(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.