Rosie the Riveter Trust Breaks Guinness Record

by Matilda Butler on August 19, 2016

Post #75 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

In our last post, Kendra described the Rosie the Riveter Trust’s upcoming Rosie Rally. The organization sought to regain the Guinness Record for the most Rosie’s (dressed in full costume) gathered in one place.

We’re delighted to report that with 2265 women (and a few men) gathered in Richmond, California at the site of the Rosie the Riveter Trust, the Guinness World Record now belongs to the Trust. Many thanks to everyone for their amazing turnout.



Help Rosie the Riveter Trust Break the Guinness Record

by kendra on July 19, 2016

Post #74 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

On August 13, 2016, the Rosie the Riveter Trust (RTR Trust) is once again setting its sights on the Guinness World Record for gathering the most Rosies in one place. The organization broke the record last summer. Then in the fall, the Yankee Air Museum shattered the RTR Trust record. So now Guinness bragging rights have become a friendly competition between these two great groups.

Rosie’s Daughters is wishing the Rosie the Riveter Trust and all participants the best of luck in their quest. And we encourage everyone who loves Rosie to get involved. Here’s how you can be counted:

Be Part of This Historic Gathering

This August, RTR Trust is trying to put the number out of reach by bringing together 5000 Rosies. So if you live in California or plan to be in California on August 13, plan on joining what is expected to be an amazing gathering of women wearing Rosie costumes. You’ll be a part of history and have a lot of fun in the process.

And when the gathering, counting and photo-taking is over, the RTR Trust will host a celebration party with food and music. So plan to make it a Rosie day!

Here are the rules and links you need to get involved.

First, you can follow this link to the RTR Trust signup form to register and/or volunteer to help during the event.

Time and location

  • Saturday, August 13th.
  • Rosie check-in starts at 10:00 AM.
  • Arrive before 10:30 AM to be counted by Guinness.
  • Craneway Pavillion, Ford Assembly Plant
  • 1414 Harbour Way South, Richmond, CA 94804 (Next door to the National Park Visitor Center).

Regulation Rosie Uniform
You must wear the following to be counted:

  • A red bandanna with polka dots, worn in the traditional “Rosie” style
  • Dark blue collared shirt and dark blue pants OR dark blue coveralls
  • Closed-toed black or brown shoes or boots
  • Red socks

Download the Rosie Rally Resource Guide

Put together your costume ahead of time. It’s easy. All you need are dark blue jeans and shirt (or coveralls) and brown or black shoes or boots. If you need help with the red socks and a red polka-dot bandana, the RTR Trust will have Rosie Rally Packs on hand that you can purchase. This Rosie Rally Resource Guide will help you further.

We’re waiting for the pictures, and will post results here on our blog. Good luck, Rosies! And have fun.


Rosie the Riveter Park Ranger Robbed

by Matilda Butler on July 11, 2016

Post #73 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

NOTE: Kendra and I are reprinting an email we received from the Executive Director of the Rosie the Riveter Trust in Richmond, California.

If you don’t know about the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Center, be sure to include it the next time you visit northern California. It’s a real treat and the many activities of the Rosie the Riveter Trust are important to future generations of strong, empowered women.

And we hope that by the time you visit, NPS Ranger Betty Reid Soskin will be recovered and back on duty.

In case you don’t know about NPS Ranger Soskin, she is 94 years old and still as active, energetic, engaged, and alert as we all hope to be at that age. She bravely fought her attacker.

The Rosie the Riveter Trust is also getting ready for a Rosie Rally where they hope to break the current Guinness Record of the most Rosie the Riveters gathered in one place. We’ll provide you information and details next week. Be sure to come back then.


Dear Friend,

On Monday, June 27, NPS Ranger Betty Reid Soskin was robbed an assaulted in her home. The intruder even stole the special coin handed personally to Betty by President Obama at the 2015 National Tree Lighting Ceremony. We are all upset by this horrific news, but relieved to report that she is recovering well, with no major injuries.

The outpouring of love and support for Betty during this time has been truly moving. Obviously, she has inspired thousands across the nation with her powerful story, brilliant insight and incredible will.

If you have not already done so, we would like to invite you to make a contribution of any size to Betty’s Fund.

All funds raised beyond immediate needs will be used, as Betty has asked, to complete a film in progress that contains vital documentary information about Betty’s life and impact. This is the legacy that she wants to continue passing on to younger generations, and a remarkable testimonial to her strength of spirit. Go to to donate, and to view the first clips from this important project. You can also mail checks to Rosie the Riveter Trust, PO Box 71126, Richmond, CA 94807, ear-marked “Betty’s Fund.”

You are welcome to send cards to Betty via the Park’s Visitor Center. Betty is not, understandably, taking calls or visitors, and has expressed that she does not wish to receive flowers at this time. Address cards and letters to:

Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Center
Attn: Betty Reid Soskin
1414 Harbour Way South, Suite 3000 (Oil House)
Richmond, CA 94804

Thank you for your support during this difficult time.

Marsha Mather-Thrift, Executive Director
Rosie the Riveter Trust

Want to Learn More About Betty?

There have been a number of newspaper articles about Betty and this robbery. Here’s one that provides the details.

A Brief Video of Betty Soskin


If in America, She Would Have Been a Rosie the Riveter: Her Grandmother’s Story Told by Amyah Labrèche

by Matilda Butler on May 5, 2016

Post #69 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: We’re pleased to share with you some of the intriguing stories we received from readers–stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Amyah Labrèche tells us about her grandmother Laure Gonze. who lived in Nazi-occupied Belgium during the war. We think you’ll agree with us that if Laure Gonze had been in America, she would have been a formidable Rosie the Riveter.]

Laure Gonze: Protecting Her Family

By Amyah Labrèche

Laure’s eyes followed the two soldiers who were walking the alley toward the castle, their guns slung across their shoulders. Since the occupation, the Germans requisitioned the Baron’s 13th century residence for their officers. A wonderful medieval castle with thick stones walls, decorated with ancient tapestries and paintings, more than antique furniture in each of the rooms and slate floors. The property was sitting at the end of the alley, in a wonderful park in the middle of Farciennes, in the Walloon’s part of Belgium. The Nazis were well lodged and the Baron, his family and employees were forced to share their house with them.

The soldiers stopped in front of her yard. She froze. They saluted her with big smiles, complimenting her on the beauty of her garden in a mismatch of French and German words, with a terrible accent that would have made Molière shiver with horror.

She nodded without a smile and they resumed their walk.

When they disappeared at the end of the narrow dirt road, Laure sighed with relief and resumed her work. It will be soon time to start supper and I still have eggs to gather. With the boschs(1) near by, she didn’t want to take a chance… they were worse than natural predators. Benjamin—her husband—and Jean-Baptiste—her son—had worked many hours to reinforce the coop with wood, bricks, stones, bars, chains and padlocks to stop the two legged uniformed foxes from coming in and stealing eggs, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. At least now, they were not able to access the coop in a moment and Benjamin would have enough time to let the dog loose and grab his bludgeon. The Germans had confiscated his gun after the last time when he shot them in the butt with a round of chevrotine(2). Seems they didn’t really appreciate the treatment. But it had created an occasion for the entire village to roar in laughter for weeks around a cold beer at the pub.

