AIR FORCE HISTORY: The Rosies

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

Life in America was transformed by the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. The leader of those attacks, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, famously concluded, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Rarely has someone in the moment so perfectly summed up the situation.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress for, and received, a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. The draft was accelerated to all men under the age of 45. Men between 45 and 64 were required to register for non-military duty. All industry was refocused toward the war effort, and soon broadened to include the war in Europe as well. America had indeed been sleeping while war had raged elsewhere. Now the giant was awake.

While American forces were fighting overseas or training in U.S. military camps, families were also fully engaged in the war effort. The American home front geared up for an all-out effort to rush into war production and its entire society experienced dramatic changes. The work demographic numbers alone are staggering.

When the war began, there were around 190,000 men in the U.S. Army. By the time the war ended, there were 10 million. On top of this, all factories were at full capacity making arms, tanks, ships and vehicles for the war. Needless to say, there was a shortage of workers. Thus, Rosie the Riveter joined the workforce.

American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the war. The female percentage of the U.S. labor force increased from 27 to 37 percent and, by the end of the war, one out of every four married women worked outside the home.

The greatest increase came in the aircraft industry. More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce – up from just 1 percent in pre-war years. Sadly, their pay was less, but their work was priceless. These women, recruited by the government’s “Rosie the Riveter” campaign, built the greatest air force the world had ever seen in an incredibly short period of time.

Amazingly enough, in spite of the long hours and the snub of unequal pay, morale was outstanding throughout the war.

Always on everyone’s mind was the thought of husbands, brothers and other loved ones far away in harm’s way. Articles and ads placed in magazines constantly reminded that “Women, you could hasten victory by working and save your man” and “The more women at work, the sooner we win.”

The United States lost 292,000 servicemen killed in action and spent $350 billion winning the war. More than 6 million women helped build the planes, bombs, tanks and other weapons used for that victory.

Today, it is routine to see anyone from any background using whatever tool their trade requires. There are no longer jobs known as “men’s work.” It’s hard to imagine a time when that was not the case – in fact, it is still a point of pride.

As a young woman recently told your historian in Bldg. 3001, “If you see a woman wearing a hard hat, you can be damn sure there’s a brain under it.” No longer are professions segregated in any way, thus, bringing all of the nation’s talents to the mission. It’s just one more thing that makes the U.S.A. so great.

Sources: U-S-History.com, AF.mil, History.com, and Douglas Airview Magazine Series