On Thursday, one of the veterans who will take part in the parade in downtown Bangor is Arthur Babineau, 99, of Portland, who served as an Army combat medic in Europe during World War II.
Although his wife, 96-year-old Alphena Babineau, isn’t able to be there, she also did her part for the war effort. Alphena Babineau, a real-life Rosie the Riveter, was just 18 when she signed on to work at the Todd-Bath Iron Shipbuilding Corp. in South Portland, a company that was started in 1940 and closed at the end of the war.
The dark-haired teenager, originally from a little town in New Brunswick, tied her hair up in a turban under a helmet and learned how to be a welder. She helped fabricate the Liberty ships that served a critical function for the U.S. Merchant Marine: moving tons of wartime supplies across the Atlantic Ocean to England and beyond.
“All the guys were in the Army. It was just women working in the shipyard,” said Alphena Babineau, who lived for many years in Brewer but now lives in Portland. “I enjoyed it. I had a lot of friends there.”
She was a member of a different kind of army, one comprised of women, older men and others who did not fight overseas but whose efforts on the home front supported the soldiers and made it possible for the country to win the war.
Babineau and others like her in 18 shipyards around the country built a total of 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, an average of three ships every two days.
“The women had to step up,” Peggy Konitzky, a Topsham-based historian who wrote “Midcoast Maine in World War II,” said. “They had to do the work the men had been doing while they were running their households … One of the things that struck me strongly while doing the research was how hard everybody worked during those years.”
Alphena Babineau, a bright-eyed and quick-witted nonagenarian, has clear memories of those days. She took the job so she could do her part to help the country, and also as a way to help her family out.
“I was going to earn some money. That’s what I was looking for,” she said. “My mother was a widow and there were 10 of us in my family.”
Money was never something in large supply, she said. When Babineau was growing up during the Great Depression in Saint-Leonard, N.B., directly across the St. John River from Van Buren, her family didn’t have much in the way of material goods, but they did have enough food and love to go around. They lived in government housing, with the kids sleeping three to a bed, with no electricity and no car. But they also went sledding in the winters, made maple syrup in the spring and fished for salmon in the rivers.
“We were fine,” Babineau said.
Some of her friends were not. They lived in tarpaper shacks and work was so scarce that their fathers would fight over who would get shoveling jobs.
“They were poor in Canada,” Babineau said.
After her father, a railroad worker, died of a heart attack, the family moved to Maine to Old Orchard Beach. When the war began and the war effort on the home front got going, it was an opportunity for many, including Babineau, to make a living. She tried to get a job at the shipyard when she was 17, but she was too young. When she was 18, she jumped at the chance.
“I think that for women, this was an opportunity that had not existed for them before,” Konitzky said.
Babineau would commute from her home in Old Orchard Beach to the shipyard by bus, at least until one of her girlfriends bought a car and then they rode to the job together. She wore a leather jacket, jeans and long leather gloves to try and protect her hands from the burns that were an occupational hazard, but the protection didn’t always work.
“I would get some terrible burns,” she said.
She learned how to weld on the job, and when asked if it was a challenging skill to master, she was quick to respond.
“No, it wasn’t,” she said. “You had a generator that you had to set so it wouldn’t go too hot. If it was too hot, the rod would burn.”
Otherwise, she said, welding was straightforward.
“I could work today if I wanted to,” she said, smiling. “But I don’t want to.”
She would take her gear and work up high in the ship when necessary, but she didn’t like to go below in the hold. She only did that once, and didn’t like the sensation of working in a small space in the dark. She left her equipment there and crawled back out to the sunshine, telling her foreman that she wouldn’t do that again.
“My foreman kept me working outside after that,” she said.
Babineau remembers that the men at the shipyard were good to the women workers.
“They were very nice. They were older. There were no young ones there. There were married men with families,” she said.
But there was at least one younger man at the shipyard: Arthur Babineau, a foreman, who caught her eye immediately.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, is he handsome or what?’” she said.
Although other women at the shipyard also liked the young foreman, Arthur Babineau returned her interest. They went to the amusement park at Old Orchard Beach and hit it off, and after Arthur Babineau got called up to the Army in 1943, they got engaged. Alphena Babineau rode crowded, slow troop trains from Maine to Louisiana, where he was in training, so they could marry before he was sent overseas.
The couple celebrated their 77th anniversary in August.
After their marriage, Alphena Babineau no longer worked at the shipyard, but she used some of the skills she learned there throughout her life. Her daughter, Donna Somma of Portland, is proud of her mother’s wartime work.
“I thought she was amazing. I always did. When we had a leaky faucet, she’s the one who knew what tools to use,” Somma said. “Mom worked hard, and she never looked back. She always looked forward.”
But Alphena Babineau said she is beginning to look back now. She has good memories of her time as a welder, and was proud when the ships she worked on were launched into the sea.
“It was a long time ago, but it doesn’t seem like a long time ago,” she said.