Rosie the Riveters

Sutterfield, Betty

Date Interviewed:  March 4, 2003
Interviewer:  Linda Y. Davis
Topic:  Mrs. Sutterfield’s experiences during World War II

Q:        When and where were you born?  

A:        I was born in Loco, which is in Stevens County, about 90 miles south of Oklahoma City. I was born in 1922.  

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

A:        I attended Cameron Junior College in Lawton, and when I graduated, I went back to Duncan and worked in a dentist’s office for about six months. Then they started the defense program. We had an NYA program there in Stevens County – National Youth Administration where they took the kids off the farms because no body had any income at that time. So they found you jobs. And we worked for $30.00 a month.  

Q:        What year was that?  

A:         That was in 1942. The most that they paid was $7.00 or $8.00 a week. We paid rent and our food. This was where we started our training. We had to walk 15 blocks from where we lived to the school. There was no mass transportation then.           

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

A:        We played with neighbors, but after I came out of school, you had to work. Anyway, I went to this NYA school and they taught us all these different things. We learned to do the lathes – big machines – and stapling or riveting machines. But then they assigned us to different departments. I went to work for Douglas Aircraft first, and I worked there about eight months, then I transferred over to Tinker.  

Q:        Was the war going on while you were doing this?  

A:        Yes. When I was at Cameron was when the war started. The kids were all having to go to service. I was over at Lawton and they started brining in the military there. The young men in college – they pulled them out.  

Q:        Did you think there was really going to be a war or were they just pulling them out of school?  

A:        They did because it was soon after that that they started drafting them. They didn’t have enough people in the Army to do anything. And they started drafting those kids, and they didn’t know nothing.

Q:        I guess with them being young, the mood was really bad because they had a future and then it was taken from them?  

A:        The kids that were at Cameron – we had an ROTC unit there – it was a full class, I imagine it was 45 or 50 young men in our ROTC program. The next day after the war started, they started going. They couldn’t plan anything. We had no idea – you know as kids we had never dreamed of war or anything like that – it had never entered our mind. At Douglas, we fitted the troop planes – like the C-47. We used to laugh and kid each other when you’d make a mistake and have to drill the rivet out and put a bigger one in, then they’d say “It’ll weigh too much.” Because after it went out the back door it had to weigh a certain amount, and if it weighed more than that, we had to take something out.  So the plane was just a big open plane. We put the little seats along the side – that’s what we did, made the little seats and then installed them along the side of the plane. That’s what we kidded about – if we got too many rivets in it, it weighed too much and the plane wouldn’t get to go out the back door. So that was one of our jokes.  

            But then after I worked here for a while, we got a chance to transfer over to Tinker. It was an altogether different atmosphere because they repaired the planes as they came back through, besides fitting them. Then the new ones that came in, they did the detail work on them. You never got to see from the front door to the back door everything that went on.  

Q:        So you only got to see your little part?  

A:        Your little part. Then when I transferred over to Tinker, we never got a full – I forget what they called it – a blueprint, I guess. We got one little part that was for us and they never let us see the whole blueprint of anything. And that’s where I worked to the last in that department. I worked there nearly a year. At the time that I was in defense work, there was a job anywhere you wanted to go and anything you wanted to do. So we kind of flitted around and did our thing because we wanted to see the country. I went to California and worked in the shipyards.  

Q:        Oh, you helped to build the ships, too?  

A:        Yes. They had a program that they would pay your way there and your first month’s rent if you’d go and work in the shipyards. For them to pay your way, you only had to work 30 days or something like that – that’s what you were obligated to do.  

Q:        So you worked on the big ships like battleships?  

A:        Yes.  

Q:        And you did riveting on them, too, or what?  

A:        I never did get out in the shipyards. When I went to work it was total chaos. We had to go through the welding school there, and the night I went into the welding school, the guy who was in charge he was pulling his hair out. He had all these people that had been sent to him – they had come in on contract. He didn’t have anybody to help him fill out their paperwork or anything, so he was sitting there just ready to run away. I went in and said “Do you need some help?” And he said “what can you do?” And I said “I can do anything you can tell me to do!” He said “You’re the answer to my prayers. Sit down!” They had forms to fill out, but many people couldn’t fill them out. They had come in from Arkansas and Oklahoma and about 50% of them couldn’t read or write. The thing that brought them out there was that they could get jobs and go to work immediately, and they paid their way to get there. And they had dormitories that these people could live in.  

Q:        So were you married during all of this or single?  

A:        Single.  

