For three years, young Connie Spurny crawled in and out of B-25 bomber fuel tanks, doing her part with her rivet-flattening bucking bar.
Ultimately sacrificing a good amount of her hearing inside the aluminum echo chambers that helped win World War II, she is one of millions memorialized by the character of Rosie the Riveter.
The Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., became a source of income for families still recovering from the Great Depression and a symbol of pride and patriotism that resonates today.
On Dec 7, 1940, one year to the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was announced the plant would be built. When opened, North American Aviation employed more than 50,000 area workers who built two-engine medium bombers on a 75-acre factory floor. The first plane came off the line on Dec. 23, 1941, followed by 6,607 more.
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“I only ever saw the center section when I was working,” Spurny said. “You couldn’t even tell it was an airplane. I would have liked to go down to final assembly, but you stayed in your department.”
The B-25 captured America’s attention four months after Pearl Harbor when Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led 16 of them lumbering off the deck of the carrier Hornet to strike back at mainland Japan.
For Americans, it was a morale booster amid the war’s early setbacks. For the Japanese, it was a shock.
Most B-25s made at the Fairfax bomber plant were designated B-25D models, identical to the B-25C models — which Doolittle’s crews flew — that rolled out of the North American factory in Inglewood, Calif. The B-25D’s first flight was on Jan. 3, 1942, and the first aircraft was accepted by the Army Air Force about a month later.
In 1940, 12 million women counted themselves as part of the American workforce. By 1945, that number reached 18.5 million. With many of the men away fighting, businesses across the country opened their doors to women, employing them everywhere from front desks to defense plants.
Of that extra workforce, more than two-thirds took civilian jobs, such as driving delivery trucks or delivering mail.
The remaining 2 million women streamed through factory gates, preparing naval shells, welding tank equipment, constructing radios, whatever the War Department needed.
Kansas City plants like North American and Pratt & Whitney provided thousands access to new economic potential and independence.
Sisters Virginia Robinson, 93, and Ova Ellifrits, 96, rode to work in a ’38 Chevy. Robinson was on the night shift in the offices doing administrative work while Ellifrits floated around Department 17, working in the bulkheads, then on trunnions, then with the rework crew.
“We made mistakes, but we learned from them,” Robinson said. “You really felt like you accomplished something.”
Ellifrits: “I just loved working there. I loved the tools, the drills, the bucking bars. It made you feel good to feel like you were helping someone.”
This dedication and patriotism was a common thread among the Rosies.
“They were willing to give so much,” said Richard Macias, who developed a deep interest in the bomber plant after hearing his mother’s stories of her time there.
As soon as she was out of high school in 1943, Concha Macias responded to a help-wanted ad in The Kansas City Star. She was handed a rivet gun and assembled bomb bay doors for the next two years.
At the same time, Eleanor Bennett, youngest of 11, began in engine subassembly. She would be installing starters next before moving to fuel pump installation, where she and her partner worked in a team full of men.
“I thought (the men) were all so old back then. I mean they were too old to be drafted. But I learned so much. They didn’t treat me like I was fragile,” 90-year-old Bennett said.
The B-25 Mitchell gained a reputation for sturdiness — several are still in the air today — good range and the ability to withstand battle. One, “Patches,” was crash-landed six times and had more than 400 holes that had been patched.
It flew in every theater of the war, beginning in the battles of El Alamein in Egypt to New Guinea in the Pacific. It was in the island-hopping toward the Japanese homeland that U.S. commanders discovered the plane’s value in tree-top strafing and dropping of incendiary bombs by parachute.
The U.S. Eighth Air Force based in Great Britain did not employ the smaller B-25 in its strikes against heartland Germany. Americans flew them over Italy, and the Lend-Lease Program delivered hundreds to the British Royal Air Force and the Soviet air force. The Chinese government also got many.
Alice Vogt, the second-oldest of 15 children on a farm outside Aurora, Mo., came to Fairfax to send money home. With seven brothers overseas, Alice felt her work kept her connected to them.
“That was my way of helping. That was me doing my part. Everyone at the factory felt that way,” she said.
The girls worked for about $1 an hour, good wages at the time.
At the same time, they were learning they were capable of doing so much more than they had ever imagined. Phyllis Robinson said she became the first woman overhead crane operator, moving assembled wings.
“I’d move them to different jigs (sections), so they could do things to them. I enjoyed doing something a woman hadn’t done before. And they paid me more. I made a real good salary for those days.” When she quit to follow her Navy husband to California before he shipped out, “People said I was crazy.”
Born in 1921 on a farm near Cole Camp, Mo., Naomi Wurdeman had no birth certificate. She and her mother made the trip to Jefferson City for the official document, clutching the family Bible where Wurdeman’s birth date was written down.
“I told people, ‘I’m not going to do housework all my life. I’m going to do something else,’” Wurdeman said. She got the night shift as a riveter.
Wurdeman’s headstrong attitude about work and independence is a recognizable trait among many of the Rosies.
Lifelong Kansas City resident Jean Crouch, now 89, graduated early at 16, but “since I couldn’t work for the bomber factory until I was 18, I went and took a job for Western Auto.”
She recalls counting down the days; as soon as two birthdays rolled past, she was crossing the Kaw to the North American plant.
“The money was better. It was a government job that would help out the war. What I was doing at Western Auto wasn’t all that important,” she said. She wound up assembling trunnions for landing gear.
