Over the years, Robert DiChiara held tightly onto photos and memories from his tenure with the U.S. Navy during World War II.
As time passed, the New York-born 89-year-old, now living in Florida, began to wonder: “What ever happened to my boat?”
His “boat” is the SS Red Oak Victory, which was launched in 1944 from the Kaiser Richmond shipyards. To find out what happened to the ship, DiChiara did what he could not do years ago: He Googled it.
He discovered the last surviving cargo ship to be built at the Kaiser Richmond shipyards was now a museum and part of Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
“I had no idea it was still here!” DiChiara said.
DiChiara was the guest of honor at the Veteran’s Day ceremony at Rigger’s Loft, which doubled as the 70th anniversary and Grand Re-Launch of the Red Oak.
Several hundred people attended the heart-warming ceremony sponsored by Chevron Richmond, the Richmond Museum of History and City of Richmond.
The ceremony included a remembrance to those who “crossed over the bar…fair winds and following seas,” along with remarks from Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, Chevron Historian John Harper and Chevron Richmond Refinery General Manager Kory Judd.
Judd thanked veterans for their service, including those who left jobs at the Richmond Refinery for battle, and also for inspiring discipline at the refinery when the war effort launched in Richmond.
During wartime, the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards employed thousands of workers who built 747 ship, the most in the U.S. On average, a ship could be built in just one month, and the medical system formed to care for ship workers led to the formation of Kaiser Permanente and breakthrough medical discoveries, including the use of penicillin to treat pneumonia.
The war effort inspired a collaboration between the military, local communities and industry that has been credited for helping transition the Bay Area into the technology powerhouse it has become today, historians say.
“We are glad to have been a part of that,” Judd said.
Gioia added, “We should all be proud that our county preserves the history of our veterans.”
DiChiara was certainly grateful to find important pieces of his past preserved on Richmond’s waterfront.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said before his speech. “Never in my life did I expect to see the ship again, let alone walk on the deck. To be 89 and to feel like I’m 18 again is in itself a treat.”
DiChiara, who first boarded the Red Oak at age 18, spent about two years (1944-46) on what he called the most volatile vessel in the U.S. Navy. While it was simple enough for many cargo ships of the time to haul food and supplies, the Red Oak instead carried 4,000 tons of explosive ammunition. During one trek, the boat had to zig-zag across the Pacific to avoid detection from enemy submarines.
DiChiara recounted instances when the ship came close to a catastrophic explosion, one of which could have taken out a large portion of the Naval fleet.
The photos DiChiara kept from those days, each with the names of the pictured individuals on the back, were donated to the museum.
In Richmond, even the military’s more recent past is being honored. In 2011, Rhonda Harris founded Veterans Resource Program in honor of her father Harry Williams, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following the Korean War. The center, which provides transitional housing and resources such as job training, medical and legal services to recent vets, is located at 934 Maine Ave.
Harris set up a booth at the Rigger’s Loft ceremony Tuesday in order to share her father’s story and the success stories of young local vets.
Artist Alexis Williams also set up a booth filled with gorgeously designed military boots, some imprinted with the names of soldiers who died during service. On Tuesday, she also honored her brother, who recently retired after 33 years of service.
“Although I’m not military-style in my spirit, I still honor and support everything he has done,” Williams said.