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A Rosie the Riveter Reunion

These six women started something during World War II. My lunch with them yielded great stories.
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Military Appreciation Night at the USA Hockey game: this was not going to be a typical game. My daughter Sarah, USA Hockey’s vocalist, was singing the National Anthem with a full ROTC color guard, and the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, Ann Arbor’s main rink and home to USA Hockey’s National Development Team program, was packed. It must have been an off night for the NHL, for the place was crawling with scouts, and not of the Eagle kind. You can always tell NHL scouts: neatly coiffed and dressed in black with nice shoes, the scout uniform. rosie the riveter reunion Through the sea of men in black, I suddenly caught a glimpse of a red and white polka-dot bandana, the signature of a different type of uniform. Scouts are not uncommon at USA games, but a Rosie? “Rosie the Riveter,” the alter ego of Jane Vass, was there to drop the puck for the game, in honor of the women who shored up manufacturing during World War II and to raise awareness of the Save the Bomber Plant campaign. You never know who you’ll run into at the Cube. Jane was just as surprised to see me, having met me, in my guise as art historian and reporter, at the Willow Run Bomber Plant closing. “This must be fate! Tomorrow, I am having a luncheon for some original Rosies. Can you come?” rosie the riveter reunion

Lunch with History

As soon as lunch began, I realized that I was recording history as six remarkable women in their late eighties and early nineties recalled, as best they could, seventy-year-old memories of working during World War II. Toni Hunter was a “Wendy the Welder,” from the Philadelphia shipyard. Frances Masters, Lela Talbott Detrich, Ruth Webb, and Rachel Mae Perry spent their days “poppin’ rivets” at Willow Run, and Vivian Litchard (center in this photo) worked in the sewing department. Three were local girls; the others moved to the area for the work. Mrs. Perry (right), the daughter of sharecroppers and eldest of eight, came from Kentucky. Her paychecks went home for support. Mrs. Webb (left) said her whole family moved to the area from rural Indiana. She remembers the journey vividly: all twenty family members, including two babies, on the back of a flatbed truck. Her father refused to stop, so the only way to provide for the babes was to milk the goat they had in tow. Through the individual stories, general themes emerged. They loved to work, and some of them continued in manufacturing after the war. They remember the visitors, such as when President Roosevelt or Marilyn Monroe, who herself started as a riveter, came to the plant. They were all barely eighteen then, so many of their memories revolved around gender relations. The male employees fell into two groups: “4-Fs,” ineligible for service for physical reasons (and, it seems, ineligible for dating), and supervisors, men beyond draftable age. Mrs. Litchard, who at eighty-eight is still striking, recalls her boss, twelve years her senior, asking her to dinner, but he didn’t want to pick her up in front of the other girls in the village—to "avoid appearances of favoritism." She later met his wife. At this revelation, they all had such stories to share. And, without bitterness but in recognition of injustice, they noted the inequities. They were paid five cents less an hour than the men in comparable jobs. When the war ended, the men received pensions, while they were simply laid off. These women established the presence of women in manufacturing. Thinking of these six remarkable women, I can’t help feeling such admiration for the “Rosie the Riveters” who paved a path for the generations of women who followed.
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