Naomi Parker Fraley, The Original “We Can Do It!” Gal

What if I told you the “real” Rosie the Riveter was alive and well and living in California? Meet Naomi Parker Fraley, over 90 years young! She is the real inspiration behind the famous “We Can Do It!” WWII poster. Here’s the story…

“We Can Do It!” is a WWII-era propaganda poster created for Westinghouse Corporation by artist J. Howard Miller, and has in the years since become a pop culture icon commonly interpreted as an image of Rosie the Riveter. Although little-seen during WWII, this poster is much-celebrated in our time, and its popularity continues to grow as it appeals to new generations. And although not originally labelled in any way as “Rosie the Riveter” the “We Can Do It!” gal has now become arguably the most well-recognized and definitive image associated with Rosie the Riveter.

A Press Photo, And A Mistaken Identity

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J. Howard Miller’ famous poster for Westinghouse.

Many news outlets have memorialized Michigan war worker Geraldine Hoff Doyle as the inspiration for the famous “We Can Do It!” poster. These news stories relate that Mrs. Doyle recognized herself in a 1942 UPI press photo of a female worker wearing a polka dot bandanna, a photo that had been posited as the possible inspiration used by Miller in creating his famous poster.

But what if I told you that inspirational photo is not of Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who has sadly passed away, but a photo of war worker Naomi Parker Fraley, who is alive and well and living in California? I bet you’d be as happy as I am to know that “the real Rosie the Riveter” is still with us!

Of course, there’s more than one WWII gal who can lay claim to the title “the real Rosie the Riveter,” meaning she played a critical role in defining the iconic character. Most often cited is our own Rose Will Monroe of the Willow Run Bomber Plant, famously featured as “the real-life Rosie the Riveter” in WWII short films promoting War Bonds. Then there’s Mary Doyle Keefe, who, though neither Rosie nor a riveter, was the live model for Norman Rockwell’s well-known 1943 “Rosie the Riveter” cover for the Saturday Evening Post. During WWII, then as now, the public and press were always on the lookout for a real-life gal that they could think of as “the REAL Rosie the Riveter.” So when Rose Bonavita and her partner shot a record number of rivets on the night shift at an aircraft factory, she was, of course, hailed in the press as “Rosie the Riveter.” And, soon after the release of the wartime hit song, “Rosie the Riveter,” the press went looking and found patriotic debutante Rosalind Palmer Walter working in an aircraft factory, and dubbed her… you guessed it… “Rosie the Riveter.” Real Rosies, all!

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The famous UPI photo said to have inspired the “We Can Do It!” poster. The photo depicts Naomi Parker Fraley.

For many years, Geraldine Hoff Doyle was routinely included in this group of “real-life Rosies,” as the possible indirect model for the “We Can Do It!” poster which has become so strongly associated with Rosie the Riveter. This association had its genesis in 1984, when Mrs. Doyle saw a reprint of a UPI photo of a young war worker in polka-dots in Modern Maturity magazine and “recognized herself” in both the photo, and the poster (which was in the process of being rediscovered and gaining fame throughout the 80s.) Mrs. Doyle had worked briefly during WWII at American Broach in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a metal press machine, and recounted that one day a news photographer snapped photos of her working, and she was certain this was one of the photos. Overeager journalists picked up the story without fact-checking the identity of the young woman in the UPI photo, which was probably much harder to research in the pre-internet 80s and early-internet 90s.

However, with increasing digitization of historic materials, the identity of the girl in the 1942 UPI photo has recently been proven to be another woman, Naomi Parker Fraley. Corbis has cataloged the photo online as part of the Bettman Historical Archives, and the National Parks Service Rosie the Riveter Museum shows the actual 1942 news clipping in its online collection. The photo can be found in March, 1942 issues of a least 4 major daily newspapers digitized online: The Oakland (CA) Post Enquirer, the Twin Falls (ID) Times News, the Milwaukee (WI) Journal, and the Albany (OR) Democrat-Herald. In each case, the photo is clearly captioned as depicting Naomi Parker (not Geraldine Hoff), taken at Alameda Naval Air Station (not American Broach) in California (not Michigan.) In addition, the Twin Falls caption describes the machine as a vertical turret lathe (and not the metal stamping press that Mrs. Doyle worked on.)

