Rosie the Riveters

Lee, Wilma

Born:  1926
Date Interviewed:  March 5, 2003
Interviewer:  Kim Caldwell
Topic:  Work experience during WWII

Q:        When were you born? 

A:        February 7, 1926 in Altus, Oklahoma.   

Q:        Where did you attend school and for how long?  

A:        Grade school was at Willard, and Roosevelt Junior High. Because of my health, I never was able to finish school.  

Q:        That was here in the Oklahoma City?  

A:        Yes.  

Q:        About how long did you attend?  

A:        I was in the 9th grade and then they just wouldn’t be responsible for me anymore. I had so many convulsions, so I quit.  

Q:        Do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself? Did you have physical problems?  

A:        When I was in grade school, one day in a class I felt so terrible. The next thing I knew I was in the hospital. I had had a convulsion. I was in church the first one I had. I was sitting in the window of the little Methodist Church on 2nd and McKinley. All of a sudden I passed out and my whole life changed at that moment and I started having convulsions. Everything that I did that was exciting would cause me to have a convulsion. When I saw the war coming, I wasn’t about to miss it. I wanted to help, and that was when I was just a very young girl – 16. So I went to Tinker. The amazing thing about it, all the time I was at Tinker, I never had a convulsion – not one time. I never lost my job over it – I quit because of getting married. What I think caused my convulsions – the teacher would come up behind you, and in my day you couldn’t be left hand of – it was unheard of. I would be trying to work and this woman would stand to my back and if I did anything with my left hand. . . you can imagine how much mind I had on my work if I couldn’t write. She would hit me on the hand if I would use my left hand. I tried so hard to use the right, and I blame these teachers for my condition.            

Q:        What were your interests and hobbies as a young woman?  

A:        I loved animals, but I have done a lot of terrible things to animals. I was feisty! I would feed the chickens glass until they died. I didn’t think anything of that – I thought it was funny! That’s the kind of fun I had because we didn’t have anything to have fun with.            

Q:        When did you begin to get a sense that the US was headed toward war?  

A:        It was just something that was in the news. We could feel it in the air. Everybody wanted to be involved. I wanted to be involved and I was only 16. My sister had already joined at Tinker, and she was one of the Riveters, and she worked on one of the big planes. I thought that I had  to do something. You also had to bum a ride because you don’t drive. But they had a set up where when you join they had a deal on the wall where people in the vicinity who drive will take you home if you don’t drive. That was quite a system in itself. I never had a worry. That’s how I met my husband. I would ride my bicycle and they said I was too young. They didn’t have a job for a person who was only 16. They asked what could I do and I told them I could do anything – I thought I could! I’d go all around that place on my roller skates if I had to! They asked if I could ride a bicycle – they were taking all the kids that age. I said yes, I could ride a bicycle, even though I don’t know if I could – I was going to learn in a hurry! So they furnished the bicycle and my job was a messenger. They would have a message that would come and I knew where each station was where I reported for messages. The guy over here would say “take this to the general” or so-and-so, and that’s what I did. I did it all day. I worked both the night shift and the day shift periodically. That was really all I did out there.  

Q:        So your sense that the US was headed to war was because of these things that were taking place?  

A:        Yes. You could really tell the things that were coming to pass. The soldiers had such a heart of love. My husband was a New Yorker and they flew him down here or drove him down here on the bus or something, but he was in the Air Force. They wouldn’t let him fly, so he joined the infantry and that’s where he ended up. I feel like I would have joined the Army because I didn’t have any responsibilities. The amazing thing all that time was that I never had a convulsion. I’m sure that was the Lord that really helped me.            

Q:        What was your reaction when you sensed that the US was headed toward war?  

