War work strengthened the real Rosie the Riveters

November 24, 1994|By Kathleen Donnelly | Kathleen Donnelly,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

In 1941, Dolores Kelsey Sorci was a housewife in Boise, Idaho, with three daughters and no job experience. Then the United States went to war, and within a year Ms. Sorci was a riveter servicing B-24s at Hill Air Base near Ogden, Utah.

2 "No," she answers. "I never thought about it."

Patricia Teeling Lapp was not easily intimidated either. But she did get lonely.

"Three days after I was married, I got my assignment," Ms. Lapp says, remembering her service with the Civil Aeronautics Administration. "I had to go out to Lone Rock, Wis., population 500."

Ms. Lapp's job was working the overnight shift as a weather observer at an emergency air strip. Every hour, she struggled out into the snow and took readings. Then, she'd translate them into code and feed them into a Teletype machine.

With only her landlord's Irish setter for company (and he was usually asleep), the nights could be long and cold.

"We had very sensitive radios, being an emergency air strip," says Ms. Lapp, who lives in San Mateo, Calif. "Sometimes, sitting there at 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning, I'd hear a voice coming in from somewhere far away, saying 'Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.' "

Ms. Lapp kept the job in Lone Rock for about four months. One night, when she arrived to relieve a male co-worker, the station manager was waiting for her. He had been drinking, and began calling her names, she says, accusing her of thinking she was better than everyone else.

Finally, the 23-year-old Ms. Lapp told him he could have his job. She and the Irish setter walked out of the office.

The next day, she was accused of deserting her post in wartime. Luckily, the co-worker who witnessed the midnight scene backed up her version of the story.

Later, Ms. Lapp got a job as a reporter on the employee newspaper at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Chicago -- a job that helped her establish a later career writing for corporate publications.

"That was really fine," she says. "There were people all around me."

*

It is the people Jane Ward Mayta remembers when she thinks about her wartime job at the Consolidated Aircraft Co. in San Diego. A small-town girl whose family has deep roots in Vallejo, she'd never met so many different people in her life.

"That was the farthest I had ever been away from home," says Ms. Mayta, who lives in San Mateo. "Of course, San Diego was like a big city."

Ms. Mayta went to San Diego with her husband, a Marine who was stationed there. She left her 2-month-old daughter with family in Vallejo.

"It was hard to leave her," she says. "But it was hard not to go, because I didn't know where he would go from there."

Hoping to make enough money to bring her daughter to San Diego, Ms. Mayta got a job working on aircraft.

"They handed you an electric drill and you were to put the holding cradles in for the bombs," she remembers.

"So, you drilled. And if you made a mistake and made a hole in the wrong place, you just put in a washer and tried again. Sometimes you felt guilty."

Also, she says, the job gave her confidence she hadn't allowed herself to feel before.

"I found I could stand on my own and take care of a child," says Ms. Mayta, who later worked in her husband's construction

business. "I

could make money stretch if I had to . . . I think what it did for a lot of women in my age group is, it taught us independence."

*

Dolores Kelsey Sorci was well into her 20s when she got her job Hill Air Base. She was never without a job again, spending 28 years as a telephone operator.

Nearly 50 years after her service, she can still launch into a detailed explanation of the differences between a B-24 and a B-25. And she can analyze what the war jobs meant to her, and millions like her.

"I think it opened up the way for a lot of us," she says. "A lot of of us were housewives with children and probably only a high school education and we found out we could do something else."

As for herself, Ms. Sorci says, "I always had a feeling I could do it. At least, I was going to try it.

"I still do."

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