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!"