an amazing amount of family and historical photos. We spent many an evening looking at “old” photos and listening to mom share the stories behind them.

When Mom passed away in May of 2014 my siblings and I knew one of the most difficult tasks would be sorting through literally thousands of photos. It brought lots of smiles and laughter, and tears, too. A couple of the photos were very familiar and led to the following story. They were taken in the early 1940’s when several of my family worked at the shipyard in Portland. One of them had appeared in a newspaper long ago and mom had saved the faded, dog-eared copy in amongst a zillion other clippings. The photo showed a bus load of local men headed for work at the Portland Shipyard, but the thing that made it special was who was in it. On the very left was my mom’s dad, Grampie Robinson; then just to his right was my very young dad, probably between 19-24 years old. To the right and back a seat or so was my dad’s father, Grampa Record. Our grandparents played a big part in our growing-up years so this picture was special indeed. We made sure we each had a copy and moved on with our sorting.

Time passed and my daughter, Deanna came home for a visit. While here, she took her partner, Adam, who had never been to Maine on a tour of the Portland area. She called me mid-way through their journey with a query. “Mom, is it possible there’s a photo of Grampa (my dad) on a billboard near a lighthouse?” To which I replied “Where are you?”. She continued “Umm, it’s near Bug Light”. I thought fast. “What’s the photo about?” She hesitated a few seconds, and then said “It looks like a bunch of men on a bus, and it says something about the shipyard…” I carefully asked “Is there a man on the left reading a paper?’. “Yup” she said. Very excited, I quickly answered her “Not only is that Grampa , but both of your great-grandfathers are in the photo, too!” I explained what little I knew and we said good-bye but I promised myself I would go visit the site.

Time passed and as 2020 rolled around COVID-19 hit and I still hadn’t made it there. So I began to do some online research. It turned out my goal wasn’t Bug Light Park but more specifically the Liberty Ship Memorial which is located within the park. Early this fall I contacted the South Portland Historical Society to share my story and ask questions. I discovered the Liberty Ship Memorial was an open-air memorial which could be accessed anytime and was definitely open to the public (masks required, of course). I also discovered the men in “my” photo remained nameless to them and they were excited to put names with the faces of even a few. This may be why my dad passed away in 2013 without ever knowing the memorial existed.

A month or so ago I finally made it to the Liberty Ship Memorial and it turned out to be so much more than I had even hoped or expected. There, in photos and words, an amazing story unfolds. The shipyard covered 140 acres of waterfront and included over 60 buildings. It had the capacity to build up to 13 ships at one time. Between the years of 1941-1945, the South Portland Shipyards built 236 Liberty Ships. These ships contributed greatly to the Allied victory in WWII. The Liberty Ship Memorial, designed by Renner and Woodworth, is a “scaled-back skeletal sculpture of a Liberty Ship. It’s about 35’ tall and 65’ long”. The memorial is oriented facing the bay, bow out, the same way the ships were launched.

There are three large, double-sided info boards and on these the shipyard story comes alive. They contain the following pieces; South Portland and It’s Liberty Ships, The Yard, Voyages to Victory, World War II on the Homefront, The Workforce, The Ugly Ducklings and South Portland’s Ships of Liberty. It was on The Workforce info board I found what I had come seeking. The photo of my dad and both of my beloved grandfathers was so clear and real that it felt like I could reach out and touch them. I knew that Aunt Ruth, my dad’s sister was also somewhere on that bus out of sight because she worked at the yard and sometimes drove the bus. I texted some photos and a message to all six of my brothers and sisters to let them know about memorial and headed for home. For the first time I began to wonder what each of them had done for work and determined to try to find out.

On October 22 my dad’s youngest brother and the last of eight children turned 95. I called Uncle Ed to tell him about the memorial and ask a few questions. It turns out my Aunt Ruth was a welder, or as they were called at the shipyard, Wendy the Welders. Grampa Record was born in 1880, so was in his 60’s at the time and was called “a clean-up man”. Uncle Ed couldn’t remember what dad did, but a later conversation with my oldest brother, Lloyd, gave me a clue. He seems to remember dad telling him he painted the tight areas in the ship. If so, it must have been a tough job for dad, who had suffered from severe asthma from early childhood. I still don’t know what Grampa Robinson did but I’m hoping there’s still someone out there who can tell me. My younger son reminds me very much of him, right down to being a “tinkerer” so it would be another piece of his history.

My story of the old photo has now come full circle. It started with a photo in the newspaper and now it’s there again. My mother wrote on the back of the photo that another of the men was Henry Kahkonen, a friend of our family and Uncle Ed added Willis Parson’s name to the list. If you recognize any of the men from the Paris area in the photo, please contact Kathryn DiPhilippo, Executive Director/Curator at the South Portland Historical Society. If you had a family member who “worked at the shipyard” or want to learn more, visit this remarkable monument to the unsung home-town heroes of World War II. You’ll come away a much wiser person.

…and from all our hearts this Veteran’s Day – Thank you so very much for your service.

 

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