West Seattle, Washington
(Chris Holm, Gwen Schwenzer, Georgie Kunkel, Elaine Russell and Anita Lusk)
By Christopher Boffoli
West Seattle Blog contributing journalist
There was a completely different version of West Seattle on display this afternoon: one in which people were happy to work for 59 cents an hour and bought their houses for $3,500 cash. A group of local “Rosie the Riveters” hosted a presentation, to a large group of residents of Providence Mount St. Vincent and their guests, based on their experiences as aircraft workers in Seattle during World War II.
Georgie Kunkel, Chris Holm, Anita Lusk and Gwen Schwenzer all worked in aircraft production in some capacity during the war years. Elaine Russell, and many other women like her, worked in a supporting role that freed up men to go off to the War to fight. They were trailblazers at a time when it was uncommon for women to even be employed outside of the home, let alone be dressed in coveralls and drilling holes through airplane wings.
“I was always adventurous, “ said Anita Lusk, a native of Wisconsin. “I’ve had a lifetime of mountaineering and sky diving and had that sense of adventure from early on. So the idea of moving to Seattle to take a job with Boeing was exciting to me.” Ms. Lusk and a friend, barely in their 20‘s, had been hired on the spot at a hotel in Milwaukee by a Boeing recruiter and took a train west for the first time in their lives. It apparently didn’t matter that they were young, single woman moving to a strange city on their own. “It was a different time. We were young, adventurous girls and Boeing seemed desperate to find employees. My friend and I lived in a boarding house and I worked at Boeing Plant 2 installing radio components in B-17’s.” She added, “Seattle was smaller then. Mercer Island was a forest of trees. If I knew what I know now I would have bought land out there.”
Chris Holm also answered the call for workers and moved to Seattle from St. Paul, Minnesota where she had previously worked in a factory processing meat. Her older sister had come to Seattle before her so she knew what to expect. “It wasn’t hard to get a job in the mid 1940’s. All of the young men were away fighting in the War so there was plenty of work. I worked for Puget Sound Sheet Metal works, adjacent to Boeing Plant 2, riveting bulkhead assemblies on B-29’s. It was important for the steel rivets to be very hard so they were kept on dry ice. We worked a lot. Usually 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. I was delighted to be paid 59 cents an hour and I was able to save a lot of money.”
The War punctuated the end of the Great Depression, offering well-paid employment to people who had struggled with poverty for many years. Though they quickly became experts in airplane construction, few had ever flown in one and wouldn’t have an opportunity to travel by plane until decades after the War. Gwen Schwenzer explained, “A lot of people had been poor before that. I was very happy to be paid 69 cents an hour to work at a facility connected to Boeing at Lake Union.” Ms. Schwenzer worked on both B-29 and B-19 aircraft, riveting from the inside as a “bucker” would stand outside of the fuselage with a hardened piece of steel that would receive the end of the rivet and form it smoothly against the skin of the aircraft. “It was very important to rivet straight.” she said, “The worst part of it was getting used to eating our dinner with dirty hands as you get awfully dirty when you’re riveting. But I enjoyed the work and appreciated having money to put towards our house.”
“When we were working the money just piled up,” said Ms. Holm. “We were able to buy our house at 14th and SW Holden for $3,500 cash. It was small but we were able to add onto it as our family grew and we never went into debt. I still live there now.” Despite the long hours and seven day work schedule, there was still time for fun. “There were so many activities and events,” added Ms. Holm. “I loved going to the Trianon Ballroom, which on those days was at 3rd Avenue and Wall Street downtown. Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and lots of big bands came to town. Sometimes they would do radio broadcasts from there. And there were always lots of servicemen around to dance with.”
Georgie Kunkel played songs on the piano today before the start of the Rosie the Riveter program. And in between the stories, she led the audience in sing-a-longs of music that was popular in the 1940’s. “There was so much romance then,” said Ms. Kunkel. “All of the songs were about women who were waiting for their men to come home. We just don’t have that kind of romance now. In those days the women waited. I’m not so sure they’d wait now.” Ms. Kunkel met her husband only a month before he went overseas with the American Field Services. Shortly after he left he proposed to her by letter saying simply “consider yourself engaged.” When she and her husband were selected to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1989 for a show about letters from the War, Ms. Kunkel confessed that she had forgotten how exactly she had answered her husband’s surprising proposal. “Fortunately, he kept all of my letters in a coffee can during the two years that he drove an ambulance during the War. When I went back through and found my response to him I had written: “I haven’t known you long enough but I will wait.”