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Naomi Parker Fraley, who was surprised to learn that a UPI press photo of her taken in 1942 is considered to be the inspiration for this famous poster (photo credit: John Fraley.)

Since Mrs. Doyle never claimed to have met or sat for J. Howard Miller, but only claimed to recognize herself in the UPI war worker photo… and since the UPI photo is proven beyond a doubt to depict Naomi Parker Fraley, we must conclude that Mrs. Doyle cannot be the inspiration for the famous poster. That claim to “Rosie” fame now transfers to Naomi Parker Fraley. Mrs. Fraley recalls her father walking her down to the Alameda naval air base to apply for a job. She was part of a vanguard of 50 women hired to work in the machine shop there, with plans to soon hire 300 more. Shortly after, in April of 1942, Alameda was where the USS Hornet docked to load up the 16 B-25 bombers that were soon to take part in the famous Doolittle raid on the Japanese mainland.

(Note:  Please do keep in mind that by taking war production jobs as a youngster of 17 as a metal-stamper and then a timekeeper, Geraldine Hoff Doyle like many women and girls served with valor on the Home Front during WWII, and she undoubtedly made an honest mistake regarding the photograph at a time when the all-seeing internet was not available. Geraldine and Naomi, both stunning brunettes, did resemble each other, so the mistake on Mrs. Doyle’s part is understandable.)

So Why Is This Important?

“We Can Do It!” is a beloved cultural icon. The press and public interest in putting a real face and name to the iconic character of Rosie the Riveter remains high, as evidenced by the frenzy of interest in Mrs. Doyle’s passing in 2010, and the passing of Rockwell’s sitter, Mary Doyle Keefe in 2015. How much more satisfying to celebrate one of these “real Rosies” who played a critical a part in defining the beloved icon, while she is still with us, as Naomi Parker Fraley is, and can share her recollections?

The idea of a possible or likely real-life inspiration for “We Can Do It!” gal has taken hold of the public imagination and resulted in a flood of news articles over the years. The erroneous identification of Mrs. Doyle as the subject of the photo, and therefore inspiration for the poster, has been reported as fact on NPR, the New York Times, the UK Guardian, the Washington Post… and continues in news articles still to this day. It seems important to correct an error regarding something that is clearly very important to people. If anyone is to be credited as Miller’s inspiration, it is Naomi Parker Fraley, and the best part is she is still alive to share her experiences with a generation that is keenly interested!

I’ll be the first to admit that the relationship between the UPI photo and the famous poster was only ever conjectural, and we will never know for sure since J. Howard Miller died before anyone could ask him. But as to the identity of the worker in the UPI photo, case closed, so let’s set the record straight where we can. With members of WWII’s Greatest Generation lost every day, and young girls daily looking up Rosie the Riveter and “We Can Do It!” for inspiration and to write reports, it’s important to get the story right.

Many WWII Rosie the Riveters Are Still Among Us… Let’s Celebrate Them!

Of course, the larger, more important truth is that all of these ladies, and many more besides, are “The Real Rosie the Riveter.”

Naomi and Geraldine… and Mary, Rose, and Rosamund…and Ruth, Ada Wyn, Marj, Vivan, Mallie, Shirley, Frances, Rachel Mae, Cookie, Angeline, Eva, Elma, Pauline, Margaret, Loraine, Helen, Betty & Lenore, Blanche, Louise, Mary Lou, Carol… the list goes on and on!

Any plucky American woman or girl whose work helped the Allied effort in WWII was dubbed, then as now, “Rosie the Riveter.” Whether she was Wendy the Welder, Tillie the Typist, Betty the Bucker, or Acetylene Annie, she’s a “Rosie.”

She might have conducted a streetcar, operated an elevator, run a scrap metal drive, rolled bandages, or played in an all-girl baseball team or swing band, she’s a “Rosie.”

They’re in their 90s now, but they are still among us, with wisdom to share and stories to tell. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many, and love them all. You will, too!

