Kansas farm girl finds new life in the big city
After working at Oregon Shipyards in 1940s, Maxine Leach marries, raises a family and moves to Summerfield
Maxine Leach, who attended the June 6 dedication of Oregon's World War II Memorial in Salem with her daughter Kathy Fuller, isn't a WWII veteran, but she played a key role on the home front, working in the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland and also selling war bonds.
In fact, Maxine's enthusiastic war bond sales efforts led to her being one of a trio of young ladies who christened and launched a ship in 1944.
Not quite an Oregon native, Maxine Wilnerd was born in Shippee, Neb., on Aug. 22, 1925. "We lived on a farm, and all I remember is grain elevators and railroad tracks," she said. "Then we moved across the border to Norton, Kan., to another farm. My parents always rented land - they never owned a speck of dirt - and paid back the owner with grain - wheat, barley, rye or oats.
"For lots of years, my dad didn't get any crops due to the Dust Bowl. He borrowed money for the seeds for the next year's crop."
The family lived four miles from the country school, and the kids usually walked to and from home, but when snow was on the ground, Maxine's dad would hitch up two horses to his wagon and take them.
Maxine attended Norton Community High School for three years and usually stayed in town during the week, going home on the weekends, until she dropped out to take care of her mom.
"My mom was ill a lot of the time," she said. "I left school my senior year to help on the farm and help take care of my younger brother and two sisters."
Maxine might never have left Kansas and remained there like her brother who still lives there but for her mom's brother who had moved to Pendleton, Ore.
"He came back to Kansas and said, 'Maxine, you should come see the Pendleton Roundup,'" she said. "A cousin and her husband were driving to Oregon, and I went with them. But that year there was no roundup because of the war. My parents had given me 13 silver dollars, and I thought, well, a door has opened for me.
"I asked my aunt and uncle, who had two kids, if I could live with them in Pendleton and work for room and board while I finished high school. I also got another job as a soda jerk at Grandwell's Drugstore for 20 cents an hour. After a few months, I asked for a raise, and I was told, 'If you can act like a lady, you will get a raise to 25 cents an hour.' I got the raise, and my boss always drove me home after work even though it wasn't very far."
Maxine added, "I bought all my school clothes, everything - senior ring, senior pin - with my drugstore money."
In fact, she still has a beautiful black dress with a white lace collar that she purchased for graduation "and wore again two or three years ago to a reunion," she said.
Maxine's cousin's husband was working at the Kaiser Shipyards, and after graduating from high school in 1943, she moved to Portland and stayed with them, getting a job at the Oregon Shipyards.
"My cousin's husband and I rode the bus to work together every day," she said. "Many workers lived far away and were transported by bus from as far away as Salem, and this was before the freeway was built. My first job was working as a day-shift hodcarrier for 99 cents an hour, sweeping the steel decks of the ships under construction that had pieces of scrap metal on them."
Everyone who worked at the shipyards had to show an ID card to enter, and Maxine is sorry that she didn't keep her card, but she still remembers the number - 88825.
The first of Henry Kaiser's Northwest shipyards was the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation in North Portland, which began building Liberty ships in 1941 for Great Britain, which was already at war, according to a Kaiser Permanente publication. When the U.S. entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, two more shipyards were soon opened - one in Vancouver, Wash., and one on Portland's Swan Island.
The seven Kaiser-managed shipyards in Oregon, Washington and California built almost 1,500 ships during the war, which was 27 percent of all ships built for the U.S. Maritime Commission. Of these, 743 were built in the Portland/Vancouver shipyards between 1941 and 1945, and Kaiser built them at a cost of 25 percent less on average than other shipyards and in two-thirds of the time.
Oregon Shipbuilding launched 332 Liberty ships, which were Merchant Marine ships carrying crucial supplies throughout the war, but Kaiser Shipyards were shut down at the end of the war.
"If we hadn't built all those ships, Germany would have taken over England," Maxine noted. "After that first summer, I got a job selling war bonds at the shipyards on the graveyard shift. I didn't like working graveyard, but I liked selling war bonds better than sweeping those hot decks. My dad came out to work in the shipyards for a while but didn't like the cold and damp."
As the U.S. was drawn into World War II, the government looked for ways to finance the war effort without causing inflation and settled on selling bonds, combining the patriotic Liberty Bonds from World War I with the so-called baby bonds used between the two world wars.
Three new series of bonds were introduced, with the least expensive selling for $18.75 and maturing in 10 years, when the government would pay the bondholder $25. Larger denominations between $50 and $1,000 also were available. Because some people could not afford to purchase even the lowest-priced bond all at once, the government provided stamp books in which people could place 10-cent stamps until enough were accumulated to purchase a bond.
Bond rallies were held around the country using celebrities to promote bond sales, and Maxine remembers movie stars and famous singers coming to the shipyard for rallies. During WWII, 85 million Americans purchased $185 billion worth of bonds.
Like other Americans, Maxine was earnest about purchasing war bonds to support the war effort. "But sometimes I bought too many war bonds and barely had enough money left for groceries," she said.
To this day, Maxine laments the fact that she didn't sell enough war bonds to christen the U.S.S. Eastland on Sept. 19, 1944. She was a few war bonds short in a competition to sell the most, with the winner getting to christen the ship by cracking a champagne bottle on it; Maxine and another woman made up the rest of the "court."
"If I had sold a few thousand more war bonds, I could have christened that ship, but at least I got to help launch it," she said.
Maxine has another regret about that day as well: Each of the three young women was given beautiful bouquets of roses, with Maxine noting, "Back on the farm, we never had flowers." Each woman also was given a corsage made up not of flowers but of war bond stamps.
"After it was over, I carefully took the corsage apart and pasted all the stamps in a book," she said. "I'm so sorry I didn't keep the corsage, but I did keep the ribbon."
Maxine also recalled the shortages of everyday items during the war years with gasoline and sugar rationed and people only allowed to purchase two pairs of shoes a year. "And we couldn't get nylons, so that is when leg makeup became popular," she said.
After the war ended, Maxine's cousin went back to Norton, Kan., and because Maxine wanted to remain in Portland, she had to find a place to live on her own. She and a friend rented a room in a house on Greeley Avenue in Portland, and while her original plan had been to become a nurse, she went to work for the Bell Telephone Company, aka Ma Bell, as a long-distance operator.
Maxine met her future husband Carl, who had served in the Navy during WWII, on a blind date. After they dated for a year, she decided to accept a transfer with the phone company to Denver.
"I think I was testing him to see if he was really serious," she said. "He had proposed to me, but I wasn't ready. So he drove his convertible all the way to Denver, and then we drove together to Norton to meet my parents, and he proposed again."
The second proposal did the trick, and the couple was married in 1948 in the Little Chapel of the Chimes in North Portland and had their wedding reception in the home where she had rented a room.
Maxine eventually got to the Pendleton Roundup with Carl, who worked for the Port of Portland Dock Commission as a superintendent, and the couple lived in Southwest Portland as the family grew: Son Gary was born in 1950, son Mike in 1951, daughter Karen in 1955 and daughter Kathy in 1965.
The Leaches moved to Summerfield in 1989, and Carl died in 1995.
Today Maxine has eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, including a brand-new great-grandchild.