The Rosie the Riveter song, penned by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, first hit airwaves early in 1943. Rosie, however, had been hard at work on the assembly lines, at the gas pumps and many other jobs in male-dominated fields since at least 1942.
She built munitions, planes, tanks and ships by the score. In short, she made sure the boys on the front lines weren’t caught short of vital warfighting equipment.
Enticed by necessity—most of the able-bodied men had either enlisted or were drafted—and propaganda with messages like, “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill,” America’s women stepped up in droves. Some sources put the number of women in the workplace during World War II at 19 million. If you ask the American Rosie the Riveter Association, the count is much higher.
“The little girl on her tricycle picking up scrap metal, we consider her a Rosie, too,” said Donnaleen Lanktree, a former president of the association. “If they worked [outside the home] during the war, we consider them a Rosie.”
Regardless of the job, they were there doing what, until then, had been men’s jobs thought to require too much skill and technical prowess for women. In fact, in 1945, as the war began winding down, attitudes shifted and women were encouraged to return to their duties as homemakers.
But they had tasted freedom and accomplishment, and their confidence had grown. They made their own money. For some, returning to the now seemingly dull routine of housekeeping wasn’t going to fly.
Inez Sauer learned this lesson as a tool clerk for Boeing in its Seattle plant.
“My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, ‘You will never want to go back to being a housewife,’” Sauer said in a Library of Congress video presentation. “At that time I didn’t think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did. … After the war, I could never go back . . . when I knew there were things you could use your mind for. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at 31, I finally grew up.”
This was an awakening for many women and never again did the number of women in the workforce dip below World War II numbers. Women made up about 27 percent of the prewar workplace, but during the war that number grew to nearly 37 percent.
“The war years had a tremendous impact on women. I know for myself it was the first time I had a chance to get out of the kitchen and work in industry and make a few bucks. This was something I had never dreamed would happen,” Sybil Lewis, a riveter for Lockheed, told the authors of The Homefront. “The war years offered new possibilities. You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job. This was the beginning of women feeling that they could do something more.”
Today they may agree World War II opened doors for them, but back then it was about doing what needed to be done to help America win the war.
On June 9, six original Rosies—all members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association—gathered at the Bomber Restaurant, just down the road from the old Willow Run Bomber Plant, for lunch. It was one of their bimonthly get-togethers—a chance for Rachel Mae, Lorraine, Mallie, Phyllis, Mary Jane and Marge to catch up. The ladies range in age from their late 80s up to 100. Mary Jane celebrated her 100th birthday on the 70th anniversary of V-J Day.
The Bomber Restaurant staff had “Rosied up” the place. The ladies’ sat at a table covered with a red-and-white polka dot cloth that matched the bandanas they’re known for. And the restaurant’s server, Tamara Wiley, may have had the ladies thinking they were seeing things. Her outfit was more suited for the bomber plant in the ’40s than the gem of a diner with a history rooted in feeding the Willow Run workers all those years ago.
While they laughed and discussed happenings since the last gathering, the conversation always ended up back on the floor of the bomber plant.
“I was there for two and a half years,” Rachel Mae Esterling Perry said, adding she had the measles while working there. “I told the boss if he didn’t get away and leave me alone, I’d give him the measles, too!”
Mallie Mellon said working at Willow Run was a good experience, but it was hard work turning out a bomber an hour.
“We just really worked hard,” she said. “Our boss, he was really rough on us, ‘C’mon, we gotta get this done. C’mon we gotta get this done.’”
Mellon did some riveting for a while and then became a burnisher, using a small tool to polish the holes the rivets went into.
She also said she and fellow Rosie, Lorraine Osborne, who have known each other for decades, just recently realized they were related by marriage.
Osborne was a riveter, too.
“I’d put my arm up this way and go, ‘boom, boom, boom,’ with all the rivets with somebody on the other side a buckin’,” she said, referring to a bucker who smoothed out the rivets.
She was hurt on the job more than once, but a second injury—a piece of aluminum in her eye—interrupted her days as a riveter. It also helped her suss out a saboteur of sorts.
“I had a patch on my eye, selling war bonds out there,” Osborne said. “I come up on this guy and asked if he wanted to buy a war bond. He cussed me all to pieces. He said he was there from Germany. He was making money to send back over there so they could buy guns to whip the United States.”
She reported him to the office and the FBI showed up. “They took him out,” she said. “I don’t know what happened [to him] after that.”
Some of the women worked for different elements of the aircraft industry. Phyllis Rosaline Gill Lenhard worked for the War Department as a checker at Hudson Motor car company, which produced, among other things, parts for the B-29 bombers during WWII.
“[I checked] the parts that go into B-29s. I had to analyze all the tooling,” she said. “I was the only girl in there with all these men.” But that wasn’t all bad. She was greeted each morning with a friendly, “Here comes the queen.”
Mary Jane Neely Childers said she worked at Stinson Aircraft Company, which was located in Wayne County, Michigan. When Vultee Aircraft Corporation and Consolidated—the originator of the B-24s bombers eventually built at Willow Run—merged in 1942, Stinson became a division of the new company.
“I sat inside the plane,” Childers said. “We had to hold something [a bucking bar] up there and the Rosie the Riveter was on top. We changed places every two hours.”
Regardless of where they worked, getting there wasn’t easy for any of the Rosies. Even if they had a car, gasoline was in short supply. “There was gas rationing … but I gave my gas stamps to someone else and they drove,” Childers said. “That was the way we got by.”
Marge Walters had a very similar experience. “I didn’t drive or anything then and I was riding with some of the fellows that worked in the department.” she said.
Originally from Superior, Wisconsin, Walters watched one brother leave home for Detroit—and a job—in 1939. With jobs hard to find at home, another brother headed for Detroit. After the third brother joined them, Walters, 19, figured it was her turn. It was 1941.
“We were at my brother’s house the night of Pearl Harbor,” she said. “He had seven boarders. They all had radios and they just kept listing and coming back, ‘Well, this happened.’ It was very exciting.”
At the time she was working for United Stove Company, but the plant was closed because the metal needed to make the stoves had been redirected to the war effort. It went out to Willow Run. And so did Walters.
“When I worked at the stove works, I got 40 cents an hour,” she said. “When I went out to the bomber plant, I got a dollar an hour. It was very good money.”
She worked in center wing, horizontal, Department 937, she said. The first center wing section she worked on when she started at the plant would become part of the 36th or 37th Ford-made B-24. She worked until the 8,685th bomber rolled off the assembly line and the plant was closed in 1945.
But before that happened, she got something of a bonus.
“I met my husband out there,” she said, giggling. “He was from Michigan [and] worked for the same department I worked in. We weren’t married then, but we corresponded all during the war.”
Walters has no shortage of memories. Back then, she could fill up her Buick for about $7. “I think it had a 20- or 25-gallon tank,” she said. Or that gasoline could be used for dry cleaning. (Please don’t try this at home.)
What strikes her most, though is that now everyone wants to hear from them. “They pay more attention to us know than they did then,” she said, laughing.
While it was Willow Run that gave wings to the iconic Rosie the Riveter, the fact of the matter is Rosies worked all over the country, from east to west and north to south, in every factory that needed them, doing every job that needed doing. And America wouldn’t be what it is today without them.
If you’re an original Rosie and would like to find others in your area, or you’re the descendant of a Rosie and would like to help keep their history alive, go to rosietheriveter.org.
If you’re a female descendant, you can become a “Rosebud.” Men, contrary to subconscious thoughts, you aren’t referred to as thorns. They call you “Rivets.”
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.