Louise Himes, who passed away May 14, 2010, didn’t realize she would become a collective part of a historical icon when she started working jobs that made it possible for America’s men to keep fighting during World War II.
Those jobs made her a bona fide “Rosie the Riveter,” however, and in 2006 she told her story as part of the Veterans History Project administered by the Library of Congress. What follows is a summary of her recollections during the interview for the project.
Himes was born in Dixie, West Virginia, in 1919, but before long her family moved to the coal mining town of Hughes Creek where she lived until she was 15. She was one of 15 children, but two died early.
“When I became … 20, they were recruiting people for jobs. They recruited us to go to Alton, Maryland, to make powder … to make detonators or shells of some sorts,” she said. “I think we were only there for a few months when they had a huge explosion.
“There was a lot of people killed, but it wasn’t advertised."
She wasn’t allowed to take another defense job for 30 days, but when that month was up, she went to work for Dravo Corporation. Dravo was responsible for the Landing Ship Tanks (LST) used in World War II and had several facilities in the region, including the one in Delaware where Himes landed. She became a first class welder after serving an apprenticeship there.
Getting that job wasn’t as simple as volunteering or interviewing. Himes was recruited by the company and had to find several people who would vouch for her.
“The closest town was Montgomery [West Virginia], which … had a few stores,” she said. “They had a five and ten, a movie theater and things like that. I had to go to a couple of those people there and get them to sign an oath or something that I was a citizen.
Her time at Dravo not only provided her with a new skill, she also met her husband, an electrical foreman, there.
“He decided he liked me, so he had his people to drag my lines and things on to the ship when I used to have to do it myself,” she said. “And then … we became friends and started dating and ended up getting married.”
Her husband was drafted a few months before the war was over and before she was laid off from Dravo. But she met him in Florida where he was stationed.
But he wasn’t the only war veteran returning from the fight. Each of her five brothers served overseas during the war. She had thoughts of trying to join up, too.
“I wanted to go in so bad and my mother … just wound not adhere to it,” she said. “She said, ‘I have five sons, why should I give up a daughter?’
“That was my main reason [for going to work what was traditionally a man’s job],” she said. “We were poor people.”
And the wages at Dravo were good for the time - 69 cents an hour as they were learning their craft and up to $1.69 an hour when they achieved the status of first class welder. That’s what she made working an eight-hour day shift from 1943 to 1945 with Dravo.
“War or no war … I liked my job,” Himes said. “It was a happy time … watching that ship go in that water. And you know, the Christiana River is not that wide, and that big ole ship going down there … it looked like was going to wash all the water up on the banks.
“I was proud to be a part of it, and enjoyed every minute of it,” she added. “It was just a happy time, but when the war was over. I was much happier.”
Despite working in weather that was “cold as heck” in the winter seasons, Himes’ memories of those times were so fond that she said she would do it all over again in a “heartbeat.”