Benjamin had been lucky. The Germans could have imprisoned him in the concentration camp outside the town or worse, gunned him down. But, they didn’t want problems with the Belgians, as they were just a small garrison. Eighty five soldiers, even armed with guns, can’t survive against two thousand five hundred angry Belgian men, women, children and elders heavily armed with sticks and forks and bludgeons and—the worst—heavy steel frying pans. Hey! After all, Jules Caesar never defeated Belgians with his army, how could these Germans fight successfully with just a handful of men against such barbarian and well-armed warriors.

Benjamin and Jean-Baptiste will be hungry after a hard day working in the coal mine. My fresh vegetable soup, a thick omelette with golden fries and a pool of salad will be welcomed. She had to hurry now.

Hope they will not stop at the pub again, she thought.

Laure didn’t see the time pass as she worked hard all around the house, garden and kitchen to do her chores. From early spring to beginning of winter, her garden and the little orchard demanded a lot of work. Up to now, she had been able to keep the Germans out of it, mostly. They didn’t force her, yet, to give them all her produce like they did with some farmers around. Her days were filled with hard work and she allowed herself to rest only when the dishes was done in the evening. Then, she would sit with her men—and sometimes friends—in the living room, with a nice coffee, near the coal fireplace, to hear all the gossip from around town.

The only sound in the house was the huge grandfather clock in the living room, ticking the time away for more than one hundred and fifty years now. The soup smelled so good that she couldn’t resist getting a bowl of it. Hummm! So satisfying! Her men will be happy.

Five o’clock, the gong chanted away loudly. Laure went to unlock the front door and waited for her men on the front porch. From there, she was able to see them come down the hill from le Pont du Chat with all the other workers. Weird! Where is everybody? The street is empty. Maybe work finished a bit late today? Maybe there was an accident? She hadn’t heard an explosion so, surely not a coup de grisou(3).

Oh! Don’t tell me that Benjamin had a fight again.

Five fifteen gonged the clock. One short boing for the quarters, two short ones for the half hours and many ticks in between. Now, she was worried. She went back inside, pushed the soup pot on the warmer plate of the stove, put a few more chunks of coal in the stove’s belly and went back to the door. Still no movement on the street, just Marion’s big fat cat running after a mouse, she presumed. That cat is stupid and a glutton. He would run after his own shadow to eat it.

Laure took the key, walked out and locked the door. “I will go see what is happening,” she grumbled. Up the hill she went, her eyes fixed to the top. She was expecting to see the many heads popping out from the hump, announcing the workers coming back home. Nothing. Her heart was pounding and not just only because of her climbing the steep hill at full speed, not because she was kind of heavy set women, but because of her anxiety. Something happened, she was now sure of it, she felt it. You know, this kind of funny feeling in the middle of your tummy.

On her way up, almost at the top, Laure heard many voices talking, excited. Oh, Benjamin! Are you at the pub? She pushed the pub’s door open. One hundred and eighty eyes turned her way and then the silence dropped so thick that you could have heard the breathing of a fly. The one hundred and eighty eyes suddenly found the tips of their shoes very attractive. Nobody wanted to look at Laure.

She looked around and saw Benjamin. He too had his gaze fixed intensely to the tip of his dusty boots. She looked around but saw no traces of Jean-Baptiste.

Benjamin’s mouth felt so dry. He would have given anything for a beer at that very moment.

“Benjamin,” she said calmly with her deep, loud and firm voice. “Where is Jean-Baptiste? What is happening here?”

“… Euh…” mumbled Benjamin. He looked like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “… hummmm… euh…” He couldn’t speak. Words were sticking in his throat. Fear of her or emotion because something had happened, Laure couldn’t say. She moved forward a few steps. Some men backed up few steps.

“Benjamin… talk to me!” She couldn’t stand it anymore. She felt that her nerves had climbed up to the surface of her skin; it was almost painful. She was about to explode. Finally, Benjamin found the courage to talk.

“The boschs… hummmm… the boschs came to the mine and they arrested Jean-Baptiste. They took him to the concentration camp to be interrogated. Seems they think he stole their coffee shipment last week.”

The one hundred and eighty eyes had had enough of admiring the tips of the boots and now were fixing Laure. She was unsettled, nervous, should I say flabbergasted? And then, a great rage climbed in her chest. How dare they? Arresting MY son? Bastards!

Her heavy body started to tremble in rage, her round cheeks became red, her breath heavy, her eyes even changed color. They were not green anymore but kind of a transparent glaucous tint and her hands closed in fists. She looked like a bull ready to charge.

Everybody in the pub backed up. Laure Gonze was well known in town to be quite a strong and tempered woman. Good heart but…kind of explosive at times. She was a tall and massive woman and nobody argued too long with her. Twice a week, she went on the terril(4) to gather discarded coal in huge bags she brought home on a heavy wooden cart she pulled to the house. Laure was also known to walk for days over the borders and brought—under the German’s noses—coffee, flour and sugar and sometimes other goodies for her family and friends. Selling these items brought in a bit more money, as she was also known to be, euh… a tight purse.

Laure turned her back to the crowd and went out the pub’s door. In the evening sun, she took a deep breath and started to walk toward the concentration camp, just a fifteen minute walk past the mine. In the pub, the men didn’t know what to do. Stop her? That would be a big risk for their lives so they decided to courageously follow her… from afar and see what would happen.

When Laure arrived at the camp, the armed guard tried to stop her but she pushed him away. Bewildered, he looked at her opening the camp fence and walking toward the prisoner’s barracks screaming: “Jean-Baptiste! Where are you? Jean-Baptiste. Show yourself up, little brat! How dare you disappear like that at suppertime? Do you think I only have that to do, running after you all the time? When it is not the pub it will be here now? Jean-Baptiste! Jean-Baptiste!”

A door opened. It was the office of the camp’s director. The man in a sharp uniform, straight as if he had swallowed an umbrella, was now standing on the porch.

“What do you want?” he yelled in French with a heavy accent.

“I am searching for my son, Jean-Baptiste!” she answered back.

“He is here. I arrested him! I…”

He didn’t have the time to finish his sentence. Full of rage, Laure pushed him away, entered the office, grabbed her six foot four inches son by the ear and dragged him out of the building.

“How dare you miss suppertime? How dare you make me walk all that distance? You go home now and never try that on me again. Do you understand, brat?” she screamed at him, shaking his head by pulling and pushing his poor ear and slapping him on the head with her free hand.

Not letting go of his ear and continuing to slap him, she hastily pulled Jean-Baptiste toward the camp door. The Germans were all transfixed. Enlarged round eyes, mouths opened wide, rooted to the spot, not one of them thought of moving, of stopping them from going out or even of holding up their guns.

