For Women’s History Month, here are some excerpts from my book Soaring Skyward, about women and their important roles in World War II.
Inspired and angered over the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Long Beach women rallied to do anything they could to help in the war effort. Many women volunteered to fight for their country, and early in the war a bill was presented in Congress to draft women for military service. It was defeated, but on May 14, 1942, President Roosevelt signed a bill creating the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) and on July 30th the Women’s Naval Reserve (WAVES).
Barbara Erickson receiving medal – 1944. Source: Wikipedia
Numerous women who had trained to fly under the Civil Aeronautic Authority’s University Program tried valiantly to convince the government to recruit experienced female pilots to ferry planes for the military. As the supply of experienced male pilots began to dwindle the military started to listen. On August 5, 1943, the Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASP was created. Soon twenty WASPS joined the men of the Sixth Ferrying Division at Long Beach Municipal Airport under squadron head Barbara Erickson*, delivering 980 military aircraft in the first 11 months of 1944.
Many women helped the war effort in ways they already knew, such as knitting and sewing, but as more and more men were inducted into the military it became obvious that the only way to keep industry going was to employ women.
By 1942 women, both young and old, could be seen in shirts and slacks, wearing the identification tag of plane plants or shipyards where they worked. In Los Angeles, the Army Air Forces’ air raid warning system was staffed almost entirely of women, most of them volunteers. This was quite impressive when you considered it took about 2000 women to keep the center going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of all, however, women were employed in aircraft plants where they were doing quite complex tasks. At first they were given only light, delicate jobs, assembling small parts and doing intricate wiring. Within a year after the United States entered the war women could be found welding, operating huge hydraulic presses and other “manly” jobs.
In the various vocational training schools during the war years, 75-85% of the students were women; and they were doing quite well. By November 1942, 6101 Long Beach women had received training in war production classes of the Long Beach public schools and were working with men in the aircraft factories in Southern California.
Mrs. Blanche Patton, an aluminum welder, learned her profession during the First World War. She quickly picked up her skills again and became the first woman welder to be employed by a U.S. aircraft company. Rated as an A-1 journeyman welder, no man at Vultee Aircraft Company ever topped her average at putting together the aluminum oil tanks that went into the basic air trainers used by the military to train flyers.
Rosalind Nelson came all the way from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to work at the Douglas plant in Long Beach because she wanted to be a “Rosie the Riveter,” a name given by the press to the women who worked in building aircraft. Even though she had never seen a rivet, the former high school gym teacher told the Press Telegram in August 1943 that she learned more about coordination at Douglas than while at school. Rosalind was becoming an expert at riveting Flying Fortress bomb-bay bulkheads at the Douglas plant and felt useful because of her contribution in helping America win the war.
Following the war, women were expected to go back to their traditional roles since men had returned from combat and needed jobs to support families. Many women did so willingly, others were not so content, leading to the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s.
*Barbara Erickson became Barbara London upon her marriage to Long Beach native Jack London Jr., whom she met while both were ferrying P38’s to the East Coast. To this day Barbara Erickson London is revered as one of Long Beach’s most beloved aviators. On March 24, 2005, Barbara Erickson London Drive was christened at Long Beach Municipal Airport