Remembering the working 'Rosies' of World War II

June Robbins and Anna Hess, who were among the generation of women who entered the work force during World War II, with Anne Montague, a West Virginia woman seeking to highlight the experiences of "Rosies."

The drafting room at the Philadelphia Navy Yard was brutally hot in the summer of 1943 and ineffectively cooled by big fans, June Robbins remembers.

The heating systems weren’t much better in the winter, she said. The work, redesigning cargo ships to serve as troop carriers, was high pressured and exhausting.

But at 17 years old there was nowhere else Robbins, now a Media resident, wanted to be.  Wanting to help the war effort, she cajoled a teacher into allowing her to take an usually all-male drafting class, and then lied about her age to get hired at the Navy Yard.

“I knew I had to get out there and do something for my country,” she said.

Robbins, 91, was among the generation of women who took jobs critical to the war effort during the absence of men who were fighting in World War II.  That group of women has come to be represented by the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” character.

On Saturday, the Philadelphia Girls Choir performed a song written about the “Rosies” to Robbins and another former worker, Anna Hess, 89.

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The “We Can Do It” poster painted by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse during World War II

Women in the American workforce increased from 25 to 36 percent, during the war years, and the number of working young women in particular surged. In 1940, 20 percent of women age 20 to 24 were working. Five years later, 40 percent of women in that age range had jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.  .

Remembering the experiences of those women is important, said Anne Montague, who leads the Rosie the Riveter Project.

Montague she said the goal is “to get Americans to pull together like the Rosie the Riveters did in World War II.”  Her efforts include memorializing the Rosies, and she is seeking help finding women still living to gather their stories.

She said the Rosies exemplied a country united by a common cause, but also embody women who found solidarity at work.  They also battled with the kinds of discrimination and harassment that only recently has burst into the public consciousness through the #MeToo movement.

Montague, of Charleston, W.Va., wants to make Philadelphia a model city for the project, and her first step happened Saturday with the choir’s performance that she wrote. The song, “Thank You Rosie with Your Rivetin’ Smile,” performed at Lew Klein Hall at Temple University included lyrics Montague added specifically for its Philadelphia debut.

“I wanted them to have a vision of what a real life hero is,” said Nathan Wadley, the 200-member choir’s music director. “It’s more than just a poster but it represents real women who made real sacrifices for our country.”

Robbins was in the audience, as was Hess.

Hess worked at the Mohawk Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, during the war. When Hess described her work making tires for military vehicles, she started pantomiming the steps to her assembly-line job. Seven decades later, and her hands still seemed to have the muscle memory of attaching treads to the tire bands.

“Many the night I’d gone home with the tips of my fingers bleeding,” Hess, of West Virginia, said.

The women recall the profound bonds that were built in the pressure of wartime that brought people together. Robbins’ boyfriend, Melvin, served on B-24s in England, she said, and during her two and a half years working at the Navy Yard there was a time when she stopped hearing from him, and feared the worst. The 10 other women working in her drafting room were there for her.

“They all came with me to church to light candles and say prayers for the safety of my boyfriend,” she remembered.

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June Robbins and Anna Hess with Nathan Wadley, music director for The Philadelphia Girls Choir.

He did survive, she said, and when he returned became her husband.

The wartime era also put women and men into the workplace together. Robbins remembered a night when two sailors walked her to her mother’s home after a movie.

“One stood watch while the other pinned me against a wall,” she recalled.

Her father wanted her to be able to defend herself in case the Nazis invaded and taught her to fight. The skills came in handy, she said.

“I let him have it with my head,” she said.

Her attack ended there, she recalled. She saw the sailor again after that and he took pains to avoid her, and she now applauds women who are outing similar assaults now.

“I am so thrilled,” she said, “with the young people today.”