Five local members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA) were honored over the weekend in Seattle by the Washington Women in Trades Association, giving thanks to women who joined the workforce during World War II.
Cottage Grove “Rosie” Doris Graham was humbled by the honors.
“It’s great because we never thought about that when we were doing this,” she said of her wartime work. “All we were hoping was to get through the day.”
Rosie the Riveter became an American cultural icon of World War II, representing women in the workforce who contributed to production for the war effort. With more than 16 million Americans serving, many women took on trades that had previously been dominated by men.
It’s estimated around five to six million women entered the workforce between 1940 and 1945.
ARRA was founded in 1998 when Dr. Frances Carter, a riveter for B-29 bombers during the war, was inspired to honor the legacies of women who contributed to the war effort. As the Rosie the Riveter icon had come to apply generically to all working women during World War II, Carter invited any women who did what was traditionally considered men’s work to join the association, which now has more than 6,000 members across the U.S.
The McKenzie Chapter of the ARRA currently counts five members. Though three chapters once existed in Oregon, McKenzie is the last one standing.
The group meets at 12:30 p.m. the second Friday of every month at the Willamalane Adult Activity Center in Springfield. The Rosies also share their stories with schools and community groups throughout the area.
Dr. Yvonne Fasold is a past national president of ARRA whose mother was a welder during the war.
“What really comes across when these women talk is there’s no sense of ‘poor me,’” Fasold said. “No sense of negativity. It’s always so positive.”
The women are happy to talk about their contribution to the war effort — but stop short of taking too much credit.
“It’s just what we did,” said Dolly Marshall, 89. “And when it was done, I don’t think we gave it another thought because we were involved with our lives and children.”
Marshall made her wartime contribution on the East Coast as a volunteer in the Civil Air Patrol in New Jersey.
“We had uniforms and we went to Fort Dix and we danced with soldiers and we learned to march,” she said.
As a cadet, she became a member of the Army’s Aircraft Warning Service to keep watch for enemy planes entering American airspace. Marshall was trained to identify the silhouettes of planes from her station in a football stadium press box.
Though she never spotted enemy aircraft, evidence of the war washed up on the shoreline.
“The beaches were just covered with globs of oil from all the sunken ships,” said Marshall. “You had to dunk your feet in kerosene because the beaches were just covered in it.”
After the war, Marshall went into pipe construction.
Filling roles traditionally held by men was at times met with resistance, though these positions were pioneering efforts that forged a path for the next generation of women workers.
“When I graduated from high school and was going to college, you could be a nurse or teacher. And that was about it,” said Marshall. “I took industrial design … so I was often the only woman in the drafting room and faced a lot of sexual harassment over the years. … It was a fight in those days. And it still is.”
Graham, 94, was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Virginia. When a representative of the Treasury Department offered her the opportunity to be a typist for war bonds, she jumped at the opportunity.
At 16 years old, the day after her high school graduation in 1942, Graham went to D.C. to work at the Treasury building, which overlooked the White House.
The work afforded Graham an invitation to the President’s Birthday Ball. Though the president was not in attendance, Graham recalled being greeted at the door by a tall woman.
“She took our hands and said, ‘Thank you for coming to the President’s Birthday Ball,” recalled Graham. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that was Eleanor Roosevelt.”
ARRA member Opal Nelson, 97, also a Cottage Grove resident, filled the iconic Rosie role as a riveter in California.
Nelson was a child of the Great Depression, and went job seeking straight out of high school in 1939. At the time, jobs were scarce, so Nelson and a friend journeyed across the States looking for work before landing in Santa Monica.
As U.S. aircraft production increased in the lead up to the war, Nelson found work on an assembly line. Despite her lack of training, Nelson was hired as a riveter on the graveyard shift to help assemble fuselages for Douglas A-20 Havocs, a medium bomber/attack aircraft.
Besides the need to make a living, Nelson said she was heavily motivated to do her work as she knew that men overseas were counting on a steady stream of supplies.
“That was a primary thought in my mind — that I was helping this come to pass,” Nelson said.
The women’s legacies were honored over the weekend at a banquet hosted by the Washington Women in Trades Association, which is also featuring Marshall and two other local members in the association’s 2020 calendar.
Nelson and Graham have already appeared in previous calendars.
Following the honors, the five Lane County Rosies received a VIP tour of a Boeing facility.
Fasold is eager to find more Rosies in the area as the generation ages.
“Time is of the essence,” said Fasold. “We lost four members of our chapter this last spring.”
More information on the ARRA can be found at rosietheriveter.net.