For the last week or so I’ve been reading oral history transcripts from Rosie the Riveters, listening to oral histories of Rosie the Riveters, and watching Bomb Girls on Netflix. And I’ve been reading about those women too:
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan (Touchstone, March 2013)
Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. “A phenomenal story,” and Publishers Weekly called it an “intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history.”
Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II by Emily Yellin, Free Press; Reprint edition (March 7, 2005)
Our Mothers’ War is an eye-opening and moving portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society. Never before has the vast range of women’s experiences during this pivotal era been brought together in one book. Now, Our Mothers’ War re-creates what American women from all walks of life were doing and thinking, on the home front and abroad. These heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking accounts of the women we have known as mothers, aunts, and grandmothers reveal facets of their lives that have usually remained unmentioned and unappreciated.
Bottom line is that I can’t stop thinking about those women.
Every Monday I host a drop-in writing group. I pull prompts from a big box of prompts I’ve written, or stolen from fellow writers (Pablo Neruda lines from The Book of Questions make great prompts, for example). I set the timer–seven minutes is usually a good amount of time–and we write. We write without the critic, we write messy sentences, scribble cliches, and sometimes, if we’re luck we get some great story starts. This past Monday every prompt seemed to spark a story about a Rosie as I recalled bits of stories from the many of read. Here’s a couple of examples:
PROMPT: “Something happened there….”
Something happened there at the Shipyards: Eleanor learned how to weld. It wasn’t the two-day course they offered when she “joined the war effort” like the poster advertised down at the post office, it was in the weeks that followed. First they put her in the pre-fab shop tacking—basically readying the workpiece for the more experienced welder to lay a bead. They called it Heliarc welding back then, her torch was called a stinger, its sharp, hot, tungsten electrode jutted out and carried an arc that held enough heat to melt a seam connecting between two pieces of metal. It was amazing.
It didn’t take her too long to get the hang of it, to be good enough to weld on more important parts of a ship, the long beams that made the frame of the bottom of the ship. Cranes would carry the pieces into an open shop and cranes would have to carry them out.
The bay fog lingered for hours, and even when the sun came out, down it seemed it was always cold. Not like summer in Iowa. Despite the heat of her stinger, and the three layers of clothing she wore, Eleanor was always cold.
Work. It was never something she shied away from. In fact, she was so eager to start work at the shipyard, to join her older sister and her mother that she lied about her age to get a work permit. “I was just 15,” she said. “Had to have that statement notarized.”
Rose’s father Henry was the first to head west and when production ramped up and they began hiring women at the shipyards, he sent word back home. Rose, along with her sister and mother travelled to California from Iowa in 1942. The buses were so crowded with enlisted men who were give priority that they almost didn’t get on board. Rose and her sister traded off sitting in the aisle on a suitcase.
They were so desperate for work since The Depression, since losing their farm, that they were willing to take work anywhere.
Rose’s first job was in the office tallying up worksheets but on the third day her boss came in and said “We’ll have find something else for you, I think. You’re just not suited for this, are you?”
“I was never any good at numbers,” she said.
Rose began working the next day as an expeditor. She’d check in with the project manager to see what they needed and her job was go the supply house and get it. As with any new person on the job, and maybe especially because she was a girl, the guys would sometimes send her on fool’s errands, like the time they told her to get a left-handed crescent wrench. “But it was all in good fun,” she said.
* * *
The great thing about these exercises is not that they are the beginnings of this Searching for Rosie book, in fact as I look over the transcripts again I see I assigned details to the wrong Rosie the Riveter or I got the details wrong. However, these exercises offered me a way in… allowed me to tap into my subconscious and discover which stories I found most compelling. And so now I have written the first five pages of my sample chapter.
I’m still overwhelmed and I’m in awe of both Yellin and Kiernan for their ability to immerse themselves so deeply and to create such compelling narratives. But I feel good. I have begun.