Surprise! Women Do the Heavy Lifting During World War II

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, men went off to fight. Women became essential on the factory floor as industrial production soared to support the war effort.


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After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, men went off to fight. Women became essential on the factory floor as industrial production soared to support the war effort. Read this excerpt, Surprise! Women Do the Heavy Lifting, from the print publication, Pearl Harbor: 75th Anniversary Special.

Originally published on May 30, 1942

Fuming over the sneak bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mrs. Clover Hoffman, diminutive and spirited mother of Cliff and Charlotte, twins aged 3½, reached a decision important in the task of defeating the Japs and the Nazis. Resigning her job as waitress in a San Diego restaurant, and parking the twins with her mother, Mrs. Hoffman presented herself at the employment office of the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation.

Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter, Norman Rockwell, May 29, 1943

“I want to work on a bomber,” she told Mrs. Mamie Kipple, assistant employment director in charge of hiring the women who work in the company’s two sprawling plants.

“Why do you want to work on a bomber?” asked Mrs. Kipple.

“That’s something I can do to help bring Harry back.”

“Who is Harry?”

“My husband. He’s machinist’s mate on a destroyer at Pearl Harbor.”

“Have you ever worked in a factory?”

“No; but I can learn, if you’ll give me a chance.”

Like other aircraft manufacturers of Southern California, where half the country’s bombers and fighters first take wing, the Consolidated management, which began employing women for factory work last September, had a soft spot for Pearl Harbor wives and widows. The following day, Mrs. Hoffman, in trim blue jumperalls, was busily sorting and testing small parts in the blister department. A blister is a transparent plastic turret from which gunners aboard the huge
flying boats and heavy-bombardment bombers fight off enemy attackers.

Within a month, with nimble fingers and a will to learn, Mrs. Hoffman was rated as a veteran factory hand among the thousands of “Keep-’Em-Flying girls” helping to build planes in West Coast aircraft plants, strictly a man’s world until eight months ago. When they first appeared on the assembly benches, the women were “the lipsticks” to the men. Workers and bosses alike said, as did hard-boiled Bert Bowler, plant manager for Consolidated, “The factory’s no place for women.”

Women spraypainting an airplane wing
Airplane Defense Factory, Robert Riggs, June 24, 1944


Now Bowler says, “They’re better than men for jobs calling for finger work. They will stick on a tedious assembly line long after the men quit. Women can do from 22 to 25 percent of the work in this plant as efficiently as men.” At the Inglewood plant of North American Aviation, Inc., with 1,100 women on the payroll, M.E. Beaman, ­industrial-relations director, goes further than that. “Women can do approximately 50 percent of the work required to construct a modern airplane,” he estimated. Douglas Aircraft, which started late in the employing of women in the factory, expects to have 40,000 on the payrolls of its four plants by the end of 1942. After a study of British plants, Douglas engineers think women may have to do 60 percent of the building of planes before the aircraft plants reach all-out production. Lockheed and Vega, with 2,000 women filtered into groups working on everything from radio wiring to tubing-detail assemblies — plumbing, in plain English — are hiring and training housewives and girls fresh out of school at the rate of 200 a week. Vultee, which pioneered the use of women in aircraft building one year ago, rates them as indispensable. At Seattle, the Boeing Aircraft Company launched courses for women factory hands on the first of the year. In Midwestern cities, all the major Pacific Coast plane builders except Lockheed and Vega are rushing supplementary plants in which approximately 50 percent of the work will be handled by women. By the end of the year, it is estimated that 200,000 housewives will have left their homes for the aircraft factories.

Woman painting an U.S. roundel on a fighter wing
Doing her part for victory: Grace Weaver, a school teacher before the war, now paints the American insignia on repaired Navy plan wings at the Naval Air Base in Corpus, Christi, Texas.

“If they’re not wives when they are hired, they soon will be,” laughed Mrs. Kipple. “Around San Diego the saying is, ‘If you want to find a husband, get a job at Consolidated.’ That’s how I found mine.”

“Work on planes is a natural for women,” a Consolidated engineer explained. “There are more than 101,000 separate and distinct parts in one of our bombers, counting rivets, and most of them are so light in weight that women can assemble and test them as easily as men. Better, in some cases.”

“Every woman we train for some simple step in aircraft work releases a man for a job calling for more experience,” pointed out Aileen Carmichael, assistant personnel director, who started as a clerk on the night shift, learned mechanics in a trade school, then took charge of hiring women for the new Vega factory. “You ought to talk with some of the girls on the assembly lines and see why they are here and what they say about the work. It will give you a lift.”

