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WW2 Rosies share stories

Havre Daily News/John Kelleher

Elsie K. Nelson, a World War II "Rosie the Riveter," shows off a nameplate she made when she worked at the Portland Shipyards in 1942.

The attack on Pearl Harbor prompted millions of young men to enter the armed forces.

At the same time, U.S. involvement in World War II put incredible demands on U. S. industry to design and build armaments to help the troops defeat the Axis forces.

Just years before, there had been massive unemployment. Now, industry was looking for workers to help on the home front.

Women had always been relegated to more menial jobs, but employers now saw the value of accepting women on the assembly lines. In fact, there was a nationwide effort to convince women to work in the factories — at equal pay to men.

The women factory workers of the World War II era became known as Rosie the Riveters. They took pride in the work they did, seeing themselves as vital parts of the battle against the Germans and Japanese.

The women returned home after the war, but things were never the same. Hi-Line women who were part of the movement say that women were then convinced that they and others could work alongside of men.

This weekend, the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 11 of Havre will honor some women who took part in the homefront effort.

Elsie K. Nelson and her husband owned the Glacier Motel in Havre in 1942, the middle of World War II. They welcomed guests every night, took care of their needs and sent them off in the morning.

But strict gas rationing meant very few people were traveling, so the Nelsons rented out rooms to people a week or month at a time.

"Our family could take care of that, " she said.

So the two of them decided they would help out with the homefront effort.

They moved to Portland, Ore., and got jobs at Oregon Shipyards. She was welding materials on supply ships with acetylene torches.

Elsie worked the overnight shift — "They paid you more when you worked at night, " she said. She wore badge No. 76884, and after a brief training period, she started doing work that had always had a "men's-only" label on it.

It was a 40-hour week, but just about every week there would be overtime.

"I got paid $71.76 one week, " she said. "That was good money in those days. That was a net of $54.63 for 52 hours. "

Men generally accepted the women workers, she said, though she added they didn't have much of a choice.

"One man offered me a cigarette, " said Elsie, a non-smoker. Wanting to sound tough, she said no, she only chewed tobacco.

Sure enough, a co-worker offered her chewing tobacco. She accepted it, put it in her mouth, nearly gagged, but refused to spit it out as long as her co-worker was there.

Elise knows her work was vital to the war effort. The shipyards could complete a football-field-long ship in 60 days, she said proudly.

Elsie is 99 today, still lives in Havre, and is still proud of her work.

She can still rattle off the figures.

"Each supply ship that came off the assembly line could carry 2,840 jeeps, 440 light tanks, and 3 million C-rations, " she said.

Henry Kaiser, known as the father of American shipbuilding, was in charge of the plant, she recalled. Because of his success in getting ships finished, he was known as "Sir launch-a-lot, " she said laughing.

A lot of good things came out of the Rosie era, she said. Women proved themselves in the workplace, she said. One day, she said, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the Portland facility.

"She said that if there were so many women in the plant there would have to be a place where the children could be watched, " Elsie said.

"That was the beginning of day care, " she said. "I still think Eleanor Roosevelt would have made a great lady president, " Elsie said.

She returned to Havre when there was a fire in the motel that she had to take care of.

Cecelia Lankford of Dodson is the youngster compared to Elsie. She is only 98½. She is also the young one in her family with an older sister who is 102.

Cecelia, who grew up on her parents' farm south of Dodson, still has her driver's license and drives to church and to the Senior Citizens Center every day.

"I have six months left on my license, " she said. "We'll see what happens. "

At her age, she can still thread a needle, she said proudly.

Part of her spirit is a result of her involvement as a Rosie during the war, though unlike Elsie, she has, over the years, thrown out much of her memorabilia.

"I wish I hadn't, but I did, " she said.

But she still has vivid memories of the time she started working at Hamilton Aircraft in San Francisco in 1943.

She had already started raising a family, but she and her husband decided they wanted to do their part in the war effort.

"I wanted to be a cook, " she said. "But some lady beat me to do it. "

So she ended up a riveter, working the 4-to-midnight shift. She started out making 74 cents an hour and was delighted with the pay.

"It was a tremendous feeling, " she said. "You felt you were doing your part. And, it was fun, " she said.

She recalled the rationing of food and gasoline and the sacrifices that many people made on the homefront.

"We are in a war now, " she said, "But no one at home is giving up anything. There is no rationing, no one is doing anything.

"Every once in a while, you hear about someone coming home in a box, " she said.

Cecelia is optimistic about America's future.

"We will always be free, " she said, "because we have good people. "

  • The Havre American Legion Aux. Unit 11 this weekend will honor women who worked as "Rosie the Riveters" during World War II.
  • A freewill spaghetti dinner — with spaghetti, salad, garlic bread and dessert — Sunday, 11 a. m. to 3 p. m., at the Havre Eagles Club.


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