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Former Rosie the Riveters tell of experiences at D-Day event

By JEAN BOWERS | Abilene (Kan.) Reflector-Chronicle | Published: June 10, 2019

ABILENE, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — It seemed as if everyone wanted to talk to Virginia Ball at the 75th D-Day Commemoration on Thursday at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

She was identified easily as a “Rosie the Riveter,” with her red polka dot headscarf and matching earrings, similar to the iconic poster painted by Norman Rockwell.

She was almost always surrounded by people wanting to talk to her about her experiences working at Boeing during World War II.

Eight former Rosie the Riveters (and welders) attended the commemoration ceremonies Thursday.

Ball, from El Dorado, graduated from high school in 1943. After training, she got a job riveting wings onto B-17s at Boeing. She rode the bus to and from work until she’d saved up enough for a hotel room during the week, she said.

“I probably wanted a job, but honey, there was a war, and we’d do anything for our men who were over there,” Ball said. “It wasn’t about Rosie. It was about the war. My sweetheart was over there, and he was in a foxhole, fighting for his life and yours and mine. But I did get paid $1 an hour. And I did ride the bus home and had supper.”

Her sweetheart fought in the Pacific theater of war. When the war was done, he spent several weeks in a hospital in California with malaria and what then was called battle fatigue. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder now. They were married in 1945.

“I did a good job,” Ball said. “I was proud of my work.”

Proud of work

The women all expressed pride in their work.

Katie Sherrow, 98, from Tecumseh, was one of the first women on the aircraft lots.

She signed up for Morton Aircraft School in Omaha, Neb., right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

She had, at that time, two brothers in the service, and eventually four in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force.

She also was in love with airplanes, she said, still beaming at the thought.

Morton guaranteed her a job, and she and a friend learned to blind rivet.

Her first job after aircraft school was in Cheyenne, Wyo., where planes that had been shot up in battle were restored and returned to action.

“I know why the boys didn’t talk about what they did,” Sherrow said.

It was years before some veterans talked about their experiences in war, and some never could.

The gunnery turrets were exposed, enclosed in glass, and tail gunners had a high mortality rate. One plane came back with the insides of the turret still covered in blood.

She was hired at Lockheed in Burbank, Calif., on Dec. 7, 1942. She had brought a photograph of herself in uniform, going to work. Her cousin, a photographer, has taken a photo of her head and superimposed it on the Rockwell picture of Rosie the Riveter.

Proving herself

She was one of the first women on the Lockheed lot, and her co-workers gave her and her friend a hard time at first.

“The men accepted us after we proved ourselves,” she said.

It wasn’t easy work. She had to do her riveting while standing on a metal rod about 1½ to 2 inches thick.

Because she could blind rivet, she worked on the Constellation, a troop transporter plane.

She worked there until May 3, 1945, the day after her birthday. She missed her family, she said, especially around holidays and birthdays, and went back to Graham, Mo.

The best part of the commemoration ceremonies for her were her twin brothers, who came to Abilene from Florida to surprise her and to see her honored.

Riveting skill

Marcella Roe, 92, then from Petersburg, now from Littleton, Colo., knew all the rivets. Not everyone could learn them all, she said. She was in school for six weeks to learn the skill.

She worked the 11 p.m.-to-8 a.m. shift at Boeing in Seattle, riveting the stars onto B-17s and B-25s from 1942 to 1943.

When she got off from work, she played baseball.

“You just took whatever job you could get,” Roe said, and she took that one because they were hiring and to help the county.

“I enjoyed my work,” she said. “I could still build a plane.”

Welder

Mary Jan Oberhelman, of Riley, 94, was a welder at Commonwealth Aircraft in Kansas City.

She welded the framework of gliders on the floor of the old American Royal building. Then canvas was stretched over the framework.

Gliders were essential to the war effort because they were silent — they had no engines — and could sneak behind enemy lines. There wasn’t much to them, though, just the framework and canvas.

After high school in 1942, Oberhelman joined a program for young people.

“Some people took secretarial courses. I took welding. I don’t know why,” she said. On weekends, she’d take the old Rock Island train home to Riley. The conductor usually found her a seat in an air-conditioned car.

She worked as a welder for about two years, she said.

Critical to winning

Women were critical to winning the war, said Anna Gugler, an IKEducator who had the pop-up museum exhibit about the Rosies in the library building.

About 350,000 women went into the military, Gugler said, but 7.5 million took the jobs the men had left.

Women workers were so essential, she said, that the government sponsored child care for the first time.

German women, Gugler said, were told to stay home and raise children. She wondered if they had gone to work, would the outcome of the war have been different?

©2019 the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle (Abilene, Kan.)
Visit the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle (Abilene, Kan.) at www.abilene-rc.com
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