With most of the young men off to war, the nation's industries turned to another source of labor to supply the necessities to fight World War II: women. The vast majority of the nation pulled together to support the war effort that began in 1941, and women of all ages were asked to shoulder the manufacturing load for the duration of the war.
Almost 3 million women answered the call. Out of this workforce the character of Rosie the Riveter was born. The term was first used in a hit song in 1942. There are two images most associated with Rosie. One is Norman Rockwell's painting for a 1943 Saturday Evening Post that shows a muscular Rosie with a rivet gun in her lap and resting her feet on Hitler's Mein Kampf. The other is by artist J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse's War Production Coordinating Committee, entitled "We Can Do It!," that showed a bandana-clad woman making a muscle.
Today, the American Rosie the Riveter Association exists to recognize and preserve the history and legacy of working women during World War II. Their membership was expanded beyond the iconic Rosies that worked in shipyards and plants to include all women who contributed to the war effort by joining the workforce.
Two Rosies in Laurel, Wilma Foster and Lorraine Miller, are active in the Rosie the Riveter Association and make appearances around the country. Last year they both participated in a Q&A; session with the audience after the screening of the documentary film, "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter," in Washington, D.C. The women, both 89 years old, still maintain busy schedules on behalf of Rosie.
Rivet gun and drill press
Wilma Foster was in high school in Winchester, Va., when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Her brother, who owned a garage in Hagerstown, told her about an aviation plant there that was hiring women to take the place of the men who were leaving for military service. She applied to Fairchild Aviation but had not reached the minimum work age of 18. She went into their training program early and, on her 18th birthday, started work. She was trained to operate a rivet gun and drill press.
"Everybody wanted to do something," Foster said, "there was a job for everybody." The self-described "farm girl" said she felt "sorry for the girls who wanted to dress up and be cute." Some of these women, for vanity purposes, did without the bandannas or hats worn for safety. Wilma witnessed a few incidents where women's hair was caught in machinery and pulled out.
At Hagerstown, Foster worked mostly on the PT-19 training planes. After completion, the planes were delivered to bases around the country by Women's Airforce Service Pilots.
Foster recalled the spirit of the workers was driven by the thought that "the more we get done, the sooner they'll come home." She said the Rosies felt appreciated and respected.
When asked if anyone resented having to relinquish their jobs when the war was over, Foster said she was "so glad the war was over and I didn't lose my brothers" who were overseas that she gladly went back to the family farm.
Foster married in 1946 and relocated to Laurel.Her daughter, Ann Marie Miller, is the president of the Laurel chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, and travels with her mother to her many engagements.
USO led to love
Lorraine Miller was born on a farm in Fulton, and said she walked 2 miles to a one-room schoolhouse on Pindell School Road. After graduating from St. Mildred's High School (now St. Vincent Pallotti High School) in 1942, she took a job as a stenographer with the Department of Justice, answering letters to President Roosevelt.
The present American Legion post next to the Laurel train station was built in 1942 as a USO club. It was very popular with the soldiers from Fort Meade and Laurel residents home on leave. After the war the building was sold to the American Legion, but it burned down in 1979 and was rebuilt.
Miller took the train to Washington because gas was rationed, and went to the USO club one day after work. She signed up to volunteer and went through five nights of training. The training was conducted by the Girls Service Organization (GSO), which required membership of all women volunteering at the USO, and included the dos and don'ts of interacting with soldiers. According to Miller, "we weren't allowed to leave with the soldiers but that didn't mean we couldn't meet for coffee later at the Little Tavern."
Miller worked five nights a week and was thrilled with the dances at the USO. "There were always lots of soldiers to dance with," she said, and lots of local girls attending. There was entertainment every night, and the club was always packed. It was at one of the dances she met her husband, Eddie. He cut in on another soldier dancing with her and complimented her hair.
Eddie came to the club every night to dance with Miller until he shipped out to England to train for the D-Day invasion. They corresponded daily after that, until Miller received a message from the War Department that Eddie was "somewhere in a hospital in England," which meant that he survived the invasion.
They married right after the war and settled in Laurel in 1958.
The nation will always owe a great deal to these women who, as Foster said, "took the job as my duty."
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at email@example.com or 301-776-9260.