top of page

Willmar woman was WWII welder

Work was tough but satisfying, she says  “There were lots and lots of women doing welding work on ships, it was during wartime you know.” Vivian Nelson of Willmar was one of them. “The men were off to war and women had to work and I had to make a living. I had to earn my own money.” It was in 1942 when Nelson and her oldest sister, Adeline, went to Portland with their Aunt Marie Skare, a relative of their mom’s who they lived with. “She decided to sell the farm and move to Portland so we went along. We drove all the way out there in an old car, probably a 40s car. We got out to Portland and found a place to stay.” At first they worked in a train depot where they cleaned the Pullman cars people rode in. Then Nelson started working at a drive-in called the Tick Tock where people would drive in and she’d put their trays of food on the car. “From there we decided to go to work in the shipyards for better pay.” She said they had to ride a bus to their job at the Swan Island Shipyard in Portland every day. They had special buses for the shipyard workers. Nelson worked the day shift because she was too young to work the other shift. “I was 17 years old and you had to be 18, so Marie and I would work the day shift and Adeline worked the swing shift. We got up early in the morning and ate breakfast at a restaurant because we lived in an apartment where we couldn’t do much cooking. Then we’d go to work.” The restaurant packed a lunch for them, she said, but of course they had to pay for it. They rode a bus to work but it didn’t take them all the way. “When we got off the bus we had to walk half a mile to get into the shipyards themselves.” Welding was a lot of work, she said. She went through six weeks of training at a welding school to learn how it was done before she became a welder. Nelson was one of the youngest women on her shift. The ship was huge, she said, and there were many places you could work on the big tankers. “After I got through with welding school they put me on the place where I was supposed to work. We welded pieces that would fit into the ship. Everything was new from the bottom up.” They had to wear a helmet, a leather hat, leather jacket, leather pants, leather gloves, and men’s high-top work shoes. “You had to dress like that because you could get sparks and be burned really bad.” It was very hot wearing those clothes, she said, and she did get burned a little bit on her one foot. Somebody had already been welding in that spot, Nelson said, and when she came along to do her welding, she had her foot up against the spot with the fresh weld, not realizing it was hot. “It was ‘oh, it’s starting to hurt.’ It felt pretty hot through the leather. It didn’t burn through the leather but it got hot and I had to take it off.” There were first aid stations where you could go and get some help, she said. Nelson admits the welding was hard work. They had to crawl into little holes with their entire garb on, carrying their welding rod and welding line, which was a long hose hooked to a welding machine. “You had to drag that all over and you had to crawl into this hole, get in there and strike your arc and start welding.” It got pretty smoky in those small, cramped places, she said. “The welding wasn’t always out in the open.” There were many, many parts involved in putting the ship together, she said, and there were some pretty small places they had to go into. “You’d barely get into that place and want to start welding and there wouldn’t be any spark so we had to crawl all the way out again to check to see where our lead was to make sure it was on because someone could have come along and tripped on it and unhooked it for us.” It was back and forth, back and forth, she said. “I don’t know if we got a lot of welding done some days, and then if the machine was set up too high, it would burn a hole in it and then you’d have to crawl out again and reset it until you got it just perfect, then we made a nice little weld all the way around.” It looked really nice, she said, and when it cooled off you had a little hammer and a brush along and you’d take all the scale off the weld. “We carried a little wooden box and in there were all your welding rods, your brush and your little hammer and you had to drag that with every place you went.” Nelson said she was young and didn’t mind. “Everybody was in the same predicament, but that would be a frustrating day and it happened occasionally.” They weren’t always brought into those holes to weld, she said, sometimes they’d bring them certain parts for where they were at, and when they were done they’d come with a great big overhead crane and lift them up and move them onto another place and they’d do some more work on it.” It was very educational, she said, and when she first started school she figured she’d better learn it or she wouldn’t have a job. “It was a struggle because you have to weld this way and that way, then overhead and then the sparks would fall down on you.” That’s why you wore all the