Get together and find these women in your community and celebrate them. Thank them for their service on the Home Front, and for breaking down gender barriers so your daughters can choose any career they wish. Ask them what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor, and what it was like to live through a time when the whole world was at war. Ask them what it was like to be young then, and what they did for fun. You’ll never regret taking time out to honor your heroes.

And you’ll always remember the day you met “Rosie!”


Learn more about “We Can Do It!” girl Naomi Parker Fraley at naomiparkerfraley.com

Learn more about the complete history of the beloved “Rosie the Riveter” WWII propaganda character at PopHistoryDig.com

Learn about Rose Will Monroe of movie newsreel fame, the woman most often credited as “the Real Rosie the Riveter.”

Socialite and philanthropist Rosalind Palmer Walter is still alive and head of an eponymous charitable foundation, and she sits on the boards of many prestigious organizations.

Rose Bonavita Hickey was interviewed in the 1980s about her experience as a record-setting riveter and her return to homemaking after the war, and you can read her bio here.

To read some amazing stories from living Willow Run and Detroit WWII Rosies, click here.

Willow Run: A Country Music Classic Gets The Lyrics It Deserves

Some of you may be familiar with the 1980 country classic “Willow Run” by Detroit-born country star Randy Barlow… one of many Barlow recordings that made the Billboard charts. The original lyrics are touching and describe the heartfelt wish of a line-worker father for a more choices in life for his son.

Now that the good line jobs are drying up as manufacturing moves overseas, we have a new appreciation for them because although hard and monotonous, they allowed working men and women to raise families in comfort with a few “lifestyle extras.” Their loss is certainly bittersweet.

Randy To The Rescue!

Well… Randy Barlow himself rewrote the lyrics because he is proud of his hard-working Dad, wanted to turn the lyrics to tell a fuller history of the Willow Run factory, and assist in the effort to Save The Willow Run Bomber Plant!

And Randy acted as producer for Michigan musician Denny Luce, in re-recording this great old Randy Barlow tune with Randy’s new lyrics telling the full story of Willow Run, the crown jewel of the WWII’s Arsenal of Democracy, and later GM’s Powertrain transmission plant. Willow Run produced B-24 bombers at the rate of one per hour at the height of World War II, thus turning the tides of war.

Scroll below to listen as country great Randy Barlow, along with Michigan singer Denny Luce, help us to honor the men and women who kept Willow Run “running” from 1941 to 2010. It’s a song to warm your heart and make you proud, and just try to keep a tear away from the corner of your eye. Thanks, Randy, for writing this classic song in the first place… and also for the great new lyrics! And thanks for singing the song, Denny!

PS: You can re-connect with country legend Randy Barlow on Facebook here, and collect his hits like “Slow and Easy,” No Sleep Tonight,” “Fall in Love With Me,” “Sweet Melinda,” and of course “Willow Run,” on CD or MP3 by clicking here. New fans can learn more about Randy at his website here . You can hear a clip of Randy’s original recording with his original lyrics of Willow Run here.

Listen to Randy Barlow’s NEW Lyrics to his old country classic “Willow Run” (as performed by Denny Luce)

Willow Run

©2011 Frebar Music BMI
Music and lyrics: Randy Barlow
performed by: Denny Luce

Now there’s some land that lies just west of Detroit city
It’s a place that all America should know
And what was built to keep us free, back in 1941
Was a factory in a place called Willow Run

A B-24 rolled out the door, one every hour
Night and day the bombers flew away
Then the war was finally over, and a new age had begun
In the factory at a place called Willow Run

Oh Willow Run, you keep on running forever in my mind
So many lives depended on your old assembly line
We kept our country strong, we didn’t bend to any one
When that workingman was working
On that line at Willow Run

For 50 years, she served the people of our nation
Building cars, trucks, families and dreams
There’s a feeling of pride that can never be undone
In the factory in a place called Willow Run

Oh Willow Run, you keep on running forever in my mind
So many lives depended on your old assembly line
We kept our country strong, we didn’t bend to any one
When that workingman was working
On that line at Willow Run

When that line was running strong… At Willow Run

Willow Run: The Story Behind Henry Ford’s “Tax Turn”

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Henry Ford’s famous “tax turn” made sure the B-24 bombers were built—and delivered—in Washtenaw County.

