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Riveting experiences remembered

May 15, 2004|By TAMELA BAKER

It was St. Patrick's Day 1942 when two Smithsburg sisters - ages 18 and 19 - made their way to Hagerstown to embark on a new career as riveters for Fairchild Aircraft ... and to make their mark on American history.

"We were paid on Fridays - cash in a brown envelope," said Betty Russell, who now resides in Hagerstown.

Their starting salary was a princely - or princessly - 55 cents an hour.

Six decades later, Russell, her sister, June Martz, and 25 other local women were honored for their roles as "Rosies" - women who ventured into the male world of manufacturing during World War II and came to be personified by "Rosie the Riveter," a Michigan mother named Rose Will Monroe, who became the poster woman for females in the wartime work force.

They gathered Friday at Washington County Free Library for a light lunch and some heavy reminiscing. The event, co-sponsored by the library and the National Park Service, was part of a nationwide initiative to collect the stories of women who went to work as welders, engineers and other traditionally male occupations that were "critical to the Allied victory," said Tina Orcutt, acting assistant superintendent at C&O Canal National Historical Park.

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Some 6 million American women served in such capacities, Orcutt said, and so far, nearly 8,000 women have submitted their stories.

Friday's luncheon was an effort to collect more, which will be submitted for exhibits at the new Rosie the Riveter/WWII Homefront National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif.

There were plenty of stories to go around. Surrounded by a display of vintage photos of Fairchild airplanes, yellowing news clippings and library copies of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" book series, each woman offered her unique perspective on the war effort at home. Most had worked locally at Fairchild; a few others worked elsewhere for companies that still serve as defense contractors.

"You may not have broken the glass ceiling, but you cracked it," said local historian John Frye, who is director of the library's Western Maryland Room. "And you have outlived Fairchild."

The Fairchild plant north of Hagerstown closed in 1984.

Lottie Canfield, 79, of Hagerstown, sported a cobalt blue sweatshirt with a reproduction of an original "Rosie" poster, which declared in no uncertain terms that "We Can Do It!" Originally from Bluefield, W.Va., Canfield said Fairchild had recruited her and her sister because they had been trained as welders at a National Youth Administration center.

Canfield worked at Fairchild from 1942 to 1946 as a riveter in the final assembly of bomber wings.

"I was so small, they put me in a wing to rivet," she said. "You had to lie on a board. I only weighed 89 pounds."

By the end of the war, Western Maryland had a grip on her.

"I stayed because I loved it," Canfield said. "I've been here 62 years."

Annabelle Melott, 81, also of Hagerstown, went to work at Fairchild on May 5, 1942, and has stayed for 51 years.

At 91, Eva Haines was the oldest "Rosie" in attendance. She went to work at Fairchild in July 1942, and worked there "altogether 30 years." She shared a table with her friends, Jennie Nally, Martz and Russell, and laughed about the day they all went to Washington on a sight-seeing excursion.

"June's brother got a new Pontiac and we tried it out," she said.

The Pontiac wasn't entirely new. Martz's brother bought it from Nally's husband.

"We went on our honeymoon in it," Nally said.

The library plans to record the women's stories and send them to the Rosie the Riveter park, according to Public Relations Coordinator Marsha Fuller. Their stories also will be available at the Western Maryland Public Libraries Cultural History Web site at www.whilbr.org.

When Martz and Russell went to work at Fairchild, they not only were helping to shape American history, but were changing their own destinies as well - both met their husbands as a result.

It's Russell's favorite memory of that time.

"I went home with a friend for the weekend and met my husband on a blind date," she said.

For more information on the Rosie the Riveter project, log onto www.rosietheriveter.org.

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