Carmela Celardo was 18 years old and she needed a job. It was a few months after Pearl Harbor. She was living at home with her family at 79 Dean Street in Brooklyn. Her brothers were in the service, her father was not well, and Carmela needed to make money to help her parents. She thought she would try to find work near home, but then she heard they were hiring women at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It sounded interesting, even though it was farther away. She left high school in mid-term and applied for a job. She and a few other women were hired, and spent several weeks taking nightly training sessions that ended at 11 pm. The women were taught how to use heat to seal two pieces of metal together.
Her father was worried she would get hurt, but her brothers were proud of her. They lived in a friendly mixed neighborhood—blacks, Hispanics, Italians—and many of the local men worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But Carmela was the only girl on the block who had taken a job there. She was also one of the few women at the Yard. Some of the men were nice to them, but others made fun of them. For her father, and for many other men, welding wasn’t something that women could or should do. But Carmela considered it delicate work that required a fine touch and a good eye, not brute strength. She loved to draw and sew—she once thought of becoming a fashion designer—and welding appealed to her artistic side.
Every morning, she took the bus to the Navy Yard and started work at 8 am. She wore a jumpsuit, and tucked her hair into a cap for safety. When she was welding, a metal helmet protected her face and eyes. There was a no-makeup rule that some of the girls broke, but not Carmela. She was there to help her country, and lipstick was not necessary. Sometimes she’d be at the water cooler getting a drink, and the men around her would use foul language because they didn’t know she was a woman. Then they’d realize it, and say they were sorry.
Along with other women welders, Carmela worked on the USS Missouri, a battleship that was constructed at the Navy Yard. The welding went on for two years, and the biggest job was welding the plates on the ship’s deck. Carmela was considered the best welder in the group. There was a man working on the USS Missouri who lived in her neighborhood. Carmela was friends with his daughter. Guys on the block would ask him, “What about Carmela? What’s she doing there?” And he would say, “You should see her work, you wouldn’t believe it!” In fact, some of the men at the Yard didn’t believe that a woman had done the first-rate welds they were seeing. One time she brought over the mechanical engineer who had trained her, and he set the record straight: “It’s her work.”
Carmela worked Monday through Friday. On weekends during baseball season, she walked from her house to Ebbets Field to watch her beloved Dodgers. Nights, she’d go somewhere to dance—she loved the Lindy hop. Or she and her friends would head to the Empire roller skating rink, and sometimes they’d meet soldiers and sailors and they would all go for ice cream. One night, she went out with a sailor she knew from the Navy Yard. His brother was in town, and the three of them went to a movie, and then to a bar for a beer. Her mother found out about the bar and was upset. Later Carmela learned that the sailor died in the war. Many of the boys in her neighborhood died too, but her brothers came home safely.
When their work on the USS Missouri was finished, Carmela and the other women welders were not assigned to another ship. Instead, were given jobs in the office on one of the upper floors, above their old work site. They were there, with a perfect view of the proceedings, when the USS Missouri was launched in January of 1944 to a huge celebration. Carmela brought her little nephew with her so he wouldn’t miss it. Senator Harry Truman spoke, and thousands of people came to watch. Skippers in the East River blasted their horns. All in honor of what The New York Times called the “latest and probably the largest and most powerful of the world’s battleships.” After the traditional champagne bottle was cracked open against the bow, the Missouri slid out of dry dock and the cheers went up. The day had been cloudy until that moment, but suddenly the sun came out. All her life, Carmela has vividly remembered the pride she felt that day.
A little more than a year and a half after its launch, the USS Missouri was the site of the Japanese surrender to Allied forces at the end of World War II. Retired since 1992, she is now permanently docked at Pearl Harbor as both a museum and memorial. Carmela’s daughter Sadie visited the ship recently and called her mother from the deck. “Ma, I’m standing on the deck plates. I can’t believe it. You actually
worked on this ship!”
Sources: “Carmela Zuza,” interview transcript, WWII & NYC. New-York Historical Society, 2011; “Carmela Celardo Zuza,” Brooklyn Navy Yard Oral Histories, Brooklyn Historical Society, 2008, brooklynhistory.org/
blog/2009/08/20/Brooklyn-navy-yard-oral-histories (accessed 5-31-12, M. Waters).
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