W. Va. — Ella King was 57 years old when she learned how to muscle a rivet gun in World War II.
Her daughter, Anna Hess still marvels at the confidence and work ethic displayed by her Rosie -the-Riveter mom on the home front.
“Well, that was just her,” Hess said, recently. “She handled things. She got things done. She kept things straight.”
She also kept your father alive during World War II.
Or, your grandfather or great-grandfather, depending upon when you came along.
Happy Mother’s Day.
On this day which honors bubbly young moms and stately matriarchs alike, that’s what this story is about.
It’s about the feminine side of the Greatest Generation, and how mothers such as King informed their sons, and their daughters, that there would be no telling the feats they could accomplish — provided they worked hard and simply did the right thing.
Uh, even if young Anna wasn’t exactly truthful that day in Akron, Ohio.
Hess, who is approaching her ninth decade, still lets out a girlish giggle when she remembers.
“OK, it was a little white lie,” she said. We’ll get to that.
Marching off to Akron
On Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor to hasten America’s entry in World War II, the Kings, of Roane County, were barely scrapping by, even with their 33-acre farm just down the road from Spencer.
Anna, the youngest in the family at 15, had brothers who were well past draft age.
Still, there was no questiond that the family wasn’t going to do its bit.
On Dec. 8, 1941, when it seemed that every young man of draft age from every ridge top and every hollow across Roane was marching to the induction center to enlist, the Kings were already talking about relocating.
They drew a bead on Akron, a blue collar, shot-and-a-beer town with factories on every corner.
Factories, jumping like a Louie Jordan bandstand, that were quickly reconfiguring for the war effort.
One by one, they landed jobs as defense workers.
Ella King, as said, became a bona fide Rosie the Riveter — that was the collective nickname for the 8 million or so women who assumed the jobs that were traditionally held by men now in uniform and overseas.
As said, the woman approaching her sixth decade assumed the hard, grinding work of riveting wings to B-29 bombers at a Goodyear plant.
Mrs. King never knew if she attached the wings to the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan to hasten the end of the fighting in the Pacific Theater of War.
The Pacific Theater. That’s what they called it. Of course, there was an Atlantic Theater, too.
Two wars, two oceans. One big shadow.
Anna tells a little white lie
And, a very serious teenager sitting in the personnel office of the Mohawk Tire Plant down the road from where a certain 57-year-old had a date with a rivet gun every day.
Anna Hess, then Anna King, a self-described “snot-nosed kid from West Virginia” who could have been thinking about Frank Sinatra and bobby socks, looked the manager right in the eye — and lied about her age, so she could go to work.
Ordinarily, her mother would have scolded her to high heaven for such an indiscretion. However, these weren’t ordinary times.
The next day, using scrap rubber, with sharp knives, unforgiving wire mesh and adhesives just as unforgiving to skin, she learned how to “build” tires for Jeeps and heavy trucks: One painstaking, fingertip-bleeding layer at a time.
She knew she could do it, she said. She wasn’t afraid of hard work. That, she got from her mom.
Which is why Anne Montague did what she did.
Strong women, at war and at work
Montague, a Huntington native whose career in news and public relations took her from Boston to Denver to Japan, is the founder of an organization she calls Thanks! Plain and Simple, which honors the legacy of Rosie the Riveters everywhere.
She has also made documentary films highlighting the lives of the Rosies.
Her mother, Jessie Jacobs Frazier, was a white-collar Rosie the Riveter, whose 20/20 eyesight got her a job at a retooled plant in Huntington that made lenses for bombsights.
Montague was born in 1939, as the war clouds in Europe were looming.
The close-quarter work left her mother vomiting with vertigo at the end of every work day.
Frazier, though, never talked about what she did during the war. After her death, Montague founded the organization to honor her mother’s memory.
That’s how she made her acquaintance with Hess, and Bertha “Buddie” Curnutte and Neva Rees, Rosies themselves who also participated in interviews for this story.
On Monday, the day after Mother’s Day, Montague hopes to go national.
NBC and other major media outlets are already interested in an event scheduled in Huntington that day, where an original song, “Thank You, Rosie, with Your Rivetin’ Smile,” will beam out on social media across the globe.
It’s all scheduled for 6 p.m., at the Cabell County Public Library.
In recent years, Montague, with the Rosies’ help, has steered the organization onto an outreach avenue she calls the American Rosie Movement, or ARM — which is a play on the iconic Rosie poster from World War II depicting the female worker baring her bicep for all the Allies to see.
ARM gives opportunities for the Rosies, all in the twilight of their lives, to go forth in their communities and in the world to tell their stories.
Hess, for instance, has already made two trips to The Netherlands to tell hers.
Her Rosie colleagues, Rees and Curnette, have done the same across the region.
Rees, a Fairmont native also shares Hess’ maternal praises.
She credits her mother. Maude Canfield, with the life-lessons that got her through the war, and after. She was an aircraft mechanic and built control rooms for blimps in Akron.
Her husband, a Marine, never fully recovered from the wartime wounds he suffered in the Pacific. She lives in Marietta, Ohio, but makes frequent appearances at schools and other venues across the border in West Virginia.
Curnutte, who earned her nickname, “Buddie,” in the U.S. Coast Guard, is a Buffalo, N.Y., native who married a West Virginia soldier and now lives in Saint Albans.
She joined the military after serving a Rosie-hitch riveting Kitty Hawk airplanes at a plant in her hometown.
Curnutte never knew her mother, who died when she was very young. She learned her lessons, though, she said, from strong women colleagues, both in the factory and in the Coast Guard.
Being a Rosie defined her, she said.
So did the generational values of growing up in the Depression.
She and her husband, a fighting man who was also punctured and torn by bullets and shrapnel on the battlefields of that war, would adopt two children.
Jessie sends her love to Japan
Both she and Hess have endured the tragedy of losing a child to death, but both continue to persevere.
Montague was in Japan when her mother died. As she told The Dominion Post previously, she got word by way of a hand-written note from West Virginia, penned by a family friend.
“The U.S. Embassy there never notified me. She was gone a month before I found out.”
Montague was heartbroken. And mad. Then, as she remembered, she felt something. A presence.
It was her mother, well, being her mother.
“My mom was with me, in that tiny apartment in Japan. Looking down and telling me it was OK.”