Heros at Home

The forecast was for fog Saturday but clear skies by the close of the weekend.

With three short weeks until Christmas, the shops along Chester, already decked out for the Yuletide, beckoned shoppers with gifts to trim the tree.

The Fox Theater promoted new feature films: Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in Nothing But the Truth along with Henry Aldrich for President. In the mornings, radios were tuned to Arthur Godfrey or Don McNeil and the Breakfast Club. The most popular song of 1941 was Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo;” the most popular novel The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin.

Women at work on a San Joaquin train engine, 1940s.
Women at work on a San Joaquin train engine, 1940s.

Although many Americans feared the country was almost certain to be forced into the war in Europe, that conflict was still an ocean away. And war was not certain. The Nazi blitzkrieg and unrelenting conquests of Imperial Japan were still, in George M. Cohen’s lyric regarding World War I, “over there,” not over here.

In Kern County, farmers celebrated a record potato crop totalling 5.5 million sacks. Although still sluggish, the local economy benefited from government contracts designed to prepare the nation for the likelihood of war. Seeds of hope burrowed amidst the gloom. In its December 6 edition, The Bakersfield Californian editorialized, “the conclusion that Hitler and his armies are on the decline is…not unfair.” And an “uneasy peace” had settled over the Pacific, according to an Associated Press report in the same edition, as Japan mulled over a U.S. proposal that it seek conciliation and abandon its hunger for conquests in the Far East.

On December 6, the Stockdale Bridge re-opened after several days of repairs. And members of the Bakersfield Optimists Club, “and their ladies,” announced a dinner gathering on the following evening to celebrate “Optimists Week.”

On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese fighter planes and bombers were launched from six aircraft carriers against the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, [United States Territory of ] Hawaii.

The American losses were enormous. Four Navy battleships were sunk, four others badly damaged, and 188 aircraft destroyed. The naval facility infrastructure sustained catastrophic damage and 2,403 Americans were killed, 1,178 were wounded. On the following day, the United States declared war on Japan.

Rosemary & David Lewis
Rosemary & David Lewis

David Lewis, 95, answers the telephone at his northwest Bakersfield home: “Dave’s Kitchen. Dave here.”

We are passed along to his wife, Rosemary, 94 years young. “Don’t mind him,” she cautioned. “It’s not really his kitchen. I don’t let him anywhere near my kitchen. He’s just shucking corn. That’s about all he can handle.”

Rosemary Lewis is one of an army of women who stepped into the gap and kept the American homefront working during World War II. After America declared war on Imperial Japan, able bodied men nationwide were drafted or enlisted for military service. Across the country, a third of a million women enlisted to military service organizations such as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), and the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. But the majority of women remained on the homefront. Many of them, largely forgotten and infrequently celebrated, played critical roles in replacing husbands, fathers, and sons torn from the American work force by the war. They worked in factories, operated heavy equipment, drove trucks and busses, built homes, managed retail operations, and generally held the economy together. They hammered, sawed, cut, tilled, dug, climbed, welded, wound, wired, and some, like Rosemary Lewis, riveted.

They came to be called “Rosies” or “Rosie the Riveters,” after the popular 1942 tune “Rosie the Riveter” by Evans and Loeb. The iconic image of Rosie as a strong, tough, independent woman, a blend of femininity and fortitude, arose from two popular iterations. The 1943 Memorial Day issue of The Saturday Evening Post featured Norman Rockwell’s painting, “Rosie,” depicting a rugged woman (against the backdrop of Old Glory), seated, eating a sandwich, a riveting gun on her lap, feet firmly planted upon a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. That same year, J. Howard Miller’s more glamorous Rosie appeared on posters across the landscape. Donning a red polkadotted bandana, a blue denim work shirt, and flexing her right arm like Charles Atlas, she stared defiantly beneath the words, “We Can Do It!”

Minter Field Mechanics Ethel Decker and Doris Chow, 1943.
Minter Field Mechanics Ethel Decker and Doris Chow, 1943.

In fact, they could and did. Industrial production in the United States, despite the absence of millions of male workers, doubled from 1939 to 1945. Nineteen million women were employed in the labor force, an increase of three million for the wartime years. Many of the female workers had transitioned from more traditional female work to fill jobs left by conscripted men. No studies reveal exact statistics on the Rosie employment participation rate, but the impact upon the war effort seems undeniable: military production geared up in five short years to roll out 12,000 ships, 86,000 tanks, 300,000 aircraft, over 43 billion rounds of ammo, and millions of vehicle, artillery, and weapons parts. Clearly, Rosie had Charlie’s back.