A:        We all felt like “we’ll whip them! We’re not going to let them do this to us.” I had just a sudden hate for Germany and for people that were really known – just like Iraq is today – for slaughtering their people. Then you’d hear things on the radio and they talked about everybody needing to volunteer. You’d hear that everyday, everyday and you want to volunteer. It was all fun with me. I thought “boy, I can volunteer and maybe I’ll become famous!” Then I met my husband on a blind date. I didn’t want to date. I was a church girl and I was determined to marry someone in the church if I ever married. The little girl that drove the car where I was getting a way home said “honey, we want to set you up for a date because we’re all going out after we get off from our shift. You’ll have to get another ride if you don’t go.” I thought, “Oh, my land, here I am out in the country” – that was about how far Tinker was from Oklahoma City! So I said I’d go with him. I’ll tell you, he was so fresh! These New Yorkers! I guess they never met a girl that wasn’t willing and able, you know! He got me up on the dance floor, and didn’t dance. You might say I had a miserable time. But my father and I didn’t get along very good, and I can’t tell you whether I dated him again or not before he asked me to marry him. He knew he was going overseas, and he said “let’s get married tomorrow.” And, boy, that changed my whole attitude right there. I said “ok!” I didn’t care who he was – I kind of hoped he would die, really! But there again, see, I was doing my duty. I told my dad when I got home. Because I got home late, my dad whipped me. He knew what time that I was supposed to be there. I said “I’m getting married tomorrow!” And he said “good!”  Across the street lived an old drunken preacher, but he had a license, and he married us. Mother was a witness. Immediately, he went overseas. I knew I was pregnant, so I quit Tinker. Before he went overseas he had one more assignment at Dalhart, Texas, and I fed the German prisoners so that we could be together, and we lived in the jail.  

Q:        What was the atmosphere like and the mood of people in the town in which you lived?  

A:        I felt like we were all in this thing. I never heard of people who marched against the war. The first march I ever saw was a black march for their rights. From what I saw, everybody was ready to join – black and white – and they were kids. They were lying about their age just to get in. Gerald went in at 18, and he said they went to one place and because he was flat-footed they didn’t want him.  

Q:        Were you married at the time? Or seeing anyone on a regular basis?  

A:        Yes. His name was Laurie, who became my husband.  

Q:        Did the two of you discuss how the war might affect your relationship?  

A:        No, I don’t really think so, other than the fact that “I’ll be back, just take care of yourself.” I don’t guess I met anybody that was really worried for the war. My sister’s husband went into the service. They were young too, and didn’t have any children. The rest of my family were too young to be involved.  My husband  didn’t think he would come home. He was going to battle to fight. That’s how he saw it. He saw it as a bloody battle. He said he had taken out insurance so I would be alright. He just knew he was going to have a little girl, and told me to take care of her. He said “you’ll be alright,” and kept telling me that. Well, I never doubted that I’d be alright. I didn’t have fear one. I didn’t really think anything would happen to him. When he came back from overseas, I didn’t remember him. I didn’t know him from Adam, and I met him at the train station and we reached out and shook hands. We had about 11 years of battle before we really settled down and decided we were going to stay married!  

Q:        When did the government announce that the women were going to be brought into the defense industry?  

A:        I really feel like that that was right from the beginning. I don’t think they ever had any doubt that they had to use the women because when this thing came in so suddenly, we couldn’t wait. Let’s face it, there weren’t as many people in the world as there are today!  

Q:        What was your reaction at the time?  

A:        You think about people getting killed and everything, and that’s the reason you’re joining because you think “if I do a little job, those guys can go over there and do what I would have to do if I was going over there. So I’ve got to stay here and take care of their job.” Really, at my age, I was hair-brained; I never thought much about anything when you get right down to it.  

Q:        When did you decide to become a so-called “Rosie the Riveter,” or work in the war effort?  

A:        You just heard that everybody else was doing it and you wanted to do it, too. Everything just happened like that. To me, the war was what was so long once it got started, and just waiting for them to come home. My son was 22 months old when his daddy came home. I had carried him, too, just I had just gotten pregnant when he left.  

Q:        How did the people close to you react to your decision?  

A:        Of course, mothers don’t want any of their kids to get involved, but I think we lived in a time where money was important. We could help, and even though I was still at home, they may have thought that I was going to help them, but I was all the time getting ready to get married.  

Q:        Did you know a lot of other women in your area that were also going to become involved?  

A:        I’m sure that I had friends, but it was in that area of my past that I have this lost memory.  

Q:        How did the process unfold as you went from civilian to defense industry worker?  

A:        I grew up. Let’s put it that way. Even though I was 16. I never cast myself as 16 – I thought I was just as old and just as smart as everybody – just like all these little kids do today.  

Q:        It was just like a normal job?  

A:        Yes, it was. Tinker wasn’t as big as it is now. When you’re young you have a good mind for knowing where everything is. I worked in a hospital and when you first go in, there’s 100,000 rooms and then suddenly it gets littler! The same was true was Tinker. You just knew your way around. They had this long string of barracks from the entrance where I went in and parked my bicycle and get my messages. I think there must have been a direct shoot to whoever the big authority was, and they would say “this message goes over here to so-and-so, and this one there.” So I would go to this one place and if they had other messages, I would take them back to them. The whole thing was just very serious – I felt the seriousness of it. I would ride by this long string of barracks – just pup tents is all they were. That’s the only job I ever did work there. I guess they figured I was too much of a kid to do anything else. My sister worked on parts in the plane, but I didn’t.  

