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Written by Alma (Carrington) Taylor and transcribed by Carmen Salas
On a quiet Sunday afternoon in December 1941, three young college girls living at the Wendt Apartments, a grand old Queen Ann architectural gem on the corner of South 4th and E. San Carlos Streets, across from the SJSU gym, were studying while the radio was on, when the program was interrupted by an announcement that "Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese", and that ships, planes and civilian installations have been hit.
Knowing that it would mean their boyfriends, who later would become their husbands, were going to be in great danger because they were all in the service having been already drafted, the girls began to cry, as did thousands of other women all over the United States. One of those girls was me.
A short time later, ‘Rosie the Riveter’ became a reality. Women from coast to coast went to work in the defense plants and shipyards, some as riveters, some as welders and others in the offices of huge defense plants to help with the vital war effort.
On June 5, 2004, a memorial park in Richmond, California was dedicated to the “Rosies”. It contains remembrances and photos from many of the women who worked on the home front. The park is called the “Rosie the Riveter/ Home Front National Historical Park.”
It is more than sixty years after six million “Rosies” took up the tools the men set down when America entered WWII.
It’s easy to forget what Rosie was all about, and to think that she has nothing to say to us across the years since the war. Imagine what we could learn if rather than one day at a museum, we could spend a day with Rosie in her world. What if we could see firsthand what she risked, what she sacrificed, what she wore and what she created!
What if we could glimpse her sense of duty, her pride and her hope for the future that we inherited.
If we could spend such a day, the story of Rosie would no longer be just a quaint piece of history or an almost-forgotten family anecdote. It would be something we could hold in our hands, like a cherished letter that captures the nugget of truth that textbooks so often miss. It would be something that lives on as part of us--relevant, resonant and real.
Before the sun came up, many Rosies prepared for the most wrenching moment of the day; saying goodbye to their children. The men were gone, jobs had to be done, and someone had to care for the children. Working women today often feel alone in their struggle to balance work and family and it’s heartening to realize that wartime women were coming up with innovative solutions for managing the balance more than sixty years ago with quiet, humble, get-it-done dignity.
In some instances one woman would watch all of the children on the whole block while all the other mothers went to work at their war jobs: A modern daycare!
With gas in short supply, some, myself included, carpooled to work or took long bus rides. There was a lot of time to talk and think about the dreams of youth cut short, far-places like Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, and what it meant to be leaving the house and wielding an acetylene torch to make a plane that would carry a bomb to destroy the enemy.
In his famous speech, FDR stated that with “confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounded determination of our people--we will gain the inevitable triumph.”
He spoke of all the American people in the same breath as the enlisted soldiers, because it was clear that everyone would have to sacrifice and serve. Women on the home front rose to the occasion doing a kind of duty the world has never known.
When women stepped on to the factory floor, they were so out of place, they might as well have been stepping onto the moon. Men who were still on the job would sometimes send Rosies out looking for a left-handed screwdriver, and the women would (I don’t think many of them were that stupid) go searching for a tool that didn’t exist.Searching for understanding, searching for a tiny foothold in a hostile world. Sometimes they came back laughing, and other times in tears.
All of this workplace uncertainty was played out against the numbing fear of getting news that a son, husband or father had been killed, as well as the irritating news that there would be no meat, no sugar and no gas again.
The women could have turned around and gone home and said that it was too much to bear, but they didn’t. They stayed and they stood their ground and did their jobs superbly.
Everyday brought Rosies a new opportunity to shine. Although American women had excelled for many generations at homemaking tasks, the workplace offered a whole new realm for them to explore and a whole new way for them to achieve success.
Many women relished the chance to prove their worth in this new arena and found that their organizational skills, as well as their skill with needles, and other household tools, transferred directly to the working place in the factory.
The same women who figured out how to drive a rivet inside of the narrow nose of a B-26 or who earned a reputation as the toughest inspector of ammunition casings in factory history, would recognize the women who today pilot the space shuttle, design skyscrapers and drive 200 MPH around a racetrack, and they would no doubt, applaud their efforts.
When the days seemed to drag on forever, morale would get a boost by a visit from a movie star or from the President himself. This did not happen at Joshua Hendy Iron Works in Sunnyvale where I worked in the office, though we had visits from other dignitaries.
