The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 29, 2013

Riveting history: Woman recalls days making bombers for World War II

By Emily Younker
Globe Staff Writer

JOPLIN, Mo. — Just call her Laura the Riveter.

On the heels of the country's most recent Independence Day celebrations, Asbury resident Laura Thompson has been recording, with the help of her children, her own nationalism -- particularly during her work as a "Rosie the Riveter" employee, manufacturing airplanes during World War II alongside millions of other American women.

"It was a big time of patriotism," said Thompson, who celebrated her 89th birthday earlier this week.

Thompson's wartime effort began in 1942; American involvement in the war had already been going on for one year. She was 18 and had just graduated from high school in Cane Hill, Ark., when she noticed an advertisement in her local newspaper.

"All of a sudden, they were wanting lots of people to work in the aircraft factory, and they didn't have enough (workers)," she said. "We were at the age (in which) we were out of school and looking for a job. At the time, the pressure was on for doing something for the war effort."

Thompson, one of her sisters and a female friend took the company up on its offer. They traveled to Wichita, Kan., and completed a six-week training course in how to build war airplanes.

Being like Rosie

After finishing the course, they were unable to get permanent jobs at the Boeing and Cessna factories in Wichita, so they took the bus to Kansas City, Kan., where North American Aviation was hiring.

North American began manufacturing planes in the 1930s. New plants were built in Dallas and Kansas City in 1941, with the latter plant devoted to the building of the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber "to help squeeze the life out of the Axis powers," according to promotional material from the company.

The B-25 Mitchell, produced by both the Kansas City plant and a plant in Inglewood, Calif., was a twin-engine medium bomber with a 75-mm cannon and two .50-caliber machines guns in its nose. It was first test-flown shortly after the bombing at Pearl Harbor in late 1941, and was the airplane used by American airmen and Gen. James H. Doolittle in the Tokyo raid in April 1942, according to Thompson's old North American employee handbook.

Because the plane was so highly rated at the time and used frequently in the war zones, the women who helped build it felt its importance, Thompson said.

In fact, a message from the company president in her employee handbook highlighted their work: "To a very great degree, the continued success of America's fighting airmen depends on your ability to perform well the job at which you have been employed. Don't let anybody kid you that there's anything more important in your plant than those parts or finished planes going out the door. They are the key to victory, and your most important contribution to your nation in its hour of need."

For the next three years, Thompson worked at the factory, responsible for just one part of the assembly of the plane, she said.

"I put this part on this jig so that it would be exact, riveted together," she said. "There was a person, an inspector, that inspected our work and made sure it was OK or we would have to do it over."

Plenty of money, nowhere to spend it

Thompson said she worked 10-hour days in the factory, sometimes for seven days a week, depending on the demand for the B-25s. But she generally was off on the weekends, and she spent her free time in Kansas City going to movies or dancing to the big bands that performed in town.

She doesn't remember now how much she earned, but her daughter, Nancy Collard, said it was likely around 35 cents per hour, and no more than $1 per hour. It was enough to cover the $8-per-week bills at the boarding house in which she lived, Thompson said.

At any rate, it was more money than Thompson had ever seen before, although it didn't seem to matter. Many goods were in rare supply as materials were diverted into production of items needed for the war.

"We were making so much more than we dreamed of, but you couldn't buy anything," she said. "Shoes were rationed. I would have loved to have a typewriter, but I couldn't buy one. We went bare-legged; back then, everybody wore hose, but for the war effort we gave up hose. And film. You couldn't take pictures."

Yet it wasn't a major imposition, she said.

"At that time, everybody was so appreciative of the men in service, doing anything they could to help them out," she said. "We were all glad to do without butter, sugar or whatever we couldn't have."

Said Collard: "They were so patriotic back then. Once they attacked Pearl Harbor, everybody was involved in the war effort."

End of shift leads to historic shift

Thompson said the factory shut down as soon as the war was over in 1945.

"You packed your tools and left, and you were out of a job," she said.

After the factory closed, Thompson worked for a while at an insurance company in Kansas City, and she ultimately returned to her farming roots. She married her husband, J.C. Thompson, whom she had met in Kansas City, once he returned from tours of duty in China, Burma and India, and they settled on a farm near Asbury. She continued to manage the farm and raise her three children after her husband's death.

But she has always remembered the three years she spent as a Rosie the Riveter.

"The war changed the life of women in America," she wrote recently in a brief memoir. "They went on to work at other jobs, were independent and ran their own lives as never before."

Brief history of 'Rosie'

The term "Rosie the Riveter" appeared in a song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and released in early 1943. The song portrays "Rosie" as an assembly-line worker contributing to the American war effort.

"Rosie the Riveter," as drawn by artist Norman Rockwell, appeared in May 1943 on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post as a woman on her lunch break, with her rivet gun on her lap and her feet propped on a copy of "Mein Kampf." The painting is now part of the permanent collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.

The most iconic image of "Rosie the Riveter," a woman wearing a bandanna and rolling up the sleeve on her bent arm, was used in a government-commissioned wartime poster.

Sources: The Library of Congress, the National Park Service