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Levittown resident to accept Congressional Medal of Honor on behalf of World War II–era ‘Rosie the Riveters’

The women of World War II who inspired the now-iconic “Rosie the Riveter” movement will be awarded the long-overdue honor Wednesday.

  • By Cherri Gregg/WHYY
Mae Krier at the Boeing plant in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Mae Krier)

Mae Krier at the Boeing plant in Philadelphia. (Courtesy Mae Krier)

The women of World War II who inspired “Rosie the Riveter” will receive a long-overdue honor Wednesday — the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. One of the original “Rosies,” 98-year-old Mae Krier of Bucks County, will stand before Congress to accept the award on their behalf.

The Second World War changed the lives of many “Rosies.”

“We weren’t in the trenches, but we built everything that our fighting men needed. And I thought that they should at least give us credit for what we did,” said Krier.

Krier was just 17 when she left her home in North Dakota to work at Boeing in Seattle. Her job was to drive rivets into the metal sheathing of B-17s and B-29 bomber aircraft.

“We were good,” she said. “Sometimes, we were much better than the men, but we didn’t get the same pay as the men. The men got paid a lot more.”

The war forced Krier and millions of other American women to leave the homefront and enter industrial work. They built planes, boats and other war equipment. They were trained to become mechanics and mail carriers and to take on whatever jobs were needed while men fought overseas. But once the war ended, their services were no longer needed.

“The men came home to parades and flying flags, the women came home to a pink slip,” Krier said. “It just wasn’t fair that they didn’t recognize what the women did in World War II.”


Mae Krier in Washington, D.C. (Michele Hengey)

Mae Krier in Washington, D.C. (Michele Hengey)

Krier, who now lives in Levittown, eventually got married, became a mother and stayed home to raise her children for several years before deciding to go back to work. But she said working during the war changed her forever. Krier believes women learned how capable they were as a collective.

“It was hard to go back to making beds and doing dishes after we’d been out that working world,” she said.

She didn’t know she, too, was a ‘Rosie’

“I never went back to working in someone’s kitchen or cleaning [the] house,” said Ruth Wilson, 102. “Everything worked out for me, it was all in my favor.”

Ruth Wilson, age 102. (Cherri Gregg/WHYY News)

Ruth Wilson, age 102. (Cherri Gregg/WHYY News)

Wilson was in her early 20s, a wife and a mother of two when she quit her job as a domestic to undergo training at Bok Technical High School. She became a “sheet metal specialist” and was dispatched to work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. There, she helped build the aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge.

“We put in the bulkheads, which [are] the walls of a ship,” recalled Wilson. “I worked with a mechanic.”

A picture of the USS Valley Forge gifted to Wilson. (Cherri Gregg/WHYY News)

A picture of the USS Valley Forge gifted to Wilson. (Cherri Gregg/WHYY News)

Wilson said she and her two sisters both went to work during the war. Esther Church, Ruth’s younger sister, was an “information girl.” Their older sister Deborah also worked at the Navy Yard. Wilson said the work changed their lives.

“The money changed my mindset because I was earning almost double,” said Wilson, noting she had low wages as a domestic prior to the war.

During the 1940s, many African American women worked in kitchens or as maids in the homes of wealthier white residents. The need for workers was so great during the war that roughly 600,000 African American women took jobs working for the federal war effort, expanding the Black middle class and elevating many Black women. Wilson was one of those women. After the war, she worked at a coat factory and then in a doctor’s office.

But as far as her work during WWII, she said, she never knew that she, too, was a “Rosie.”

“I had never heard the word ‘Rosie,’” said Wilson.

The work of women during World War II

Gregory Cooke is a historian who produced the documentary “Invisible Warriors: African American Women of World War II.”

“It is my position that all women who were involved in the war effort were ‘Rosies,’ Cook explained. “Whether they were running a USO or driving an ambulance, they all were ‘Rosies.’”

Gregory Cooke, center, and Mae Krier, right. (Courtesy Gregory Cooke)

Gregory Cooke, center, and Mae Krier, right. (Courtesy Gregory Cooke)

Cooke’s mother worked at the Patent and Trademark Office during the war in a job he said would have traditionally been held by a white man.

“The whole attitude of the culture at the time was men are the breadwinners, and white women stayed home,” noted Cooke. “Black women have always worked.”

He said the war changed the nature of work for many women, especially Black women.

“They got out of the fields and kitchens and stopped taking care of people’s kids,” he said. ”They made more money than they had ever before.”

Cooke said the women of World War II, of all races and economic backgrounds, became the forerunners of the women’s liberation movement.

“They opened the door,” he said.

A long overdue honor

Krier and other “Rosies” began the effort to get recognition for “Rosie the Riveters” over 40 years ago. She said it began with a letter-writing campaign. At first, there was little response. But in the 2000s, the media picked up on some of the letters, and the recognition slowly began.

“It went viral,” said Krier. “We [were] happy because we finally started getting some attention for the ‘Rosies.’”

The “Rosie the Riveters” have been honored with Rosie the Riveter Day, which is March 21, Krier’s birthday. Krier has been on the front lines pushing for national recognition of all “Rosie the Riveters.” On Wednesday, April 10, she’ll join 30 other “Rosies” in Washington, D.C., as they accept the Congressional Gold Medal.

Cooke will be there to witness the moment. He has been working to ensure that African American “Rosie the Riveters” are not forgotten. In his documentary, Cooke has documented Wilson’s story, as well as numerous other Black “Rosies.” She’s also the inspiration for an African American remake of the original “Rosie the Riveter” poster. She was 88 years old when the poster was created.

“Victory” poster, inspired by photo of 88-year-old Ruth Wilson. (Cherri Gregg/WHYY News)

“Victory” poster, inspired by photo of 88-year-old Ruth Wilson. (Cherri Gregg/WHYY News)

While Wilson is unable to travel to Washington, she said she’ll be watching and cheering on Krier from home.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” said Wilson.

You can watch the event below on YouTube.

“I’m just so proud to be one of them,” said Krier. “I’m just one of the millions of ‘Rosies’… Thank God I’ve had good health and been able to go out there and fight for our rights.”

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