The Finger

An archive and historical write-up of Portland’s long-lost, World War II-era, Kaiser shipyard workers zine. Full archive coming soon.

Researched and written by Bix Frankonis.

(Send any new information to with details and sourcing.)

When I first caught brief sight of the bound collection of The Finger on the shelf at the Great Northwest Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, its name and style led me to believe it must be some sort of radical underground paper from the 1960s. It wasn’t until I spied the date on the first issue — October 9, 1942 — that I realized it obviously was something quite different.

Although the set had been bound together in hardback form, with “THE FINGER” and “OCT. 9, 1942 - JAN 3, 1944″ embossed along the spine, there was no indication of the book’s source, although that it had been carefully bound at all suggested it had come from a collection, of some sort, from somewhere. That binding, however, was free of any label or imprint.The collection then sat untouched for months before I began to seek out information on The Finger, its origins, and its creators.A visit to the Oregon Historical Society Research Library in late November, 2003, yielded mainly some sense of the historical context of life at the Portland-area shipyards of Kaiser Company, Inc.According to a 1944 publication of Kaiser itself called Tanker Champions of the World, intended to commemorate the work done at the company’s Swan Island shipyard:

The first contract to build 56 T2-SE-A1 tankers was signed March 24, 1942, and the first ship steel was received in the yard May 23, 1942. Sixteen days later, June 8, the first steel was fabricated in the Plate Shop and on July 1, the first keel was laid. The hull was launched October 24, 1942, and delivered December 31, 1942.

That ship was the SS Schenectady, “largest ship built on the Pacific Coast, first of a fleet of fine tankers” according to Tanker Champions of the World. Almost a year to the day later, on October 23, 1943, “Swan Island received the Tanker Champion flag for having achieved the highest productivity per way of any American shipyard engaged in tanker construction.”You’ll notice that the first volume of The Finger runs from October 9 until October 24, 1942 — the final two weeks of construction for the Schenectady. And indeed, it is in this context that The Finger receives the only mention of it I could find at the Oregon Historical Society.During those years, there was a company magazine for shipyard employees called Bo’s’n’s Whistle. And in the November 5, 1942, issue which celebrated the launch of the Schenectady and all that Kaiser workers had done to make it happen (”...launched just seven months to the day after surveyors started laying out the yard, and 115 days after keel laying ... a new national record for this class of ship”), we find this:

In the face of such major obstacles as shortages of vital manpower and materials, notably steel and oxygen, Swan Island management and men have gone ahead in the spirit of “It can be done,” and established a national record for their very first ship.One of the staggering undertakings on the jobs was the installation of 70,000 feet of pipe ... more than 13 miles, including the mammoth heating coils. Many essential items had not arrived at the last minute, and over a hundred emergency purchase orders ... including rudder, trucks, and bearings were issued in an effort to keep construction on scheduled time. These problems, coupled with an acute shortage of oxygen, were just a few of the difficulties licked in building the “Schenectady.”Excitement ran high at Swan Island during the last two weeks before launching, and a mysterious small daily publication known as “The Finger” came into being. Reputedly published by a dwarf living in a dug-out under the outfitting dock, this paper put the finger on employees not pitching in to help meet the launching deadline. Cartoons and posters by workmen helped build high morale among Swan Island workers.

