The unheated building was freezing cold, fumes from the vehicles gave her bronchitis, and she earned 50 cents an hour.
Those are three memories Martha Wahe, 97, of Moline, Ill., has of working as a “Rosie the Riveter” at the Rock Island Arsenal during the winter of 1942 as the nation entered its second year of World War II.
“Rosie” is a moniker given to the unprecedented number of women who went to work in factories as part of the war effort, replacing men who were drafted to fight. While some Rosies did install rivets, jobs ran the gamut.
Wahe worked 23 years for the Arsenal, both during and after the war, but this summer she’s going to relive the early days as she welcomes to the island any and all Rosies coming to the Quad Cities for a national “Rosie the Riveter” convention. The event is scheduled for June 7-9 at the Isle of Capri in Bettendorf.
Wahe is the Arsenal’s last known “Riveter,” or as they were called at the Arsenal, WOWs, for Women Ordnance Workers.
Two misconceptions about Rosies is that they were the first generation of women to work in munitions and that working outside the home was unusual for all women. Neither is true. Women worked in factories during World War I, and Wahe had several jobs after graduating from Rock Island High School, including at Woolworth’s, a hamburger restaurant and a Singer sewing machine store.
But after marrying her husband Vern, who already had a job at the Arsenal, she hired on, too, in the summer of 1942, in the transportation department to drive shop “mules” on second shift.
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“They were hiring that summer because of course the Arsenal was growing and growing and growing,” she said in a 2012 interview conducted as an oral history project about the World War II homefront by Augustana College. “ I mean they were working 24/7/365.”
A “mule” was a Jeep-like vehicle, and Wahe drove it to pick up and drop off trailers used to move supplies and parts throughout the sprawling complex.
In time, Wahe graduated to driving a forklift inside Building 299, a huge warehouse with “two railroad tracks down the middle of the building.” She helped unload the railroad cars that were stacked full of wooden boxes of supplies, such as ammunition.
In 1943, her husband joined the Navy and was sent to a PT base in Rhode Island. PT is short for patrol torpedo boat, a torpedo-armed fast attack vessel.
Wahe followed her husband in 1944, but she couldn’t leave right away.
“If you were working for anything that had to do with the war effort you couldn’t just quit the job when you wanted to and go somewhere else,” she said in the Augustana interview. “You had to get permission. It had to be a good reason or you couldn’t get another job anywhere except in a store or something because you wouldn’t get rehired in anything to do with the war effort.”
She received permission, and her eyes still light up with pride on how she handled her journey east.
“I was a young bride ... we’d only been married a year or so, and I’d never gone anywhere to speak of, and I had to take the train out there all by myself, and I had to go to Providence,” she said in the 2012 interview.
Not only did she make the 1,000-mile-plus trip, but when she arrived, she got a job at a torpedo station and found a room for her and her husband to rent.
“I did all that before I even saw my husband,” she said in 2012. “So for somebody who was really, really nervous going so far from home, I thought I did very well to get all that accomplished by myself.”
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Her first job was to help pack the torpedoes, explosive devices that are launched just above or in the water. She helped load the igniter, which she describes as a filling about the thickness of the lead in a pencil. Sometimes there were accidents with small explosions, but she was never injured.
Her final job during the war was to do filing in the purchasing department.
After the war, she and her husband returned to the Quad Cities, and she worked at the Arsenal again in two stints, with time out to raise their two children, a boy and a girl.
Wahe is a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Moline and still staffs the bake sale table, known as Martha’s Kitchen, at the church fundraiser. Her specialty is sugar cookies with an Andes mint inside.