Laure with Jean-Baptiste hunched behind her, grimacing from pain and still dragged by the ear, went out of the camp, passed the mine hump where the crowd from the pub had gathered and went down the long hill toward the house.

The crowd from the pub had to run to catch up to Laure and her son but she didn’t care, she didn’t want to stop. Her goal was to arrive at the house… quick… She was not afraid of the soldiers but she knew, she had feelings, she had some kind of an insight, a movement, a deep rumble, a strong knowing that she will need, urgently, to go to… the outhouse!

Three hours later, Laure’s tummy settled down and everybody’s stomach was full of soup and omelette and fries and salad. They were all sitting in the living room with a strong and fragrant coffee. Some friends came to visit and laughter filled the house again.

“What were you thinking to do such a thing Laure?” they asked

“I don’t know,” she answered. “But I had to do something.” On these words she got up to get the coffee pot and some cups for two friends who just came in.

Up to now, nobody understands why the Germans never stopped her or why they never came to the house to arrest her and Jean-Baptiste. They were left alone and, strange thing, the camp director – usually so stiff—started to salute my grandma every time their path crossed and it seems, I was told, that he had a glimpse of admiration in his eyes when he was looking at her.

(1) Bosch was the name given to the German soldiers during the war time.
(2) Buckshot.
(3) Firedamp explosion in coalmines.
(4) Hill near the mine where they piled the coal debris.

Amyah Labrèche is a writer and published author of two children and Middle Grade (MG) books and many articles. She’s a journalist, translator and photographer, now living in Canada on the beautiful Vancouver Island. She says, “Besides writing for children and MG, I started—at friends and family demands—to write my memoirs. This story of my grandmother, Laure Gonze, is one part of my family history that I can remember. As you see, we have a pretty colorful one. I hope you enjoy my little story, which is 100% true, by the way.”


A Rosie Story Told by Neighbor Maureen Dunphy

by Matilda Butler on March 5, 2016

Post #72 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Readers have shared with us stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other friends and family. We’ve chosen the best of these are are publishing them to honor all Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Maureen Dunphy tells her neighbor’s story. We invite you to read this story and think you will find it as interesting and informative as we did. Thanks Maureen.

Technology Helps Reconstruct the Experiences of a
WWII “Weapon-of-Preparedness” Operator

By Maureen Dunphy

My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Genevieve Irwin, née Kling, was born in 1919, the same year the rotary-dial telephone was introduced, in the state where the telephone switchboard had been first employed (in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878).

On pleasant summer afternoons, from the front porch of her brick Cape Cod, Mrs. Irwin has been generous with stories of her life. The month of Mrs. Irwin’s 93rd birthday, I suggested we collaborate in writing her recollections about the job she held during World War II.

The fall day we sat down in her cheery yellow living room to begin, the sun suddenly burst out from behind storm clouds, filtering in through the wide bay window behind us, casting a spell over our trip back in time. We began by trying to construct a timeline beginning with Genevieve Kling’s birth on September 3, 1919 in Glenbrook, Connecticut and continuing to this September afternoon in Mrs. Irwin’s living room in Royal Oak, Michigan. Wanting to focus our discussion on the period framed by her high-school graduation and her wedding day, my first question was if she’d graduated from Glenbrook High School. In preparation for our interview, I had entered “Glenbrook, CT” into my search field that morning before walking over in the rain and had come across the school online.

“No, I attended Darien High School, across the Noroton River,” Mrs. Irwin replied.

Confused about why she hadn’t attended Glenbrook High School and wanting to warm us up with a simple question and answer, I switched gears, asking her what church she’d attended growing up.

“Union Memorial Church.”

I’d brought my laptop with me and turned it on now. Once online, I found a lovely old photograph of her church and read her the history of the church, which was built in 1885 as “the primary institutional and architectural landmark of the community.” Enthralled, she gazed at the familiar church there before her, a building she’d not seen for many years. In fact, seeing her church on my laptop screen was the first time Mrs. Irwin had ever directly experienced using a computer. Over 70 years ago, Genevieve Kling was one of the telephone company’s switchboard operators during World War II, a job that has since been replaced by computers.

Together we searched for “Glenbrook High School.” Given that both South and North Glenbrook Highs are located in Chicago suburbs, it’s no wonder she hadn’t attended Glenbrook High School!

When had she graduated from Darien High School? Mrs. Irwin couldn’t recall, but she did know she hadn’t graduated ahead or behind her class. As most students graduated at 16 or 17, and she has a September birthday, she most likely graduated in 1937. We were able to confirm this online in the list of Darien High School alumni.

Trying to establish the other “bookend” date, her wedding day, I asked her when she’d married Jerry. As Mrs. Irwin couldn’t remember, we put his full name, “Gerald C. Irwin,” in the search field and discovered he was born on October 15, 1918 and had died on June 25, 1996. But we couldn’t locate their wedding date. I asked if she had a wedding photograph available. “On the stairs,” she said. These are stairs she no longer climbs as she now stays on the first floor.

I brought the sepia-tinted photograph to her in her armchair, behind her walker and facing the TV where the local news provided an undercurrent of the present to our reconstruction of the past. I considered the strikingly beautiful young woman posed with the handsome young man wearing an Air Force uniform.

“Well, you don’t look 30 yet here, but you’re certainly not a teenager either.”

“I was 23,” Mrs. Irwin stated firmly. The photograph had apparently made this piece of the past come back into focus. “When I was coming back from visiting a girlfriend on vacation, I met Jerry on the train. After three or four dates, we got engaged when we were out to lunch. Can you imagine doing that? But they, the servicemen, were all going overseas. I was very lucky; Jerry was a good man.”

Next, we used Google Earth to see Darien High up close. Mrs. Irwin gazed at the bird’s-eye view of her high school. Here was a woman who, as a switchboard operator from—as close as we were able to figure—1939 to 1942, had one of the very few jobs in technology available to women in the first half of the 20th century. Today, she was being escorted around her earlier life in Connecticut from her living room in Michigan, courtesy of the technology she was experiencing for the first time.

Mrs. Irwin couldn’t recall the name of the telephone company she worked for, but I remembered she’d mentioned it in the past, so before our next meeting, I entered: “Telephone company, Washington D.C., 1940” and hit “Search.” AT&T was known then as “American Telephone and Telegraph Company,” but that didn’t ring a bell for her. However, AT&T’s D.C. subsidiary “Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company” did.

How did Genevieve end up in DC, having been raised on an “out-in-the-country” five-acre estate in Glenbrook? Her father’s sister, childless Aunt Mary Brown’s high-school graduation gift to Genevieve was a train ticket to Chicago to visit her. Teenaged “Jen” ended up attending Gregg Business School there, learning shorthand and typing. She wanted to be a court reporter, but Chicago was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and there were no jobs available.

Returning to Glenbrook, Jen found a temporary job at the Glenbrook Public Library until Marge Ahl, who lived up the street, got her a job at the Southern New England Telephone Company in Stamford. There, at 19, she was one of the many switchboard operators who helped mitigate the disasters spawned by the Great Hurricane of September 1938.

