Men and Women of Steel: A Labor Day Tribute to Navy Civilians in Times of Peace and War (Photo Essay)

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It is incredibly difficult to go “full speed ahead” without a ship to sail. If it was not for the skilled hands that crafted the 8-inch barrels, Captain Charles Gridley could not fire Olympia’s guns at Manila Bay. Do sailors alone win the great victories and triumphs of our naval history? Without the help of Navy civilians, none of these historic events, now canon in naval lore, would be possible.

Civilian employees (civil servants, contractors, volunteers, etc.) are always at the crest of the newest wave of naval innovation. Along with their military counterparts, civilians dealt with the myriad changes between sailing ships, ironclads, and the steel-hulled fleet that helped win and sustain peace in our time. Like the U.S. Navy, new skills were required to build and maintain these vessels. That type of dedication is still seen today.

At the height of the Second World War, nearly 43,000 employees worked at the Norfolk Navy Shipyard. According to the NAVSEA website, workers “built 30 major vessels and repaired 6,850 U.S. and Allied ships.” Civilians also helped build 20 tank landing ships and 50 medium landing craft. One shipyard in particular, Richmond Shipyard in California, constructed nearly 800 ships throughout the war. This continuous hard and hazardous work would make Henry Ford blush several times over. It was also a time when women could pick up a rivet gun and contribute to the war effort, thereby showing their true worth and capability to the rest of the world.

This hard work and dedication extends far beyond the Navy’s changing catalog of platforms. In times of war and peace, men and women from Navy families kept the watch on the home front. They volunteered to care for our wounded at military hospitals at home and overseas. In the direst of circumstances, as seen a year ago at the Washington Navy Yard and thirteen years ago at the Pentagon, Navy civilians give the ultimate sacrifice, far away from any battlefront or ocean.

Navy civilians are not just building ships. They are maintaining budgets to keep our men and women afloat. They are researching new and innovative ways to build a more sustainable fleet with the Navy’s new green initiatives. Within the realm of history, Navy civilians help preserve and honor the heritage of our Navy in museums around the country, from Washington, DC to Keyport Washington. The Naval Historical Foundation works closely with these outstanding public servants. They are dedicated to educate the American public about the exciting history of Uncle Sam’s “webbed feet.” They do this day in and day out, devoid of celebrity or the national spotlight. They do it because of passion.

It is absolutely important to thank the men and women who serve or have served our Navy. Take a second this Labor Day to remember, honor, and thank those that help maintain and preserve the very ships that protect our shoreline. They may not wear a uniform, but they embody the same principles of every service member in the United States Navy today.

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