Soldiering with a hammer on Baltimore's waterfront

Howard Neighbors

May 26, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Lou Chiodi, 92, sits in the Columbia home he built in 1964 and remembers the unusual work he did during World War II, so that we can, too.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced a $350 million shipbuilding program in 1941, Baltimore's Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard became one of 18 to build "Liberty ships," according to the Project Liberty Ship Web site.

Liberty ships were part of an emergency war effort to build inexpensive ships quickly to transport cargo to Europe in support of the Allied war effort.

In Baltimore, a Liberty ship could be built in as few as 28 days, once production lines started.

In all, more than 2,700 Liberty ships were constructed between 1941 and 1945, according to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum Web site.

More than shipbuilding was going on in Baltimore, however.

Cargo had to be loaded around the clock onto these Liberty ships. Men were scarce. And hard, physical labor was plentiful.

Luigino Chiodi was used to hard work. A promising student, he left school at age 14 to find work, like so many young men coming of age during the Depression.

Over the years, he discovered he was handy and developed carpentry skills and a head for problem-solving.

During his 20s, he and a few friends found work building prefabricated temporary housing for workers manufacturing aircraft at the Glenn L. Martin plant in Middle River.

Next, they moved to the waterfront, seeking work shoring and lashing cargo onto ships.

It was union work typically done by members of the Longshoreman's local, but, according to Chiodi, a special arrangement was made with the Carpenters Union to allow them to engage in this type of work because of the shortage of able men.

Chiodi, at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, was in fine shape. He was disqualified from military service because of an injury to his left hand, but his right hand worked just fine with a hammer. Said Chiodi: "I was hungry for the work."

In the mornings, Chiodi would show up at the union hall in Fells Point with other carpenters, waiting for assignments when ships came in to be loaded.

One morning, a ship came in at the ammunition pier - a specialized area where you needed a pass to work because of the dangerous and technical aspects of loading munitions.

Because the ship was partially loaded with general cargo, Chiodi received permission from the union president to go. Loading ammunition paid twice what loading general cargo paid, he said.

"Of course, a lot of guys wouldn't go near that type of work," said Chiodi. "But guys like me, you couldn't keep away."

Often, Chiodi wouldn't know what types of munitions were being loaded for security reasons.

But after large, waterproof boxes the size of rooms were shored on the deck of the ship, the foreman said he needed a "runway" built over the freight, to allow the soldiers on deck to get up to the gun turrets rapidly in the event of an air attack.

Chiodi started sketching a design. He had an idea that he thought would improve on the simple ramp.

"I wanted to do a kind of step that would help a young man fly up there," he said.

Chiodi explained how he laid the runway out with treads that were raised higher and wider than a traditional stair. "I couldn't use it now," he adds.

"The union president said, `That ain't going to work,'" Chiodi recalled.

But Chiodi's "running step" design was a success. "I could teach somebody to cut that carriage [the frame that anchors the steps] in an hour - it was [the] concept that was the thing."

Chiodi started to build a reputation for himself, showing up every day, taking extra shifts.

On one shipyard job, he worked continuously through a weekend until Monday evening, taking home an astounding paycheck for the time: $414.

In two months, he went from a temporary day-worker to "ammunition king."

"My ship was never late for a convoy," said Chiodi, noting that the ships would set sail together up the coast to a point north, where the distance between the United States and England was shortest.

His draft notices continued to come, but Chiodi - who has never had his fractured hand repaired - remained disqualified, and soldiered in his own way at the Baltimore shipyards for the rest of the war.

On Memorial Day, like most days, Chiodi probably will have to take the steps down to his yard and up to his living room slowly, cautiously.

But if you look closely, you might catch a glimpse of an ambitious young man, racing up a specialized stairway designed to reach a gun turret.

Neighbors

Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of?

If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it. Janet brings a wealth of writing experience and knowledge of Howard County to her position.

E-mail Janet at janetgilbertsun@verizon.net, or call 410-313-8276.

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