Elinor Otto, a riveter, retired from the Boeing airplane factory in Long Beach, California in 2014 at the age of 94. She did not want to retire but Boeing decided to close the plant. Having worked as a riveter during World War II, she tried other jobs after the war, but nothing appealed to her like the action of riveting airplanes. She set the record for the longest working Rosie the Riveter!
The following story was first published on Aug. 17, 2015 following the Rosie Rally at the Rosie Memorial in Richmond, California at which Elinor spoke. She also dedicated the new Rosie the Riveter statue.
STORY by Judith Stanford Miller, WWII Home Front editor
Aug. 17, 2015 – “It seems like yesterday,” Elinor Otto, 95-years young and the oldest working Rosie the Riveter who never retired, said during an Aug. 10 phone interview with Student News Net. “Yesterday” was 1942 when she entered the workforce as a riveter during World War II. Saturday Elinor attended the Rosie Rally, held by the National Park Service at the Rosie Memorial in Richmond, California. Over 1,000 people, decked out in iconic Rosie work clothes, attempted to set a Guinness World Record for the most people dressed as Rosie the Riveter in one place.
In 2000, the National Park Service and the Rosie the Riveter Trust established the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond to tell the diverse story of the home front during World War II. The visitor center is located about one mile from the Rosie Memorial at Richmond’s Marina Bay Park where Saturday’s rally was held.
Saturday’s event, which also included the unveiling of a new Rosie Memorial statue, was planned to honor the 70th anniversary of the war’s end – Aug. 14, 1945. Elinor remembers that day. She was at home. “Everybody ran out to the streets. Strangers were hugging each other. We all worked hard to this goal,” she said.
Three years before at age 22, Elinor began riveting airplanes, a job she liked because it had plenty of action. At 95, she is only months into a new life not riveting and still drives a car. She has her own record as the longest working original Rosie the Riveter.
Elinor would still be riveting today but she was laid off in 2014 at age 94 because Boeing closed the factory where she was working. With news that his grandmother’s career would be ending, John Perry called Boeing. He was able to retrieve her rivet gun so she has a Word of the Day memento of her momentous accomplishment.
Elinor began her career riveting planes 73 years ago at the Rohr Aircraft Corp. factory in Chula Vista, near San Diego. For the past 49.5 years, she worked at the Boeing plant in Long Beach. There she had a role in riveting all 223 C-17 airplanes made for the U.S. Air Force. “Everyone loved that plane – pilots, veterans, workers,” Elinor said. The cargo plane never had any problems, she added.
Elinor was often the only woman in a group of men who were mechanics. She just kept proving she could do the work to men sometimes 50 or more years younger!
With her enthusiasm, energy, and determination, Elinor is Rosie the Riveter, representing her fellow Rosies at many events, succeeding in the present as a modern working woman, and serving as a riveting role model for future generations of women.
Rosie the Riveter Guinness World Record
The existing Rosie the Riveter Guinness World Record was set on March 29, 2014 in Ypsilanti, Michigan when 776 Rosies met at the former Ford Willow Run bomber plant near Detroit. Thousands of women worked as riveters and buckers at the bomber plant making B-24 Liberators during World War II. At its peak production, workers were producing one B-24 every hour.
The official Rosie Guinness World Record title is: “The Largest Gathering of People Dressed as Rosie the Riveter.” To be counted, Rosies had to be authentically decked out from head to toe. The official gear for any Rosie rally includes the iconic red and white polka dot bandanna; a dark blue long-sleeved work shirt (rolled up of course to show off muscles!) with matching blue pants or long-sleeved, dark blue coveralls; red socks; and work boots.
The silver lunch pail is an optional accessory. Guinness World Records will soon announce if more than 776 Rosies qualified as an official Rosie at Saturday’s event to set a new world record.
Rosie the Riveter, first a song
In 1942, Rosie the Riveter was a popular song that had not yet evolved into the iconic Rosie the Riveter image now recognized worldwide. Elinor said she wore a blouse and jeans to work. Her shoes were Oxford flats.
Elinor fondly remembers the song. She and her sister, who was a welder during the war, would play the “78” on their record player for inspiration in their new roles as working women. It was the era of big bands, Elinor explained. They were tempted to go dancing instead of reporting for work. “We were tired. But it was more important to go to work than to go dancing. Schedules were important. Planes had to be delivered,” Elinor said. But work was also fun. “It didn’t take long for the men to realize we could do the work,” Elinor said.
Without knowing it at the time, Elinor and her fellow Rosies were paving the way for millions of women soon to be born – half of the post World War II baby boomers. That phenomenon is the unofficial Rosie record that the official Guinness World Record honors.
Even in 1942 though, there was evidence women would enter the workforce outside of the home. After the Wright brothers took their first flight in 1903, men and a small number of women began pursuing aviation as a career.
In 1929, the first National Women’s Air Derby was held during which 20 female pilots raced from California to Ohio, a trip that took nine days. Out of necessity, women pilots had to know how to fix their planes. Some of the women became expert mechanics as well as pilots. Thirteen years later when men were needed as combat pilots in World War II, about 1,000 women pilots (Women Airforce Service Pilots – WASP) flew non-combat missions ferrying planes back and forth to destinations in the United States.
With this solid foundation, the country should not have been surprised when a large scale urgent need at factories was filled by millions of women who performed with competence, accompanied by a matter-of-fact attitude. They simply had a job to do. “It’s not only ‘We Can Do It.’ We DID it,” Irene Bokros, an original Rosie who attended the 2014 Rosie Rally in Michigan, said to Student News Net at the 2014 event.
Events such as Saturday’s Rosie Rally in Richmond remind 21st century women of that 20th century heritage. Today’s women are caretakers of that heritage with no greater testament to that commitment than the over 1,000 women who took time on a weekend to assemble a Rosie outfit, attend the rally, and flex their muscle to be counted.
What advice does Elinor have for youth today? “Keep following your goal no matter what it is. Keep busy. Keep your mind working. Be positive and not negative. Stay in good physical and mental health,” she said.
Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park
According to NPS, Richmond was chosen for the national park site because the area has so many surviving sites and structures from the World War II years that tell the diverse stories of the Home Front.
Four Richmond shipyards produced 747 ships during World War II, more than any other complex in the country. The city grew from a population of 24,000 in 1940 to nearly 100,000 by 1943 with over 56 different war industries based there.
According to NPS, compelling stories from the unique era include the mobilization of America’s industry and the changes in production techniques; the struggle for women’s and minority rights; the labor movement; the growth of pre-paid medical care; advances in early childhood education and day care; recycling and rationing; major shifts in population; and changes in arts and culture, including the disruption of the cut-flower industry in Richmond when Japanese and Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed from Richmond.
Rosie Rally – an annual event at the national park?
At Saturday’s rally, one speaker suggested the Rosie Rally might become an annual event instead of waiting for the next significant anniversary five years from now – the 75th anniversary of the war’s end. The Rosies agreed.
The market for official Rosie bandannas will no doubt remain strong. Women’s work boots are easy to find now. Almost 2,000 people have a Rosie outfit in their closets from two rallies held in the past two years. Generations of mothers are passing down Rosie’s legacy. The spirit of Rosie the Riveter, as perfectly personified by Elinor Otto, is in strong hands.
“We wanted to prove ourselves. We all worked together,” Elinor said.
That’s a legacy for both record books and history books!