CHARLESTON, W.Va. — They built fleets of Avengers and Marauders, aircraft that Americans flew into battle during World War II. They carefully assembled countless explosive fuses and separated the chemicals for making TNT. Unknowingly at the time, some even crafted parts for the atomic bombs that helped end the war.
They are West Virginians who served on the home front, among the millions of women who worked at defense plants to supply the war effort. They are the real lives behind the cultural icon known as Rosie the Riveter, and they've begun telling their stories while they still can.
Rosies performed all sorts of jobs as the U.S. ramped up war production, including those traditionally held by men as women replaced them entering the armed forces. The effort to recruit the needed labor force led to the images of the feminine, rolled-sleeved patriotic worker made famous by Norman Rockwell, J. Howard Miller and others. The propaganda campaign spawned a hit song at the time as well.
The West Virginia ranks of Rosies include genuine riveters. Lessie Moses recalled working alongside her sister as they fastened wing flaps and bomb-bay doors at a factory in Canton, Ohio in 1943 and 1944.
"We did it because we knew it had to be done, and we were the only ones to do it," said Moses, now 92, of Milton. "They told us, you know, that there weren't any men to do it. A lot of people said it was depressing, but to me it wasn't depressing. I just thought it was work that had to be done."
Bobbie Lamb speaks with pride of the performance and exploits of the bombers she helped assemble in Baltimore, the B-26 Marauder and B-29 Superfortress. The 89-year-old Randolph County resident was given classes in sheet-metal work and welding to learn the needed tasks for her job. Those included ensuring that metal panels for the warplanes were perfectly level.
"I never thought anything about it," Lamb said. "Everyone was working, and I never felt that I was doing anything special. I felt I was doing my duty."
Duty and economic reality helped bring Willodean Brady to Baltimore as well, where she worked a drill and rivet gun to build tails for TBM Avenger torpedo bombers.
"The war was going on, and I did not want to go back to Booger Hole," said Brady, 86, referring to her rural community at the time. She now lives in Wood County. "That was a big reason."
Several recurring themes emerge from these stories. The West Virginia Rosies tended to hail from large families, and grew up on farms. They enjoy talking shop. Several can still sling factory jargon about rivets, air guns and bucking bars. Irene Gunn of Calhoun County recalled the dangers of assembling explosive fuses, while Dot Finn of Raleigh County described converting ammonia for TNT.
Their experiences also reflected the times. Lillian Eddy recounted buying slacks for the first time, before working at what was a Plymouth auto plant in the Detroit area. The 87-year-old also said she was transferred to a different room on her first day, after her male superintendent found she was working alongside a biracial woman.
The man was from Tennessee and thought Eddy would be offended as a fellow southerner, she said.
"I kept trying to tell him, I didn't see anything wrong with it," Eddy said. "I said, 'We got along fine.' But he moved me."
Eddy also said she did not learn until the war's end the purpose behind the long, slim alloy tubes she handled at that plant.
"When the bombs were dropped, They called us all in together and told us there had been atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and Japan surrendered," Eddy said. "They said, 'That's what you've been doing. You've been working on those bombs.'"
Another common thread: the women were well-acquainted with hard work before they joined the war effort.
By the time she reached 6th grade, Eddy had become the janitor at her one-room schoolhouse in Braxton County. The 87-year-old later all but wore off her fingerprints on the assembly line at a Westinghouse light bulb factory in Fairmont, despite wearing three pairs of gloves each shift.
Mazie Mullins was 13 when she began doing the laundry by hand for a neighboring boarding house. Her resume by age 17 also included working a dairy farm and walking three miles each way on weekends to wash dishes at a Fayette County establishment. She became a riveter at a sprawling bomber factory.
"This is about the American spirit, and it's something about the West Virginia spirit," said Anne Montague. "Most of all, there is something in this whole process that we're going through here and discovering that has to do with pioneer spirit."
Montague is a driving force behind the West Virginia Rosie the Riveter Project. As founder and director of the veterans support group Thanks! Plain and Simple, Montague launched the project in 2009. Aided by The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation and other supporters, the project has located more than 175 living Rosies in West Virginia.
The project's goals include creating a national model that shows other communities how to identify and enlist Rosies to preserve their stories, Montague said.
"We don't want this to just lie fallow somewhere in an archive," she said. "We want to show the women as long as we can, telling their own stories, and kind of bragging about their own selves about what they've done and even what they're doing today."
Military officials from both Belgium and Britain have visited West Virginia since the project started, to thank Rosies for their contributions. The project's successes helped earn it attention last month from NBC's "Today" show, which interviewed 50 Rosies at the South Charleston Ordnance Center in late March for a coming segment.
A small Maryland town honored these women with a Veterans Day parade in November, Montague said. West Virginia Rosies will be traveling to Columbia, S.C., on April 19 for that city's Freedom Day celebration. Purcellville, Va., will similarly be hosting Rosies on May 12, she said. Montague hopes that these and other events will help spur a national movement to recognize the Rosies and what they did.
"Many communities have Rosies but just don't know it," she said.
Eleven of the West Virginia Rosies shared their experiences Wednesday at Glenville State College. The Gilmer County school recently started a veterans' affairs office to aid students who have served in the military. Glenville State also hosts the West Virginia Veterans' Legacy Project, which has already interviewed dozens of men who served during World War II and is now expanding its scope. The project's goals include transcribing the interviews and digitizing records from the era including newspaper articles and personal photos, said Jason Gum, who recorded interviews with several of the Rosies attending Wednesday's event.
With major funding from the West Virginia Humanities Council, the West Virginia Rosie the Riveter Project filmed a 70-minute documentary, "We Pull Together - Rosie the Riveter Then and Now." It was screened at the Glenville forum. But several of the Rosies interviewed for the film died before it premiered last June. Wednesday's event also helped underscore a sense of urgency behind the project. One Rosie who planned to attend proved too ill to travel. Another Rosie, a member of the project's board of directors, has been in intensive care for the past several weeks and is unable to breathe on her own, Montague said.
"We have such a huge job to do, and so little time," Montague said.
West Virginia Rosie the Riveter Project: http://thanksplainandsimple.com/rosies/index.htm
West Virginia Veterans' Legacy Project: http://www.glenville.edu/library/archives/vet_legacy.php
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