Utah’s Rosies in the War

Antonette Chambers Noble
Utah Historical Quarterly 59 Spring 1991

Ellouise Montoya slips a ring on a landing gear at Hill Air Force Base

“When the big planes (B-24s) came in, they were started through the hangers by first being washed down. People wore hats and long rain coats and used long hoses to reach,” recalled Retha Nielson. “I, with other women, went to see them come in. I got a lump in my throat as I read the names of the men who had piloted them. Some of them had given the planes a name. One was called the Kitty Hawk. I would walk up to the big plane and touch it and wonder if all of the men had come out alive, what had happened, and why they had named it what they had. One plane had a pretty girl painted on it. She was dressed in Air Force clothes.” Retha was recalling her employment at the Ogden Air Service Command at Hill Field during World War II. She was one of several thousand women who took employment in a Utah war industry during the war. In addition to earning a good salary, Retha was patriotically serving her country.

When World War II abruptly came to America with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, leaders of economically devastated areas sought war contracts as the country frantically strengthened its military. Unemployment rates had peaked nationally in the 1930s at twenty-five percent, but in Utah thirty-six percent of the labor force was out of work. Utah’s governor, Herbert B. Maw, and its congressional delegation, not surprisingly, were among the state and national politicians who tried to obtain war contracts for their communities. They advertised local advantages to military planners with fruitful results: war contracts were awarded to the state. The federal war work was implemented in Utah at military facilities and in private industries and with increased production of raw materials.

Hill Air Force Base, women workers during WWII

Women were employed at all Utah military facilities, including the Ogden Arsenal, the Utah General Depot, the Ogden Air Materiel Area at Hill Field, the Naval Supply Depot at Clearfield, and the Tooele Ordnance Depot. Women also worked at the Remington Arms Company, the Eitel McCullough Radio Tube Plant, and the Standard Parachute Company – private industries with military contracts. Furthermore, women substantially contributed to agricultural production in the state. Mining was the only area where women failed to make a large contribution. Utah’s prewar laws restricting the employment of women in the mining industry remained unbending despite the wartime crisis.

The call for women to enter the work force escalated as more men marched off to war. For example, spanning the Deseret News want ads in a banner headline during World War II was, “One Solution For Your Personnel Problem—Hire Women.” The Ogden Standard Examiner declared in 1942: “It is in the nature of patriotic duty of the highest order to apply at once at the personnel office of the Arsenal . . . and Ogden women of all ages are urged to lay aside all considerations of need for earning money and come to the Arsenal to make a direct and vital contribution to the United Nations victory in the war.” The calls for women workers were successful. Utah women responded to patriotic appeals and to promises of good salaries, pleasant conditions, and steady work obtainable without experience. Women constituted 17.6 percent of the Utah labor force in 1940 and 36.8 percent by 1944. Government war plants employed a larger percentage of women than any other industrial concern. Still more were needed. On November 1, 1944, the local Minute Women Organizations telephoned house to house in search of women to work outside the home. Both times they were unable to bring more women into the work force, indicating that all the women who could or wanted to had taken jobs.

It was common to encourage women to the workplace and then to keep them there by promoting the idea that war work did not threaten their femininity. War work was sometimes likened to traditional feminine work, as depicted in the Hill Fielder’s article on Mary Owens. In discussing her sign-up, training, family arrangements, and job washing ball bearings, the newspaper quoted Mary as saying that her work, “is a great deal like doing dishes and the technique is much the same.” Women belonging to the Martha Society and “other fancy clubs” and also the wives of “prominent men” who took war jobs were featured in the Ogden Standard Examiner. They were waiting until after the war to be active in their clubs again. In the meantime, after a day of work they were “no more tired than [after] an¬†afternoon of playing bridge.” Furthermore, “The foreman stated that these women, all housewives and with no previous experience, had readily adapted themselves to the work.” Although articles stressing women’s ability to maintain their feminine roles in the work place were most common, a few features about working women praised their professional attributes along with feminine qualities. One featured inspector, a “Blond Bomber,” was listed as a mechanically inclined woman “who intelligently applied her aptitudes, very successfully.” She was also a wife, mother of two, ages seven and eleven, and “a farmerette.” Men initially resented her as the first mechanic trainer but by the end of the war accepted and liked her.

Ervin G. Heslop and Mardell Burnett, supervisors in parachute repair, confer on their assignment of converting condemned parachutes into serviceable cargo parachutes.

