Marjorie Walters – One of the Original “Rosie the Riveters”

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
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Author: Katie Heddle

At 93 years of age Marjorie Walters has little trouble recalling details of her time spent as a riveter at the Willow Run Bomber Plant. She easily recalls coming to Ypsilanti from Superior, Wisconsin as a young lady and living with her brother and sister-in-law in their house on Perrin Street, "…they had seven roomers in that house," remembers Walters. "It was hard to get an apartment around here to yourself back then."

She remembers well the apartment she lived in after that on N. Huron Street and the job she got at the United Stove Company making 40 cents an hour. When she heard they were hiring at the Bomber plant she decided to head over and apply. "Over there they paid a dollar an hour and that was a big raise," she says with a chuckle, "we felt like we were really making something then!"

Marjorie Walters is an original “Rosie the Riveter.” The name having become synonymous with women who worked in factories during World War II. She helped build B-24 liberators in a plant not far from the home she lives in now in Ypsilanti. Though precious little remains of the original Willow Run Bomber Plant, what is left is not only being preserved but converted to the National Museum of Aviation and Technology by the Save The Bomber Plant Campaign. As the need for funding to populate the museum ramps up, the Campaign is gaining more traction and recognition, most recently by organizing a Guinness World Record setting event for the most Rosie's in one place. Marjorie and 43 other original Rosie's attended the event.

These women are becoming increasingly precious with each year as they are approaching centenarian status. Nearly six million women answered the call for help as the nation's men went off to war. Though nearly one million men were still present to work, it was the first time in history that women outnumbered men in the nation's workforce.

Marjorie recalls after she got her job she had to attend rivet school. Each position at the plant had a 'school' which was a period of training for their position, and although the monikor 'riveter' is synonymous with Rosie's, the women who worked in factories during the war performed a variety of jobs. They put together not only planes but tanks, jeeps, guns, shells and canons as well.

"One of the days I was in rivet school President Roosevelt came through. He was in the area dedicating a road." The day she's speaking of was in September of 1941. He was there to see the newly built bomber plant and to dedicate a stretch of what is now I-94. The stretch of road was the first expressway in America and was created for the sole purpose of giving Detroit workers a road into the plant. Marge showed me a picture she has from that day of the President riding in his open top car and I'm reminded how much the world has changed since then. We would never see a President so out in the open today with no security around.

That day President Roosevelt was joined by Henry Ford and Charles Sorenson, Ford's Production Manager. Sorenson is the man responsible for the design of the plant itself. As the war began the B-24 was made one at a time by hand with no two alike. By 1945 the Willow Run Bomber Plant was making one B-24 an hour on a mile long assembly line, the peak expected production when Sorenson conceived it. The year’s production for just that one model of plane exceeded the production of the entire Japanese air fleet for that year.

It seems surreal to many people alive today, especially those of the younger generations who have no concept of war other than what they see on the news happening far away, that America existed in the way that it did back then. Everyone pulled together for the common goal of defeating an enemy and defending our land, not just in spirit but in action. Action included wartime food rationing, paper drives, the sale of war bonds, saving waste fats for explosives, turning in scrap rubber and metal for tanks and planes. These efforts by all Americans gave a sense of community and togetherness rarely seen before or since that time.

Though we do not wish for the experience of war, we do long for the sense of community that this particular crisis provided for Americans. On October 24th, 2015 roughly 2096 women and children came together to experience a bit of that nostalgia and camaraderie in an aircraft hangar adjacent to the remains of the Willow Run Bomber Plant. The gathering was ultimately a successful bid to set the record for the number of women dressed as “Rosie the Riveter.”

Emily Sakcriska, who became involved with the “Tribute Rosies,” a group that dresses up as “Rosie the Riveter” for events, over a year ago was head chair of costumes for the event. "It was a very humbling day as we stood amongst 2,096 women. We counted. We made a difference. We were all singing patriotic songs and for a bigger cause. Savethebomberplant.org. everything we as “Tribute Rosies” do... always is for the greater cause of the beloved bomber plant."

"Having so many women come together to accomplish one goal really did make me feel like we can do anything, it was inspiring," said Liz Fancett, of Ypsilanti, who was in attendance with her two daughters as well as her mother, aunt, two sisters and their four daughters. "I'm happy my girls got to be a part of it and will have this memory." Her mother Susan Regner agreed and added "I became involved because I think these 'Rosies' the original ones, deserve to be celebrated."

These sentiments were echoed by all who attended including Staci Aviles who was there with four generations of women in her family, "My favorite part was the amazing sense of sisterhood you felt. I don't know that I have ever had that feeling within a group of women. The history and pride within those walls was indescribable!" Linda Milliman, also of Ypsilanti, attended with friends and echoed the sentiment, "Proud to meet the original Rosies, they worked so hard."