Daughters of the Depression, these women possessed a notion of sacrifice and dedication that lent itself to the work they were asked to do.
After graduating from high school, Mary Lou White, now 88, moved from Rushville, Mo., to solder wiring in the cockpit instrument panels.
One of the planes she worked on, the “Show-Me,” is one of the Commemorative Air Force treasures on display at the St. Charles County Airport. Two years ago, she got to fly in it at an Olathe air show. She keeps in touch with some of the airmen who flew in the Show-Me during the war and she has been interviewed by the Smithsonian.
“Seeing the Show-Me made my heart swell. It was such an honor to be able to help the war effort,” White said.
New jobs gave these Rosies new independence and strength. No longer were their horizons limited to the home.
Connie Spurny, the tiny Rosie who lost most of her hearing bucking rivets in fuel tanks, remembers learning a new word at the plant — “sabotage.”
“They had signs posted all over the factory, telling workers to report any sabotage,” the 92-year-old woman recalled. The second new term may be surprising to today’s readers.
“Baby sitter” was Earth shattering.
“Until then, no one had ever needed a baby sitter,” she said. “The war changed life for everyone.”
The B-25 was an extremely noisy plane. Many crew members lost some of their hearing just flying them. Just before the end of the war, a Fairfax-built version flying in the fog over New York City crashed into the Empire State Building between the 79th and 80th floors. Eleven in the skyscraper and three in the plane perished.
Many of the Rosies kept working in some capacity after the men returned.
Spurny went to work at Southwestern Bell, which she described as “kind of a letdown,” after her defense work. Crouch worked for decades for the Lee Jeans Co. Bennett would attach connectors to cables for Wilcox Electric for 20 years.
Few stayed as closely linked to their wartime work as 88-year-old Norma Bowers.
The Carroll County woman went to work at Pratt & Whitney, which produced the R-2800 Double Wasp engine used in several Navy and Army Air Corps fighters, as well as the DC-4 cargo/passenger aircraft.
Bowers, and two other women in one tiny room, sharpened all the tools used to craft the smallest component parts of those engines.
Upon being laid off in September 1945, Bowers answered an ad from Pennsylvania Central Airlines. She was trained to take reservations and work the ticket counter in the fledgling commercial flight industry.
“Airplanes always fascinated me,” Bowers said. “Even as a child on the farm, whenever a plane would fly over, I would stop what I was doing and just stare.”
Bowers worked her way up from customer service to inventory control, where she realized the DC-4s were using the Wasp engines. Then as assistant to the buyer of aircraft engine parts, Bowers was assigned the R-2800. She finally got to see her past work up close.
“I realized I’d helped build those engines,” Bowers said.
Like all the women interviewed, Bowers spoke fondly of the lessons learned during her days as a Rosie the Riveter.
“That time at P&W gave me a lot of confidence, and it was a pleasure to know I was a part of something important. It certainly was an interesting life.”
When the North American plant opened in Fairfax before the war, it hired 1,400 skilled workers. At its peak in October 1943, it had 24,000. Women on the payroll numbered more than 9,000, working in 98 of 100 departments.
There were initially plans to build the giant B-29 bombers or P-80s, early jet fighters, at North American’s facilities, but the versatility of the B-25 proved too valuable.
After the war, new assembly lines were constructed at Fairfax by General Motors for a public starved for new cars, although during the Korean War, F-84 jet fighters were produced alongside the Oldsmobiles. That plant was replaced in 1985 by the GM operation we see today.
“The B-25 bomber played a critical role in America’s World War II arsenal,” said Richard Macias, the local expert on the bomber plant. “It was used for airborne artillery and as a low-altitude strafer in several theaters of war.”
Donita Bramell of Independence told of how her mother, Norma Bramell, a tiny farm girl, would work a late shift, “getting off the bus at 4 in the morning and then she had to walk two or three blocks to her aunt and uncle’s home where she was staying.”
At just under 5 feet tall, Norma was assigned the cramped job of bolting nose cones. Before the war was over, the teenager also installed radio tables and worked in the blueprint department — as did her future husband.
“They had little scooters that they drove the blueprints out into the plant, and the story he told was that he nearly ran her over with one. That how they actually met,” Bramell said with a chuckle.
Today, the children of the Rosies are proud of that generation’s patriotism.
“She always had a love of America,” Bramell said of her mother, who died in November. Bramell’s grandfather drove a wagon in Harry Truman’s regiment.
“They are significant contributors to the freedoms women enjoy today. They were an important part of our national history, specifically the women’s movement, but also world history.
“Without them Hitler could have won the war or, at the very least WWII would have lasted a lot longer than it did.”
Alice Vogt, now 92, choked up when she spoke of her time working for North American.
“I think I might have felt cheated if I didn’t have the opportunity. This is our country, and I feel like we should pay back in a way for our privileges. I just felt it was my duty. It was my duty, but I was paid back twofold.”
Derek Cowsert, an intern with The Star, is in the UMKC Master’s of Fine Arts creative writing program. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the home front
The American Rosie the Riveter Association is trying to locate women who worked on the home front during World War II.
These women have stories of their experiences that are of historical value and perhaps have never been told. The association would like to acknowledge these women with a certificate and place those stories in their archives.
Women who worked during the war (or their descendants) can call 888-557-6743, email email@example.com or write American Rosie the Riveter, P.O. Box 188, Kimberly, AL 35091, for more information.