Resource and information guide created by Chelsea Reil, Archives Assistant, BNYDC Archives. August 2018.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard serves as a backdrop to Jennifer Egan’s historical novel Manhattan Beach, which follows protagonist Anna Kerrigan and her employment at the Yard during World War II, first as a parts inspector and then as a diver. Egan thoroughly researched the history of the waterfront at many Brooklyn institutions, including the BNYDC Archives.
Before the war, the Brooklyn Navy Yard (then called the New York Naval Shipyard) had an exclusively male workforce. On September 14, 1942, 600 women began working as welders, mechanics, and electricians, among other industrial jobs. Click here to read an issue of the Shipworker, the Navy Yard’s newsletter, which discusses the mass hiring.
Seeing Nell for the first time, Anna passes one of the Yard’s structural shops, “with its thousand dingy windows.” This was Building 4, which was demolished in 1941 (the site is now home to the NYPD Tow Pound).
Stories From the Yard
Do you recall when Anna’s friend Nell falls off her bicycle in Chapter 5? That really happened. In 2008, the Archives partnered with the Brooklyn Historical Society for the Brooklyn Navy Yard Oral History Project. Archives and BHS staff (as well as Egan herself) conducted a series of oral history interviews with people — particularly women — who worked at the Yard during the war. Like Anna, Audrey Garbers Lyons was a parts inspector in the Yard from 1943 until 1945. In her oral history, Ms. Lyons tells a story about falling off a bicycle in the Yard. Click here to listen.
One of Anna’s duties as parts inspector is making special deliveries to Building 77, a massive storage building which recently underwent extensive renovations, with the ground floor being transformed into to a public food manufacturing center. In the 1940s and 50s, the top floors held the Department of Public Works and the Office of the Commandant — the highest-ranking officer and overseer of the Yard. Anna describes peering out the windows on the top floor and being able to see the entire Yard. Click here to see an architectural drawing of Building 77.
Anna often mentions selling war bonds as an employee of the Yard. Workers really were encouraged to sell bonds to their family and friends to support the war effort. The Yard regularly held contests to try to beat out other Naval shipyards across the country. Click here to read an article in the Shipworker about defense bonds.
Map of the Yard
For those that read the physical version of Manhattan Beach, the beautiful map on the inside cover is also from our collection. Click here to see the full map in detail.