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.

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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.

A Gentleman Who Worked at Willow Run With the Rosies

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After today’s Arsenal of Democracy Conference at the Yankee Air Museum, the public was given an opportunity to step inside the Willow Run Bomber Plant to see it one last time before most of it is demolished to make way for a connected-vehicle test facility.

It was also announced today that demolition would be configured to allow Yankee 5 more months to raise the funds necessary to preserve a portion of the Plant as their new home.

Very exciting news, and a very exciting day!

I met and talked to three real, elderly “Rosie the Riveters” who worked at the Plant, and one gentleman, pictured above, Ivan, originally from Indiana. He worked in the Willow Run Bomber Plant as a young man, working on the line, building B-24s, “with a Rosie on each side, until the Ohio draft board figured out where I was!”

Ivan has a great sense of humor, and as you can see by my big smile, I was utterly smitten with him.