leather, she said, along with the regular welding glasses that were hooked onto the hood. They had to buy their own clothes for welding, nothing was furnished, and every so often you had to put new glass in the welding hood because the sparks would hit it and leave marks so you couldn’t see to weld. “Whenever the bell would ring signaling your shift was over, we had to hurry up and get out of there because another shift was coming in.” She said they had to stand in line to get their paycheck. “I always had to make sure I had Marie with because she was scared, she made sure I was waiting for her all the time. I would never leave her you know. She was so much older, in her 60s, she had never been in public before, she’d always been a farmer.” Nelson said she didn’t think Marie did any welding but instead had housekeeping duties on the ship. “You had to sweep up a lot of junk and I think that was one of her housekeeping duties. I wanted to be a welder. They needed welders really bad so we tried it, had a go at it and we had a lot of fun, too. I worked with a bunch of older women and they’d always raz me and I didn’t care, we were just having fun.” Nelson said they were impressed with the finished product. “We got to go down and watch them launch the ship. They’d smash a bottle of champagne on it and the ship would take off down the Columbia River.” It seemed like they launched a ship every day, Nelson said, noting they’d take their noon lunch break and go watch the launching of a ship. “That was exciting.” Nelson said she worked on a tanker, and the crews worked 24 hours a day. “We had a small part on each ship.” They were paid 95 cents an hour if they worked the day shift, and $1.20 an hour if they worked the swing shift. The graveyard shift even paid more. “They took taxes out of the pay. If I worked 40 hours a week, take home pay was (Saturday’s included) $45.60 before taxes.” They worked eight hour days, and Nelson worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. “I didn’t work there very many years, I came back in 1945 and got married.” She had already met her future husband before she went to Portland. “I wanted to go out to Portland and work. We were going steady and we kept writing letters back and forth.” When she came back home she worked at the restaurant in Kerkhoven now known as Sherrie’s Café. Back then it was the Carl O. Johnson Café.  Nelson said if she was younger she’d try it again. The job taught them they better learn to take care of themselves pretty much and help others. “We were happy with what we had and thankful for what we had. Most people were in kind of tough shape – it was during the depression time, the dirt storms, and the dust storms.” It was so dry, she said, and it hadn’t rained for ages. The cattle died because there wasn’t enough food for them, but the farmers had it better than they did. She said they had to work for the WPA (Workmen’s Project Administration) and that was very poor pay. They didn’t have a car so they had to walk to Kerkhoven and Sunburg and carry home groceries. Her parents had five kids, and after she got married, life was a little easier but still tough. “We didn’t have much.” She remembers her childhood years and how they lived in a granary that wasn’t very big and at the time didn’t even have siding on the exterior. “Every day the dust would sift in on the kitchen table and the wood floor.” There was no water on the place, but there was an outdoor toilet. She said they lived there for many, many years. They slept five in a bed, three at the head and two in the feet. Her one brother slept on three chairs. It was one room, she said, with two beds, a kitchen stove, a round table, a few chairs and an old wash stand with a water pail and a dipper. “We had to carry all the water from the Kirkeboes (a neighbor) for everything, clothes washing, cooking and bathing. You didn’t take a bath but once a day, and you had to heat the water. We did that for many years. It was cold in the winter, hot in the summer.” She said they must have lived in the granary for ten years, because her younger sister, Adeline, was seven when they moved away from there. Nelson went on to say her parents were so poor, and Adeline went to live with Marie. “She grew up at Marie’s and moved with Marie. I would go and stay with her, then I’d get homesick and I’d go back home and see my little brothers and sisters – there were 12 of us in all.” She said today there are two left out of the 12. Nelson will be 85 years old, her sister, Adeline will be 89 and she lives in Washington. Nelson said her dad worked on the WPA where they had to shovel by hand and build roads. “It was a tough life for us kids. We didn’t have money. But we didn’t know it was so tough. The neighbors were good to us. I think we were about the poorest family in that neighborhood.” Nelson said if she had to do it all over again and was younger she’d definitely try it again. She enjoyed her work as a welder, even though it was a tough job.

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page