Riveting lesson on World War II

Women: A program at BWI recalls the contributions of the country's female work force during the war.

Anne Arundel

March 31, 2004|By Sarah Lesher | Sarah Lesher,SUN STAFF

They overcame cultural stereotypes about what women could do. But as soon as World War II ended, they relinquished their jobs in the aircraft and defense factories and went back to being teachers and secretaries, students and homemakers.

Yesterday, four local women who were proud to have contributed to the war effort as aviation pioneers shared their stories at a Women's History Month event at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The program, "Aprons to Airplanes: Rosie the Riveter Does Double Duty During World War II," featured women who worked at defense plants such as Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. in Middle River and the General Motors aircraft factory in Baltimore.

Julie Yoder, who came from a small town in rural Pennsylvania, followed her boyfriend - whom she later married - to become an assembly-line worker in the Martin aircraft factory, where her first week's paycheck was $36.

"I can't tell you how hot it was in summer," she said of the working conditions. "There was camouflage over the roof, over the windows. It was just rough. You couldn't open the windows to get fresh air."

Yoder said Martin first hired women in October 1941, two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II. Those women were so successful that by the end of 1941 - just three weeks after the attack - the company had hired 2,000 more.

"By the end of 1942 there were 13,000 of us," Yoder said.

Mary Nichols of Baltimore was a 14-year-old sophomore at Glen Burnie High School at the time of Pearl Harbor.

"I didn't really understand what was going on," she said, though she saw boys who were juniors and seniors enlisting as soon as they could.

The Martin aircraft plant was recruiting young women who took science and math in high school to become engineering draftspersons, after five months of training at the Johns Hopkins University, she said.

"I know that I'm a people person - being stuck all day at a drafting desk was not for me," Nichols said. "But I was glad to have the job."

At times, there was tension between the women, who were filling nontraditional roles, and their male co-workers.

Jean R. Meyers Levitas of Baltimore worked as a riveter assembler at General Motors aircraft factory on Broening Highway. She recalled an instance when a male co-worker seemed to feel he was competing with her.

"He would call over the inspector and ask, `Is she doing that right?' Finally the inspector said to him: `Look, Vince. You take care of yours. I'll take care of Jean.'"

Other men on the job were supportive. Every Thursday, when the workers got their paychecks, Levitas said she would go with her male colleagues to a bar, but stay in the car drinking soda.

"One day the men said, `Come on in and join us at the bar,'" she recalled. "They gave me a bottle of beer [her first] and a glass. I poured it from high up, like water. It foamed up and went all over the place. But I learned how to drink beer."

The featured speaker at yesterday's event was Mary Feik of Annapolis, who is credited with becoming the first female engineer in the Air Technical Service Command's Engineering Division at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

Feik overhauled her first automobile engine when she was 13, under her father's tutelage. She worked later on aircraft engines during the war. She told of a sergeant who once expressed doubts that she could deal with an engine block.

"How many engines have you overhauled?" she asked him.

"Ah, none," he answered, said Feik.

"Well, I've done more than 30," she said.

Feik went on to fly planes.

"The B-29 was a red hoot and holler to fly, more like a fighter than a bomber," said Feik, who at age 80 still flies her airplanes.

After the war, men coming out of the military returned to the factory jobs. Women were no longer welcome.

Nichols left the Martin plant the day after victory over Japan was declared, and entered the University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied early-childhood education.

"I really was interested in science, but I needed a job to support myself," said Nichols, who went on to work as an elementary school teacher.

But the women war workers were thinking about something besides careers.

"Our goal was to defeat the Axis. If we didn't win the war, nothing else mattered," Nichols said.

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