Q:        When did they decide to call you “Rosie the Riveters” – who came up with that idea?  

A:        I think the newspaper did it. It happened pretty soon after we started this program, that they were actually teaching them how to do all this stuff, and just as soon as they could get them where they could hold the rivet gun, they’d put them to work. And they just started this slang name for them. The only thing that was wrong with the program was we didn’t have any transportation. It was just nightmarish. I lived on 39th Street, and I was out in the boonies. The Interurban [trolley) was on out quite a ways and my sister lived in El Reno, but I couldn’t get from my house to the Interurban to get out there. It was really nightmarish. Of course, after a while, you’d learn how to do it.  

Q:        Did she do the same kind of work you did?  

A:        No, she was married and her husband was one of the teachers at the reformatory at El Reno. He worked there 40-something years. But he went to the service during that time.  

Q:        So when did you decide to get married?  

A:        Well, I married right out of college, and got a divorce. And I had a child. My mother took care of my child while I worked. I was going to keep him and stay with my sister over in El Reno, because I could get the Interurban from El Reno and get to Douglas easier than I could here in Oklahoma City. Housing was terrible. There was no housing. My dad went to work out there and came up here and he got a place in a rooming house. It was downtown on 14th Street or somewhere like that. My dad wanted my mother to move up here too, so she came up here, but she didn’t stay a week because she couldn’t stand it. She told him if he wanted to do that, fine. But my youngest brother was still at home and she just said she couldn’t have him cooped up here, so she went back to Loco.  

Q:        So did you retire from Tinker?  

A:        No, it was just so easy to find a job, you didn’t stay very long there.

Q:        But you did retire from the government?  

A:        I retired from the state government. I worked many places. When I quit at Tinker, I moved back to Loco, or back to Duncan, actually, the county seat. And I went to work there at Halliburton’s. They had a defense contract, and I was still doing defense work. I worked in the shop and we manufactured parts for planes and shipped them to different places. I worked there about two or three years because it was near home and I could be around family. I even taught school. This happened when I came back from doing the defense work. I moved back to Loco and my sister was a school teacher. Her husband was in the service. All of a sudden she just decided she didn’t want to do it, and she left the kids there, and they were going to lose their credits and everything. So I picked it up and worked in the school to finish that semester. We got the kids through the semester and got their grades, so they finished.  

Q:        Has there ever been a reunion of any of you Rosie the Riveters who did the work?  

A:        I didn’t ever get invited to one if there was one. This from the school [Rose State College] was the first time I’ve been contacted.  

Q:        He did a lot of research to find all of you all. He said it took him a year or so to get all the names together and see who was still alive. I never would have thought that there’d be so many women still in this area.  

A:        Yes, I never would have thought there would be many who would admit it!! (laughter) But I really enjoyed working out there. The thing that always sticks in my mind – this was the first time that the men and women had worked together. And we had a lot of problems with that. I remember the first time that we ever really had an incident in our area. We had a “lead” man who was pretty feisty. He was one of the persons that would harass you. He never did it to me. I guess I had an air about me that nobody would mess with me, because I never did have it any time and I’ve worked in many, many places, but I never did have anybody to do anything out of the way to me. But this guy, he was always putting his hands on you. He never did me, as I said, but I witnessed it many times. One day, he walked up behind this woman, and I don’t know that he patted her, but she said he did and she turned around and just knocked him flat on his butt. He leaped up, and we all just walked over there, and we said “You go and we go with you.” He couldn’t deal with that.  

Q:        So you did have kind of a togetherness and protected each other.  

A:        It was just a thing that – we had no idea – of course, harassment is many things, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know what the woman said to him that made him approach her, I have no idea. He was always rubbing up against you and stuff like that.  

Q:        You already said that you quit working before the war was over, right?  

A:        Yes. At the time that the war was over, I was working in Ardmore with the Veterans Administration  

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

A:        I can remember my mother and all of the little ladies at Loco, they never worked out of the home until that time. They just made do with staying home and taking care of the kids and managing to feed the family with whatever the men brought in. We always had plenty to eat (from our garden); we always had a cow, and milk. We lived in a small town, and that is another plus for anyone is living in a small town. That was one thing my mother always said was “stay where you can be comfortable.” Because my daddy worked in the oil fields, and we moved to Ft. Worth, Texas at one time. We didn’t know anybody, we couldn’t call anybody. Just on your own. We were having a hard time. It was during the really, really worst part of the Depression, and she had five children. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. So one day she just said, “I’m going home.” She always left the furniture and everything in her home at Loco, and we always went back there. I don’t know that we even locked the doors. We stayed there usually during the school year because we all wanted to go to school there.   

