Columbia man is force behind embassy tribute to the spirit of 'Rosie'

For The Baltimore Sun
Embassy tribute recalls the spirit of Rosie the Riveter.

When 14 women were recognized last weekend in Washington for their role in the liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War II, it was a ceremony initiated by Hugo Keesing, a Dutch-American and a Columbia resident.

"Rosie the Riveter" was the nickname given to an estimated 8 million women who contributed to the wartime effort by working as riveters and in many other "masculine jobs" left vacant by men who had gone off to war.

The ceremony on May 2 at the Netherlands Embassy to honor "Rosies" was scheduled to coincide with celebrations of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, which marked the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945.

A longtime music historian, history buff and retired college professor, Keesing unknowingly set plans in motion last summer for the ceremony when he offered a researcher access to his 11,000-item collection of World War II songs about working women.

Keesing had read about Ann Montague — a West Virginia woman who started an organization called Thanks! Plain and Simple to help secure the Rosie the Riveter legacy — in a newspaper article about Rosies coming to Washington to be honored at the National World War II Memorial.

Intrigued by Montague's project, he began researching which countries had honored the women who epitomized American resolve during World War II — women who, in their 90s, are dying without telling their stories. Keesing discovered his birth country was not among them.

"When I realized that Holland had not recognized the Rosies, I thought the 70th anniversary of VE Day would be a good opportunity for the embassy to be spurred into taking action, and that's exactly what happened," he said.

DC Dutch, a group for people of Dutch origin to which Keesing belongs, assisted him in contacting the Netherlands Embassy about recognizing the women. Montague took charge of inviting the Rosies.

At a ceremony at the Netherlands Embassy, Ambassador Rudolf Bekink personally thanked each Rosie.

"My country had the opportunity to recover from a brutal occupation and become the prosperous nation it is today in part because of your efforts on those assembly lines seven decades ago," Bekink told the women and their families. "For that, my nation is forever thankful."

The ambassador also announced that King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands will meet with a couple of the Rosies on his state trip to the U.S. in June. He will also meet with World War II veterans at Arlington National Cemetery, an embassy spokesperson said.

Calling the surprise announcement "remarkable," Keesing said later that he's pleased "the Rosies are on the king's radar."

Keesing, 71, was an infant when his family endured an especially harsh winter in 1944 and 1945 in The Hague after Germans blockaded roads and no deliveries could be made.

"About 20,000 Dutch died of starvation, and we came close," he said.

Though the first city in Netherlands was liberated in September 1944, the western part of the country remained occupied by the Nazis.

"Coal and gas were the first to go, so there was no electricity and no heat," said Keesing, who was the youngest of three brothers at the time; a fourth brother was born after the war. "Then our food ran out. I was fed a paste made from sugar beets, a food of last resort."

When British planes arrived April 29, 1945, to drop food from above in a mission called Operation Manna, the Germans didn't attempt to shoot them down. Two days later, the United States sent B-17 bombers to drop more food in Operation Chowhound.

After 11,000 tons of food reached residents without incident, the Dutch knew the war was close to ending. For many, April 29 became a bigger milestone than May 8, when the Allies accepted Germany's unconditional surrender.

"Food was more important than freedom, and April 29 truly was our liberation since we knew peace would come soon," Keesing said.

Keesing's family moved to the U.S. in 1951 and lived in the Washington area. He moved to Columbia in 1981 with his wife, Marilynn Draxl.

"I became fascinated by these operations on a trip to Holland last summer, as they were lifesavers for my family," he said.

"That's when I began to wonder: 'The pilots had surely been recognized [for their role], but what about the ladies who built the planes?'"

Once he got the ball rolling for the embassy ceremony, he asked a singer-musician friend to look at his World War II sheet music collection to see if any of the melodies about working women were worth playing. Despite all of his knowledge about the history behind the songs, Keesing doesn't read music.

The friend's group, Three for a Song, ended up performing four songs with a slide show assembled by Keesing as a backdrop.

First up was "Rosie the Riveter," with such lyrics as, "She's making history, working for victory" and "Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage, sitting up there on the fuselage."

Another song, "The Lady's on the Job," is a laundry list of the types of jobs beyond riveting that Rosies held during wartime. Other songs played were "Mama Put Your Britches On" and "Sweetheart in Overalls."

The ceremony was wonderful, said Wilma Foster, a 90-year-old Rosie and longtime Laurel resident. She helped build fighter planes for Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown.

"They had so many nice things for us, like a corsage and a booklet with all of our pictures back then and the jobs we did," Foster said. "It was just grand."

Another Rosie who enjoyed the recognition was June Bidwell, 93, an aunt of Keesing's wife who had worked for Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., as an inspector of camera lenses being made for aerial reconnaissance.

The embassy program was not the end of Kessing's commemoration of VE Day and the Rosies. He traveled to the Netherlands on Wednesday with Montague and three Rosies to take part in the May 8 symbolic planting of a pink dogwood at the National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek, Netherlands. At the same time, another dogwood was to be planted in the Rosies' honor in the embassy garden in Washington.

While Keesing is pleased by the synergy of the ceremonies and the king's request to personally thank some of the women, he has one more item left on his to-do list.

"My original idea was to create a new hybrid tree for the plantings that we would officially name the Rosie the Riveter Tulip, but we weren't able to accomplish that in time," he said. "But I'm still determined to see that through."

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