A lifetime after the slogan “We can do it!” became the memory “We did do it!”, thirty “Rosie the Riveters” were feted and finally thanked for their service in Washington this week.
Just as news of terror attacks in Brussels circulated Tuesday morning, an announcement at Reagan National Airport invited travelers to greet these heroes — a few of the thousands of American women who contributed to the war effort during World War II by doing what was then considered men’s work in factories, making bombers and munitions.
The “Rosies,” now in their 80s, 90s and beyond, arrived from Detroit, where most of them live, via the first all-female honor flight, courtesy of the Yankee Air Museum and the Ford Motor Company Fund; in the 1940s, Ford employed many of the women. As they slowly moved off the plane in matching red cardigans and iconic red and white polka-dot scarves, hundreds of people waving U.S. flags cheered and school children sang “This Land is Your Land.”
The two Michigan lawmakers — Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell and Republican Rep. Candice Miller — who had organized the trip lauded the women during a luncheon at the Library of Congress: “We will not let fear divide us; we will always be Americans,” Dingell said in her remarks. “And the ‘Rosies’ are our inspiration. The country was never the same for what you did for us, going to the workforce, opening the doors wider for us.”
Miller noted that the “Rosies” assembled one plane an hour at the height of the war, and made more in one month than Japan did in one year: “You might not have been armed, but you literally built the armor that brought the nation to peace.”
Later in the day, they visited the World War II Memorial and the Women in Military Service Memorial at the gateway to the Arlington National Cemetery — at the very moment the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would once again allow female World War II pilots to be interred there.
In interviews with Roll Call during their visit, eight of the women spoke about work, war, feminism, politics — and what happened after the men came back from the battlefields, and the “Rosies” were sent back home.
At 17, Loraine Osborne went to work riveting together the wings of war planes at one of the country’s largest munitions factories,
Willow Run Bomber Plant, a job she did with enormous pride from 1941 to 1945.
“Like the Germans said, ‘We put ‘em out faster than they could shoot ‘em down.’”
She also married a coworker during that time and had a child, “but when I came back from maternity leave, the war was over” and the factory closing.
Still, she was able to stay on with Ford, and even “met old man Henry Ford” at the Ypsilanti, Mich., generator plant where she worked for 32 years.
Widowed at 45, she raised her two children alone and “might have been hard on them,” but is pleased with the result. Along the way, she also took in and cooked for a succession of family members.
Now, “I’m 90 years old but last year I put up two bushels of beans, I put up 12 dozen of corn, I still mow my own lawn — two acres in it.” She doesn’t have or want cable television, and though she does like to watch ‘Jeopardy,’ she enjoys work more than leisure. “My mother always told me to put one foot in front of the other and keep going,” Osborne said.
By the time Phyllis Lenhard got a job inspecting B-29 bombers, she had already held dozens of jobs. She frosted donuts in the window of a coffee shop. She danced on a chorus line. She was a hostess at a country club on the PGA golf tour.
She was no adventure seeker, said Lenhard, who was born in 1919, but was simply a child of the depression who was orphaned at a young age and doing what she could to get by.
In fact, Lenhard never knew her parents, lived on her own in rooming houses starting at age 15 and took every job that came her way. Many were good ones, too, thanks to connections she made through an uncle, a boiler maker whose work had caught the eye of Henry Ford. She even dated Ford’s nephew for a time.
Lenhard enjoyed working in the factory, but when the war was over and she was forced out, she moved on to an office job for the Hearst newspaper company, soon making three times the $50 a week she’d taken home as a Rosie.
Married in 1946, she didn’t work outside the house again until her husband died in the 1960s. But even now, she wishes she could still get up and go to a job every morning:
“It was something that you accomplish, you know, you accomplish each day … I wanted to climb the ladder.”
But, she said, “I never expected all this attention.”
Don’t call Joyce Nowak a feminist.
At 91, she describes herself instead as just a simple person with a simple background — someone who didn’t fight for anything or ask for anything, but only did what was asked of her.
“I’m not a feminist, no, no, no,” she said. “Everybody did what they could. My next-door neighbor, and this fella and that child. Whatever, we all pitched in. So it wasn’t anything special.”
When the Americans entered the war, Nowak was still in high school in Ypsilanti, right next to Willow Run. The school expected the girls to work there, so it switched the lesson plans: the boys took home economics and the girls took drafting, a skill they would need to work on airplanes. Sure enough, Nowak spent the summer after she graduated installing hydraulic tubing on B-24s. They were called “liberator bombers,” she said.
She worked alongside dozens of people of short stature who’d been recruited from the circus because they could more easily work in the confined spaces of airplane wings.