Q:        What about feeding the prisoners?  

A:        Yes. After him and I were married, he had to go to another place. I did feed the prisoners. I had already quit Tinker, as soon as we got married and I knew I was pregnant. I was just with him. They had these prisoners who didn’t speak a word of English. I was supposed to feed them. We lived behind a curtain [in the jailhouse]. It was really crazy! I had never cooked a thing in my life and didn’t have plans for what you cooked. I thought “well, I can feed them beans.” And I fed them beans everyday. I didn’t know that you were supposed to wash them [the beans], but they would take them because they were hungry people, and they glared at me. That was a terrible thing – I didn’t intentionally do that to them. This was in Dalhart.  

Q:        How long did you work at Tinker?  

A:        Well, not more than a year because I met him and we were married when I was 17. Then before my son was born I was through with it. So it was just when I was 16 and 17 that I was there.   

Q:        And you were just responsible for delivering messages and feeding those prisoners?  

A:        Yes, right.  

Q:        How many hours per day did you work and how many days per week did you work?  

A:        We worked five days a week, and eight hours a day. We had to use a time clock. 

Q:        What kind of pay did you receive?  

A:        We made good pay. Back there, it was good, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. I had never received anything like that. It was really dandy pay!  

Q:        How long did you feed the prisoners?  

A:        About three months.  

Q:        What was the mood of your fellow female workers?  

A:        I think they were all excited. We had a mutual feeling and I don’t think any of us had a worry. I didn’t have enough sense to have any worries.  

Q:        Was there a sense of loyalty among the female workers?  

A:        Oh yes.  

Q:        Did you make any lifelong friends?  

A:        No.  

Q:        Did the women enjoy the work, or did the work prove difficult for some of the women?  

A:        I don’t think that anybody gave up on their job because of difficulty. Women were like “if you think I can’t do it, you just have to let me try.” That was the attitude they had.  

Q:        Were the women from every kind of economic, ethnic, racial, and social background?  

A:        Yes, I think that was really true. I don’t think it made one bit of difference. Everybody was involved. Well, we don’t exactly have the spirit of unity today like we have had. I feel like we’ve grown mean-spirited, I guess.  

Q:        Could you please elaborate whether or not all women were treated equal or if some women, because of their background, had a more difficult time than others. Please feel free to expand on anything to do with this?  

A:        I couldn’t actually say if we had any mixture [different races], because I don’t really notice things like that. I’m sure all people weren’t that way. When I was young, the blacks had been beaten down so low that they just knew their place. If they gave them a job to scrub, they scrubbed good.  

Q:        What was the reaction of the fellow female workers?  

A:        We were all fighting – we would discuss that. Of course, when we would get away from work and go to Louie’s or wherever it was, it was just a fun night. I never drank and I never smoked and not many of them did in those days. Women were different and didn’t think like young people do today. They were just jolly and friendly.  

Q:        How about the reaction of the male workers?  

A:        They all treated us very good. I felt like they were proud for what they had because the rest were gone. I think Tinker is one of the greatest – I’m still proud of Tinker. My son joined the Air Force.  

Q:        How were you treated by them, as well as by the bosses who were in charge? 

A:        I really felt like I was treated good. I was awful flirty when I was young!  

Q:        What was the overall atmosphere at Tinker Air Force Base and the surrounding area?  

A:        You just felt like “isn’t this exciting!” This was war and you really felt like you were in war. No doubt about it. I was doing my best to bring them home and all I was doing was riding a bicycle!  

Q:        What kinds of memorable occurrences did you witness or experience?  

A:        Everybody was in the war whether they were at Tinker or not. Everybody had the same feeling. Even in church it was like “we’ve got to all stick together.”  

Q:        After the war, was there any kind of pressure from the government and the media for women to leave the workplace and return to homes so that male veterans could once again have access to jobs?  

A:        No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we ever had that kind of problem at all. I took count of how many different jobs I worked after I left Tinker. I had just started working then, and before then I had helped my daddy who worked in a little snack bar and I would flip hamburgers with him. I counted how many different jobs I had. I’m the kind of person who thinks “I want to work a little while, but now it’s summer – I want to go home!” I have worked 28 different occupations! Everything from kindling eggs to working as a decorator!  

