Laurel Rosie the Riveters

Laurel residents Wilma Ferrebee Foster (left), 86, and Gladys Willingham Beall, 89, worked in factory jobs during World War II, and have received a charter for a Laurel chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association. (Photo by Phil Grout, Patuxent Publishing / June 24, 2011)

Wilma Ferrebee was still in high school in 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation on the heels of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I can still hear his voice saying we're at war," said the 65-year resident of Laurel, who became Wilma Foster when she wed Abe Foster and they moved into town as a young married couple.

When World War II started, she was living with her family on their Virginia farm, leading the simple life of a young woman with a Christian upbringing and close family ties. But right after she turned 18 in February 1943, the direction of her life changed forever.

At the urging of her older brother, Elwood Ferrebee, she accepted his offer to live with him in Hagerstown and join the war effort by helping to build fighter planes for Fairchild Aircraft Manufacturing Co., which had set up a wartime factory in an exhibition hall at the Hagerstown fairgrounds.

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For 96 cents an hour, she became a Rosie the Riveter, the nickname given the estimated 6 million women who temporarily filled the vacant jobs of men who'd gone to war. Rosie — depicted as a pretty woman wearing a red bandanna and blue coveralls, and flexing her bicep under the headline, "We can do it!" — remains one of history's most patriotic and enduring female icons.

Today, 70 years after FDR's famous speech, Foster and her two daughters are leading an effort to recruit members for a new Central Maryland chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association. Longtime friend Gladys Willingham Beall, who had worked in a mill dyeing fabric for military uniforms, is also taking part.

ARRA is a national organization founded by Fran Carter in Alabama in 1998 to bring together women who shared a destiny when they took part in this unique chapter of American history. Membership is also open to these women's descendants so they may carry on the legacy gradually being lost as the elderly Rosies, who currently are in their mid-80s and older, are dying and taking their wartime stories with them.

'We were proud to serve'

"All able-bodied women in Hagerstown were drafted to make PT-19 planes," Foster recalled of her personal experience with the nationwide crusade. "We were really needed, and we were proud to serve. We had to win the war."

Women where Foster worked either operated a drill or a riveter, which took particular strength, she said.

Trouble arose when the teenaged Ferrebee's skill and allegiance to the United States were called into question after she failed to properly place a hole for a rivet on an airplane wing, a potentially fatal mistake that was investigated as a possible act of sabotage.

"I was taken to the officials and questioned, but I knew it was the lady who was holding the bucking block" who had caused the accident, she said. "She was flirting and didn't hold the block" that steadied the snake drill Ferrebee was operating, and the woman's carelessness allowed the drill to tear a hole in the plane.

"Telling them it was her (fault) was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do," she said of pointing the finger at her co-worker. "But I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, and I'd warned her so many times about flirting."

Wartime was tough on America's new wave of working women on many levels.

While the then-single Wilma Ferrebee was engaged when she joined the war effort, her fiancé was serving in the Army and was killed in Italy. She briefly returned home to her family's farm when the war ended, where she met Abe Foster. They married after a three-month courtship.

Gladys Willingham's life in her late teens closely resembled Ferrebee's, though they had yet to meet.

She was a graduate of Catonsville High School in 1939 when her brother William convinced her to work for him in the weaving room at Oella Mill, located in Baltimore County near its southwestern border with Howard County. The mill had a contract to produce khaki and wool fabric for military uniforms.

Her position was that of specker, so-named because workers used wooden dowels to speck cloth with dye before the bolts of fabric were pulled into large vats on the floor. For 30 cents an hour, 17-year-old Gladys sat on a stool specking cloth five days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

She worked at the mill until 1940 and then the next year married Glenn Beall, whom she met at a roller rink on Old Columbia Pike, in Ellicott City. The couple moved to Laurel soon afterward.

Beall and Foster became close friends after becoming acquainted in 1953 at First United Methodist Church on Main Street, where both widows are still active members.