Home Front Heroines

Profiles By: Shauna L. Benjamin

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Part Three Nebraska’s Women Find Their Place Among the Heroines

On August 6, 1945, a bomb was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress Bomber over Japan (“Boeing B-29 Enola Gay”). The nearly nine thousand pound atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, Japan killing over one hundred forty thousand men, women, and children. This day is regarded as the defining moment of World War II and is credited, along with a similar bombing in Nagasaki, with ending the war. However, before its infamous mission, this B-29, dubbed “Enola Gay,” came from somewhat humble beginnings (“Boeing B-29 Enola Gay”). Without the women workers of Bellevue, construction of the “Enola Gay” would not have been possible.

Just over one thousand residents watched a simple cinderblock building rise from the cornfields of rural Bellevue, Nebraska. Construction on the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant began in the spring of 1941, even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor (“Building Bombs and Planes”). The plant was built near Bellevue, Nebraska, a rural community with a population of 1,184, just south of Omaha (“Building Bombs and Planes”). Nebraska, among other plains states, was identified early on as an ideal location for aircraft plants because of the distance from the vulnerable coastlines. The new plant was projected to bring three thousand new workers to the area, an effect that would forever change Bellevue from a rural to urban community (“Building Bombs and Planes”). Federal grants helped expand the infrastructure of this small town that was soon bursting at the seams (“Building Bombs and Planes”). 1941–1945, the Martin Bomber Plant produced over fifteen hundred B-26 Marauder medium bombers and more than five hundred B-29 Superfortresses, including the infamous “Enola Gay” (“Building Bombs and Planes”; “The Martin Bomber Plant”).

 

At the peak of production in 1945, 13,217 people were employed at the plant (“The Martin Bomber Plant”). Of those, a full forty percent—5,306 workers—were women (“Building Bombs and Planes”; “The Martin Bomber Plant”). The high rate of employing women made the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant Nebraska’s largest recruiter of women war workers (“The Martin Bomber Plant”). The Martin Bomber Plant began hiring women in March of 1942 with Joan Catalano (“The Martin Bomber Plant”). Women eventually came to hold positions as inspectors in receiving, detail manufacturing, general assembly, finishing and plating, hangar and flight-testing, and as modifications department workers at the Martin Bomber Plant (“The Martin Bomber Plant”). Despite the large percentage of female employees, the Martin Bomber Plant, like nearly all wartime productions plants of World War II, failed to pay their female workers wages equal to the wages of their male counterparts—let alone enable those female employees to hold higher-ranking, supervisory positions (Kimble and Olsen 534; “Rosie the Riveter”). Across America, World War II working women were relegated to the lowest-paying and entry-level jobs.

 

The work done at the Martin Bomber Plant was an invaluable part of supplying planes to the front lines. The Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant was awarded the Army-Navy “E” Award four different times for its outstanding record of thirty-three consecutive months of on-schedule production (“21 Plants Get ‘E’ Award”; “The Martin Bomber Plant”), thanks to the short-hand communication code used by the riveters (Webb). The Rosie Riveters at the Martin Bomber Plant worked in teams; one operated a rivet gun with ninety pounds of pressure and the other smoothed the rivets on the back of the aircraft panels (Webb). These teams worked daylong shifts without ever seeing their partner. The only way of communicating was through a system of taps by the worker on the backside of the panels. One tap meant that the rivet was placed well, two taps meant that the rivet needed to be driven further, three taps meant that the rivet had gone too far, and the riveter had to get her drill again and dig the rivet back out (Webb).

On May 9, 1945, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. visited the Martin Bomber Plant and hand-selected one of the fifteen B-29s with “Silverplate” modifications necessary to deliver nuclear weapons (“Boeing B-29 Enola Gay”). Colonel Tibbits observed stringent criteria and would not accept any plane with an imperfect seam or a single flawed rivet (Mitchell; Webb). The ideal aircraft was selected while it was still on the assembly line (“The Martin Bomber Plant”). This would be the B-29 that he would use to fly the atomic bomb mission. During preparations for the first atomic mission, Colonel Tibbits gave the B-29 the moniker we know today after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbits (“Boeing B-29 Enola Gay”). While the Enola Gay ended the war, all the women in wartime jobs truly helped America win the war.

Admitting women to the wartime workforce was arguably the most important tactic in winning the war. Without women working, America would not have been able to produce enough military hardware to win the war. Not only did the new heterogeneous workforce physically produce instruments of war, but also bolstered morale and created a sense of camaraderie and reciprocal relationship between soldiers on the front lines and workers on the home front. Mary Rocha, who sewed blankets for the Red Cross and installed machine guns into bombers for the Army Air Corps, said, “Most of us had someone from our families overseas. It meant a lot to all of us there to fight in this way” (“World Herald Editorial”). Although social conditions were hardly conducive to the widespread entry of women to the workforce, those women that filled the war jobs gained self-respect. And maybe that is what Rosie was saying to me all along.

Though many jobs held by women during the war were initially returned to men after the war ended (Doyle), these real Rosies made sure the workforce would never be the same again. Sybil Lewis, a Lockheed riveter, said, “You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job. This was the beginning of women feeling that they could do something more” (qtd. in Doyle). Individual women were realizing that they were capable of more than “homemaking” as the American feminine persona prescribes. Those women that worked wartime jobs found that their lives were never the same again. Boeing tool clerk, Inez Sauer, recalls, “[My mother] said, ‘You will never want to go back to being a housewife.’ At that time, I didn’t think it would change a thing. However, she was right; it definitely did… The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up” (Doyle). Working women of World War II were enfranchised with a new sense of pride, independence, and the desire to reach their fullest potentials. One Rosie, Donita Gottsch Mitchell (hyperlink Donita Mitchell paper), spoke emphatically about her experience as a riveter, “Once a riveter, always a riveter. I still do a lot of mechanical things. Nothing’s impossible. It’s all attitude” (qtd. in Anderson).

Like no other national crisis before, the United States’ efforts in World War II were inspired, supported, and fueled by the sacrifices made by everyday individuals on the home front. For the first time, women were allowed to realize their potential to engage in meaningful, respected, paid labor, even if it had to be done under the cloak of femininity. These millions of American heroines rose to the call necessitated by a global conflict. Women of the World War II era found a space to empower themselves and break traditional notions of woman’s place while serving their patriotic obligations and redefining what it meant to be an American woman, a modern-day Rosie Riveter.