So I did. I talked with dozens of them above the din of the riveting and stamping machines. It was an eye opener, not only in wartime industrial readjustment but in devotion to purpose. In every plant, foremen who once dreaded the influx of “the lipsticks” told with enthusiasm how mixing women workers in the teams had stepped up both morale and the output of planes.

Kitchen Technique

Woman mechanic working on a WW2 airplane
Attention to detail: A female factory worker makes final adjustments in the wheel well before the installation of the landing gear at a plant dedicated to the production of Vultee “Vengeance” dive bombers in Nashville, Tennessee.

“The main problem with women,” one foreman told me, “is to get them to take it easy for a while and not rush and worry about the work. So I tell ’em, ‘Just imagine you’re in a kitchen baking a cake instead of in a factory building a bomber.’

“Women workers handle the repetitive jobs without losing interest or a letdown in efficiency,” he continued. “I guess it’s because this is win-the-war work for them, while men are eager to get ahead personally. We team the women with the men because they learn faster from men than from women.”

In the Vega sheet-metal department, I watched Mrs. Mary Rozar, barely 5 feet tall, dressed in slacks and blouse, protected by a leather apron, absorbed in smoothing the edges of odd-shaped parts for Flying Fortresses. Mrs. Rozar appeared at the employment office when the Vega management announced it would give preference to wives and widows of men in service at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines.

“I’m not a Pearl Harbor widow,” she told Miss Carmichael, apologetically, “but I’m a Pearl Harbor mother. My Johnny boy lost his life on the Arizona. I have another son, Earl, somewhere in Alaska with the United States Army. I want to help build planes.”

Women working in a B-17 fuselage
Putting the pieces together: Women workers install fixtures and assemblies in a tail fuselage section of a B-17 bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Long Beach, California. Better known as the “Flying Fortress,” the B-17F is a later model of the B-17, which distinguished itself in action in the South Pacific, Germany, and elsewhere. It is a long-range, high-altitude, heavy bomber, with a crew of seven to nine men, and with armament sufficient to defend itself on daylight missions.

Upstairs, where hundreds of girls deftly connect and mark wires for the electrical-control assemblies, I noticed an attractive young woman with much poise who came in with the second shift and hit her stride in nothing flat. The foreman introduced her as “Jerry” Patterson.

“You don’t look like a factory worker,” I said.

“Maybe I don’t, and maybe I’m not, but I can put these assemblies together,” she replied. Her husband, Capt. Russell Patterson, was on Bataan Peninsula under General Wainwright, she said. The young Pattersons were living in Chicago, where he was an attorney when called to the service early in 1941.

“I tried working in a dentist’s office first,” she said. “That gave me no satisfaction, so I came out here, took the tests, and they put me to work on these assemblies. I haven’t heard from Russell, and I can’t get word to him, but every night I write half a page of a letter to tell him what I did that day to help finish a plane. I’m saving the letters for the day when General MacArthur goes back to the Philippines.”

At the Lockheed factory, one of the plant’s best woman spot welders is Mrs. Prisalla Maury. Her father is Col. Paul D. Bunker, in command of a coast-artillery unit at Fort Mills, “topside” of Corregidor. Across the narrow strait on the Ba­taan Peninsula, her husband, Major Thompson B. Maury III, was in a field-artillery unit that repeatedly hurled back the Japs. To most women, that might seem enough to do to beat the Japs. Not for Prisalla Maury, who, trained as a chemist, goes to the factory each morning, leaving four red-headed young Maurys, Richard, 6, Ann, 5, William, 2½, and Sarah, 1, at home with her mother.

“They need planes over there,” she declared. “This is the best thing I can do to help get them there.”

“She’s doing her share all right,” added John Ferguson, group leader of the spot-welding unit to which Mrs. Maury belongs. “She likes to stand on her own. If any man tries to help her, she shoos him off in a hurry.”

Two-Way Whistle

Woman working on a ship's propeller
Ship’s Propeller, Fred Ludekens, February 26, 1944

At Douglas, shortly after the first woman appeared on the assemblies, the men began whistling when an attractive young girl in bright-colored slacks and blouse walked down the aisle. The women held an indignation meeting. The following day, as the men spewed out of the plant for lunch, the girls were waiting for them. Every time a handsome young buck came through the door, they whistled and shouted, “Look at Tarzan! Isn’t he wonderful? Oh, Handsome!”

The whistling in the factory ended abruptly.

“Women are in the airplane plants to stay,” predicted Mrs. Kipple at Consolidated. “Our idea at first was they would step into the men’s shoes as the men were called for military service. They would build the planes and they would be the earners, until the men came back. But there will be a lot of jobs in the factory that the men will never get back. The women have demonstrated they can handle them better.”

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