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

A:        The thing with my skills – I always felt that I could make myself and my children a living if I had to. It just gives you sense that you can be responsible if you want to, and you can do it. I always felt like if it came to it, I could always make myself a living. It gave me a sense of self-pride, because that was how I felt – that I had accomplished what I set out to do – to make myself independent.  

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

A:        The way I perceived Tinker, the whole atmosphere was dignity. Everything was done with precision. They came and picked us up at the gate and took us in on a little bus, this last time. The other time we shared rides and it was awful hard to get a ride. But if you got one, you sure held on to it, and you tried to do everything you could to be time because it was hard to get a ride. I lived on 39th Street and that was kind of out of way for Tinker, but I found a ride from these people that lived nearly to El Reno, and he picked up six of us, and that was how you did it – find someone that would help take you to work . There was busses, but I lived far enough from Classen that it wasn’t really easy for me to get to it. Classen was where you got the bus that went all the way. They had the Sixteenth Street Exchange, and at one time I lived close to that, and I could walk down there and catch the bus going either way I wanted to go and that was easy. But if you lived off the bus line, you were in trouble.  

Q:        Did they have trolley cars on railroad tracks back then?  

A:        Yes, they all had tracks.  

Q:        But they didn’t go that far?  

A:        They went all the way on Classen out to Highway 66.  That’s where the trolley took you. You could go from Tinker. You got on the bus, and it brought you to the trolley, and then could go all the way to El Reno that way. Took a long time, but you could get there.  

Q:        And they’ve taken all the tracks up now – no history left.  

A:        No.  

Q:        So you got along fine with the men? Working side by side?  

A:        Yes. You were assigned a partner and they tried to keep friction down, but that one incident was the only time that I saw anything really boil over. I saw one woman get killed. We were helping them out inside the plane, and she was standing, and I don’t know how in the world she did it, but they were drilling from the outside to the inside. Somebody had one of these long drills and drilled through and hit her in the back and the way it hit her, it killed her. And then I saw one woman get scalped. This drill press that they had, they told you always to wear a hair net. She wore her hair with a lot of bangs, and she had on a hair net, but it was one of those thin hair net, and she had all this curly hair [bangs]. And it just grabbed it and went back, peeled her hair off. Of course, she fainted or passed out, but she lived.  

Q:        Were most of the females of one nationality, or was it mixed nationalities?  

A:        Mixed. Everybody got a chance to work. I felt that anybody that wanted to work could work. And the reason I feel that way was because you had the employment office, and you go to that office, and everybody (muffled).  

 Q:       Do you think the women got paid fairly – like the men?  

A:        Not really. The work that I did, most of the men started at the same salary that we did. But our supervisors were all men.  

Q:        So basically everyone started out at the basic $30.00?  

A:        Yea, for starting salary. Now when we went to work for Tinker, the best I remember we got about-  let’s see, before they took everything out, our checks were about $70.00, and you got about $65.00 or something like that every two weeks. When I taught school I taught school for $100.00 per month. I said “Overpaid! Overpaid!”  

Q:        So all along the government decided to bring the women in to work?  

A:        Pretty early they started taking applications – really early. The men were being called to go overseas and they didn’t know how many were going to have to go. There was no way to judge and there was no backup. My daddy didn’t have to go to the service, but he was between World War I and World War II, and he didn’t have to go. But I had one brother that went, and I had one brother that couldn’t pass the physical. And then my youngest brother didn’t go during the conflict, but he went later.  

Q:        So went you left California and came back here, did you go to work at Tinker, or go back home and taught school?  

A:        I went back home, and I was going back to work. We had been offered another contract. So I was going back to work out there, and they needed me to finish this school. And my mother just kind of talked me into it. She said, “Betty, it won’t cost you anything to stay here, and you can do this, and you’ll keep the kids from losing their . . “. and so it gave me a chance to stay at home, so I did. My sister was there, and so many of the young people, their spouses were gone, so we opened a general store there in Loco. My sister is one of those people who will try anything, and they had a lot of people in and out of Loco doing oil field and other work, and she opened a café and started feeding these guys. She had a big old building and over on one side we fixed it where the kids – she had a daughter and I had a son – could play over there. We’d go over there and fix dinner and if somebody came in there and was hungry, she’d feed them. We loved being together and being able to do something that we felt like was helping.