Remembering Rosie the Riveter

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.

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.

'Where are all the Rosies?'

ARRA is seeking women who want to share their personal wartime recollections or hand down those of their mothers and grandmothers. According to the ARRA website, an estimated 18 million women worked in World War II defense industries and support services including steel mills, foundries, lumber mills, aircraft factories, offices, hospitals and day care centers.

Of the 17 member chapters, Georgia and Oregon each have three; Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas and Kansas have two apiece; and Arizona and Maryland each had one until the Laurel women started a second Maryland chapter. The first state chapter is registered in Baltimore, and the 40-mile commute made regular participation difficult, said Anne Marie Miller, Foster's daughter. Thus, the women hit on the idea of forming a second chapter, which has become a real family affair.

Miller, 65 and a lifelong Laurel resident, serves as president of the newly formed Central Maryland chapter, and Foster is vice president. Foster's younger daughter, Margie Streicker, is secretary; and Margie's husband, Jerry, is treasurer. Male auxiliary members are called Rivets.

"The question is, 'Where are all the Rosies?' " said Miller, who observed that fewer people attended the most recent annual convention, held June 10-12 in Washington, than had in years past. "We don't want them to die off," leaving no one to educate today's generations about their willing sacrifice for their country, she said, yet women in their 80s can be difficult to track down.

Donnaleen Lanktree, ARRA president, said she couldn't be more thrilled at the Laurel contingent's efforts to get more women involved in preserving their special legacy.

"To me, this is also about recognition for women who have never been thanked," said the Michigan resident, who's called a Rosebud as a daughter of a Rosie. "They're very humble and they don't require recognition, but many of them were the first generation of 'single' parents who managed house, cared for their children and did men's jobs."

The women's accomplishments are that much more incredible when they're put into context, Lanktree pointed out.

"People have to realize that this was a generation where women didn't go anyplace unescorted," she said. Yet many of them picked up their families and courageously moved to where work was available, a considerable hardship. This was an opportunity to earn much-needed money after surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II, she said, so women did what they did not as a liberation movement but for their country and their children, despite the tremendous sacrifice.

"I don't know how they did it," Lanktree said. "And they also had to deal every day with waiting for that knock on the door," the one that would inform a woman that her husband had been killed.

"These women really did endure everything," she said, "but they had no complaints and no regrets. And they made our lives easier today by showing everyone that women could do all of these things."

'A confidence that stayed with them'

Foster and Miller have high hopes for the Laurel-based Central Maryland chapter.

After all, the population of the city of Laurel swelled during war time as women moved in temporarily to be closer to available jobs. Townspeople were also active as plane spotters, and in donating tons of scrap metal and rubber to the war effort, according to the records of the Laurel Historical Society.

Gertrude Poe, editor of the Laurel Leader from 1940 to 1980, said in a 1995 interview that she "saw Laurel's women rise to the crisis of war, taking over the volunteer fire company and other heretofore masculine duties.

"The experience they gained during those war years gave them a confidence that stayed with them," Poe said.

Foster echoed that observation.

"Rosies didn't make women feel liberated since these duties were forced upon them," she said. "But when we left the war plants and gave up our jobs to return to our old lives, we were better for having done it."

For more information about membership in the Central Maryland chapter of ARRA, contact Anne Marie Miller at 301-498-3397. For ARRA's national website, go to

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