Q:        So you stopped working at Tinker before the war was over?  

A:        I stopped working for Tinker, but that was just the beginning. I thought “man, I can do it, now!” I never worked really and made any money [prior to that time]. 

Q:        After the war, what types of work did you do?  

A:        You mean did I do anything like defense or military work? No, I didn’t do anything like that. I worked at Kresge’s, J. C. Penney’s, Sears and Roebuck – you name it! Every snack bar in town. I used to open the Sears snack bar on 23rd St. and its gone now.   

Q:        How do you think the war years impacted the lives of women in this country?

A:        It did one sad thing, I think, and that was that women didn’t want to stay home anymore. They didn’t. I met a German woman riding the bus and she came from the old country. He brought her back after the war. It was my first real experience of seeing how they would bring them over to this country and then they go to work and they are American citizens then. My mother, for one, never worked in her life until after the war. She had a little part-time job. I never quit working and I put my son through college by working at the church.  

Q:        So it kind of gave women a sense of dependability?  

A:        Yes.  

Q:        What impact did the working women of World War II and their experiences have on future generations of American women?  

A:        I think it’s been that they are independent. They make better soldiers today because they are pretty lousy mothers! I think women have become over aggressive in their work efforts. I really feel like I never got that way. I never worked when my son was out of school – that’s the reason I had so many jobs. I would quit when summer came. That wasn’t the way it was and I think that was the biggest run of the divorce mill because women knew they could make it on their own. We can do it ourselves! We do have that attitude today. I feel today that if I needed to go to work, I could work. I am a marvelous seamstress.  

Q:        Did the skills you learned during the war serve you in any kind of way in the subsequent years after the war?  

A:        I don’t really think so because I never learned to make really good messages! Writing notes is just not my thing!  

Q:        What about the cooking? Did you become a better cook?  

A:        Oh, yes, [laughter] I guess I did! I love to cook. When I got married, I didn’t even know how to iron – I didn’t know how to do anything. Mother raised my son for two years because immediately after the war and my husband came home, I became home with the convulsions that I had had. Mother cared for my son and my husband left me immediately. I prayed a lot about it. The Lord gave me a scheme of how to get my husband back, and I didn’t want to lose my son. I went to a Christian lawyer in our church and he said “he could take your son away from you.” I would have stood on my head night and day to keep my son. So I went to my husband and told him I would do anything to save our marriage. I worked on it. Finally, in my church one day after several years, after taking a lot of hell from him, I knelt down and said “Lord, I hate this man, but I don’t want to hate him, and you can give me a heart of love for him.” And He did. I tell you, he turned out to be one of the greatest little guys before he died.  

Q:        What things stand out most in regard to your experience as a Rosie the Riveter or any of the other kinds of work you did during World War II?  

A:        The only thing that stood out was just how handsome all the men were! All the soldiers weren’t overseas! I had to be very careful on my bicycle. I never fell, but I was scared to death I’d fall. I never wore slacks in my life, so you know I was real flippy out there on the bicycle. Until these years when it has become popular, I never did wear slacks. I was just a soldier’s gal – I was after them all! I’d never learned the independence of being an individual. Because of my health, mother had always been there to care for me, and therefore, until then, I didn’t have any independence in me like if I got laid off, I could get another job. That was my new attitude! And I had a lot of them do it!  

Q:        What kind of lessons did you learn from the war and your experiences?  

A:        I believe I’m a better person for it. It’s made me a fighter for our boys now and I cry for them because I feel we’re going to lose a lot. I pray for Iraq. That’s my way of fighting today. It made me a fighter.   

Q:        Do you think that because of what you all did in the war effort, you set the standards for women today?  

A:        Oh, yes. I think it’s made fighters out of all of us. If worse came to worse, we would do it again. I’m a fighter!  

Q:        Can you remember the years you were involved in the war effort?  

A:        Well, from the time I was 16 until the war was over as far as involvement was concerned. I set care packages and stuff like that. That was one of the involvements that we all did. And in my opinion prayer is the greatest involvement.  

Q:        Did you see any anti-war efforts at that time, and you agreed with what the government was doing?  

A:        Oh yes, absolutely.  

Q:        Is there anything else you would like to elaborate on during World War II?  

A:        I met one woman who was a German and we would ride on the bus every morning and she had become so independent since the war and it broke my heart because she had become so independent that she left her husband. I’m afraid that a lot of people did those kinds of things, but there again, it’s part of the price of being independent. Used to, women would even them beat on them, but that day is over.