In 1939, Western Electric identified the telephone as a “weapon of preparedness” with respect to the war, and that year, twenty-year-old Genevieve’s supervisor transferred Jen to Washington D.C, where more switchboard operators were needed for the war effort.

Arriving alone in DC by train, Mrs. Irwin said she was “scared to death,” but she was struck by how “big, beautiful, and very clean” the city appeared. “Everything looked white, all the big buildings.”

She stayed with former classmate Marge Ketchum and her family until she found a room to rent. Marge and Jen went sightseeing together. Jen’s favorite sight was the Lincoln Memorial. “I had the strangest feeling looking at Lincoln. There he was sitting in his chair way up there. He was all alone, no one around him. A gorgeous statue. I never could forget it.”

When she started talking about her tenure at Chesapeake and Potomac, I realized that Mrs. Irwin was having trouble seeing my laptop screen. We cleaned her glasses, and I lugged my 20-inch flat-screen monitor over to set up on her kitchen table. We spent the afternoon researching. We marveled to learn that switchboards had first been operated by teenage boys, until the boys proved too “unruly and rude.” Nine months after George Willard Croy became the world’s first telephone operator, Emma Nutt became the first female switchboard operator in 1878.

Sixty years later, Genevieve Kling was hired as a switchboard operator and then transferred to the heart of the war effort. “I was thrilled to have a job. I was an operator. I liked everything about it. I liked the way they treated me. I liked the girls I worked with. I liked the hours: seven to three. I’d have the whole afternoon to myself. There was lots to do. I made good friends.”

Online, in the National Museum of American History’s Science Service Historical Image Collection–which represents twentieth-century scientific research consisting of images and original captions—we found a 1932 photograph of a long-distance switchboard, “manned” by a dozen female switchboard operators with several supervisors, also women, standing behind the line of operators, “keep(ing) close watch as the calls (were) handled.” The photo had been published in The Smithsonian under the caption: “’The bombers are coming!’ Switchboard operators are front-line defense troops, without moving from their chairs.”

Mrs. Irwin recalled, “We were sitting in tall chairs . . . It was a big room where the switchboards were. The room was buzzing. We wore headphones to hear the customers.” The operators wore casual dresses with high heels to work and stockings that “lasted forever.” “ . . . A shift supervisor stood behind all of us girls to answer questions. When a call came in—it would be a long distance or collect call–a light in front of me flashed, and I’d answer, ‘May I help you?’”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Irwin had the occasion to be re-introduced to technology—of the hospital variety–yesterday. Here’s hoping, come spring, she’s back on her porch with her memories.


A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Her Daughter Sherrey Meyer

by Matilda Butler on January 5, 2016

Post #71 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: We are publishing a series of stories that focus on Rosie the Riveter. Readers have shared with us stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other friends and family. We are publishing these to honor all Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Sherrey Meyer shares the story of her mother when she worked at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft — one of the well-known facilities where many a Rosie the Riveter learned and successfully carried out her new craft. We invite you to read this story and think you will find it as fascinating as we did. Thanks Sherrey.


By Sherrey Meyer

The year is likely 1943. The place is Nashville, TN. A single mother in her early 30s raising a young son alone needs a better job. In reality, she needs a better wage.

An ad appears in the Nashville newspaper. It was placed by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft. With all the men and boys off fighting the war, Vultee was seeking women to do their jobs.

The single mother is Nelle Roper Whitehead, my future mama. Her son, Gene, is almost nine. I’m not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, so the story I share with you is based on what I was told by Mama and other family members, plus what I’ve read in local Nashville and Tennessee archives, as well as Vultee archives. I wish I had a photograph of Mama at this time but nothing found in her effects pointed to this particular stage in her life. Sharing her story as one of the women who came to be called “Rosie the Riveter” is a joy for me.

* * *

My Mother in Early 1940

My Mother in Early 1940

Mama was divorced and raising Gene on her own. She had worked many jobs, a variety of jobs, which paid very little. Mama’s education had been shortened in childhood to help care for younger siblings. Her ability to get top paying work was diminished not only by her educational deficiencies but also the impact of poor eyesight and almost complete hearing loss in one ear. The Great Depression had not helped matters any.

In 1943, Mama and Gene were living with her sister and her husband, their two daughters, and my mom’s mother in East Nashville. Family stories indicate that times were hard and living conditions cramped, but it saved on rent and Mom did what she had to do to stretch her income.

Her excitement on seeing Consolidated Vultee’s ad was likely over the top. Mama was excitable anyway, but I can imagine her elation at the idea of learning a new skill while making a higher wage. However, when telling the story, she always indicated how worried she was she wouldn’t qualify. But one thing I know, Mama was a determined woman with a strength and work ethic that served her well for most of her life.

Mama was blessed with beautiful green eyes, which sparkled when she was excited and happy and flashed with strength and determination when she wanted to make things work for her and her own. Add to those green eyes a head of thick, naturally wavy hair the color of fall leaves turning reddish brown. If she had the money, Mama could have been quite the dresser with her petite and curvaceous figure, but even without high fashion on her side, Mama was always dressed immaculately in whatever she wore.

Everything pressed, shoes shined, not a missing button, no threads to be trimmed. And she probably arrived for her interview at Vultee looking quite the woman with obtaining a job on her mind.

Qualify she did and sometime in 1943 she went to work for Consolidated Vultee, a plant making parts for P38 Lockheed Lightning fighters and later the Vengeance dive bombers. I can see her steady and strong steps as she leaves to head to work, and I can imagine she had a twinkle in her green eyes as she thought of her success. I try to imagine Mama in trousers at that time, but I can certainly see all her glorious red hair tucked under her bandana. On that first day, Mama was moving with pride.

Mama was assigned to “buck rivets.” She never denied that she had no idea what this meant until her first day at work. Imagine her surprise when she arrived for duty that first shift and learned what “bucking rivets” really meant! Magazine and newspaper articles have indicated, and I have no way of knowing, that bucking rivets was much harder work than riveting. I can’t imagine either being easy work. Mama described bucking rivets as hard and noisy. Her job was to hold a block or something very hard and heavy against the end of the rivet being installed on the plane or plane part. So as the riveter used a drill to install a rivet, Mama worked against the opposite end of the rivet to ensure it “mushroomed” and covered the opposite end of the opening the rivet should fill.

Mama would laugh as she told stories of her days as a rivet bucker. A few of her quips I remember are:

“If I’d had music going, I could have created some new dance craze while bucking those rivets.” [Mama’s favorite pastime was dancing.]

“There were times I felt like my arms would fall off, or maybe my teeth would fall out my body would be shaking so hard.”

“Some days I’d leave work and my body felt as if it was shaking all the way home and into the night.”

“My teeth chattered as if it were below freezing in that plant.”

“It was dirty work and I felt smudged all the time, but the pay was better than I’d known in awhile.”

