Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – Louis S. Lee, Shipyard Photographer

In the early part of 1942 – not long after the United States entered World War II on the side of the Allies — the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company established an emergency shipyard along the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, to construct vessels for the global fight against the Axis powers. The Vancouver Shipyard started out with an initial payroll of 38,000 workers. One of those individuals was a 29-year-old Chinese-American named Louis S. Lee, a photographer whom the Associated Press (AP) characterized in a November 1942 news story as an “industrial historian” taking pictures of “the day-to-day progress of the Vancouver Kaiser yards since it was a pasture full of cud-chewing dairy cattle last spring.”

When the United States had entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lee was living in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Dorothy and employed at a restaurant there. “Lee was a waiter until somebody gave him a cheap camera,” recounted that AP news story about him. “Then he became a complete camera nut. Lee is rated now as one of the most adept photographers on the Pacific Coast.”

The 200-acre (81-hectare) Vancouver Shipyard was one of the seven major facilities that the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company established on the west coast of the United States to help with the war effort. Five different types of vessels were produced at the Vancouver Shipyard from time of its opening in 1942 to the end of the war in 1945. The largest number of these vessels were Casablanca-class escort carriers built for the U.S. Navy.

As the official photographer for the Vancouver Shipyard throughout the war, Lee captured on film the round-the-clock construction work carried out there; the individuals who handled those duties; and various special events held at the facility. Lee’s photographs have since earned attention and acclaim as invaluable historical records of life at a Kaiser shipyard during a critical time in American history. Lee had the additional distinction of serving as president of the Vancouver Yard’s Three Year Club, a group of workers who remained at that shipbuilding yard during the duration of its operations on behalf of the war effort.

Photo Credit: National Park Service

For more information on Louis S. Lee and his Vancouver Yard photographs, please check out

Additional information on the Kaiser shipyards during World War II is available at

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