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Between the Lines

With columnist Anna Marie Lux.

Janesville woman earned 'Rosie the Riveter' title

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Anna Marie Lux
June 6, 2015

JANESVILLE—You might be tempted to call her Rosie.

But her name is Evelyn Lee, and she helped fight World War II with a rivet gun and steely stamina.

Evelyn is one of thousands of women who built aircraft during the war to meet worldwide demand.

The Janesville woman is a real "Rosie the Riveter," who is about to take a trip to meet other history-making women.

Later this week, 94-year-old Evelyn will fly to California to attend the annual convention of the American Rosie the Riveter Association.

Rosie is the name given to women who worked on the home front during World War II doing the traditional work of men. Among other things, women became riveters, welders, electricians, inspectors and ordnance workers.

The munitions industry heavily recruited women through the government's highly successful Rosie-the-Riveter campaign. A poster showing a strong, bandanna-clad Rosie under the title “We can do it!” swayed many women into new jobs.

Deanna Messer is proud of her mother's historic role.

“She and other women were breaking the glass ceiling,” said Deanna of Prescott, Arizona. “After the war, there were a lot of divorces and problems because the women did not want to give up their freedom.”

Evelyn is excited about meeting other women like herself.

“There aren't many Rosies left who can travel,” Deanna said. “I told my mother it is a chance of a lifetime to go to the convention. I told her to do it. Who knows what the next day will bring when you are 94.”

Deanna does not worry about her mother traveling alone.

“She is a real pistol when it comes to getting around,” Deanna said. “The 'Rosies' helped me make arrangements so she could get there safely.”

Worked around the clock

Evelyn will be the first to tell you that movies often get it wrong.

“They glamorize how it was,” Evelyn said, explaining that airplane-building was tough work.

In addition, some men resented the women.

“They hated us,” Evelyn said. “They did not want their women going to work. They felt they were losing their power. If a woman can support herself, she doesn't need a husband.”

At first, guards were hired to protect the women at the airplane division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation of Buffalo, N.Y.

But Evelyn said no one ever mistreated her at the 1.5 million-square-foot factory that ran around the clock.

“It was so big you couldn't walk around it in one day,” Evelyn said.

If no one relieved her when the shift ended, she worked another shift.

“In winter, I often worked double shifts,” she said. “Because of the snow, my relief couldn't make it.”

Her schedule was a grueling seven days a week on with one day a month off.

The stepped-up production paid off.

In six years, the factory produced more than 17,575 planes, including P40 War Hawk fighters and C46 cargo planes.

Buffalo feared attack

Soon after Evelyn started in 1942, her boss warned her to "watch her fingers” so they would not be severed in the machines.

Evelyn tucked her hair under a cap to keep it from getting caught in the equipment and wore a light-blue baggy uniform to camouflage her female form.

“We were not allowed to wear anything tight,” she said.

Evelyn remembers the blackouts, when everyone practiced turning off the lights in case the city was attacked.

“Buffalo had four airplane factories,” she recalled. “So they always thought it could get bombed.”

Workers were searched for explosives when they came and left work. If they were caught taking pictures, they were fired.

Evelyn and her parents lived in Rock County when she left for Buffalo in the spring of 1942.

“I needed the money,” she explained.

Evelyn was earning $15 a week at the Edgerton shoe factory.

She doesn't recall how much she earned building airplanes.

But it was enough to make the 21-year-old learn a new trade.

“We made good money,” Evelyn said, “but we didn't get paid what the men did.”

As Evelyn toiled for the war effort, her fiancé and later her husband fought with the U.S. Army in France and Germany.

“I wrote to him every day,” Evelyn said.

Wounded by machine-gun fire, Erling Lee came home to Rock County in June 1945.

“The minute he returned, I quit the factory,” Evelyn remembered. “I moved back to Milton, where my folks were. We made plans to get married, but he wanted to be able to walk first.”

They married in October 1945 and had three children. Erling, whom she described as kind and gentle, died in November 1983.

Evelyn never met another man she wanted to marry.

Today she dances on Friday nights, often with much younger people.

“I would rather dance than eat,” Evelyn insisted. “I've always been athletic.”

She is modest about her role in history.

“It was a man's world,” Evelyn said. “But I didn't care. I needed the work.”

 

 



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