More than 10 million women of all races, creeds and colors joined the workforce during WWII to replace the males who were destined for the battlefields. These enthusiastic ladies, affectionately known as ‘Rosie the Riveters’, filled a variety of jobs building ships, tanks, guns, aircraft, ammunition plus thousands of other critical duties. “We can Do it,’ on the iconic WWII Rosie the Riveter poster became their battle cry.
Twelve Rosie the Riveters and 13 male WWII veterans were honored on Nov. 3 at the Benning Club at Ft. Benning, Georgia as part of the WWII Rosie the Riveter Social. Over 250 folks attended the event, sponsored by the American Rosie the Riveter Association. Entertainment was presented by the talented Carol Cain from LaGrange who performed her amazing Rosie the Riveter one-lady show, plus a cameo appearance by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (actually, reenactor and Vietnam veteran, Dr. Hal Raper, Jr.). The few honorees I interviewed were archetypal of the Greatest Generation, hard-working and immensely patriotic.
Elizabeth Minton of Pine Mountain Valley, GA worked as a riveter in Torrance, CA. She recalled, “We made bomb bay doors for the A-26 Invaders. The A-26 started out as a light bomber in Europe. It was mothballed after the war, flew again in the Korean War, mothballed a second time then flew combat in Vietnam. The Invader was a beautiful aircraft.” During WWII, Elizabeth earned two E pins for ‘excellence’ in production.
When asked about the ‘4,000’ hour patch stitched on her Rosie outfit, Elizabeth explained, “My husband, Ray, and I worked at the Little White House in Warm Springs for 13 years, putting in over 4,000 hours. Ray also served in WWII, including the battle for Iwo Jima. His unit carried supplies to the front lines. At night his unit picked up shrapnel off the runways. They used big lights for illumination. Ray said the hair on the back of his neck would stand up because they knew enemy snipers had them in their sights. Thank goodness he made it home.”
Later in the war Elizabeth made parts for the P-80 fighter, America’s first combat jet. A family friend, Thomas Ferebee, visited often with the Mintons. Ferebee was the bombardier who released the atomic bomb from the B-29 Enola Gay on the city of Hiroshima. Regarding her longevity, Elizabeth stated, “God’s not ready for me. I have my ticket, but I’m not ready to use it yet.”
Riveter June Tinker built and repaired the B-25s and B-29s at Patterson Field just outside of Dayton, OH. “I was 17 years old,” she stated. “I thought it was great having a paying job. Back then money was tight but we also wanted to do our part to win the war. I quit school in the eleventh grade thinking I’d go back to school after the war. Instead, I got married.” At age 40, June earned her GED at Fort Benning, joined the civil service, and worked in food services until she retired. Her two brothers joined the Marines; one lost his life on Iwo Jima. She recently wrote a song “Gold Star Mother” telling the story of a mother losing her son to war.
Colonel Joe Bell was in attendance. Colonel Bell served in the Army Air Corps in WWII, received the Purple Heart in Korea, and served as an FO (forward observer) in Vietnam. Alzheimer’s has dampened his memory, but not enough to fog his remembrance of Vietnam. “My team covered all the firebases,” he said proudly. And Colonel Bell sported a huge grin when I said, “Welcome home, Colonel.”
Fay Edwards certainly did her part during the war. She made piston rings for the Arm and Hammer Piston Ring Company in Baltimore, MD before joining the WACs in 1944. As a WAC, she saw service in France and Germany.
Eva Ulrich replied, “I’m afraid so,” when asked if she too was a Rosie the Riveter. A genuine groundbreaker, Eva was one of the first Rosies assigned to Lawson Field at Fort Benning in 1941. “There were six of us,” she said. “I graduated from college in 1941 so I ended up as a base accountant. And, no, I didn’t cook the books. Then one day I’m at the Eight-Thirty Club in Columbus when this guy saunters up and asked me to marry him. Can you imagine that?” Asked her response, Eva said, “I said, yes, of course!” The impromptu romance lasted for 48 wonderful years.
Vincent Melillo, at age 97, is the only remaining member of the famous Merrill’s Marauders living in Georgia. Vincent joined the Army in 1940, served in the West Indies and Panama, then volunteered with buddies for ‘a dangerous mission.’ He recalled, “We returned to the states for a short stint, traveled to California, and in short order found ourselves in the China, Burma, India theatre of operations. In nine months we walked over 1,000 miles through the thick jungles of Burma and India. Seven of those nine months were behind Japanese lines.” Vincent also saw combat in Korea.
Doctor Fran Carter was one of 14,000 employees at the huge Bechtel-McCone-Parsons aircraft plant in Birmingham, Alabama. “I was a riveter on the B-29s,” she said. “I showed my husband, John, a piece of defective workmanship before he entered the military. He said, ‘That settles it, I’m not staying inside an airplane!’ He volunteered for airborne so he could get out of an airplane as quickly as possible.” John participated in Operation Dragoon, the Invasion of Southern France.
She continued, “I’d been teaching school but every boy I went with left for service so I decided to do my part, plus sixty cents an hour doubled my teaching salary. I liked working as a riveter. When the war ended, John took advantage of the G.I. Bill so we both attended the University of Illinois. After receiving our doctorate degrees we taught at Samford University. You know, when we entered the University of Illinois our son was only 14 months old, but somehow that little boy still grew up to be normal.” That ‘little boy’ retired from the military as a Lt. Colonel.
Mabel Myrick worked as an executive secretary at the Pentagon. She recalled, “I took dictation from a colonel, processed interoffice memos and the letters we mailed out.” She often took the correspondence to Secretary of War Stimson for his personal signature. When asked her opinion of the Pentagon, Mabel replied, “It was BIG!”
Luther Wise survived 30 missions over Europe as a B-17 tail gunner. A proud veteran of the celebrated 8th Air Force, Luther recalled a mission to Berlin with rousing hilarity. “Well, our radio operator had, let’s say, an upset stomach. He had to go, no bathrooms on a B-17, so a combat helmet had to do. Our fully loaded bomb bay served as a disposal sight.
Yes, sir, on that mission we literally bombed the crap out of Berlin.”
The Greatest Generation, America will never see their like again.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.