“Virtually no scholarly research at all has been done on this,” said Lori Wear, Curator of Collections at the Kern County Museum. To get a sense of what was going on with the Rosies, Wear and her staff looked at Bakersfield city directories for the war years and searched for career changes from year to year. “Women in Kern County moved into not just manufacturing jobs, but they became service station attendants and photographers,” she said.

Richard “Dick” Taylor is Director at the Kern County Veterans Services Department and a Marine Corps veteran. He became interested in the Rosies phenomenon while working with the Honors Flight Program (which works to transport, at no cost, veterans to Washington, D.C., to view memorials of the wars in which they served). He said he has taken three things away from his studies of the Rosies. First, the government had to press its propaganda machine into service, not just to attract women into male-dominated occupations, but also to overcome cultural taboos regarding women working outside the home. Second, their assignments were far from hazard free. An estimated 20,000 Rosies lost their lives in work-related accidents.

“The third biggest thing I learned,” Taylor said, “was that they, the Rosies and others of their generation, made this huge sacrifice but didn’t think of it as a big deal. They never expected to be recognized for it.”

Rosemary Lewis said she was a sophomore in high school when the war broke out. She and her sister went to work at Braun’s Electric, in Alhambra, and later took a job riveting B-17s.

“I was so slim I could crawl all the way back into the wings,” she said. “Still am that slim.” Her brother, Paul, was in the Navy and, in her words, she had “numerous boyfriends” overseas, including her fiance, a navigator who was killed over in Germany.

She married after the war. Fifty years of marriage brought two children, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and (so far) one great-great-grandchild. At the war’s end, Lewis’ brother Paul befriended a fellow Navy man, David Lewis, who had also served in the South Pacific. Lewis attended Rosemary’s wedding and, several years after her husband’s death, became husband number two.

Betty Hominghouse, Thorvle Pickard, Lonetta & Roy Johnson
Betty Hominghouse, Thorvle Pickard, Lonetta & Roy Johnson

“After fifty years, he comes back into my life,” she said. They have been married for 18 years. Her riveter days are far in the past. “It had to be done. You had to do it,” she said. “We weren’t heroic. We just did our jobs.”

Our interview is cut short by a ritual. Not by the four-mile jog she embarks on daily. That was this morning.

“We have to have our gin and tonics and Judge Judy every weekday at four o’clock. It used to be three ‘til they moved it forward an hour. Pretty soon we’ll be drinking through dinner.”

The three women sit together on a living room sofa just off the Columbus Estates lobby, the senior retirement center in southeast Bakersfield where they reside.

Betty Hominghouse, 90, Thorvle Pickard, 93, and Lonetta Johnson, 91, recall their years as Rosies. Lonetta’s son, Roy Johnson, a Coast Guard veteran of the Vietnam conflict, has arranged the meeting.

“I had three brothers in the service and was still in high school when all this happened,” Johnson said. “I knew right away I had to do something to help and sitting in school wasn’t it.” After a crash training course in Burbank, she signed on with Lockheed, which had a plant north of Bakersfield, to make bomb racks for aircraft on the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift.

Pickard grew up near the Jacksonville, Arkansas, plant where she worked during the war. “I made bombs,” she said curtly. “It was a different world back then. We didn’t have lights or electricity. My husband and brother were both in the Navy. Allsworth Watson—that was my brother—never came back. He was hit by a Japanese suicide bomber.”

“I kissed quite a few people good-bye for the last time,” recalled Hominghouse, who rode the bus every morning to her job at the Naval Ammunition Depot in her hometown, Hastings, Nebraska. “I worked putting cones on top of machine gun turrets. It was a job.

I liked it and the gals I worked with. But we didn’t think we were heroes or anything. The real heroes were fighting the war.”

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun lay dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, in a bunker beneath the German Chancellery. On May 8, the German High Command surrendered unconditionally. In early August, atomic bombs transformed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to horrific, lifeless infernos. Japan surrendered unconditionally on September 2, 1945.

Sixteen-million Americans served in the Second World War. Over 400,000 souls never return.

But Charlie came home to Rosie. And nationwide, by the end of 1945, the Optimists Club had added 3,000 new members.

Photo by Katie Campbell/Earthfix photo (Plane), Art from a Westinghouse electric poster by J. Howard Miller. Photos courtesy of Kern County Museum (minter field, San Joaquin Rosies)

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