The work itself was easy, she said, adding that it was her brother, who was a lieutenant colonel under Gen. George S. Patton. Later, she studied theology and worked several other jobs — including another one at a different munitions factory. Then she got married, became a homemaker and according to her, rarely thought of her work during the war.
“It was a job,” she said. “I didn’t realize how significant it was until later in life when people … asked me all kinds of questions, and I thought, ‘Oh, that was no big deal.’”
Stella Sarnacki was an oldest child who grew up without a father. From the time she was 16, she tried to help her mother make ends meet.
“I just started looking for better and better jobs,” she said. Sarnacki joined
the war effort at 19 by enrolling in a training course to operate a shaper machine for tool and die building. Later, she handled a screw machine at the reconditioned Highland Park Ford Plant, and made bearings there from 1942 until 1945.
“I loved working on machines like that. It wasn’t easy. But we learned.”
While in that job, she became pen pals with a Marine who’d only seen the picture of her she’d sent a friend of his. Two years later, they finally met — and stayed together for the 53 years until he died.
Once the war wound down, she did find work in smaller factories, which certainly paid better than working retail. Her only regret, really, was having lost touch with her fellow Rosies, many of whom had to return home to other states after the war ended.
In D.C., she was happy to be in the company of women who’d had so many of the same experiences all those years ago: “I wish I could stay about a month to take it all in.”
Only a few weeks after high school graduation, Madge Cowles took a job at the Willow Run Bomber Plant. Her first impression? “
I didn’t like it,” she said. “I came home and I cried” — and after two weeks,
begged her parents to let her quit. Her father convinced her that for the sake of her three brothers fighting overseas, she had to give it one last shot.
Fortunately, her supervisor let her stop riveting and start doing electrical work — and right away, she found that
she excelled at slipping into tight spots to do wiring. “I climbed all over the plane; I was young and skinny then.”
The one thing that caught her and the other first-time laborers totally by surprise, she said, was seeing the government take a little out of each paycheck. “We didn’t think that they should do that. But, of course, I understand that now,” she said of her introduction to payroll taxes.
When the plant closed, Cowles returned home and took a job managing a root beer stand, but later found another factory job and worked building small motors until she got married:
“My husband told me that every day I went to work he would spend in a beer garden.” So that was that.
Asked about politics, Cowles said, “I’m not a fan of Hillary Clinton,” and wouldn’t want to see any woman, Republican or Democrat, elected president.
At home, too, in her view, it’s the man who should have the last word: “I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s what I believe.”
Clara Doutly, who grew up in Detroit, loved working as a riveter when she was 20, but was ready to leave when she did, in 1947.
Afterwards, she became a substitute teacher in the Detroit Public School system. “The road wasn’t all that hard; it had some bumps and lumps along the way, but I made it, happy and satisfied, and this year I reached the gorgeous age of 94.”
She is intensely interested in
this year’s election, and deeply regrets that the candidates “
are not talking about what the people need; they are talking about each other.”
Without naming names, she said there is one — no, make that two — presidential hopefuls she “wouldn’t dream of voting for,” but yes, she is definitely going to cast a ballot.
“If you don’t vote, you can’t holler; I gotta vote, but it’s a problem.”
Frances Reeck had lost a previous, secretarial job when she got married — the company only employed single women — so she was especially grateful for her work at a bomber plant while h
er husband was deployed in the Philippines.
“I needed the job,” she said. “I needed the income.”
She and her four sisters all worked there, turning knobs all day long on machines that controlled oxygen leaks. But w
hen the war was over she didn’t mind leaving the factory, and back at home went on to raise nine children.
“Everyone was happy,” she said. “The war was over.”
Dorothy Kordich worked outside her home for only two of the 100 years she has been on this earth. But the money she made during the war changed her life, she said, because it was her income — not her husband’s — that paid for the bungalow where she raised her five children.
“We didn’t have much money,” she said of her time as a Rosie. “It was the only option I had.”
Kordich was 25 years old in 1941 when her husband left to serve in the Air Corps. She put their six-month-old baby in daycare, went to the Detroit Fleetwood plant where her father worked, and applied for a job.
“We’re looking for someone like you,” she remembers the manager telling her, meaning a woman whose husband was in the service.
The company put her to work inspecting the welding on B-29 bombers, looking for cracks or pin holes that could create weak spots during flight. She felt honored to be entrusted with such an important job and pleased to have a role in the war effort. But when her husband returned, he went to work at Chrysler and she went back to being a housewife.
Happy as she was that the war was over, she did miss the freedom and the extra income from her job. But she was reminded of her contribution almost every day: The family lived in the house she bought for 50 years.
Rosie the Riveter Gets Her Due in Washington
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