Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II
Susie the Welder
I was born on February 21rst, 1927 in San Francisco, the second child of Danish immigrants, Anna K. (known as Tina) Jensen Therp and Thorvald J. Therp.
My father arrived at Ellis Island in 1924 and worked at various jobs, usually in dairies and creameries to save enough money to send for my mother and brother, Kay. He worked his way to the west coast and his family sailed into San Francisco Bay to meet him.
Our family moved to Hayward and then to San Mateo . I was attending San Mateo High School when the war broke out. I was 14 years old. I had come down the stairs that morning and I saw my mother, father & brother huddled around the radio in the kitchen. I could hear the familiar voice of our President, Franklin D. Roosevelt saying that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor . Where was Pearl Harbor , I wondered? And why were they attacking us? My brother was saying quietly that he would enlist and hopefully be accepted as a pilot. I was full of questions, but not yet realizing what this would mean to our little family and our nation. Right away most of his friends and mine (as we were very close and his friends were my friends, too) began talking about the war and the service, knowing that they would be called to serve our country. They did not want to wait for that call and a group of them agreed to sign up as soon as possible. Events happened so fast after that – they were all leaving their homes and families, including my dear brother. They were sent to different boot camps all over the country. My brother was crushed that his eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot. Undaunted, he trained to be a radioman in the Navy. There was nothing wrong with his hearing!
We heard from him often. We waited for those letters and every time we received one, we knew he was safe again. He wrote wonderful letters! Full of observations and anecdotes and he was as cheerful as possible so as not to worry us unnecessarily. I still have many of his letters that I have saved all these years.
It seemed that our lives had changed overnight. My father was trying to get into the service even though he was in his forties. I was losing interest in school. It somehow didn’t feel as important is it once had. I begged my father to give his release for me to leave school. He was finally convinced by my promise to find a job right away. Dad persevered in his efforts to join up until, at last, he was accepted into the Navy, and was soon gone. My mother was working long hours and our house felt so empty. I began working as a waitress in a creamery. But I knew this was not what I wanted to do. I was just marking time. One night my friend Bonnie called me and said she had heard that Western Pipe and Steel in South San Francisco was hiring and she was going there in the morning. I said I wanted to go with her and apply for a job there also. We met the next morning to figure out how to get there. Neither of us had a car, so we decided to hitch hike. We were both hired that very day. Oh my, we really lied about our ages! We put down that we were 18 years old, but I was not quite 17 yet! No one raised an eyebrow! My friend was sent to class to learn how to become a “Burner”. I went to welding classes, held right across the street from the shipyards. Completing the required two-week classes, I became a “tacker” for a shipfitter named “Pucinelli”. His English was not perfect, but we worked well together and his sense of humor helped the long days pass quickly. After a coupe of months working with Pucinelli, I became a journeyman welder. That involved more complicated and challenging work, but I loved it. I felt like I was finally doing something that would bring my brother and others home again. I went to work every day with enthusiasm and dedication. The only real work-related issue that I recall from that time, were the arc, or flash burns that would affect my eyes. It was very painful. It was something that could not be avoided. When I would lift my welding hood and someone next to me struck their rod to start a weld on the ship, my eyes would be burned. The burn was not noticeable immediately. It would take several hours before symptoms began. I could be out with friends and feel my eyes start to burn, and know I had to get home quickly. Soon the pain would increase and I would not be able to see. Once I was on a date and it started. I told the young sailor I had to get home because soon I would not be able to see. That did not go over well because he thought I just didn’t like him and he walked off and left me. I got as far as the bus depot and then could not see. For some reason a taxi driver noticed me in my distress and drove me home and walked me to my door. I was totally blind by then. My mother opened the door and thanked the driver. I think of his kindness to a stranger now and I am so grateful. My mother quickly put ice bags on my eyes. That helped reduce the pain and swelling a somewhat, but there was really not much we could do to alleviate the condition. It would take many hours before it would slowly recede. I was usually OK in the morning and could go back to work, but it’s something I’ll always remember.
During that time, I worked on a ship called “The Cardinal” from start to finish. I was there when the champagne bottle broke across its bow and it entered the water. I was told that most of these ships were “ Liberty ” ships and surrounded the battle ships for protection. I have often wondered what happened to that ship and if it survived the war. When I drive through Richmond and see the ships there I wonder if “The Cardinal” is among them.
After a year or so things began to slow down at the shipyard. There was just not enough work to keep me busy and I left Western Pipe and Steel. I got a job doing assembly work for a company that had defense contracts. The word was going around that the war would soon be over. It was at this time I met the young man who I would marry and have two daughters with.
His name was Ennis Harold Page, and everyone called him “Hal”. He was stationed in the Oakland hospital waiting for his discharge. He had been in the battles of Saipan and Tinian and had sustained injuries, but was almost fully recovered. He had been working on the airstrip on Tinian where later, the plane carrying the atom bomb would take off. He was a welder also and was injured when a bomb hit the area, while bringing food over to his friend on guard duty. He was first sent to Hawaii for care and then to Oakland . The same friend who told me about the Western Pipe Steel job brought him over to our house for a blind date. She and I got to talking and forgot all about him still in the car. Finally there was a knock on the door and there he was. We did not go out that night as I was tired and promised my mother I would stay home. They left, and I rather regretted my promise to my mother. Two weeks later there was another knock on the door and he was back. Poor man – he had gone up and down so many streets looking for our house that he finally decided that if this was not he right one he would give up! We did go out that night and I never went out with anyone else again.
The war ended as my brother’s ship was on its way to Japan . It was a glorious day for all! I was with my sweetheart and we would soon have my brother home again.
This is my story of the war years. Time has passed and I lost my husband in 1981. My brother has died and I sometimes read his letters and remember those days and his face. I now live in Hawaii where the war began, and a few years ago I went to Pearl Harbor with my oldest daughter. On the Arizona tears came to my eyes as I thought of all those beautiful lives that were gone, but hopefully never forgotten. The battleship “ Missouri ” or “The Mighty Mo” was also in the harbor and we could still feel the power and the glory in that fine old ship. It was a special day for both of us.
All that I have written is as clear to me today as it was on that fateful day of the attack on Pearl Harbor . I am now the only living one of my family left from that time. I wanted to tell my daughters how it was for me back then, and to help them to know that they “Can Do” anything they put their minds, hearts and bodies to!