The local newspapers frequently reported about the new members of the labor force. Articles were usually favorable to the Utah Rosies, although they carried a tone of surprise when reporting the success of the women. Referring to women as the fair sex was common, as in this frequent headline: “The Fair Sex Invades Another Domain Once Only for Males”—Another article about women drivers, this feature concerning a training class, noted that women showed a “degree of skill far beyond expectations, and even the men with whom they work are forced to admit that the girls do all right.” From Hill Field it was announced, “women always have been accused of ruling the highways, but now they are really going to have opportunity to do so—so hail to women drivers.” Furthermore, women drivers were praised as “oblivious to the—women’s place is in the home adage’ by driving taxis, jeeps, five ton trucks and buses. Their service and load average are almost parallel to that of men drivers.” Women guards were especially intriguing to newspapermen. “Pistol Packin’ Mammas in the Flesh,” one wrote of the Hill Field auxiliary military police and was so amazed that women had guns “and could shoot!” When the women were first hired as civilian guards at Tooele and the Ogden Arsenal they were not issued guns or even uniforms because officials could not decide whether to give the women uniform skirts or pants; they gave them a hat and a badge to wear on their civilian dresses. One feature about a woman guard with dogs bragged of her sending a challenging man to a car top. An excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune in 1944 exemplifies the newspapers’ presentation of the women, “These women, driven by the truly feminine urge to stand by their men, are doing practically every job a man can do with the exception of heavy¬†lifting, and as more men are called to the battle fronts we are confident that their places will be taken by courageous, capable, and patriotic women.”

Perhaps the most interesting public comment on women is the following excerpt, “Because Ogden Arsenal employs a large number of women a realistic survey of female employment has been made available to Colonel Nickerson by Army ordnance personnel. Here is what battle-tough experts discovered. Women have greater finger dexterity than men; greater patience; greater enthusiasm. Women will accept ninety-nine percent responsibility, but they always like to receive a final O.K. on their work from a man. Women want their job glamorized for them. Women do not mind getting their hands and faces dirty, but the lack of beauty shops in the community will cause a serious personnel problem. Women take instruction and direction in a far more personal manner than men. Women are patriotic without cynicism.”

The Hill Fielder noted that women did monotonous work better than men. Taken together these comments on women imply that they were willing to work, even in difficult, boring, tedious jobs that men were not always willing to take. Also suggested is women’s desire to maintain their feminine identity, including their consistent submission to men, despite their job position. Ironically, while women were hailed for competently handling vital war jobs, they were still viewed as concerned most with their femininity and always submissive to men.

A job in a war industry did not replace a woman’s full-time work at home. National and local propaganda throughout the war, even when luring women into the work place, reminded women that their household and family responsibilities could not be neglected. For example, the Davis County Clipper printed, “America’s Housewife’s Part in the War Is an Important One,” and “Keeping Her Family Well in Wartime Is Her Special Task.” The Women’s Bureau 1941 bulletin Women Workers in Their Family Environment analyzed women in two cities, Cleveland and Salt Lake City. Of the 337 Utah families studied, the report concluded that women, regardless of whether they were in households headed by men or not, were principally responsible for housework. Furthermore, two-fifths of the women in these families had no outside help and more than half did all the housework. Working mothers with young children were also primarily responsible for their care. “When all the facts are weighed regarding women workers’ contributions in time, effort, and money, there is no doubt about the indispensable role they play in their families.”

The adequate care of children in Utah, as nationwide, was a perpetual concern for parents, educators, and religious and community leaders. The labor-starved war industries desperately needed all workers, including young women with children. Yet there was a strong sentiment throughout the community that mothers should be the only caretakers of their children and therefore should not work regardless of the wartime emergency. Throughout the war the debate raged, unresolved, on the creation, funding, and use of public childcare.

With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, World War II was brought to a sudden halt. America returned to a peacetime economy as quickly as she had converted her industries to the production of war materials. Utah, however, did not experience a radical industrial change at war’s end, as did other areas of the country. Some adjustments had already been made when the federal government had cancelled three Utah contracts because of overproduction prior to 1945. Other Utah military work was crucially needed at war’s end. In addition, the ceasing of hostilities meant the beginning of work for the Utah installations responsible for reclamation and storage of Army and Navy materials. Some Utah war industries, such as Geneva Steel and the Utah Oil Refinery, successfully continued in operation throughout the postwar years. Federal spending would in fact continue to have a significant impact on the Utah economy for decades to come.

Change, nonetheless, did occur in 1945. Significantly fewer employees were needed for postwar military work. Some employees voluntarily left their war jobs. Others quit in hope of obtaining work before the feared postwar depression struck. Many were simply laid off, most of these workers were either women or minorities. Employee reductions came as no surprise. Inherent in war jobs is the fact that they terminate with peace. Similarly, most people expected that minorities and women would be the first and largest groups released from the labor force. Women had received many signals that their work force participation was only temporary. A predicted postwar depression, as had occurred after the First World War, was expected to limit significantly the jobs available. Furthermore, available jobs, it was widely believed, should be given to the returning veterans.