Thursday, March 17, 2011

Stevedoring in Popular Culture

I think it's safe to say stevedoring has only minimal recognition in popular culture. I hadn't heard of a "stevedore" before researching my grandfather's military service. This is the general term applied to port workers (either civilian or military) who manage the loading and unloading of ships and run the docks. There is a subtle distinction between a "stevedore" and a "longshoreman." Depending on the time and place the "longshoreman" was hired to work the docks only (not aboard ship). Yet the US War Department's 1943 Stevedoring and Wharf Handling manual says that a portion of the ship's hatch crew should be longshoreman. In any case, not all the troops in an Army port battalion could technically be classified as longshoremen.

I titled my book Longshore Soldiers, because "longshoremen" have some recognition with the general public. "Longshore" quickly brings up a picture of dock work and cargo ships, while I'm sure few outside of the industry would be at all familiar with the word "stevedore." Considering the unfamiliarity people have with stevedores, I was impressed to hear the trade referenced in an episode of NBC's 30 Rock. If you haven't seen it, this comedy is a parody of sketch shows like Saturday Night Live. In the fifth season's episode "The Old College Try" Alec Baldwin's character, Jack, mentions his past as a young dock worker:

"But yes, I've had to work my entire life. It began when my father left and I started working on the Boston docks as a twelve-year-old stevedore. "Bales up, you micks! Bales up!"

My grandpa and the 519th Port Battalion worked the Boston docks too! The "bales" Baldwin refers to are bound bunches of cotton, textiles, etc. hoisted up through the ship's hatch. And, of course, the "micks" are Irish immigrants (Happy St. Paddy's Say, by the way).

Shipping Pallets
We've all seen wooden pallets before (photo at left from the 1943 Stevedoring and Wharf Handling manual). There's some kind of commercial trucking site near me that has stacks and stacks of them along the highway. These shipping tools were actually pretty revolutionary in WWII. Loose supplies are strapped on top of the pallet, and the space below allows a fork lift to move the the stack as one great package. This increases loading/unloading speed, but reduces a ship's storage capacity (all those pallets take up room in the hold). They were first used my the US military in the Pacific campaign. Speed is crucial in military unloading operations, so the practice was picked up by Army stevedores in the European/Mediterranean theater.

Pallets have entered pop culture as material for DIY home projects. Not too long ago I saw a blog post using shipping pallets as wood paneling: See the home-design blog Poppytalk.

So that's it! Like I said earlier, very little relating to the Army stevedore's work has made its way into the broader public's consciousness.

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