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April 21, 2016

Local Rosie the Riveter tells her story of building Boeing B-17s during WWII

  • Janice Rickard used her skills learned at Boeing to later become a printing press operator.
    The Columbian

    VANCOUVER — Janice Rickard was a 19-year-old Rosie the Riveter who built B-17 bombers during World War II.

    Now 92, she expressed amazement that it has been 74 years since she wielded a riveting gun at Boeing's Seattle aircraft plant, the Columbian reported.

    Rickard joined millions of women who worked in the war effort, producing airplanes, ships, tanks, weapons and more.

    “It was a thrill to be part of the women on the home front,” she said earlier this month at her home in Vancouver. “It didn't pay much, but it was patriotic work, so it was priceless. My best memories,” Rickard said, touching the embroidered Boeing badge on the lapel of her crisp navy blue jacket.

    “Telling the aircraft riveting story was important to me,” she said. “We mostly hear about the (Kaiser) shipyard workers in this area.”

    The small-town girl originally from La Grande, Oregon, graduated from Centralia High School in 1941, about six months before Japan bombed the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor and catapulted the U.S. into the war. Shortly after her graduation, Rickard read a Boeing advertisement recruiting women to attend an aircraft worker training program in nearby Chehalis.

    “I signed up as soon as I saw the ads,” she said. “That was a great opportunity for me.”

    Rickard was trained to become a riveter and rivet bucker. Standing inside the plane, a rivet bucker held a small metal bar against the airplane skin so that the riveter working outside the plane had a solid surface to work against.

    “Women's small hands are ideal for riveting planes,” Rickard said. “Aircraft rivets can be very tiny.”

    After her training, she moved to Seattle and shared an apartment with a co-worker.

    “We rode a bus crammed full of people who worked at Boeing,” she recalled.

    Initially, she was paid 62.5 cents per hour, but by the time she left the job to start her family, she was paid 93 cents per hour.

    Rickard discovered early on that she had an aptitude for mechanics and working with power tools. Her shop did minor assemblies.

    “The largest component of the B-17 we assembled in that shop was the camera well. It fits underneath the B-17,” Rickard said. “Otherwise, what we were doing was putting in the big struts that go across the plane that hold the plane together.”

    Early in the war, Boeing produced 60 aircraft per month, but later production increased to 362 aircraft per month.

    Safety first

    Although there was no work uniform, women were required to tuck their hair into a scarf to prevent it from getting caught in the power tools. Rickard learned an unforgettable lesson when a woman worker didn't have her hair covered in the front.

    “The extension drill got loose from her hand,” Rickard recalled. “She wasn't holding it properly. It whipped loose from her hand and pulled her front hair out.”

    Smoking was not allowed on the work floor, but workers took a smoke break on a lower level of the plant. Boeing also provided pasteboard boxes filled with sawdust where workers could spit their tobacco.

    When it was lunch time, “you really had to run,” she said. “The cafeteria was quite a distance.”

    For entertainment, the United Service Organizations brought musical shows to the Boeing plant. Rickard also remembers seeing Frank Sinatra sing at a Tommy Dorsey concert in Seattle.

    “That's when Sinatra was that little skinny kid,” she recalled, smiling.

    Many of the women worked at Boeing for the war's duration, but many didn't.

    “The gals I worked with — most of us were young,” Rickard said. “They were finding boyfriends. The turnover rate at work was great because of relationships that got started.”

    Rickard's Boeing story followed the same theme. Her roommate set Rickard up on a blind date with “a handsome airman from Texas,” she said.

    They started dating and eventually married. She left her job at Boeing about 18 months after she started training.

    “I'm a bit sorry about that,” Rickard said. “I really liked the work. But I got involved with this soldier, and that was the end of the run. That was common. We were young. Too many soldiers and sailors to get our attention.”

    Her husband was in the 38th Fighter Squadron of the 55th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force. He was an armorer who loaded bombs onto the planes, and was stationed in England for about three years during the war.

    Rickard had a baby daughter. The two moved in with Rickard's mother in Portland until her husband sent word from England that he wanted her to live with his family near Waco, Texas. She had never met his family.

    In Texas, she worked on an assembly line at an ordnance plant that made 105 mm shells for the war effort.

    She said Texas did not agree with her. When she learned her younger brother was coming home to Washington from his tour of duty in the South Pacific, she was ready to go home.

    “Boy, I threw everything I owned into boxes. That was the end of Texas,” she said.

    Life after the war

    After the war, she remembered how the mechanical work she'd done at Boeing had suited her. She became a printing press operator, which was another field that was unusual for women. She was a printer for 30 years.

    “The printing work I did later in life was also very interesting. It was an art form,” Rickard said. “Boeing was the beginning of it all.”

    Rickard kept memorabilia from her time working for Boeing seven decades ago. For wartime security reasons, photos were not allowed at the facility. The only photograph she has from her time as a riveter was a snapshot taken at an arcade. She is wearing her work clothes, and her hair is covered by a scarf.

    She learned that the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, California, was looking for stories and documents, so she sent a copy of her certificate of completion from the riveter/bucker program along with her Rosie snapshot.

    Now her life is centered on her family. Her daughter, Karen Morat, 72, lives in Vancouver. Her son, Larry McCreight, 69, lives in Portland. She and the handsome Texan were married for 29 years, but eventually, they divorced.

    “I try to get my family together as often as I can. My days are running short,” she said.

    But, she added, her father lived past 100.

    “Anywhere I go, I'm the oldest person. I'm thankful to be more healthy than a lot of people are at my age,” she said.

    Rickard said she wonders whether other Rosies who worked at Boeing are living in the Vancouver area.

    Looking back on her time as a riveter, Rickard said, “I don't know that everyone felt the patriotic thrill out of it, but I got a big charge.”

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