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Twin Ports shipbuilding helps war effort

When Bob Fuhrman got a call from Arcadia Publishing about writing a book about the history of shipbuilding during World War II, he knew right where to turn.

The former director of the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center called on retired history professor and center volunteer, Gerald Sandvick.

"I've done other historical work, but when I got to Duluth, I just got really interested in the history of Duluth and Superior ... and the harbor," Sandvick said. He said his academic specialty — World War II — led to a natural interest in the port.

So Sandvick got to work, researching the shipyards through a variety of local resources including the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, the University of Wisconsin-Superior, the Bong Center, the Superior Public Library, the University of Minnesota Duluth and the Duluth Public Library. He gathered the images and stories to write "Images of America: World War II Shipbuilding in Duluth and Superior."

The 126-page book highlights the shipbuilding that took place in the Twin Ports through images of the bygone era, for the war effort and merchant ships. It looks at life working — and playing — as shipyard workers during the war effort in the early- to mid-1940s.

"I was able to pull together far more photographs than could appear in the book," Sandvick said. "So I had the pleasurable experience of having a lot to choose from."

And there were some delightful surprises along the way — including images of Poplar hero and America's Ace of Aces, Maj. Richard I. Bong, flying his iconic P-38 over Butler Shipyard in Superior.

"I was really thrilled to find that one," said Sandvick, a longtime volunteer historian at the center that bares Bong's name "It so ties together our Superior hero, Dick Bong, and the P-38, so recognizable. I about fell over when I saw that — there is the shed, the Walter Butler shipyard. I thought that sort of pulled things together."

Another image captures Bong at a ship launch, and others feature the Medal of Honor recipient's wedding cake — topped with a rendition of Butler Shipyard's C1-M-A1 cargo ship.

Shipbuilding during World War II was done at eight shipyards that consolidated to five in Duluth and Superior. Those shipyards produced two types of ships designed to fight enemy submarines — 110-foot, wood-hulled subchasers and larger, steel-hulled patrol frigates built at the Butler and Globe shipyards in Superior.

Sandvick said he was surprised by the variety of ships built in the Twin Ports during the war.

In addition, there were a couple of different cargo ships, needed to bring supplies to the troops.

"Then they built a couple necessary auxiliaries I didn't know much about," Sandvick said. One was a net tender and one was called a water tender and supplied service members with water needed on the islands in the Pacific Ocean, he said.

"If you were an American soldier on an island with no ready water supply ... it reinforced to me it was such a national effort."

He said the ships that were built here didn't win the war, but they freed up the coastal shipyards that could build the bigger ships. Plus, there were the ships damaged by war that had to be repaired. After all, about 200 ships were built in the Twin Ports during World War II.

"What happen on the Great Lakes took a lot of the strain off the coastal shipyards in that respect," Sandvick said. "One thing that surprised me was the real contribution that all the workers made."

Men and women alike took up the heavy, dirty work — bonded by purpose. Numerous images in the book feature talent shows, bands and sports teams, all made up of workers in the shipyards. And it highlights the spectacular events surrounding the launching of the ships that drew celebrities like actress Anne Baxter and the Dionne quintuplets to the Twin Ports.

"Here is Wendell Willkie ... touring the Superior, Wis., shipyards, encouraging the workers — Willkie doing his bit to promote the war effort," Sandvick said of the 1940 Republican candidate for president who lost to Franklin Roosevelt. "Would we have that kind of political generosity, selflessness today — I like to think we would. ... That was a little bit of a surprise, revelation."

Sandvick, who has signed over the royalties from the book to the Bong Center, will be giving a book talk at the Bong Center at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. He plans to share images in the book, in addition to some that couldn't be published during the event.

Copies of "World War II Shipbuilding in Duluth and Superior" will be available during the event, and is available at among other booksellers.