When June Robbins turned 17, it was wartime, and she desperately wanted work. She and her newly divorced mother were sleeping on a twin bed in the back of her aunt's store.
Robbins was still in high school, but she needed to support them both. So she lied about her age and persuaded a high school teacher to let her into a drafting course, where she was taught to retrofit freighters into troop carriers. Thus was born a World-War II "Rosie the Riveter."
Robbins worked at the now-defunct Cramp Shipbuilding Co. from 1943 to 1945, along with thousands of other women employed in Philadelphia and South Jersey shipyards and military plants.
"Men left the farms and cities, and we had to cover for them when they were drafted," recalled Robbins, now 90 and living at Wesley Enhanced Living Main Line, a retirement community in Media.
"Most of us had the feeling we wanted to shorten the war and bring the men home safely. We had to take their place all over Philadelphia. We ran the railroads, the trolley cars; we collected rags, papers, metal and rubber," she said. "We weren't just USO volunteers. Rosies did everything."
In 1941, the Navy began building cruisers and submarines at the Cramp shipyard. As a draftsman, Robbins helped retrofit and build 53 ships and repaired 574 ships for the U.S. and Allied forces. Her mother made parachutes and ships barriers. They never spoke about what they were working on until after the Second World War ended.
"My mother used to say to me, 'Loose lips sink ships.' So we really didn't talk about it."
In mechanical-drafting classes, Robbins learned how to transform cargo vessels into troop carriers, including drafting every detail down to the nuts and bolts, welding and electrical work. Best of all? A celebrity sighting: "President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to visit the shipyard," she recalled.
These days, Robbins is trying to locate other Rosies around the Philadelphia region and bring them in as members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association and a new nonprofit called Thanks! Plain and Simple.
Her work has taken her as far as Europe; Robbins was invited on a 2015 trip to the Netherlands to visit the National Liberation Museum with other Rosies and members of the 82nd Airborne Division. She was one of three Rosies who attended as a representative of Operation Chowhound, a wartime food drop that saved Holland from starvation.
She is a lifelong member of the Rosie Association, a national nonprofit trying to find women who worked on the home front. Thousands supported the war effort as riveters, welders, electricians, and inspectors in plants, sewing clothing and parachutes for the military, serving as ordnance workers, rolling bandages, doing clerical tasks, and farming.
"These women have stories of their WWII experiences that are of historical value and perhaps have never been told. American Rosie the Riveter Association would like to acknowledge these women and have their stories placed in our archives," corresponding secretary Mabel Myrick said.
Founded in 1998 by Frances Carter, a Rosie in Birmingham, Ala., the group has thousands of members nationwide. Officers from all over the country — Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Missouri, and Alabama — serve on a volunteer basis.
"We have over 5,700 members nationally," Myrick said. "Some are Rosies, some are daughters of Rosies, but we don't have all of them. There's still quite a few out there we don't know about."
The annual Rosies convention is scheduled for June 9-11 in Kansas City, Mo. (Find details at www.rosietheriveter.net.) A lifetime membership in the group costs $10 for Rosies, $20 for daughters or granddaughters. For more information, call 1-888-557-6743 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
After the war, Robbins married and had seven children. Her husband, Melvin Robbins, died in 2013, after they'd been married more than six decades.
"I still miss him," she said. "He always had my back, or had my six, as they said in the military."
A homemaker for many years, Robbins became a professional clown, entertaining in hospitals as a volunteer. Now, she mostly dedicates her time telling the story of women in World War II and recording it through the Thanks! Plain and Simple website http://thanksplainandsimple.org/videos.php.
"We have to find the other Rosies in Philadelphia," she said.