Suburban 'Rosie the Riveters' loved the jobs they quietly gave up
They didn't think twice about heeding President Franklin Roosevelt's call to join the war effort to build a "Great Arsenal of Democracy" -- a unified mission to assemble ships and airplanes on the home front.
But as unassumingly as suburban women flooded the workforce during World War II, they exited it just as quietly, leaving their posts to clear space for the returning men.
More than 70 years later, some still hesitate to claim their contributions to munitions and war equipment production as "Rosie the Riveters."
Efforts to find and formally honor these women who were so crucial to the war effort are finally getting underway, with more than two dozen "Rosies" flown to Washington last month as part of Women's History Month.
But time is of the essence to document their stories, with most of the surviving women in their 80s or 90s.
Ruth Reise was 16 when she headed to Douglas Manufacturing, now O'Hare International Airport, to work assembling bomber planes from 4 to 10 p.m. after classes at Waller High School in Chicago.
A wisp of a girl, she had the job of climbing inside a plane's gas tank, working as part of a team to help secure rivets. "I think I was the only one who could fit inside," Reise, now of Wheaton, laughed. "I just loved it," she said of the job that paid "shockingly good" money. "I was so proud of myself. I loved doing my part for the boys who served for us."
When the war ended, Reise said, the female workers of Douglas Aircraft filled the fields before heading home in a bittersweet moment, knowing they were now out of jobs but happy for an Allied victory.
Reise is quick to note her late husband Ben's Bronze Star from his service in the Air Force. But she never sought attention for herself, only sharing her story at the urging of her children after a group of 30 Rosies from the Detroit area were honored for the first time last month in Washington.
Wearing honor flight red cardigans and polka dot bandannas, the women -- now in their 80s and 90s -- posed for group photos with the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, were honored at a Library of Congress luncheon and took tours of the National World War II Memorial before heading home.
According to the American Rosie the Riveter Association, an estimated 6 million women across the country worked as Rosie the Riveters, though no data was ever officially collected. Some of the most well-known efforts took place in the Detroit area, where the Ford Motor Co. shifted gears from automobiles to warplanes and churned out bombers by the thousands.
But the Chicago area was also a hotbed of wartime production, with its central location, connection to rail networks and large labor pools.
Still, finding the Rosies has been more difficult than some might imagine, thanks in no small part to the women's modesty.
Mary Pettinato, co-founder of the Chicago Honor Flight, which has flown thousands of local World War II veterans to Washington to see the World War II memorial, said the organization often invites women but rarely gets them to commit to take part in the flights.
"I think I'm a feminist now, but I wasn't then," 92-year-old Mary Deichstetter of Elgin said. "I have to be honest: I did it for the money, because we were poor."
Deichstetter worked at International Harvester in Chicago, an agricultural and construction machinery company that later became Navistar International. During wartime, the company secured one of the largest war equipment production contracts in the country.
"My girlfriend told me that International Harvester had changed over to (making) war parts. She told me what they paid, and I said, 'I'm going.'"
Deichstetter, who grew up in Chicago as the youngest of seven, recalls leaving high school to take the job, which paid $35 a week -- a big help to her family after her father's death a few years before.
Each morning, she said, she'd rise early to take two different streetcars in order to get to work in time for her 7:30 a.m. shift, changing into dark blue coveralls, steel-toed boots and a protective hat before punching in. Deichstetter said work rules mandated that women tuck their hair inside the cap, but she let some curls peek out, wanting to look cute, until she learned her lesson.
"I was supposed to have it all underneath," she said. "That drill press, it's magnetic, and this one day I leaned over, and I heard this 'whoosh.' It sucked a lock of my hair right out," she said, pointing to a bald spot near her right temple.
Deichstetter finished high school through night classes at Lane Technical High School in Chicago, where she learned typing.
During a rare, free night, she said, she'd often head out dancing at the Aragon Ballroom with her sisters.
"I was 18 and the war was a pain in the neck. It stopped us young girls from being what we wanted to be ... go to school and be a secretary, meet a nice guy and go out on dates. Well, I did that (eventually), but I was older."
Around the same time, Lillian Kjeldsen Kouzmanoff, a recent high school graduate who grew up working at her family's restaurant, Ki's Steak and Seafood in Glendale Heights, took a post at Howard Aircraft on North Avenue near the DuPage Airport to "be a part of the war effort."
Working in quality control for the factory that produced 500 trainers, transports and air ambulances, Kouzmanoff says she was responsible for locating airplane blueprints for mechanics. "Our office was so close to where they were doing the manufacturing, we were always aware of the noise."
She left around the time she got married in 1943, as her husband, Nick, was deferred from service and offered a job working for Honeywell MicroSwitch, which developed aircraft switches during the war.
Joanie Berg of Huntley remembers watching her mother, Louise Janek, getting ready for work as a plane inspector during the war at Douglas Aircraft, tucking her hair into a hairnet and putting on slacks, which Berg said she'd never seen her mother wear before.
"When Mommy would come home from work she would tell us what her day was like," she said. "Sometimes, she would teach my sister Sally and me the latest jitterbug dances. During her lunch breaks the big bands would come and play for the ladies who worked there." With very few men on the assembly line, she said, "the gals danced with each other."
Janek died of cancer shortly after the war at age 33, and her girls were sent to an orphanage in Niles. "We were and are so proud of her service," Berg says.
Deichstetter called efforts to honor women such as herself "deserved," but she's quick to follow that she doesn't think she did anything out of the ordinary. "I just needed a job. A good job. And it only lasted ... not long enough."