KINGMAN, Ariz. — More than 60 years after building her last Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Billie Piercy got her first chance to fly in one on March 31 when one of a handful of B-17s in the world that has been restored to flying condition visited the Deer Valley Airport in northwest Phoenix.
In 1943, Piercy was one of thousands of young women who joined the war effort and signed up to build B-17s at a Boeing aircraft facility in Seattle.
"I was 17 and living in Everett (Washington.) I was so proud I had gotten a job. I came home and said, 'I've got a job. I'm going to make 87 cents an hour,'" she said. "That's what you did back then. As soon as you were old enough, you got a job."
Her mother, who was planning to move to Alaska, was relieved. "I think it was one less thing she would have to worry about moving," she chuckled.
Piercy still remembers her first day on the job. She was proud and excited. Everyone had someone in their family or knew someone who was serving in the military or worked in a plant, she said. Her brother served in the European theater, and two cousins survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The entire country was hyped up on patriotism, she said.
"It was sort of like that first week after 9/11, except we were gung-ho for about four years," Piercy said. "I don't ever remember goofing off or missing a day of work."
And everyone knew someone or knew of someone who had a relative killed in the war.
"If you had a family member in the military, you feared the Western Union man showing up on your doorstep. That's how you were notified that someone had died. You grew up fast in that era," she said.
A man took Piercy and the other new employees through the plant, teaching them the different parts of the assembly line, pointing out the bomb shelters, the camouflage paint on the buildings, explaining the evacuation procedures should the plant be hit by enemy bombs and the rumors of enemy submarines off the coast.
"By the end of the day I was convinced I was going to die," Piercy said.
She was one of 12 women assigned to the part of the plant that fastened the tail to the fuselage of the bomber and worked on the plane's bomb bay.
The plant churned out about 12-14 planes a day that were transported to battlefields around the world.
"The boss kept telling us every day, 'X number of planes were shot down yesterday. We have to replace them,'" she said.
She worked on a variety of projects on the tail, but mainly as a rivet bucker. Rivet buckers were women who worked on the inside of the plane. They held a metal tool against the skin of the plane to flatten the rivets as they were shot through the skin of the plane from the other side.
"You didn't talk, there was so much noise you couldn't, you just waved your hands at someone to get their attention," she said.
Piercy she remembers one time when she and a handful of other women were lined up ready to buck rivets when the woman who was responsible for punching the holes in the metal skin came down the line.
"I'm left-handed so I was on the wrong side of the line. When she punched through the metal she couldn't see, and she pulled out a half-inch chunk of my hair. Boy was I mad and I let her know," she said. The other women laughed, especially when her hair grew back snow white.
Piercy's work wasn't finished at the end of the workday. Because she hadn't finished high school, she went to night school and lived in a dorm with the rest of the single women. Every night after finishing her schoolwork, Percy and the other women would walk to nearby roller rink for a night of fun and then walk home at 1:30 a.m. to start their workday at 7:30 a.m.
She also remembers the rationing during the war years. Because of the need for metal and manufacturing plants, no new cars were made between 1941 and 1946, she said. Food, gasoline, cigarettes and sometimes even shoes were rationed. She remembers eating Spam sandwiches for lunch at the plant's lunch counter.
Piercy worked a year at the plant before leaving to get married to a sailor. She was engaged at the time she started working at the plant, but many of the young women who worked there were not and most of the men were overseas serving in the military.
"Some of (the women) used to stick notes in planes, hoping some pilot or solider would write to them. I never heard of any of them getting a response," she chuckled.
When Piercy found out that a B-17 was going to be at Deer Valley Airport and was offering rides, she contacted the group that had restored the plane.
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"When I found out that they were charging $400 a ride, I was disappointed. I explained to the guy that I had built them and never had gotten the chance to fly in one. He offered me a ride free of charge," she said. She flew with a former B-17 pilot and a former Women's Army Corps member.
"It was very rattley and very noisy," she said, but she was glad that she finally got the chance to fly in a plane that she may have helped build.
Information from: Kingman Daily Miner, http://www.kingmandailyminer.com