The original print of the Norman Rockwell poster of Rosie the Riveter, which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943, sold recently for almost $5 million. When I read this I paused to reflect, for I remembered that poster well.
I had seen it everywhere during World War II: on billboards, on building walls, and in newspapers. It showed a comely Rosie, in a blue-denim shirt, baring her muscular arms while eating a sandwich. Above were the words "We Can Do It!"
This poster motivated my appearance at the door of the employment office of North American Aviation Company, in Inglewood, Calif., in September of 1943.
To regress a bit: I was a war bride who had followed my naval-officer husband from place to place for several years, through the arrivals of two babies. Now I was alone with my children in a rented house in Inglewood, my husband having been shipped out to the Pacific.
My children were 7 months and 20 months old. They were healthy, happy, and calm babies. They had accepted with equanimity all of our moves and new environments. I hoped they would now accept having a different daytime caregiver, because I longed to contribute to the war effort in a direct way; to feel, in so doing, that I was helping my husband.
The sign above the factory door said: "Workers Needed Apply Within." I didn't hesitate. I entered, and along with a crowd of other would-be war workers, I applied for a job and got it. I was to be a riveter.
North American Aviation had a government contract to manufacture a number of aircraft, including the P-51 Mustang, a fighter-pursuit plane. I was hired to work on P-51s. After a few days in a class learning how to handle the tools of the job, all the safety regulations, and other dos and don'ts, I was put to work on a fuselage. I was 23 years old; I was steady-handed, well-coordinated, and filled with youthful eagerness and patriotic zeal.
Before taking this job, all I knew about rivets was that they were used to fasten the corners of the pockets of Levi's jeans. I learned fast. I was soon joining aluminum plates with these little threadless bolts, using a pneumatic gun. The tool had a rapidly moving air-operated hammer at one end, which acted and sounded remarkably like a small jackhammer. The noise within the huge cement-floored workroom was almost deafening. Most of us put cotton in our ears. Sometimes I sang popular songs unselfconsciously while I worked, No one could hear me.
I had to learn a new vocabulary. The frame that held the sheets of metal to be riveted was called a "jig." The worker who stood behind the sheets and pressed with a metal bar against the rivet was the "bucker." We worked in pairs. This process flattened the rivets on both sides, so that the aluminum sheets held together. Inspectors walked among us to see how our work was going.
Each day I prayed, "Dear Lord, please make my work good. Don't let this plane fall apart." I learned later that the Mustang had a great safety record. They didn't fall apart.
I was on the daytime shift, starting at 8 a.m. I had weekends off. I arose at 5 a.m., threw on my clothes: trousers, blouse, heavy shoes, and the required bandanna (so that my hair wouldn't be caught in machinery).
I drank a glass of orange juice and ate a piece of toast while carrying diaper bags and sleeping babies to the car. The smallest, my daughter, went in a basket on the floor in the back. I placed my little son, rolled in a blanket, still sleeping, on the back seat.
I drove immediately to the home of the children's daytime caregiver, a fine woman who took in four preschool children every day as her part in the war effort. She would be ready for us. I kissed my sleepy children goodbye and promised I would be back soon, even though I knew they didn't understand.
I clocked in before 8 a.m. Sometimes I had time for a bite in the workers' cafeteria before reporting to my supervisor. The work was tiring and exacting. We were given breaks every few hours and a half-hour for lunch.
It was a remarkable time for American women, many of whom had never before worked outside the home. At the start of the war, the aviation industry employed 2,000 women. By the end there were 115,000 women employed making aircraft. Overall, there were 6 million women working in war- related jobs in factories and shipyards.
Each evening I picked up my little ones shortly after 5 p.m. We went home to a quick meal. I was thankful to have baby food in jars for them. Somehow I got by with hot dogs, hamburgers, raw vegetables, and fruit.
Next came shower baths. I took one baby at a time into the shower stall with me. Clean, dry, and warm in our nightclothes, now we were ready for storybook time. I read from "Mother Goose," with both children somehow cuddled on my lap.
Once I had put the children down in their cribs, I packed their bags for the next day. Then I sat down to write my nightly letter to Joe. When I finally went to bed, it was with a book, but I usually fell asleep before I had read two pages.
The people I met at work were fascinating. They were from every part of America, every level of education, and every walk of life. Most were there for patriotic reasons, as well as for the opportunity to earn more money than they could "back home."