“God was good and provided what we needed, but I felt bad for the men and boys fighting the war. I prayed a lot during the work day for their safety.” [Mama’s faith was strong and never faltered.]

As children, we could only imagine what all these and many more descriptive phrases meant, but one thing for sure. Mama was proud to have been one of Vultee’s Rosie the Riveters.

Mama was more fortunate than some of the other women as the men began returning from the war. Vultee turned to appliances as they began to phase out the war contract work. Mama’s work record was good, and she was offered a job spraying the interiors of ovens with speckled enamel. She did this for several years until she moved on to a job in the printing industry. That is where she met my dad, and that’s an entirely different story.

* * *

I’m proud of Mama’s Rosie legacy, and I’m thankful to her for passing along her sense of patriotism, faith, and strong work ethic. I only wish there were more documented materials about her life during that time.

The photo shared above was found at WWII Letters ( The photo is attributed as follows:
Working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber, Vultee [Aircraft Inc.], Nashville, Tennessee. From the Library of Congress WWII Color Photographs collection. Photographer: Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Collection 12002-41

Sherrey Meyer is a retired legal secretary who grew tired of drafting and revising pleadings and legal documents.  She had always dreamed of writing something else, anything else!  Once she retired she couldn’t stay away from the computer, and so she began to write. 

Among her ongoing and completed projects:

–A memoir of her “life with mama,” an intriguing Southern tale of matriarchal power and control displayed in verbal and emotional abuse.
–A contribution to Loving for Crumbs: An Anthology of Moving On by Jonna Ivin.  In August 2012 the anthology was released in ebook format and paperback on Amazon.  
–Two award-winning contributions to the anthology Seasons of Our Lives (Autumn) (Winter) edited by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett. A 2014 Amazon Kindle publication.
–An award-winning story in the anthology Tales of Our Lives edited by Matilda Butler. A 2016 Amazon Kindle publication.


WWII, a W.A.V.E., and Love: A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Jane Self

by Matilda Butler on November 5, 2015

Post #70 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: This is the next in our series of intriguing stories we received from readers–stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Jane Self reveals the fascinating story of how her mother became a W.A.V.E. Jane interviewed her mother a number of times in order to learn about her history. We think you’ll enjoy this story as much as we did.

Service that Counts

By Jane Self

By the summer of 1942, 22-year-old Helen Huckabee was restless. The country was at war and most of the men she knew had gone off to serve their country. Life on the dairy farm in Brookfield, VT, suddenly felt stifling.

Nine years earlier, her parents had moved the family across the country from Oregon to take over running the farm. The new owner, her mother’s brother, had asked her father to take over because he spent most of his time on the road evangelizing with his wife. He had bought the farm as an investment. But not only did he not have time for farming, he didn’t know anything about it and wasn’t interested in changing that.

After graduating from high school in 1938, Helen had gone as far in college as her hard-earned scholarships allowed, earning a two-year teaching certificate from the University of Vermont. The first year of teaching was rewarding, but by then the country had entered World War II.

She felt stuck up there in the wilds of Vermont. Three of her four brothers had already joined the military. The oldest, Don, was a chaplain with the Navy, Harlow was working with the judge advocate general Army staff and Hubert, two years her junior, was in the Navy. The youngest brother, Bob, was only 15 and still in high school. Her only sister, Bonnie, was already busy raising a young family.

“I had to do something,” Helen said one afternoon many years later during an interview with her daughter. “It didn’t occur to me yet that I could join the military, too. But I knew I wanted to contribute to the war effort and teaching school didn’t seem very patriotic at the time.”

As soon as school was out for the summer, she went to Harford, CT, for a job at an airplane factory. Her duties required sorting, counting and packaging screws.

“I made twice the money there that I had teaching school, but I was bored to tears,” she said. Although a sign in the background at the factory, “Every Minute Counts,” encouraged workers to manage their time efficiently, she found that she was still faster than anyone else without even trying.

“That upset the apple cart,” she said. “The others wanted me to slow down so they wouldn’t have to work so fast. But any 10-year-old child could have done what I was doing.”

When fall arrived, she left the factory, frustrated. She knew it was an important job that had to be done, but the tedium was too draining on her. She reluctantly returned to her teaching job in Vermont. But her restlessness continued. She had to do something. She had to find a fit.

While she had been packaging screws that summer, progress was happening in Washington that would open doors for her and thousands of other young women across the country. President Roosevelt signed new legislation in July establishing the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as the WAVES. In August 1942, Mildred McAfee was commissioned to command the organization, becoming the first woman officer in naval history.

A recruitment brochure for the newly established WAVES caught Helen’s attention. “It’s a proud moment when you first step out in brand new Navy blues! The trim uniform was especially designed by the famous stylist Mainbocher to flatter every figure and to make you look – and feel – your best!”

The wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Josephine Forrestal, who had been a fashion editor for Vogue before her marriage, had asked Mainbocher, a leading Parisian designer, to create the stylish uniform. And Helen loved it. Until then, she had been considering joining the WACS, the also newly established women’s branch of the Army. But the uniform determined her choice and she signed up in the late spring 1943 for the WAVES. By then, nearly 27,000 women had preceded her.

As soon as school was out, she left for three weeks of basic training in New York, where a training center for women recruits had been set up in the facilities of Hunter College in the Bronx.

“And wouldn’t you know it, that was the hottest summer ever in New York. A massive heat wave had hit the city,” she said.

“Women were held to the same standards as the men and it was hard on the women. Most of us had never experienced such rigorous physical activity,” she said. She stayed on the seventh floor of one of Hunter’s dormitories. Because the recruits were not allowed to use the elevators, they had to climb the seven flights of stairs at the end of each grueling day to get to their beds.

Every day, they would go out in full dress summer uniforms – cotton skirt, long-sleeve cotton jacket and cotton stockings with lace-up shoes – to march down the streets of New York City, despite the sweltering heat. The Marine sergeants who trained the women seemed to resent their jobs and were especially tough on them.

“A lot of the women gave up and dropped out,” Helen said. “But I wasn’t about to do that.” Even when she felt nauseated from the salt tablets they were given – without water – she was determined to survive boot camp. And she did.

Because of her teaching background, Helen was tapped as a link trainer operator and sent to Atlanta. For 10 weeks, she and other former schoolteachers learned the intricacies of “blind flying” at the Link Instrument Training Instructors School. The Navy then assigned the link trainers to airfields in Texas or Florida to teach cadets and aviators how to use instrument panels to fly their airplanes.

She requested Corpus Christi as her first duty station because she was born in Wichita Falls and her father still had family in Texas. Instead, she was sent to Pensacola and assigned to Whiting Field, the newest and most ambitious of the entire Pensacola training center. Although disappointed in not going to Corpus Christi, she soon discovered Whiting Field had a lot to offer. For one thing, there were about 10 men for every woman in the area, not a bad ratio from her perspective.

