Cal project documents real life 'Rosie the Riveters'

February 8, 2011 8:58:32 AM PST
World War II ended more than 65 years ago, and the men who fought those battles have been chronicled in books, movies and on TV. But, a project at UC Berkeley is making sure we don't forget about the women at home who kept the fighting men in the battle.

"I graduated from high school and the next year there was the shipyards," said World War II shipyard worker Edythe Esser.

That's how World War II changed Esser's life. She joined the thousands of women in Richmond doing traditionally male jobs - women who proudly called themselves "Rosie the Riveter."

"In 1941, they were hiring in the shipyards and I was married, but I wanted to work," said Esser.

She's putting her memories down on video, for a history project at UC Berkeley.

"The name of the project is the "Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront Experience Project," said Sam Redman of U.C. Berkeley.

That's why Cal academic specialists like Redman are recording and logging these stories -- in the women's own words. So they won't be forgotten.

"Every aspect of our world in the Bay Area seemed to turn upside down during the second World War, and it's extremely important for us historians to understand why that happened and how that happened," said Redman.

"I worked at a prefabrication plant and that was for the water tight doors and the rungs, like the ladders and I would go and get steel," said Esser.

The transformation began with the Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Millions of men left their jobs to join the armed forces and fight. That left defense factories critically short of the manpower needed to make ammunition, tanks and ships. That's where womanpower came in -- from the Bay Area and beyond.

"Places like the Kaiser shipyards would encourage workers to come from as far away as Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri," said Redman.

That influx of different races, cultures and religions, triggered a new social dynamic that continues to this day. Redman and Cal's Regional Oral History Office has recorded more than 130 Rosies so far, and they want to hear from as many as they can. The recent death of Geraldine Hoff Doyle is a reminder that time is short. Doyle's photograph in a factory spawned the iconic "We Can Do It" poster from the war. Many of the ladies are now in their 80s and 90s.

"The fact that this generation is getting older does give us a renewed sense of urgency. We would love to document as many stories as we can, as quickly as we can," said Redman.

The Veterans Administration says World War II veterans are dying at a rate of a thousand a day. That's why UC Berkeley considers it so urgent to get these fascinating stories on tape.


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