“History Detectives” – A Personal Experience

The premise of one of my favorite PBS shows, “History Detectives” is that people bring artifacts to the team of investigators to get a question answered about the article. For example, “Was this an original Ronald McDonald costume?” The investigators followed leads and interviewed experts to answer the question and usually delight the owners of the artifacts.

So I have recently tried to organize my large collection of old slides, prints and negatives by putting them into storage boxes, arranged chronologically as best I can. This required looking through each packet or envelope to guess when they were taken as not all of them were marked or had writing on the back. I have a stack of 14 boxes but only one box of the very old ones.

As I was going through some of the negatives in the oldest box that had been saved by my mother in old shoeboxes, I found this one that triggered a renewal of a search for the identity of the photo on the wall above the fireplace. It was taken at Christmas in 1949. I would turn 4 in two weeks. My sister Dolores was 17 and in her senior year of high school.

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Every year, my mother would put all the Christmas cards on the fireplace. Above them was an old black and white photo of a Navy ship. That ship, I was told, was one that my father had helped build during WW2 in the shipyard in Providence, RI. He had learned the plumbing trade from his father and took the job to help in the war effort as he was not drafted when the war started. This photo stayed up on the wall well into the 1950s.

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In the early 60s it was taken down and replaced with one of my paint-by-numbers paintings and I lost track of it. Several years ago, I tried looking through Naval history sites on the internet, but didn’t get very far in my search and I gave up. So now, after over 60 years, I tried again to search for the ship that my father helped build.

I began to collect what little I knew about the ship’s construction to start a search. It was built during the war in the shipyard in Providence. I recalled that that dad called it the Kaiser shipyard. So now off to Google.

‘Kaiser shipyard Providence’ search term led to Kaiser Shipyards in Wikipedia. The shipyard in Providence was located at Fields Point, just south of downtown at the head of Narragansett Bay. The Fields Point Wikipedia entry led to the name Walsh-Kaiser Company, that had taken over operations of an earlier attempt to establish a shipyard under the Emergency Shipbuilding Program shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard in Providence started with Liberty Ships, made famous for the extreme rate of launches, although no records were set at that location, Kaiser had built the SS Robert E. Peary at Richmond, CA yard #2, that launched in only 4 days, 15 hours, 29 minutes from the time her keel was laid.

So looking through the Walsh-Kaiser page there was a list of all the ships they built in the period from 1943 through September of 1945: liberty ships, frigates and Artemis class attack cargo ships. Referring to the photo on the wall, that I clipped and adjusted below, I noted that it was not a liberty ship, or a frigate, based on a comparison to ships of that type, so it had to be one of the Artemis class cargo ships. But which one?

So each of the ships listed by name had a link to more details and some photographs. I started down the list and noted that the first one pictured was first of the class, the Artemis and she had the same characteristic shape and I was sure I was on the right track. Then I clicked on the link to the USS Sirona AKA-43 and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was the same photograph that hung over the fireplace.

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