405. Who Built This Ship?

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Intrepid was built at Newport News shipyard in Virginia at a time of wartime mobilization. Learn how Americans answered the call at shipyards across the country.

Video: Who Built This Ship

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Collection Connection

Black and white photograph of two light-skinned women facing each other in front of USS Intrepid and a crowd of shipyard workers, both men and women. The woman on the left is a riveter in work clothes and cap holding up large work gloves. The woman on the right is wearing a blazer with a large corsage, white gloves and a fancy hat.
Mrs. John H. Hoover Speaking to Miss Berline F. Cashwell

Intrepid was christened by Helen Hoover, wife of Vice Admiral John Hoover, on April 23, 1943. In this photograph, Hoover speaks with Berline Cashwell, a riveter at the Newport News shipyard. Cashwell was one of thousands of women who took on work in male-dominated roles like riveting, welding and electrical work. Male executives at the shipyard were reluctant to hire women into these jobs, but wartime labor shortages forced their hand. Women at shipyards across the country were essential to building the world’s largest navy.

Collection of the Intrepid Museum. Gift of Mrs. William H. Hoover. P2009.13.11

Learn More: Newport News During WWII

From 1941 to 1945, Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company built 49 vessels for the U.S. Navy, including USS Intrepid. To accomplish such a feat, the shipyard hired and trained more than 20,000 new workers. Most new hires went through only four to six weeks of training, far less than the traditional four years for shipyard apprentices. 

Despite labor shortages, shipyard executives hesitated to hire women outside of clerical roles. Growing wartime demand compelled them to reconsider. Women worked across the shipyard as welders, joiners, crane operators and more.

The hiring boom at Newport News shipyard and activity at the local naval base put strain on regional infrastructure. Racial segregation exacerbated these problems. Virginia, like many Southern states, prohibited Black people from using the same public facilities as white people. Building segregated schools, hospitals and housing strained budgets and left Black residents and workers with overcrowded or inferior public spaces. 

War creates boom and bust cycles for defense industries. When the war ended, so did the Navy’s urgent need for ships. The shipyard laid off thousands of workers. Some left the area, but many remained, hoping to return to shipyard work or find employment in another field. Today, Newport News shipyard continues to build aircraft carriers for the Navy.  

The shipbuilding industry in the United States has changed significantly since World War II. By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy had over 6,000 ships in commission. To build this massive fleet, the Navy primarily relied on eight Navy shipyards and 28 private shipyards for the construction of major combat ships. Many other shipyards also supported the war effort, building smaller ships or merchant vessels. 

After the war, the Navy no longer needed such a large fleet. Today, the U.S. Navy has fewer than 300 ships. The Navy operates four public shipyards, located in Maine, Virginia, Washington and Hawaii. A handful of private shipyards—including Intrepid’s home shipyard, Newport News—and suppliers also support the Navy’s specialized construction needs. 

Shipyards still employ welders, pipefitters and electricians, similar to the World War II workforce. However, today’s fleet is far more technologically advanced. For instance, naval vessels incorporate many computerized systems, and some have nuclear propulsion plants. The Navy is also developing unmanned ships. These require new technologies and skill sets that would have been difficult to imagine back when Intrepid was commissioned in 1943.


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