There are many rumors around town about why Ford’s Willow Run WWII B-24 assembly line takes a 90-degree turn at the end, enabling the finished bombers to exit the plant on the Washtenaw side of the county line… but here’s the real story!

A look at the map reveals that the old bomber plant lies snug up against the Washtenaw/Wayne county line, west of Detroit, near the town of Ypsilanti. There’s got to be a story there, right? Well, there is.

The Willow Run Bomber Plant was conceived of in 1940, and, for the most part, built in 1941 prior to Pearl Harbor, in expectation of war. Henry Ford already owned most of the 3,000 acres of farmland, straddling the two counties, that would soon comprise the colossal plant with its mile-long assembly line, adjacent Willow Run Airport, and a US Army Air Force base.

As planning for the complex proceeded, Ford wanted Wayne County to build a freeway all the way out to Willow Run, in order to get his 42,000 workers to and from the plant (I’m going to assume here that talk of a freeway was already on the table, and Ford wanted it extended a bit to service his planned plant.) Since he sat on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, he figured he could accomplish this.

Well, Ford could not get either of the other two members of the Wayne County Board to vote with him in favor of the freeway extension. So in retaliation, when laying out the Willow Run Complex, he placed the revenue-generating factory on the Washtenaw side of the line, and the non-revenue-generating airport on the Wayne side. The assembly line was to run right up to the border, with the planes exiting the plant in Wayne county. But since they were built in Washtenaw, Washtenaw would get the tax revenue. This layout was really quite an “FU” to Wayne County.

Not to be outdone, Wayne County then passed a law that placed a $2 tax on any aircraft that was “delivered” in Wayne County. If this gambit had been effective, Ford would have ended up paying an extra $17,370 to Wayne County in taxes over the course of WWII.

So Ford redesigned the plant, and, at considerable cost, put 2 giant turntables in the factory’s floor that rotated the bombers 90 degrees as they were being completed. That allowed him to place the giant bay doors through which the completed bombers exited, and the tarmac they rolled out on, firmly in Washtenaw County.

So Ford had the last laugh, at the expense of Wayne County, but it cost him $300,000 to do it!

I heard this story with a group of people at Willow Run Airport, told by Sean Brosnan of the Wayne County Airport Authority.

Celebrating Veterans Day with a WWII Vet

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Tonight I had the honor of meeting Paul, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident and former Marine who served in the Pacific Theater in WWII.

He joined the Marines in 1942 at age 22, which would make him 93. Prior to that, he worked for the City, and he was responsible for clearing Stadium Avenue so the B-24 bombers from Willow Run could pass through the city on their way to Texas to be fitted with guns.

Production at Willow Run had by no means ramped up at that point; in fact the first completed bomber was not produced until October 1, 1942 and only 107 bombers had been made by December of that year (and not even half of those up to Army standards.) So clearing Stadium Avenue when needed was still an option at that point, one that would not have been possible at peak production of a bomber an hour in 1944.

And remember, we’re talking about a heavy bomber with an impressive 110′ wingspan!

Paul told us that they had special trucks made, with two engines, to transport the planes, and that they traveled at 90 mph once on their way to Consolidated’s new plant at Fort Worth. Soon gas rationing and speed limits to conserve rubber kicked in. And as production increased, eventually the bombers were fitted right at Willow Run, in the building that is now Hangar 1 of Willow Run Airport, test flown, then flown to their destinations. Later still, the crews were brought to the planes, and Hangar 1 was filled with cots for the crews waiting for their planes to roll off Willow Run’s twin assembly lines.

Paul served at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, and in between bouts of action, liked to be assigned to the Officer’s mess. He didn’t mind peeling potatoes, because those officers left a lot of steaks uneaten.

Thank you for your service, Paul, and happy Veteran’s Day!