Beyond this, little more is known other than what the editor (or editors) of The Finger did or did not reveal in the course of publishing. According to Kaiser Permanente Northwest, their archives from Kaiser’s World War II shipyard operations do not include any material regarding the publication.Further, a retired Kaiser employee who briefly worked at the shipyards during World War II, himself unfamiliar with the publication, asked at a retiree luncheon in December 2003, if anyone present had any recollection of it. No one did.For that matter, there was no evidence I could find, beyond the word of the publication’s editors, that The Finger was in fact produced by and for shipyard workers themselves at all.While clearly not a well-monied effort (one would not expect a paper put out by laborers to be so), hindsight -- or perhaps 21st century cynicism -- makes it just as easy to imagine that it could have been a Kaiser publication posing as a worker-produced effort.Workers chastizing fellow workers, after all, likely would find a better reception in the shipyards than management doing the same. Then again, this was a period of intense wartime patriotism, and it isn’t difficult to imagine workers wanting to keep the pressure up on those amongst them who weren’t performing.Neither could I determine how many of each edition were produced, who created it, who wrote it, who paid for it, how it was distributed, nor how widely read it might have been.That changed to some degree late in November 2011, eight years after first discovering it on the shelves of the Great Northwest Bookstore, while making a fresh set of scans of each edition of The Finger, when I noticed for the first time that the header illustration for its original run had been signed by the artist.Crowdsourcing via Twitter the attempt at deciphering it, the signature — C. Mish — turned out to be that of one Charlotte Roberta Mish, whose work, according to the website of The Sovereign Collection Fine Art Gallery, “included documentary shipyard paintings for President Franklin Roosevelt and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser”.For what it’s worth, as I learned in June 2023 from a March 21, 2016, blog post by Frank Ezelle, Mish also painted a work of her own titled “The Beginning” which depicts early work on the construction of the very Schenectady at the center of The Finger’s existence.

Armed with the first name I’d ever been able to connect to the publication of The Finger, a search of the historical archive of The Oregonian yielded an article from October 23, 1942, about several methods being used to motivate workers. While the article references Mish in the context of a series of posters she and two other artists drew and which the shipyard printing plant reproduced, and not in the context of The Finger, the article goes on to discuss that publication.

The third device that puts a real stinger into the slackers and promptly pats the hard workers on their backs is a new mystery daily paper, the Finger, which puts the finger of scorn on the boys who fail to earn daily wages and which promptly compliments those who turn out a good job well done. The Finger is published daily by the “Finger Publishing company.” Its editor is reported to be a gnome who lives in the underground utility tunnels and sees all, knows all. Its reporters are the 14,000 workers who turn in their thoughts to General Superintendent Elmer Hann’s offce.The Finger pits men, crews and shifts against each other, telling exactly what each accomplishes. Thus, the whole yard knows when some let down and others go ahead. There is nothing that escapes the Finger.

This certainly suggests, indirectly, that The Finger was produced in the shipyard’s printing office in much the same way as Charlotte Mish’s motivational posters. According to a May 3, 1995, dissertation by Jeffry Lloyd Uecker, found in June 2023, Mish in fact was the “staff-artist” at the Kaiser shipyards. The Oregonian article also provides yet another name — only the second in years of research — connected to the publication: general superintendent Elmer Hann.What is clear from The Finger itself is that its October 24, 1942, issue (published the day after The Oregonian mention) was meant to be its final. Having played its own role in pushing shipyard workers to meet the intended launch date for the Schenectady, that issue is marked as a “Five Star Final Edition.”But then, on January 16, 1943, after successful sea trials, the S. S. Schenectady returned to harbor and sat at the dock at Swan Island. A report of the United States Coast Guard from 1944 describes what happened next:

Without warning and with a report which was heard for at least a mile, the deck and sides of the vessel fractured just aft of the bridge superstructure. The fracture extended almost instantaneously to the turn of the bilge port and starboard. The deck side shell, longitudinal bulkhead and bottom girders fractured. Only the bottom plating held. The vessel jack-knifed and the center portion rose so that no water entered. The bow and stern settled into the silt of the river bottom.

On January 25, a Time magazine article described how the tanker “suddenly broke in half with a thunderous snap, settled in the water with its two-inch steel plates split clean asunder, the midship sections sticking out of the water like crags.”

Nobody knew what caused the break. The FBI, the Maritime Commission, the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation and the American Bureau of Shipping started investigations simultaneously, refused to say a word.

