Bellevue woman was WWII “Rosie”

The soldiers who fought during World War II had one heck of a support team at home, including thousands of women who went to work in factories across the country to turn out the materials needed by American troops. Among them was one Bellevue woman, Marie Elder, who became a “Rosie the Riveter” as her husband served overseas. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Marie Elder of Bellevue belongs to a strongly patriotic organization that has a clock ticking against its existence.

That's because all of its members are over the age of 80, and recruitment of new ones simply isn't a possibility.

But that dire prospect does not diminish the personal connection with history that Marie feels when she slips into her Rosie the Riveter tee-shirt and begins to reminisce about the era that produced what many believe to be the greatest generation in American history.

"I was 17 years old on the day when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I was working behind the counter at Zinns Pharmacy in Swissvale, and Mr. Zinn was listening to the radio -- a symphony -- and the announcer broke in and said that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. I remember it all so well. Mr. Zinn began to cry. I had never seen a man cry before."

She remembers the news of the attack and she remembers how it affected her life and the lives of all of her friends.

"That day all of us dumb teenagers took a giant jump into maturity."

For many, life moved faster in those days. Marie turned 18 a few weeks after the attack, and she married the following year. With her late husband, David, about to be drafted into the infantry, the newlyweds traveled to California to visit his mother and sister.

"His sister's husband was an executive at Lockheed Aircraft. All the young fellas had been drafted, or were about to be, so there was a shortage of people to work at Lockheed. They had hired old people and handicapped. Finally, someone realized that women could work, too," Marie said.

Working in positions formerly held by men was not anything political; nor was it a way of making a feminist statement.

"We women took the jobs because our country needed us. I didn't do anything that thousands of other workers didn't do," Marie said. "All of the boys in my graduating class at Wilkinsburg High School went down and enlisted the day after the attack. The seniors in school had enlisted, too."

Before the War, women worked mainly as teachers or nurses, but Marie soon found herself employed at the Burbank, CA assembly line where Lockheed was building its model of the B-17F -- The Flying Fortress.

Marie said that Lockheed first had to make power tools slightly smaller to fit women's hands, and then they started hiring.

"They gave us a two-week training session to show us how to use the equipment. It didn't take too much intelligence, but it was an important job, and I was proud to be doing it."

With American defense plants operating on an around-the-clock schedule, employees had to make a quota each day.

"I worked with a partner. One of us would be inside, one would work outside. We had to complete our section four times a day. It took about two hours to rivet our piece, which was the front right fuselage," Marie said.

While the work may have more tedious than intellectual, it demanded mental and physical stamina. One thing Marie recalls most about her job was the noise.

"All of the rivet guns and the drills of hundreds of workers in this place the size of an airplane hangar. It was a horrendous noise."

Much of the inspiration for Americans to fight on was created through popular culture that ranged from victory gardens to Hollywood films to popular songs and to images that captured the imagination of the nation. One such image was Rosie the Riveter, who became the symbol of all of the women who worked in the war plants.

While there was no single Rosie the Riveter, a real person, Rose Will Monroe, brought the character to life when a Hollywood actor touring the Ford Motor Company aircraft assembly plant met her and picked her to star in a government film promoting the war effort. Rosie further captured America's hearts when her image appeared in a Norman Rockwell illustration on the cover of the Memorial Day issue of the "Saturday Evening Post" on May 29, 1943.

The American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA) was founded on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1998, and each year, all of the Rosies, living and deceased, who rolled up their sleeves in a show of American strength with their "We Can Do It" slogan echoing around the world, are honored on May 29.

According to the ARRA, nearly 6,000,000 women workers helped build planes, tanks, bombs and other weapons used to win World War II. In all, about 18,000,000 women worked in some way for the war effort, in every sector of the work force and economy.

"They don't want us to be forgotten," Marie said.

Looking back over her 86 years of work and sacrifice, Marie, the mother of four, grandmother of 12, great-grandmother of five, sees a world that has changed, but an America that, in some ways, has stayed the same.

"The climate of the world was different back then. We knew what we had to do and we did it. There was more of a combined effort. But our country had the same feelings after the attacks on 9-11."

And while she can look back and be proud of what she did during the war years, she does not see her work as being anything special.

"We couldn't do as much as the fellas, but they needed us and we were there."

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