Every women who bucked a rivet, welded a seam, polished a wing, stitched a parachute, inspected a casing or contributed to the war effort on the home front in those years of hardship, earned the right to be as proud as any other--famous face or not.
The 108th Congress made a resolution on May 4, 2004 honoring the contributions of the women, symbolized by Rosie the Riveter, who served on the home front during WWII.
This resolution states, and I quote:
“Six million women stepped forward to work in home front industries to produce the ships, planes, tanks, trucks, guns and ammunition that were crucial to achieving an allied victory;
Whereas… women worked in home front industries as welders, riveters, engineers, designers and managers and held other positions that had traditionally been held by men;
Whereas…women demonstrated great skill and dedication in difficult and often dangerous jobs they held, which enabled them to produce urgently needed military equipment at record breaking speeds;
Whereas… the need for labor in home front industries during Work War II opened new employment opportunities for women from all walks of life and dramatically increased gender and racial integration in the workplace;
Whereas… the service of women on the home front during Work War II marked an unprecedented entry of women into jobs traditionally held by men and created a lasting legacy of the ability of women to succeed in those jobs;
Whereas… the needs of working mothers resulted in the creation of child care programs leading to the lasting legacy of public acceptance of early child development and care outside the home;
Whereas… the needs of women on the home front led to employer-sponsored prepaid and preventative health care never before seen in the United States;
Whereas… in 2000, Congress recognized the significance to the nation of the industrial achievements on the home front during world war II and the legacy of the women who worked in those industries through the establishment of Rosie the Riveter worked war II home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, CA as a unit of the National Park system.
Now therefore, be it resolved by the senate (The House of Representative Concurring), that Congress—
1.) Honors the extraordinary contributions of the women whose dedicated service on the home front during World War II was instrumental in achieving an allied victory;
2.) Recognizes the lasting legacy of equal employment opportunity and support for child care and health care that developed during the Rosie the Riveter era; and
3.) Calls on the people of the United State to take the opportunity to study, reflect on, and celebrate the stores and accomplishments of women who served the nation as Rosies during World War II.
Many letters were written and printed in the packet that each of us received when we attended the dedication on June 5, 2004. Mine was too long to be printed, but it is residing as are all of the other women’s letters and memorabilia in the Park’s building.
One from First Lady Laura Bush follows.
President Bush and I give you our heartfelt thanks for the historic role you played in defending the freedom of our country more that sixty years ago. You may not have thought at the time, that you were doing anything historic or heroic. You may remember only how hot it was in the factory or how cold it was on the bus. People who do great things often don’t believe that they are doing anything extraordinary. You will hear them say, "We were just doing what had to be done".
But out of those everyday moments, heroes are born. Out of these everyday duties, great nations rise. Entire generations of women have followed in the footsteps that took you to the factories during the long days and nights of World War II, and we are a better country because of it.
With deepest gratitude,
I will conclude with my favorite letter.
“When I was in high school, I went with my grandmother to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum--that vast and magnificent public space designed to preserve and protect our national heritage. We were there to see the display of World War II aircraft. I had once heard some relatives say that my grandmother had worked at a factory that made planes during the war, but she was a well-coiffed woman who was always impeccably dress, and it seemed unbelievable that she was ever that young or that strong. We approached a B26 bomber called “Flak Bait.” The high-performance bomber had acquired more that 1,000 holes in 21 months of flights and had flown two missions from England on D-Day. “Look, Grandma,” I said, pointing to the plane, thinking that maybe she’d have something to say about the invasion at Normandy or the 1,000 holes. I noticed that she was smiling. “Did you work on planes like this?” I asked politely. She reached up and touched the fuselage, running her wrinkled hands over the rivets. “No,” she said. “I didn’t build planes like this.” I was about to move to the next plane, maybe to the next exhibit, when she added quietly, “I built this plane.” ---Gavin E. Valle
Editor’s note: Mrs. Taylor is a long time PAC*SJ member and Ms Salas is a student at Notre Dame High School and daughter of Carl and Marianne Salas, PAC*SJ members support our seasonal garage sales.