Growing up on a Nebraska farm during the Great Depression and World War II was not the most luxurious life. Coming out of the Depression, Donita’s family was very poor. During some of these arguably hardest years in our country’s history, Donita went to school in homemade dresses fashioned from feed sacks and ate vegetables grown on the family farm and canned in their own kitchen (Interview Oct. 2010). To this day, she keeps a quilt made by her great-aunt of swatches from all of those feed sack dresses.
Until 1943, the entire 240-acre farm was farmed with horses. That year, Donita’s father sold his entire corn crop for $900 to buy a tractor (Interview Oct. 2010). Working on her father’s farm, Donita often drove the John Deere Model-A tractor for her father. As she maneuvered the steel beast through the acres, her father shoveled oats into a spreader at the back. Trips to town were “the social thing of the week” (Interview Nov. 2010). However, the trips were more than social outings. Donita’s family brought their butter to town to sell while other families brought eggs or cream. Such trips to town were also an opportunity to buy flour and sugar, as well as pick out the sacks of chicken feed that would supply the material for her next dress.
After graduating high school in 1942, Donita got a war job, which seemed a natural choice for her given her previous work experiences. Through high school, she had worked on her father’s farm and as domestic help for another family. After milking her own six cows in the morning, she walked to town to clean, cook for seven people, and care for a four-year-old boy, all for one dollar a day. Then she walked home in the evening and milked the same six cows. However, the war changed things. Donita’s friend Gert complained that the government only provided a monthly stipend of $50 to live on after her husband was drafted. Even then, $50 wasn’t enough to support herself and a daughter. Gert came to Donita and explained the situation: “I can’t live on that. I have a car, but I don’t like to drive it. You drive everything. I thought maybe you’d go to work, go find a job with me” (Interview Oct. 2010). The two women went to the Mead Ordnance Plant and applied for jobs. To this day, Donita credits Gert with getting her off the farm.
When I asked Donita about her decision to take war jobs, she replied, “It was the thing to do: get yourself out into a war-related job” (Interview Oct. 2010). Women on the home front were not given the option of making their own decision about supporting the war or entering low-paying jobs. In the first of several positions supporting the war effort, Donita poured liquid TNT for five-hundred pound fuse model bombs at the Mead Ordnance Plant. Workers were not allowed to wear metal when handling TNT— not even a hair clip. When Donita got to work, she and the other workers changed into their factory clothes. They poured TNT by the bucketful into bombs positioned on wheeled racks of six. Then two women wheeled that cart away, carrying three thousand pounds of explosives. Naturally, that job was extremely dangerous.