This is not the first time Marge and other original Rosie's have gathered to break a record. She was also present at the previous record breaking gathering at the Bomber Plant in 2014 which had 776 women and children present. That record didn't last long and was soon after broken by a group in California.

Over the past few years these events have garnered much interest and directed a spotlight on the women who worked so hard during the war. Despite participating in many large gatherings, events, public question and answer sessions, and interviews Marge is still a little baffled at the fame. She commented that "We were just doing our job."

Walters particular job was one that involved working on the 55 foot center wing. She met her husband Alfred under one of those wings. Though he soon went off to fight in the war himself, he happily made it home. "He came home in October ‘45' and we got married February of ‘46,’ she tells me with a smile. It is this part of her story that I find most precious because it is the summation of what the fight was for, to come home and live a peaceful life. Marge Walters and the other Rosie's helped make that a reality.

She began as a song. The 1943 tune "Rosie the Riveter" gave a name to the women working in factories during the war.

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie the Riveter

Then she was the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting created for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. In blue coveralls, a white chalk 'Rosie' scrawled on her lunch pail, riveting gun resting across her lap, blue coveralls, and a polka dot scarf tied around her head, “Rosie the Riveter” came to life.

Over the years many different women have been associated with the image of Rosie the Riveter. The most recent image associated being the 'We Can Do It' poster. I try to think of this as I'm sitting at Marge Walters dining room table going through her scrapbook. All the images she is sharing are of herself as a grown woman more than 70 years removed from the job I'm asking her to recall. I'm amazed because while she easily answers questions about the job that she held for a few years in the 1940's, I can barely recall the job I held 3 years ago. Though she doesn't have any pictures of herself in the iconic 'Rosie' coveralls and head scarf I have no trouble imagining her that way. "I think people think we really wore that every day," she says smiling a small smile and shaking her head. Even though I know she didn't, somehow the image still fits.

I was there myself that day the record was broken, my four-year-old daughter Leia in tow. We attended with friends and ran into so many others. As we dressed in those same coveralls, tied the same polka dot scarves around our heads, pulled up our red socks and laced up black work boots, we felt instantly transported to a different era. We took piles of pictures, checked out the planes, listened to speakers and performances, we had our outfits approved, and then we gathered together for the official photo of the entire group and to officially break the record which required we all stand together for five minutes.

Those few minutes will live easily in my memory. As we all sang America the Beautiful, the Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America and Amazing Grace, I couldn't keep the tears from my eyes. It was a moment filled with the emotion of gratitude for an entire generation who fought so hard in so many ways to keep a peaceful life for us in this country, and sadness for the unimaginable losses experienced here and around the world. Ultimately the biggest emotion I felt was pride, for being a part of such an amazing event, for being a woman, for being an American, and for being from Ypsilanti, home of the great Willow Run Bomber Plant and the place where record breaking history was made.

(Katie Heddle is a native Ypsilantian and a proud graduate of Ypsilanti High School, Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University. She wears many hats including wife, mother of four little ones, archivist, librarian and freelance writer. She volunteers at the Yankee Air Museum Archive and is proud to have been part of the record breaking Rosie day!)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Marge Walters was an original “Rosie the Riveter” during World War II.

Photo 2: A rose was pinned on all of the original “Rosie the Riveters” who attended the record breaking reunion.

Photo 3: Two young ladies from Ypsilanti that participated in breaking the Rosie Record. On the left is Emma Hasey and on the right is Emily Gruenke.

Photo 4: Emily Gruenke from Ypsilanti poses under the wing of one of the airplanes on display at the Yankee Air Museum.

Photo 5: Posing with the “We Can Do It!” position is Arya Hasey.

Photo 6: Ypsilantian Liz Fancett with her daughters Maddie and Nina.

Photo 7: Four generations of Rosie’s starting at the top with Billie Sturgill, her mother Margaret Smith, her granddaughter Charlotte Scharf and her daughter Staci Aviles.

Photo 8: All the Rosie’s are gathered for the official record photo.

Photo 9: Katie Heddle with daughter Leia posing under the wing of the Yankee Lady.

Photo 10: Katie Heddle with daughter Leia after a long record setting day!

Photo 11: Six original “Rosie the Riveters” got a warm welcome at the Bomber Restaurant in Ypsilanti in June of 2015. From left, Marge Walters, Mallie Mellon, Lorraine Osborne, Phyllis Lenhard, Rachel Mae Perry and Mary Jane Childers are all members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association (United Service Organizations photo by Samantha L. Quigley).