The flight simulator Helen worked with was basically a small wooden airplane mounted on four air-filled bags, controlled by the operator. During link training, she put a hood set up like the cockpit of an airplane with all its instruments over the cadets. Then she sat at a desk beside them and operated the signals to simulate storms, other airplanes nearby, dives and various things that can happen when flying. The cadets would have to control the plane by the instruments rather than by sight. If the training aviators were on a dive, they’d get the feeling they really were going down.

If the student was doing well, the instructor would often complicate matters by mechanically causing a crosswind or create rough air that the pilot had to cope with. Many a cadet would emerge from one of these experiences woozy and weeping in frustration.

Helen loved challenging the guys, particularly those who had a cocky attitude or snickered at the idea of learning anything so macho from a mere woman.

Then David Self, a Leighton, AL, native, showed up in late October for training and life changed. One of his fellow cadets who had arrived at Whiting Field a few days earlier had warned David about this beautiful, sexy link trainer. But David had just laughed at the guy who was always trying to set him up with women. Then he met Helen at a Halloween party on the base and the next day, he requested to be assigned to her link. His buddy had been right for once.

As they got to know each other over the three weeks before David had to report to another field, they discovered they had similar backgrounds and were heading in the same direction with their lives. Both had come from large families with very little money growing up. Both were teachers convinced that public education was the future of America and both came from strong Methodist roots with many preachers in their lineage.

After he was stationed at the nearby field and despite the prohibition of officers fraternizing with non-officers, they still found time to see each other almost every day. They would meet in downtown Pensacola for a movie or just to walk around and talk.

For Christmas, David took Helen on a bus trip to meet his parents in Springville, AL, about 20 miles north of Birmingham. When she saw how devoted and attentive he was to his own mother, she knew that was a telling sign about how he would treat a wife.

David finally convinced Helen that he meant it when he said he wanted to marry her, even though he had made that statement right after their first training experience. She had laughed at him then but after meeting his family, finally decided it was real. She was already very much in love with him, and gave up the notion that it was a temporary fling for him.

David’s father, the Rev. James T. Self, performed their wedding late in the evening of March 15, 1944. He only had four days leave before having to report back for more flight training in Fort Lauderdale. They boarded a bus from Springville to Birmingham a little before midnight after the ceremony. They spent the next three days honeymooning and planning their future.

By late April, Helen realized she was pregnant, which was part of their plan.

“At that time, they automatically gave you a medical discharge when you got pregnant,” Helen said. “And getting out of the Navy was the only way I could be wherever David was once he finished his flight training.”

Although her life had taken a surprise turn from what she expected when she first joined the WAVES, she had no regrets.

“I was glad I was able to serve what little time I did,” she said. “Hopefully, it made a difference for those young cadets I trained.”

For the rest of her life, Helen expressed pride at the opportunity she had to serve her country when it needed her most. And she loved to tell the story of how she met her husband and taught him how to fly when the going got rough.

She died of congestive heart failure at the age of 77 in 1998, twelve years after David died from a massive heart attack in 1986. They had four children and eight grandchildren.

Jane Self, a freelance writer and retired features editor, wrote this story about her mother. After her father died in 1986, she interviewed her mother about their lives with each other every time the family was together for any occasion. Some stories , particularly the one about how her parents met, came up during nearly every interview. The more her mother told the story, the more vivid the details became as she reached deeper into her memories.


Help Willow Run Regain the Rosie the Riveter Guinness World Record

by kendra on September 26, 2015

Willow Run Rosies at a recent event.

Willow Run and the Yankee Air Museum in Ypsilanti Township, MI, congratulate the Rockin’ Rosies of Richmond (CA) for beating their original record of 776 Rosies by bringing together 1084 Rosies in August 2015.

But records are made to be broken, and the Rosies of Michigan are determined to reclaim the title for Willow Run. And you can help! Willow Run hopes to gather 2000 Rosies…in one place…at one time.

By registering, dressing the part and showing up, you can help make this a win to remember.

What You Need to Know to Participate

The place to be on October 24, 2015 is Willow Run Airport Hangar One. The staging call to gather will be at 1:30 PM. You can find the online registration form, costume guidelines, waiver form, directions to Airport Hangar One, and the event schedule by going to (just click the link).

Willow Run and the nearby Yankee Air Museum plan to make this event a fun outing. There will be costume judging, prizes, and a lot of picture taking. Plus you’ll have a piece of Guinness World Record bragging rights.

The costume guidelines, while easy to meet, are specific. Yankee Air Museum will be selling some of the accessories you need. And you can always visit our Rosie Legacy Gear shop on ETSY. We have bandanas, Rosie Employment Badge Collar Pins, little bags of rivets, and our Rosie DIY Legacy Portrait Kit includes a We Can Do It! poster and ration book.

Help Save the Bomber Plant

While the Yankee Air Museum and Willow Run enjoy putting on fun events, a lot of the money they raise goes to an important historical landmark. They have been working for the last several years to raise enough money to save the Willow Run Factory where some 40,000 workers built more 8,600 B-24 Liberator bombers. These planes played an important part in winning World War II.

The United States has many monuments to the men and women who served in the military, but we have very few testaments to the dedicated work millions of people on the home front did to supply the war effort. This bomber plant is one of those sites. The factory building has been saved from demolition. Now they’re working to fill the space with exhibits and develop programs for adults and children.

So join hundreds (indeed thousands) of Rosies on October 24, 2015 to set a new Guinness World Record.

Help Willow Run Regain the Rosie the Riveter Guinness World Record

Help Willow Run Regain the Rosie the Riveter Guinness World Record


Aunt Mary as Rosie the Riveter: Portrait of Courage and Strength by Donna Donabella

by Matilda Butler on July 5, 2015

Post #68 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing some of the intriguing stories we received from readers–stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, we’re posting Donna Donabella’s vignette about her Aunt Mary. Yes, it is a story about hardship during the war, but it is a much larger story of an incredible woman who did what needed to be done.]

Portrait of Courage and Strength

by Donna Donabella

It was December 7, 1941 and the horror of the attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh and raw.  Mary Rose Parise had taken a Civil Service Exam to work for the government weeks earlier, and now on this horrific day was being offered a job at the Navy Yard.  Although it was a great opportunity she declined the job. After all the war wasn’t going to last more than a year, now that the United States was involved.  Instead she decided the job at Sears, for $12 a week, was a better opportunity.

And as the sole breadwinner in her family of four, better opportunities were most important to Mary. Her mother had died 6 years earlier, when Mary was 13, leaving her to care for her two sisters, Theresa, 10 and Emma, 3. Her father had worked, but was recently injured in a fall. Unable to work anymore, they were relying on his social security check of $25 a month and anything Mary could earn. So naturally she took the better job, the one that would not disappear in a year once the war was over.
And Mary was convinced it would be over quickly.

[Photo: Aunt Mary, age 13, and her two sisters.] The Parise family had emigrated from Italy to their new country in 1923 when Mary was one. She was not the oldest, but was the oldest surviving child when they arrived. Her parents’ house had no heat except for one lone stove in the middle of the small center room. Of the five children born to the family, only three would live beyond their first few years. So Mary was used to hardship when her mother died in 1935. It was second nature for this lanky young girl to go to school, and then come home and take care of the family. She had little time to mourn as she was now the female head of the household.  And when Mary graduated from vocational school at 18, she had to find work to support the family.

