Rosie's proud of her band of sisters

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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 1943-45. "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. They were welders, truck drivers, gunsmiths, mechanics, pipe fitters, boilermakers, electricians, machinists. In some industries, 80 percent of the labor force was female.

'I was Rosie the Riveter'

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 built fighters and bombers at the Hudson Motor Car defense plant in Detroit.

"I was Rosie the Riveter," she says proudly. "I wonder how many 'Rosies' were really named Rosie.

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.

Comer penned her recollections for posterity.

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

Rose Will Monroe was the original "Rosie," hired to work in Ford's Willow Run Aircraft Factory in 1942. She appeared in a promotional film that urged women to join the industrial workforce. A popular song, "Rosie the Riveter," was released that year. "Rosies" appeared on magazine covers and in newsreels.

Love and labor

In October 1942, 17-year-old Rosie and 19-year-old Verne Comer married in Indiana and boarded a train for Detroit.

Detroit, the epicenter of the automotive industry, had been retooled to produce war machines. The city teemed with newcomers attracted to factory jobs.

Shortly after her 18th birthday, she hired on at the Hudson plant, where Verne worked. It was an enormous facility with a three-story assembly line.

He was an assembly-line inspector and foreman, building fuselage sections for B-17 and B-26 bombers. Most young, single men were in the service. The men working in factories tended to either be older, married with children, or, like Verne, had minor disabilities.

Rosie's four-woman crew assembled one aircraft aileron every eight hours. The aileron is a hinged control surface on the wing of a plane.

They used a half-dozen different jigs to hold the aileron during assembly, plus electric drills and bits of various lengths and sizes to drill hundreds of rivet holes. Some bits were a foot long.

Small pneumatic rivet guns and iron "bucking bars" were used to assemble the ribs and attach the aluminum "skin" with rivets of various sizes, lengths and shapes.

Riveting and giving blood

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 women wore visored caps, with nets on the back to keep their hair from becoming entangled in the whirring drills. In warm weather, they'd pull their shirt tails out and tie them in the front.

"Yes, exposing a little skin," Comer says.

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

After the war, most "Rosies" were replaced by returning vets; the Comers returned to Indiana.

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."

On the Web

For more information, see Rosie the Riveter-World War II Home Front National Historical Park.