Janet Johnston, Riveter at Willow Run B-24 Plant

Janet Johnston AKA "Rosie the Riveter"


 

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Ford's Willow Run B-24 Plant

Janet Johnston is my aunt, wife of my father's brother, 2LT Larry Johnston.  While here husband was away as a bombardier in a B-17, Janet worked at the Ford Motor Company Michigan B-24 plant at Willow Run.  Any soldier who has ever gone to war knows that the women left behind are the ones who have the toughest job.  Deploying is an adventure for the man; staying at home, supporting and worrying over a deployed soldier, raising children alone, and the myriad of other thankless jobs are a grind for the woman.  Janet Johnston chose to funnel her energy and support into a tangible war fighting asset: the Liberator B-24 Bomber.  This "Rosie the Riveter" and thousands just like her are the real reason we won the war; an endless supply of war material with which to conduct modern warfare.    These are her memories:

 

Willow Run
by Janet Johnston

 

It's a museum now; an enormous metal building surrounded by acres of parking lot. When I first saw it in June, 1943, it seemed pretty awesome. I later learned it was the largest building in the world at that time. When I walked in the door, the noise stopped me cold. Riveting stations were everywhere, and the aisles busy with small carts. Tracks overhead added to the noise and commotion as they screamed by with finished sections. This went on around the clock to provide the badly needed B-24 large bombers for the Air Force.

My aim was to be hired as one of the riveters they were hiring. As 19, under a hundred pounds, and with no experience, I was afraid I wouldn't qualify. But, I had underestimated the need. With so many men fighting, they were recruiting from all over the country. When I walked into the employment office, they made sure I had two arms and could see, asked if I had TB, and gave me a form to fill out. They handed me a booklet of company rules and dress code, took me to where I'd work and showed me how to use a rivet gun.

Next morning, dressed in the regulation one piece blue jump suit, hard toed shoes, and with hair tied in a bandanna, I reported for work. After going to the tool room and getting my rivet gun drill and an apron I filled with rivets, I went to my station. This was a metal frame with a curved section of the fuselage laid over it. On either side was a platform to work from. There was a slight problem, when I was told I had to remove my almost new wedding ring, but I was finally given written permission to wear it if I taped it over. Both head coverings and ring removal were good rules. Sometimes a bad rivet had to be drilled out and hair or a finger could be caught.

My partner stood under the curved section, and as I riveted she held a bar on the other side. One tap told me to hit it more, and two told me it was a good seal. Georgia was my age, and one of the workers brought up from the wild Kentucky hills. This influx of people were from isolated hill towns that didn't have electricity, plumbing or much schooling. Many stayed on after the war and changed Detroit forever.

We worked 8 hour shifts in a 6 day week, and changed shifts every month between day and swing shifts. Women weren't allowed the night or graveyard shift. We had 20 minutes for lunch and a 10 minute break twice a shift for a rest stop. The work pace was constantly monitored ,and we were watched and urged every day to work harder. The noise was incredible, and we had to shout to be heard. As far as I could see on both sides, were other sections being assembled and then lifted and carried overhead to the final assembly. I couldn't even see the end of the building where the finished planes got their final inspection.

With summer's arrival, the heat was terrible. On balconies above the floor where small pieces were worked on, there were large fans. but that was impractical on the floor. In those heavy cotton jump suits, we were miserable. We were given salt tablets and a cup of water twice a day, but I was soon unable to eat anything but a popsicle or ice cream bar from the lunch cart. This was probably a good thing, as a lot of those who ate from the cart developed "stomach flu". Life became just the routine of getting to work and then taking the long bus trip home at the end of the shift to do what had to be done, and fall into bed. It was hard, but it was such a good feeling that we were doing what we could to end the war.

It's amazing now to remember how quickly this huge place became so efficient.

It was a proud day when we learned our crew was the fastest. But the company "star" men continued to urge us to go faster. We were able to complete four sections a day, with four women working on it.

We were expected to work even if we were ill. No excuses.

Yes, it was hard work, and for $60.00 a week. Conditions were bad, but I've always been very proud that I could have been a small part of that tremendous effort to win the war.

Janet's daughter , Laurie : "It is the first time I've heard the whole story, too.  She did tell me about an episode there, where one of the "mountain girls" was in the restroom, talking about her guy overseas.  I guess most of the women had someone in the war.  This girl made the mistake of saying that she'd just as soon he didn't come home, as his insurance was worth more to her than he was.  Mom, worried sick about Dad, thought this was terrible, and decked the girl!  (5'2" and 95 pounds!)  Unfortunately, the girl had a wooden handled purse with her, and whacked it across Moms face.  She didn't realize until she woke up a few minutes later that she had lost that round.  We were always SO proud of her for sticking up the the soldiers that way!"

 

Wartime video covering the amazing production capabilities of Ford's Willow Run. 



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