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A 'Rosie the Riveter' recalls her Willow Run days

Lowe (click for larger version)
January 23, 2013 - Rosie the Riveter wasn't just some 1940s cultural icon who represented and inspired American women working in factories during World War II.

She was flesh and blood.

She was Thelma Lowe.

When Lowe’s days working at Ford’s Willow Run Aircraft Factory were done in 1945, she was given this B-24 bomber pin. (click for larger version)
The 89-year-old Oxford resident was one of many Rosie the Riveters who worked at the Ford Motor Company's Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti building B-24 bombers, known as "Liberators," between 1942 and 1945.

Lowe actually was a riveter just like fictional Rosie who was prominently featured in songs, on propaganda posters and in promotional films about the war effort at home.

"I worked on the bomb bay doors," said Lowe with pride. "It took six weeks training and we learned all about metals.

"I still know about metals, even today. You don't forget everything you know. I try to learn everything that I can when I'm on a job."

While the able-bodied young men were off fighting on foreign soil to save the world from the evils of fascism, it fell to the hard-working women, like Lowe, back home to build the tanks, ships and planes needed to win WWII.

A total of 8,685 B-24's were built at Willow Run during the war. During its peak in June 1943, the plant employed 42,331 people and produced one B-24 every 59 minutes. Each B-24 contained 100,000 parts.

"I liked working there," said Lowe, who's lived in Oxford by Pine Lake since 1957. "It was really very interesting. I never missed a day, except when I got married."

For her work, Lowe was paid $1.15 per hour, which in those days was pretty good money and the equivalent to the wages men were paid for factory work, which ranged from 95 cents to $1.60 an hour.

Lowe noted it was "mostly women" who worked at the factory. "There were a few men," she said. "But the women taught the men. They taught them how to rivet. They taught them everything."

People were Lowe's favorite part of working in the factory. "It was jolly. People were hollering back and forth while they worked," she said. "It was a good place to work."

She even got to meet automotive legend Henry Ford.

"I met him when he was driving along in this little jeep," Lowe said. "I shook hands with him. It was real nice. He was very friendly."

Even though she worked in Ypsilanti, Lowe lived in Detroit at Trumbull and Perry streets, not far from Briggs Stadium, which later became Tiger Stadium. She recalled taking a streetcar to get to the bus that transported her to and from Willow Run.

Sixty-eight years after Willow Run closed, all Lowe has left are fond memories and a little gold-colored lapel pin shaped like a B-24 bomber with the Ford name on it. She received the pin when her work at the plant was finished.

"It's a piece of history," she said. "I think it's kind of cute."

Lowe would like to donate the pin to Ford, but she doesn't want to mail it. She would like a representative from the automotive company to visit Oxford and pick it up.

"I always said some day I'd donate it," she said. "If they want it, they can come get it. If they don't want it, I'll just keep it and pass it down."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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