By May of 1942, as the country realized that this war was not going to be over any time soon, Mary wanted to work for the war effort. It was a risk to leave her reliable job, but one she was willing to take to do her little part. Mary luckily landed a job with the Signal Corps at the supply depot in Philadelphia. The Signal Corps was established in 1860, and became one of the technical services in the Army Service Forces during WWII responsible for establishing and maintaining communications.

Every day this young woman, of medium height and medium strength, showed up to work in one of the few clean, pressed dresses she owned, her curly brown hair falling around her shoulders. Her gentle brown eyes and intoxicating smile welcomed her co-workers who she described as, “Nice people to work with.” She quickly worked her way up from a typist to the job of expeditor. On the surface, the job seemed menial in its description. You took a requisition for supplies and filled it with great speed and efficiency. What could be simpler? But this job was far from simple.

Mary enjoyed the job because as she says, “You got to do lots of walking. It was different than just sitting and typing all day. You used your mind and problem solved. It was very challenging.” Mary was well respected in her job as she was given what were called the “hot requisitions.” These were especially important because our troops were without the supplies needed on the front lines in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

Mary would take the “hot requisition” and walk it through all the departments until it got to shipping. Sometimes this meant she had to stay past her shift. Each of these orders were of utmost importance After all, our boys were counting on the efforts of those back in the States. If stock control or inventory did not have the materials needed, an officer would accompany Mary to other areas of the depot to conduct a search as supplies would sometimes be mislabeled or tucked away in the wrong spot. Or she would go to the girls in purchasing to find materials in other areas of the country. Occasionally if Mary couldn’t find what was needed, she would have to call the manufacturer to try and order supplies, but that was a last resort. Often times Mary had to find a substitute that would do for now, and that took quick thinking on her part.

Mary recounted times that officers from the field would arrive with requisitions that she would have to fill fast. She would walk the requisition through with the officers to ensure the materials were quickly dispatched. She felt good about her job saying, “I felt like I was doing something to help. It felt good because the front lines were getting things they needed, and I was proud to help them.”

Mary and others were required to rotate and work all 3 shifts in the office, each shift just as busy as the other. This was not your typical office either, but a large building filled with rows of desks, clacking typewriters, Xerox machines humming loudly, phones ringing non-stop and thousands of people talking–and that was just in her section. The noise was deafening so it was a relief when Mary could spend time in the other areas and buildings searching for the right supplies to fill the orders needed during the war.

Mary was usually exhausted when she left work. She would often arrive home to chores that were still waiting for her.  After all someone had to do the washing and ironing, even the dishes. Her father was a help with some housework and cooking, but that help was limited. Her sisters were expected to go to school, and do their homework with just some light chores. Much was left to Mary. Frequently Mary would decline her co-workers efforts to get her to go out after work.  But sometimes she went to South Philly on the bus to get a slice of pizza before she worked the midnight shift.  There were times she went to dinner at a girlfriend’s house or even out for Chinese food, but those were rare excursions to help deal with the work-a-day stress.

Most nights Mary took the long ride home by herself–a ride that required both the bus and trolley. When she worked the later 4-12 or 12-8 shifts she would get an escort from a policeman who would drive alongside her as she walked from the bus stop to her house. Sometimes Mary was so exhausted after the last shift that she would fall asleep on the trolley as she rode it to the end of the line in complete oblivion. She would then have to ride it all the way back to get home, much later then she expected, even more tired after her cat nap. It is no wonder she really disliked the late shifts.

Mary worked as an expeditor until the war ended. She made little more than $1600 a year working full time during the war. This would equate to $20,464 today. Mary wanted to continue to work in her job after the war, but she was told women couldn’t have these jobs, and not because men were returning home to these particular jobs.  Simply put, men did these jobs not women.

Aunt Mary is my mother\'s Maid of Honor in 1953[Photo: Aunt Mary as my mother’s Maid of Honor, 1954.] But Mary never questioned these decisions. Instead she moved on to find another job after taking another test. Mary held various civil service jobs throughout her working career always trying to advance and passing any test given to her. Many times she said, “I don’t know how I passed all those tests.” Because Mary had a war services appointment, after the war she was able to transfer to the Veteran’s Administration where she helped veterans complete forms she created so they could go back to school on the GI Bill. Mary moved on to work for the City Health Department where she helped in clinics and dispensed medications to families. She eventually returned to clerical work for businesses and the government before retiring.

Aunt Mary in her 80s[Photo: Aunt Mary in her 80s.] At this writing, Mary (Parise) Esposito is still alive at the young age of 90.  She is spry, and will turn 91 in March.   Mary is my aunt and she raised my mother, Emma, her baby sister.  And although her hair is white and she walks with a cane, she has not lost the sparkle in those kind eyes.

As she grew older and her sisters left and married, Mary took care of her father until his death. When he died, she was 34 and unmarried.  She did marry Hugo Esposito soon after her father’s death, but had no children. Her sisters, nieces and nephews were her children, and she was like a mother or grandmother to us.

My aunt has great humility, and always celebrates the other person’s accomplishments with pride downplaying anything she does. As I was growing up, Aunt Mary appeared to know everyone, and if she didn’t, she smiled and talked with them as if she did. She never missed a chance to visit friends or pay her respects to everyone she knew–touching them with just her smile, her kind words. These are the most important things to her.  The way she has lived her whole life not looking for anyone to reciprocate.  Just treating people the way we all should with friendship, respect and love.

And now she lives with my mom in Arizona. She still knows everyone, and what is going on in their lives. Who is sick or hurt. Who may need some help or a friend to visit. She still pays her respects and welcomes friends and neighbors into her home.

Aunt Mary has been an incredible role model for me.  And as time is blurred and I find myself back in the early days of WWII, I can see Mary lending an ear or a shoulder. Knowing all the people who worked with her soldiers and civilians alike. In her mind, she’s not a Rosie the Riveter, but just a humble woman never letting on what burdens she had–instead helping those around her bear their burdens.

Aunt Mary, a true portrait of courage and strength for women throughout the ages.

Donna Donabella recently retired from a 35-year career in education. She currently is pursuing a career as a writer and poet. She is married to her soul mate, Robert, who is her champion. Donna is an avid gardener, and blogs about her life and gardening at And you can read her poetry and prose at her new blog, where she is inspired by change, challenge and creativity.


A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Sara Etgen-Baker

by Matilda Butler on May 3, 2015

Post #67 – Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing some of the fabulous stories we received–stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, we’re posting Sara Etgen-Baker’s vignette.]


by Sara Etgen-Baker*

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” announced the captain, “in approximately five minutes, we will begin our descent into Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport where the weather is slightly windy and 78 degrees. At this time make sure your trays are clear and in their upright position. Please fasten your seat belts and remain in your seats until we are safely at the arrival gate. Thank you for flying with us today.”