Real Rosie Elinor Otto Celebrates Birthday, Still Riveting at 94

One of my favorite people that I’ve never met, Elinor Otto, celebrated her 94th birthday last Saturday, while at the same time, on the other side of the country, we were meeting and talking with real Willow Run Rosies at the Arsenal of Democracy Conference and Willow Run Open House.

Mrs. Otto has been recently featured in the national media, and America just can’t seem to get enough of her. Talk about riveting!

At her birthday party, she was feted by family, friends new and old, and a 93-year-old Tuskegee airman. Yes, I said Tuskegee airman! Rosies from all over America called to wish her a happy birthday.

Can’t beat that, can you? Happy Birthday, Elinor Otto!

Red about her birthday celebration in this LA Times article.

Skilled Workers Served in WWII at Ford’s River Rouge Plant

At the Arsenal of Democracy conference at Willow Run, I met a man who had worked in the skilled trades at the Ford River Rouge complex, and had been apprenticed to an older man, after the war. One day they were talking about World War II, and he asked the older man, where had he served during the war?

“I served right here at River Rouge,” he answered. It turns out, when Ford found out the guy had been drafted, Henry Ford signed a letter stating that he was critical to plant operations, and was needed more at River Rouge than overseas. Of course, Ford had the power to do this because his plants, as well as all of Detroit’s auto industry, were busy producing the war materiel needed to fight.

The next day, the older tradesman brought in the framed letter, with Henry Ford’s signature. He still had it!

Two Real Rosie the Riveters Meet!

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Holy cow, I got to be a fly on the wall while real WWII Rosie the Riveters met and chatted about the Willow Run Bomber Plant.

The first thing they asked each other was, what section were you in? The answers were rapid-fire… “9-24,” said Vivian. “9-46,” said Frances. And this would not be the first time I’ve heard a Rosie rattle off her work station of 70 years ago without hesitation. Vivian even remembers her worker’s badge number.

Vivian was from nearby Belleville, so she didn’t have a long bus ride like other Rosies we’ve met who came from places like Inkster, Detroit, and Dearborn. She began working at the Plant as an 18-year-old, along with her girlfriend, in late February or early March of 1941, before the Plant was even finished. There was no hiring office yet, so they had to go to the Ford River Rouge Plant to get hired in, on a Friday, and they started work in the sewing section the following Monday. They worked on the third floor balcony because the ground floor was still under construction. She and her friend were the 3rd and 4th women hired to work at the Plant.

Now, the guys had worked with women before (as we learned from Charles Hyde at the Arsenal of Democracy Conference earlier in the day, as much as 8% of the manufacturing workforce was female prior to WWII, mostly doing industrial sewing tasks and making wiring harnesses) but, as Vivian laughingly said, these were “old” women in their 30s. The men were all abuzz about the “fresh, young girls” to the point where security would escort them to the bathroom and back, and they were told to travel in pairs. They didn’t want the girls to get hassled and frightened off.

Vivian said, “When my girlfriend and I would go to get a drink of water, it was amazing how many of those men would suddenly get thirsty, too!” Gradually, more and more women were hired in as the men went off to war, until, as we learned at the Conference, 40% of mighty Willow Run’s workforce was female.

Since the Open House event at the Plant was winding down, I had a chance to sit and really talk with Vivian for a while. I asked her why she went to work at Willow Run after high school, and she said, “Well, you had to have a job.” And also, that she wanted to be a WAC, but her family didn’t like the idea, so she thought serving on the home front by working at Willow Run would be the next best thing.

All of the real Rosies we’ve talked to went to work with a sense of pride and patriotism, and felt they were supporting their country and their loved ones who were fighting overseas. Vivian said there were bulletin boards at Willow Run where they’d post pictures of their men in the service. Morale at that plant must have been through the roof. She recalled a boy named Elmer who worked in her section, who was a very sweet kid and a favorite of the ladies. When he was called up to service, the older ladies cried… it was like watching yet another son go off to war.

She described war rationing to me, and she recalled VE Day (Victory in Europe, May 6, 1945) at Willow Run—they closed the plant early to let workers go home and celebrate. Then they went back in to work the next day. There was still a war on in the Pacific.

