Monday, July 28, 2014

Local ‘Rosie’ recounts riveting wartime work

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 12/10/2012

It has been 70 years since Marjorie Kitts held an air-pressured rivet gun to the hollow fuselage of a B-25 Mitchell bomber.

But give the near-90-year-old an opportunity, and she’d be back on the factory line, driving rivets to supply her country with the best equipment for victory.

It has been 70 years since Marjorie Kitts held an air-pressured rivet gun to the hollow fuselage of a B-25 Mitchell bomber.

But give the near-90-year-old an opportunity, and she’d be back on the factory line, driving rivets to supply her country with the best equipment for victory.

“I can feel the rhythm and pressure of that rivet gun right now,” Kitts said, recalling her time at the North American Bomber factory in Kansas City, Kan. “I could do it right now — I could.”

From a quiet, unassuming farm life in Pomona during the early 1940s, Kitts eventually found herself in the heart of the U.S. war effort. In 1941, Kitts, then a recent Pomona High School graduate, briefly had a job at Ottawa’s Dutch Maid, a local ice cream parlor, before learning of her next great adventure. Kitts eventually attended a war bonds sale at Ottawa University, where she learned women were being recruited to work in factories as part of the “national effort” for World War II, she said.

Kitts and a friend eventually applied to work on behalf the war effort and were accepted to a bombing plant in Kansas City. After a few months waiting, Kitts then underwent a thorough, 8-week training course where she was briefed on the machinery, tools and details of her new job.

“We couldn’t wear any loose clothing and our hair couldn’t show,” Kitts said, noting that her work clothing was akin to that portrayed in J. Howard Miller’s famous “We Can Do It” poster, which features a woman, known as “Rosie the Riveter,” with her sleeves rolled up and wearing a bandana. “The funny part was that we thought we were going to make big money. Well, we didn’t.”

Work in the factory was arduous, Kitts recalled, and it wasn’t uncommon for managers to force 10- and 12-hour shifts with two 10-minute breaks. Overtime shifts, Kitts said, were the norm as women routinely reported 60-hour work weeks. And after the women were finished with work, most faced a trek back to their apartments, Kitts said. In addition, because of material rationing, the women were forced to wear government-issued footwear, which were corked-soled shoes with wooden heels, Kitts said. If she wanted to visit home, Kitts would need to walk to Kansas City’s Union Station for a ride to Ottawa, she said.

“We were proud of what we were doing, but at the same time we felt very much overworked,” Kitts said, noting that entry-level mechanics earned about $1.25 per hour. “They really poured it on us.”

In 1942, after only a few months of working on the factory floor, Kitts said 13 of the plant’s bombers were called up for duty. The baker’s dozen of B-25 Mitchells, she said, were later used in the April 18, 1942, Doolittle raid on Japan.

Eventually, Kitts began to work her way up in the factory and earned the title of “class A” mechanic, which came with a 70-cent raise.

“That was a goal of mine, and I really worked for it,” Kitts said. “I made top dollar.”

During her 27 months at the factory, which also housed an on-site hospital, Kitts said, the plant produced about 1,000 bombers that were used during the second great war.

During the summer of 1945, Kitts was released from her job, and she eventually made her way back to Ottawa. She soon met her husband, Forrest Kitts, had a son and then bought a home. Though no longer working on the factory line, Kitts didn’t allow her manual labor experience to atrophy, and she soon found work at Ottawa’s Hubbard Lumber, she said.

A few weeks ago, Kitts discovered a news brief in The Herald announcing a search for women who worked on the home front during World War II. The news prompted Kitts to call the American Rosie the Riveter Association, which recently awarded her a plaque commemorating her service to the nation.

“When I look back on it, I’m just so proud of the fact that we snot-nosed girls had sense enough to do something constructive for the country,” Kitts said. “It made me more aware of what it’s all about; what the country is all about. It’s awfully easy to get wrapped up in your own little world and not think about other things. It really broadened my perspective. Having being raised on a farm in the country, going to a one-room school house and then to little old Pomona High School, I needed some broadening, and I really got it through that experience.”

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