Just as I fastened my seat belt, the plane tilted slightly to the left and began a slow, steady turn. I looked out my window; the ground below looked like square plots on a huge map of some kind. Gradually, the Kansas prairie came into view with its wheat fields waving as if to welcome me home. As the plane neared the ground, small cars heading down long highways of black ribbon appeared, as well as homes of different sizes and shapes.

Then a sudden bump—I jumped slightly as the landing gear was released. Trees and rooftops whizzed by as the aircraft made its final turn toward the waiting runway and ended with a mild rumbling as the tires kissed the tarmac. Once the plane taxied to a halt, I was the only passenger who walked through the fuselage door onto the jetway bridge disembarking into the airport.

AAF Classrooms, circa 1943

AAF Classrooms, circa 1943

Once inside the airport, I found it virtually empty—still with anticipation and a tinge of sadness in the air. As I made my way toward baggage claim, the floor beneath my feet creaked with the voices of the pilots and soldiers who once worked at this airfield during World War II. I glanced out the huge plate-glass windows and spotted the deserted AAF classroom buildings, abandoned hanger, and empty storage facilities. I fought back the tears wondering, Why did I expect this place to remain the same when nothing else does?

At baggage claim the skycap handed me my luggage. “If you hurry, you can catch the cabbie before he leaves for town.”

I scurried through the lobby toward the automatic sliding doors, stepped outside, and stood at the crosswalk waiting until the cab appeared. “Let me help you with your luggage, ma’am.” I watched as the young cabbie easily lifted my two large suitcases into the trunk of his vehicle. He opened the backdoor on the passenger side and said, “My name’s Tom. Where ya headed today?”

“I’m heading into town….734 North Webster Avenue. Do you know where that is?”

“Certainly do, ma’am.” Tell me…,” he paused, “are you from around here or just visitin’?”

“Both. I grew up in Liberal. During the war I worked as a clerk at the Liberal Army Airfield. Then when my parents moved to Missouri in 1943, I moved into my Uncle Claude’s house on North Webster Avenue. He recently passed away so I’m here for his funeral.”

I looked out the window as the cabbie turned onto 8th Street heading west past the fairgrounds and Bluebonnet Park. The cabbie turned right onto North Webster and said, “Here we are ma’am…734 North Webster Avenue. I’ll pull into the driveway.”

Before getting out of the cab, I stared at the vacant, old house not knowing what to expect. Although it looked familiar, the paint was weathered and peeling off in spots; the slats in the shutters on the upstairs windows were mostly broken out. A slight breeze made the shutters tap against the house, and the hinges squeaked. Despite ivy clinging to the outer walls of the house, I could see inside the front door into the house past the banister and stairway that led upstairs.

“From those second story windows, I watched as the airport, hangars, and runways were constructed. From there I also watched the military parade march through downtown Liberal the day many of the soldiers and pilots arrived at the airfield for their training.”

“A parade during war time must have been moving,” he commented.

“Yes, it was, Tom. Those parades kept us all—civilians and military—motivated and focused on the war effort. That parade convinced me that I somehow needed to join in the war effort.”

“So, what did you decide to do?” he asked.

“I took a job working as a clerk at the new airfield. When not working, I tended to our Victory Garden.” I pointed to the vine-covered backyard. “As a matter of fact, my Aunt Jean and I planted it back there.”

“A Victory Garden?” he raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “What was that?”

“Because sacrifice was part of the war effort, the government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat, and canned goods. Like many other women, we planted a garden so we’d have our own fruits and vegetables. At some point we canned our fruits and vegetables leaving commercial canned goods for the troops. Later, I built nest boxes for eggs and raised chickens just so we’d have eggs for eating and cooking.”

“Must’ve been hard to make those sacrifices,” he said.

“Like most Americans I didn’t feel like I was making a sacrifice at all. I felt patriotic doing my part—however small—to insure America’s victory.” I opened the car door. “Tom, would you mind waiting for me while I go inside?”

“Sure thing, ma’am. I’ll wait as long as you need me to. Take your time.”

I stepped onto the gravel driveway and gingerly climbed the rickety steps onto the porch. Using my antique skeleton key, I turned the rusty lock and opened the front door fully expecting Uncle Claude and Aunt Jean to greet me. As I entered the house, the sun—now low in the sky—illuminated the downstairs rooms.

Although the old house was decaying, the floors inside were not rotten and looked sturdy enough to bear my weight. As I walked through the entryway, I found the grandfather clock had long since stopped. I closed my eyes and imaged myself in another time altogether when blackout curtains hung over the windows and I sat in the living room listening to radio shows like “Amos ‘n Andy,” “Bing Crosby,” and “The Green Hornet.” I even thought I heard the old phonograph playing songs from big band leaders like Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.

I opened my eyes and discovered the chandelier that once shone upon the piano was now covered in cobwebs and dust. I headed toward the kitchen, looked back and caught a glimpse of Aunt Jean—her hands dancing across the keyboard—playing her favorite wartime song, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The buffet and china cabinet were just as she’d left them; but mold from damp nights had seeped into the walls making gray streaks across my aunt’s favorite wallpaper. In the kitchen I found an empty teakettle sitting on the stove patiently waiting for Aunt Jean’s return.

Ribbons of moonlight drifted through the kitchen window and shimmered across the kitchen table where I often drank coffee and talked with Uncle Claude about the war. At this table, my future husband—a mechanic on the flight line—asked Uncle Claude for my hand in marriage. Despite the war, the old house was alive and always full of people—a sort of wartime oasis for soldiers, pilots, and locals that my uncle invited to his home.

Now, though, the old house—hallow and lifeless—echoed with memories. Although the night was new, darkness soon forced me to say goodbye to the old house. So I walked through the moonlight down the driveway turning back as though summoned and drinking in the sights—relishing the flood of memories. I stared up at the moon. Then something caught my eye. On the second floor, the curtain moved; and I saw the woman I used to be—an innocent, patriotic wartime bride full of hope and anticipation about her future.

Just as we pulled out of the driveway, I thought heard my aunt playing her piano and singing her favorite song to me:

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces all day through. In that small café, the park across the way, the children’s carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well.

I’ll be seeing you in every lovely, summer’s day; and everything that’s bright and gay; I’ll always think of you that way. I’ll find you in the morning sun; and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

* [Sara Etgen-Baker] took a slightly different approach in trying to capture her mother’s wartime experiences. Sara says: “Many years prior to her death my mother returned to Liberal, Kansas, for her uncle’s funeral. I distinctly remember her telling me of her thoughts and feelings upon her arrival in Liberal, the Army Airfield, and her uncle’s house. I decided to let her become the narrator of her own story (as she told me); her voice seemed the most appropriate. My mother, Winifred C. Stainbrook married my father, Edwin R. Etgen on November 19, 1944. She was 19 and my father was 22.

Thanks Sara for sharing your mother’s story with us. –Matilda Butler