Ms. Kunkel worked at a Boeing factory in Chehalis, in Lewis County, drilling holes in wing panels on B-17’s. Like the others, she enjoyed her work immensely. Despite common stories of women being teased and mistreated by men at the factories who didn’t approve of having women on the line, all of the “Rosies” who worked at Boeing said that their work experiences were trouble-free with small exceptions. “I do recall that whenever something would go wrong, like if a rivet hole was not drilled squarely, the leadman would always come to me first and try to lay the blame on me. It was hard to drill straight holes. You had to eyeball it. But I knew my holes were straight.” The woman often faced greater gender challenges outside of their wartime work experiences. One of the women on the panel told a story of being asked to vacate an apartment as soon as the building manager learned she was pregnant as “they didn’t want any babies there.” And Ms. Kunkel related her experiences years later working as a teacher when she was repeatedly fired and re-hired after becoming pregnant and having her children. She would have to subsequently re-enter the school system at the lowest pay grade and work her way back up each time.
As essential as their work had been during the war effort, their departure from the factories was swift at the War’s conclusion. “We were all really surprised when the War ended,” said Ms. Kunkel. “They came over the loudspeaker and announced that the War was over. We were marched out of the factory that day and most of us never went back.” Ms. Holm returned to work for Boeing after the War as a file clerk, but at a fraction of her pay on the line. “I was happy to leave when the men came back,” said Ms. Schwenzer. “The men needed their jobs back.”
As the women transitioned to the roles of being wives and mothers, some of their paths wandered from Seattle. Ms. Lusk had been married in California during the War while her husband was on leave. “He was a wonderful artist. While he was overseas he would draw elaborate sketches on the correspondence he would send home.” Ms. Lusk had many of his impressively illustrated letters on display during the presentation. “After the War we moved to Colorado where my husband taught art. But he was eventually recruited by Boeing. We first went to live in Wichita, Kansas which wasn’t my favorite place. But I was delighted when they moved us back to Seattle because I loved it so much here.”
Most of the women would all ultimately return to Boeing in style when years later they were honored at a luncheon and when a permanent plaque was placed in their honor at the Boeing plant. Each was proud of the small but important part they played in the hugely successful effort of the “Greatest Generation” to save the world from Fascism. With their presentation today, illustrated with love letters from people separated by war, and photographs of working women that would become iconic images for the Feminist movement, the women are perhaps among the most humble heroes of West Seattle.
That’s how WSB’er “Westseattledood” headlined her e-mail, which included the following amazing tale, and the photo shown above:
My dog and I came back into West Seattle this afternoon after enjoying a hike through Seward Park. We stopped at the 35th & Avalon 7-11 for a can of pop just as rush hour traffic was beginning at this infamously busy intersection. The entire parking lot was completely full, except for one slot on the east side of the parking lot. I pulled in and decided after a brief cost/benefit analysis, to the leave the back window down so the Big Dog, the dood, could continue to hang his head out the window and watch all the comings and goings while I dashed in. I was quite mindful of the sketchy characters congregating around the car, but decided to take the chance and pop in and out.
I was in the store for about one minute, as there were no other customers. As I walked past all the cars to the end of the building, I cleared the last big truck adjacent to mine, I saw my car was not where I left it. My stomach dropped out of me. And, I was worried that someone would steal the dog! Someone had stolen the car! I did not leave the keys in! My god, they were unbelievably quick! I looked around the parking lot and just as quickly, I heard a woman directly across Avalon to the south (where the new building is going in), screaming and waving her arms. She was standing by my car, which was now angled parked into the cyclone fence of the construction site.
I flew across the parking lot, waited for traffic on Avalon to slow and crossed to my car. Somehow the truck rolled all the way from the top of the lot down through the narrow driveway of the parking lot, across four lanes of rush hour traffic to roll to a gentle stop across the street. The dog, oblivious to any harm, remained stationed at the rear window, as can be seen in the photograph attached.
My dog and I are clearly surrounded by angels. The angels, of course, are assigned to my good dog. I am merely the beneficiary by association.
PS. And, of course, I’ll be getting a new parking brake immediately.
In his State of the City address today (full text here), Mayor Nickels put out the call for 10,000 more people to volunteer. We know you’re probably volunteering already. But in case you’re not – the city’s partnering with United Way of King County to round up that help, and here’s the start link on the United Way site. (Side note: WSB often reports on ways you can help, and all those stories can be found, newest to oldest, in our “How to Help” archive; we’re always ready to get the word out about more volunteer opportunities, so contact us anytime!)
