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.

RED-HEADED ROSIE

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 (http://wwiiletters.blogspot.com). 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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shirley Hershey Showalter 01.05.16 at 9:36 am

I taught women’s studies courses for many years, Sherrey, and would have enjoyed using an article like this one. We all thought the riveters had hard work (and they did), but now we know about the buckers, thanks to you and your Mama.

2 Sherrey Meyer 01.05.16 at 10:00 am

Thanks to Matilda and Kendra for providing this space sharing our stories. I’ve always wanted to share my mother’s story in written form, and today my dream has come true!

3 Kathleen Pooler 01.05.16 at 10:31 am

Beautiful story, Sherrey. Even though you never saw Mama in action as a “rivet bucker”, her story lives on through her words (love the quips). You have brought her words and an entire generation to life through your story. Thank you for sharing.

4 Madeline Sharples 01.05.16 at 1:06 pm

Thank you, Sherrey, for the very interesting story about your mom. What a strong woman she must have been. She was also lucky to still have a job after the men came home from the war - most Rosie’s left to become homemakers. And even though you didn’t find any photos or writings in her words, I think your piece is great - especially the quips. By the way, I co-authored a book in the 1990’s called Blue Collar Women about women who took on men-only jobs with pay equal to the men’s. We profiled a former Rosie in that book.

5 Martha Graham-Waldon 01.05.16 at 1:17 pm

So interesting to hear your mother’s story, Sherrey! I was raised in Long Beach, CA where the aerospace industry was strong. My father worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft as an engineer and I got a job in the factory for about a year and a half during a break from college in the late ’70s. I did my time bucking rivets still I was transferred to parts expediting. It was always fascinating to see an airplane being created by adding the “skin” to the “skeleton” all the way to completion. Whenever I go to Long Beach now it is sad to see the old plant gone. All that remains in a huge neon sign and now Mercedez Benz cars are manufactured there. There is a small park nearby that commemorates all the “Rosies” & their contribution during the war. A great chapter in women’s history!

6 Matilda Butler 01.05.16 at 2:28 pm

Sherry:
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story of your mother with our readers. You’ve brought her to life with your imagination and her quotes.

7 Maureen 01.05.16 at 6:41 pm

Sherry, what a beautiful tribute to your mom and the women of that era. I agree with Madeline, the quotes are precious!

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