Saturday, May 29, 2004

Real Rosie the Riveter remembers

By Kevin Cullen
Gannett News Service

Rosemary Comer didn't lead a charge, drop a bomb or sink a ship, but she and 6 million other women helped win World
War II.

They were defense workers, or "Rosies." They assembled machine guns, built tanks, fabricated airplanes, and helped change the role of women in American society.

The new Rosie the Riveter-World War II Home Front National Historical Park in California honors them, and Comer recently compiled her story for its archives.

"We were all there for the same reason: to get production out so our boys could do a good job, with good equipment," says Comer, 78, of Lafayette, Ind., who riveted war plane parts from 1943 to 1945. "We were dedicated workers and proud to be on the job."

With millions of men in uniform, women worked in steel mills, shipyards, foundries, machine shops and automotive plants converted to wartime production. In some industries, 80 percent of the labor force was female.

They provided "critical, crucial service" to the war effort, says Purdue history professor Nancy Gabin, an expert on the subject. By taking jobs traditionally held by men, they cracked old stereotypes.

"Rosie" Comer made parts for fighters and bombers at the Hudson Motor Car defense plant in Detroit.

In 2000, the new national park opened at a World War II shipyard in Richmond, Calif.

It recently launched a nationwide effort to collect stories, artifacts and personal histories from surviving "Rosies" for museum exhibits and archives.

"Almost everyone had someone in the service. We all banded together, all nationalities," Comer says. "It boggled your mind to think about what you were making, and doing such important work."

Drives were held in the plant to collect blood for the wounded. Comer weighed less than the 110-pound minimum for donors, but she gave, anyway.

The "Rosies" cleared a paycheck of about $40 a week ... good money in 1943. But the greatest satisfaction came from "seeing the finished product you made," she says. "It was fabulous."

After the war, plants returned to peacetime production, defense workers lost their jobs. Most "Rosies" were replaced by returning veterans.

The war helped Comer grow from a "bashful, backward girl into a confident married woman," she says.

A memorial at the new national park bears these words: "You must tell your children, putting modesty aside, that without us, without women, there would have been no spring in 1945."

"I was a part of it," Comer says with a smile. "I can't believe it."

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