Four days after the accident, The Finger reappeared to rally shipyard workers to the cause of repairing their first tanker. “Maybe we don’t know why the SCHENECTADY broke,” the paper wrote, “but we sure as Hell know how to fix her.”That said, the eventual U.S. Coast Guard report would attribute the failure to critical welds that “were found to be defective”.This sudden reappearance of The Finger led to its only other mention in the pages of The Oregonian, in a January 23, 1943, article (which I also only found in November 2011) on the arrival in Portland of several experts to investigate the cause of the loss of the tanker Schenectady.

Swan Island workmen were greeted by an edition of “The Finger,” a morale-building paper which is distributed periodically throughout the plant. This went into a long discussion of the Schenectady incident, naming the ship and pointing out that its design was proven and workmanship of the people who worked in the yard was not questioned.The article said the special investigating body now here would determine whether the break was caused by weather, handling, design, or faulty steel so that the accident would not be repeated. Swan Island worked were urged to continue their efforts and put out more tankers at a faster rate than in the past to make up for the delay occasioned by the Schenectady’s accident.

It’s now known, then, that The Finger was not only recognized by the city’s major daily newspaper for its efforts, but directly cited by it in an article about the loss of the shipyard’s most celebrated tanker.A couple notes about this sudden reappearance of The Finger in 1943. If the set reproduced here is full and complete, it was not the start of a new run, but intended to be a one-off call-to-arms in the aftermath of the break-up of the Schenectady. Strangely, the issue is labelled as being “Vol. 3, No. 1” — although there is no indication that the paper published at all since the conclusion of its initial run on October 24, 1942.Stranger still, later that year, The Finger reappeared yet again. An issue dated November 10, 1943 — and labelled “VOL. II, NO. 1″ — begins with the exclamation, “Boys and girls, the FINGER is back!” It offers no particular explanation for this, the second time (to my current knowledge) it suddenly reappeared. The editor does, however, offer this insight into the paper’s operation:

The FINGER is published by yard employees for yard employees, and is free of all editing by the management. Kaiser Company, Inc., has reserved only two rights — that of canning the editor and stopping publication of our little rag if we get too rough. We haven’t been and won’t be a mighty publication, but we can “put the finger” on the guy who isn’t producing.

This 1943 run of The Finger included a new masthead logo, more complex layout, and superior printing, and no particular indication whether or not it was produced by the same team as the original.At some point in June 2013 (but forgotten until 2023), I’d noticed for the first time that the initials on the new masthead illustration were “EH”. Given the earlier revelation from the pages of The Oregonian of the involvement of Elmer Hann, it’s a fair guess that the new drawing was his.Hann, described by The Oregonian as “general superintendent” elsewhere also has variously been described as “yard supervisor” and “general production manager”. According to his obituary in The New York Times from March 16, 1990:

During the war Mr. Hann was general superintendent of production st the Kaiser shipyard on Swan Island, Ore. There he trained unskilled men and women to master a simplified welding method in 10 days, instead of the two to three months normally required to learn welding.

Also of note is that arguably the tone of the masthead illustration changes dramatically from one version to the next. The Finger’s original masthead seems meant to convey the publication’s original purported intent: workers rallying workers. In what appears to be Hann’s revision, the finger now suggests that of a very stern Uncle Sam, and rather than pointing at the goal — building ships — it instead points down sharply at a worker trembling under its attention.In this new run’s December 22nd issue, the editors briefly returned to the subject of Swan Island’s first love, the Schenectady. An item which stands as an ode of sorts describes the ship’s life, from launch through near-destruction, repair, and return to operation. It ends thusly:

The “Old Lady” is turning out to be a champ. Speeding through war waters to new accomplishments, she probably chuckles to herself and says:“If the boys back home could only see me now!”

The Finger ended — as far as I know for the final time — with the very next issue. The headline on the top story read, “FINGER FOLDS”, and its front page included a quote from “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”.Dated January 3, 1944, it was one year and nearly three months since The Finger first appeared during the original construction of the SS Schenectady.

Written by Bix Frankonis, December 2003. (Revised: January 2004, August 2006, November 2011, June 2023.)