She described the sewing work she did on the B-24s at Willow Run. There was cloth covering the flight control surfaces: ailerons, elevators, etc., and there was padding to cover protrusions on the inside of the plane. She went into incredible detail that I couldn’t follow, describing exactly how cloth was cut to go around bolts and rivets, pulled taught and painted to create a smooth surface.

Vivian worked at Willow Run building B-24 Liberator bombers until June 1945, when they stopped production at the plant and sent the workers home, which was in between VE and VJ Day (August 15.) Her top pay at Willow Run was $1.15 per hour, which was darn good pay.

After the war, she found work at Ann Arbor Precision Parts, making radio transistors. The pay did not compare to Willow Run. After a while, Kaiser-Frazer, who bought the plant from Ford, called her up, along with the other Ford workers, to apply for positions on the re-tooled line, building Henry J cars. They called her back several times before a position opened up that appealed to her, as a driver in the shipping department. After the cars were built, she’d drive them to a staging area for loading onto freight cars, or perhaps to another building to be fitted for the British market. Before production at Kaiser-Frazer really got going, sometimes they’d drive one car, and be handed brooms to spend the rest of the day sweeping the lot. Again, the workforce was mostly men, but Vivian said the guys were wonderful, and she became great friends with many of them, and their wives, too.

Vivian loved working at the plant, both during and after the war, “We had so much fun!”

A Real Rosie the Riveter

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We were delighted to discover real, elderly Rosie the Riveter Frances attending the Open House at the Willow Run Bomber Plant that followed the Arsenal of Democracy Conference.

Frances, who is 91, worked at the plant during WWII, making B-24 Liberator bombers on the assembly line. She lived in Detroit at the time, and it took an hour by bus to get to Ypsilanti, then another half hour to get to the Plant. She worked as a riveter there from 1940 (perhaps ’41?) until 1945, or “for the duration,” as they would say during the war.

The Tribute Rosies are looking forward to hopefully visiting her and spending some time with her over lunch, to hear more about her time in the Plant, her experience of the war, and to enjoy her company.

Real Rosie the Riveter Has B-24 Blueprint

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It’s always a special pleasure to meet a real, live Rosie the Riveter, and we were delighted to discover Margaret attending the Arsenal of Democracy Conference.

Margaret, who will be 89 this November, worked in the blueprints department of the Willow Run Bomber Plant during World War II. She told us that she had one of the original engineering drawings of the B-24’s construction, and her son was able to call it up on his iPad.

The drawing is incredibly detailed, really almost a work of art. When asked how she came by this artifact, she said, “I’m embarrassed to say, but I stole it! It was so beautiful, and drawn by hand, and was such a piece of history, that when the plant closed I folded it up and put it under my jacket and took it home.”

Her sons grew up with the drawing on the wall of their room, and it remains a family treasure.

Heck, that’s not stealing, that’s historical preservation! We encouraged the family to contact Yankee Air Museum’s Oral History Project, so Margaret’s recollections, and maybe a scan of her engineering drawing, could be preserved in the Museum’s archives.

WWII Veteran and a Man Who Was a Boy in Germany During WWII Attend Arsenal of Democracy Conference

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At today’s Arsenal of Democracy Conference at Yankee Air Museum, I had the pleasure of sharing a lunch table with Chester and Jim.

Jim, at right, is a World War II veteran, who was training as a pilot to fly the B-25 Mitchell (a two engine bomber—the Yankee Air Museum owns and maintains a flyable Mitchell called the Yankee Warrior.) He completed his training on May 24, 1945, only days after VE Day, so he never saw combat.

Chester, at left, was just a boy during WWII, and he saw the bombers from a very different angle… from the ground in Poland and Germany. Fortunately, he and his family managed to stay safe during the war.

The two men are friends, and both came to hear our three speakers at the Arsenal of Democracy Conference today:

Randy Hotton, Yankee Air Museum board member and historian

Charles Hyde of Wayne State University and author of “Arsenal of Democracy: The Automotive Indutry during World War II.”

And Michael W.R. Davis, former director of the Detroit Historical Society and author of “Detroit’s Wartime Industry: Arsenal of Democracy.”