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!”