As reported here over the weekend, a woman was found dead Friday night in her apartment building at Fauntleroy and Dawson (map); police classified her death as a homicide Saturday afternoon, and the next day, confirmed a 21-year-old relative had been arrested in connection with the killing. Police have not said much more about the circumstances of the case, but documents we just obtained from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reveal much more information. The suspect, identified as Deon Fillmore, is a grandson of the victim, Lavon Barrette (the documents say she is 70, not 71 as previously reported). He had been staying in the apartment along with two of Ms. Barrette’s sons – his father, and his uncle (who found her body Friday night), and the documents say she had been trying to get him to move out. Police found Fillmore in the Central District on Saturday; he is reported to have denied involvement, but the documents say his alibi hasn’t checked out and the evidence against him so far includes a match between a bruise on his grandmother’s face and the “sole tread pattern on (his) shoes.” The documents say her other injuries included strangulation. Fillmore remains in the King County Jail, with bail set at $1 million.
As the Alki Point sidewalk-completion/traffic-calming project gets closer to the start of construction, we toured the project zone last Friday with SDOT managers and neighborhood reps (WSB report here). Today, the final plans that we saw on paper that day have just been posted on the project website – be forewarned, these are very detailed blueprint-style plans, but if you live in the area or have a close interest in the project, you might want to see them. (Here’s the link, 2 MB PDF.)
An update from Tim McMonigle at the West Seattle Soccer Club, who told us earlier this month about WSSC teams that made it to the quarterfinals of the state-level Commissioners’ Cup tournament:
Three of the teams have been eliminated in very close matches, with two of them (BU11 WS Jets and BU14 WS Deportivo Moctezuma) being narrowly beaten by the eventual state champion.
Our one remaining team (GU18 WS Ladyhawks, picture above) will be playing for the state championship this Sunday, Feb 22 at 1:45 pm at Starfire Sports Complex. Come on out and root these girls on, as this team will be done playing after this year. Several of them will be continuing on to play college soccer.
Here’s a map to Starfire, which is in Tukwila. By the way, the WSSC is still taking registration for spring soccer, through March 2; more info here.
Latest apartment building on the market in West Seattle: 4840 California SW (map), a half-century-old 3-story, 28-unit building, listed for $4 million. (See the listing, with photo, here.)
Highlights from the WSB West Seattle Events calendar:
911: When to call it, and when not to? Not as easy an answer as you might think. The West Seattle Crime Prevention Council has been pursuing concerns about citizen confusion and dispatcher response, and has the Seattle Police 911 boss as a special guest at tonight’s meeting. 7 pm, Southwest Precinct meeting room (map), and as always, you’ll also get the chance to learn about the latest West Seattle crime concerns and trends, as well as asking police any questions you have about what’s going on where you live.
WWII: The Rosie the Riveters of West Seattle are presenting a program about their lives during World War II at 2 pm today, cafe dining room at Providence Mount St. Vincent.
ANTIQUE SHOPPING: The folks at the Discovery Shop in The Junction (4535 California SW), which raises money for the American Cancer Society, are having their “yearly antique event,” open 10 am-4:30 pm daily except Sundays.
TAX HELP: Trained volunteers will be at the High Point Library branch, 5-7 pm tonight, to help you prepare a personal tax return. More info here.
The city has set a “tentative” date for the Conner Homes Junction project’s next Southwest Design Review Board meeting – potentially the last one, if the board approves of the proposal: March 12, 6:30 pm, location TBA (added later: the site is now set – High Point Library). This is the two-building project, California/Alaska/42nd with an alley between the two; the image above is one of several we published from the most recent city Design Commission meeting related to the “alley vacation” proposal (because of the underground parking garage) that’s part of the plan. That commission has seen that street-level portion of the project twice since the last Design Review meeting on the entire project (WSB coverage here, from last May; official city report from the same meeting is here), and still has to review it again before SDOT can consider signing off on that component.
Earlier Monday, we mentioned the deadline to sign up for West Seattle Girls Softball; we’ve since heard from West Seattle Pee Wee Baseball president Eric Olson, saying their deadline’s fast approaching too:
Wednesday is the last chance to save money on registration with West Seattle Pee Wee Baseball. After Wednesday, registration for the Pinto and Mustang divisions closes when all the teams are full. We accept t-ball registrations for a few more weeks. West Seattle Pee Wee has been offering fun and competitive baseball for West Seattlites ages 5-10 years old for more than 50 years. We offer scholarships for those in need. All of our games are played at our own baseball complex located at the Lower Riverview
fields. You can register at www.westseattlepeewee.com.
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