Letters Home: Grandma was a Rosie

The month of June marks the full return to post-COVID normal in my world, as is evidenced by my lack of blog posts. And it will not get better for the rest of 2021 for me. In our haste to return to normal, my client/employer has opted to cram as much travel as possible into the rest of the year to try to “catch up.”

But none of that is genealogical. It’s just my vent.

Here goes

In the course of my own private and childish lament, I have been thinking about my grandmother and her life leading up to VJ-Day, that is Victory of Japan Day at the end of World War II.

While Grandpa Kenny was assigned to the U.S.S. Colorado I had begun hinting at his connection to the Martin Bomber Plant just outside Omaha, Nebraska. On February 11, 1941, Kenny specifically asked his father about the new bomber plant and if it was going to benefit his father professionally (Ken Sr was a real estate broker). By June 1941 the newspapers were reporting heavily on the construction of the new Martin bomber plant and its economic impact on the community’s job market. The plant was still under construction and was progressing nicely in August 1941. While Kenney was dealing with his fender bender outside of Puget Sound in October 1941, the Martin bomber plant was projecting to hire an initial 800 employees (they said “men”, haha) and ramping up to 8,000 over the next 12 months.

What the articles that I have been peppering into Kenny’s letter posts imply is, that the United States was watching Japan and was anticipating being further drawn into active conflict. The patrols Kenny participated in on the U.S.S. Colorado was part of the U.S. Navy’s beefing up of its Pacific fleet. Even in faraway Nebraska, the government was preparing for war by building war plants in Omaha, Mead, Hastings, Grand Island, and Sidney. While the Martin Bomber Plant, Nebraska Ordnance Plant, Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot, Cornhusker Ordnance Plant, and Sioux Ordnance Depot each employed thousands of Nebraskans and brought additional workers to the state, they also created severe housing shortages. Enter Ken Sr.’s professional interests in the building of the Omaha plant.

So what is Kenny’s other connection to the Martin Bomber Plant? And why do I bring this up now, after I’ve opened with – I’ve been thinking of my grandmother?

Grandma was about 17 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Grandma descends from our Iowa farmers. The family had left the Iowa farm in 1936, due to the great depression and the dust bowl decade, and had moved around the region following jobs wherever they could be found. The family moved many times living in David City in Nebraska, Modale and Missouri Valley in Iowa, finally landing in Benson, Nebraska. (The Smart Aleck)

Before settling down in Benson, grandma’s father worked as a fuel truck driver, first for Standard Oil, then for Sinclair Oil. During one year he operated an oil station in the spring and picked corn that fall. He then found work for the Works Project Administration (WPA) asphalting the banks of the Missouri River against erosion. All the while, the family lived in a small trailer with no water and only one bed. Grandma recalled one time when they pulled into the farm of her maternal grandparents and were not particularly welcomed. Her impression was that her grandparents thought they meant to live in the trailer at the farm when all they were doing was visiting while passing through.

Benson Bunny from 1943 yearbook. Ancestry.com

The promise of plant work in Omaha was the latest hope for her family to establish a new life in 1941. In Omaha, both of grandma’s parents took jobs painting anti-rust solutions on bombshells (before they were loaded with munitions) at the Omaha Steele Works (10-hour days). And thus, the family was introduced to the government contract industry. The family was able to move out of the little trailer and into a small house in Benson, where grandma graduated from high school as a Benson Bunny in 1942.

The story of how Benson High got the Bunny mascot is a bit of a mystery. There are three stories…Story #1. The hill on which the original high school was built in the early 1900’s (not the current location) was full of bunnies. The founding principle, upon touring the construction site, saw all the bunnies and selected the bunny in honor of the bunnies. Story #2. In the 1920’s the football field was infested with rabbit holes and when Benson High won a football game the opposing coach exclaimed, “We didn’t come to play Benson, we came to play the Bunnies!” and it stuck. Story #3. A World Herald sportswriter of the same decade commented that the basketball team looked like rabbits hopping around the gym floor while practicing drills.

Bunnies were still being observed in the football field in 1942. Benson High Newsletter May 1942. Newspaper Archives of Benson High News.

Grandma got her teaching certificate following high school. Back then it was a one-year certificate, today it’s a 4-year certificate. With her teaching certificate in hand, grandma’s first teaching job was in a 1-room schoolhouse in Bennington, NE teaching first through eighth grades. During the summers those first few years, she worked a variety of jobs from putting grommets in tent canvas, to serving as an au pair for a wealthy family. During the war years, it was general practice to stay at a factory year-round, but because of her teaching certificate, she was able to return to teaching every fall to escape the long hours of factory work.

In 1945 grandma went to work at the Martin Bomber Plant on the assembly line for various B-29 models. Yup, grandma was a part of the Rosie the Riveter movement. By this time the plant operations had increased from 8,000 employees to 13,217 employees, 5,306 of these were women.

Grandma told me a story recently. One day at the start of a new B-29 build, special tools were delivered for the assembly. She knew something was special about this plane because the tools were controlled more tightly than other tools and there was an increase of military personnel overseeing the work. The tools were signed out by the assembly workers and had to be formally signed back in at the end of every shift – something that was not previously done.

According to the Boeing Witchita Plant, the military’s schedule was to have around 4.2 B-29s built in a working day (three shifts at 20,000 man hours). If the Martin Bomber Plant were able to meet the same timeline, it means the planes grandma worked on was finished in 24 hours. There were 15 initial modified B-29s. Pilot Col. Paul Tibbets visited the Martin Bomber Plant and, while touring with the plant foreman, handpicked his plane from the assembly line. He later christened it after his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets.

I asked grandma if she knew the significance of the plane then (knowing what the answer should be) and she replied, “Oh no. I did not know what was planned for that plane until after it dropped the bomb!”

Of course, it is not known if the plane grandma worked on was the same one Col. Paul Tibbets selected from the assembly line as there were more than one being built at a time.

But it’s still a pretty cool story.