Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II
I was born in Davenport, Iowa on July 24, 1916. We moved to Florida when I was 7; then to Oakland, California in April of 1929.
Because I had 2 children, I could not enlist in one of the services, so decided to work in a defense industry. The Moorre Dry Dock Company was located on the Oakland estuary, so I applied there and was accepted for training as a sheet metal helper in April of 1943. I worked there until September of 1945.
My first day of work I thought would be my last. I was assigned to the Sheet Metal Shop on the Outfitting Dock. My job was to use a 3G hydraulically operated grinder which was used to grind rough edges of the flanges for connecting lengths of ventilation ducts, which were installed throughout the ships’ cargo holds. The flanges were low enough to require bending down. I had never been so tired and achy.
On my second day, one of the men told me that the foreman did not approve of women working in the shipyard, and that was his method of trying to discourage us. Needless to say, my aches and pains were forgotten, and after the third day, the foreman relented and assigned me to other tasks.
Among these were helping to position huge sheets of metal on the folding machine to shape them into rectangular ducts, and bucking rivets to hold the seam together. Each sheet of metal had one edge folded over about an inch that overlapped the other sheet edge. Holes were drilled at intervals and then I crawled inside the duct with a supply of soft rivets, pushed rivets through the holes and then held a bucking bar against them while the sheet metal man flattened the ends with a hammer. This job is pictured in the article, “Tin Men,” which I have supplied. It is incredible to look back and realize the miles of ducts that were formed in this manner. After each section of the duct was completed, the flanges were welded to each end and then transported to the hull for assembly.
The floor of the shop was made of dirt and became damp during rainy weather. So, one day, the foreman decided the men working at the benches needed to have platforms on which to stand. He told me to go up on one of the hulls to the carpenter shop and ask one of them to build some platforms for us. The carpenter agreed and we soon had them.
After that I was the fair-haired girl and was assigned to the tool crib where I checked out rivets and hand tools.
Thinking about hulls and outfitting docks reminds me that until I worked in the shipyard, I had assumed that when ships were launched they sailed away completely built. There I learned that on the ways, only the hull, deck, and bulkheads are put together. After launching, the hulls are towed to the outfitting docks for completion.
We worked hard, many 10-hour days and 7-day weeks. One year the only holiday we had was Christmas Day. Two requirements we didn’t enjoy were the necessity of confining our hair in bandannas at all times, and wearing hard hats on the docks or hulls. (The hard hats made wonderful rain hats.)
Two nice things happened: One was the opportunity to go on a shakedown cruise. Those were only as far as the Farallon Islands due to the threat of Japanese submarines. It was the first time I had seen the Golden Gate Bridge from sea. (The time-keeper came by the shop the next day to inspect my time card to be sure I hadn’t clocked in to get paid for the day.) The other nice thing was receiving passes for my family and me to attend a ship’s christening. In one of the pictures taken, my daughter was a blur across it. I ordered a copy anyway. A few days later, Mr. Moore’s secretary called and asked me to come to his office. He had been checking the pictures and who had ordered them. He told me I should have a better picture and gave me passes to the next christening and said the photographer would take another picture. It is included in my memorabilia.
In the beginning the shipyard was divided between Maritime and Navy. One of the naval ships docked was the mother ship for submarines. I was permitted to board her and was really impressed with the amenities, especially the soda fountain.
Eventually the Navy left and Maritime took over the entire yard. I was put in charge of the large tool crib. It was necessary at times to go aboard the hulls, to both those still on the ways and the outfitting dock. The odors of hot steel caused by welding, drilling and riveting were overpowering. I was fortunate that I didn’t need to work in those spaces.
One aspect I remember with gratitude was the day-care center maintained for the children of defense workers. The only requirement was that the child be toilet trained. The women operating the center were wonderful. The center was adjacent to a school and when my son was old enough he was taken there to attend kindergarten.
I went to work in a car pool and they were cooperative enough to drop my children off at the center about 6:30 a.m. Each child had his or her own cot. They were put back to bed until breakfast time. A lasting legacy was that when my children were in elementary school, teachers of both of them told me how well adjusted they were. I attribute a large part of that to the fact that they were in the day-care center. I hope those women will receive the recognition they deserve.
One of the problems with working sometimes 10-hour day, cooking, childcare, housework was that there were times I couldn’t complete everything. There were no synthetic or wash and wear fabrics. Most clothes were made of cotton and little girls wore dresses that needed to be dampened and ironed. There were evenings I simply didn’t have the energy to do any ironing and I apologized one day to the day care worker about wrinkled clothes. She told me not to be concerned, that my children were always clean and that was what mattered.
I have seen the beaches where our soldiers landed in France on D-Day. It’s hard to believe they were able to do it against the defenses there. We were shocked at what they went through and equally shocked by the dropping of the bomb in Japan . But over it all was the thankfulness that the war was over.
Someone always loses a war, but no one really wins it – not when you consider the loss of thousands of lives. I won’t live long enough to see it, but I hope my great grand children will find universal peace.Lois Lettow