They say on one April day in 1944, at the peak of the American war effort, 16 B-17 bombers were assembled at Boeing plants in Seattle.
Eighteen-year-old Ruthaleen Hemmesch of North Dakota was there and, presumably, awake.
One of the tens of thousands of women who migrated to West Coast factories during World War II, Hemmesch had arrived in Seattle the previous fall with a girlfriend whose name eludes her.
She’s Ruthaleen Murray McCall now, seven weeks short of her 90th birthday, and she talked this week of her days as a “Rosie the Riveter” at her Missoula home on Gharrett Street.
Boeing, McCall said, “was really a ripoff of the government.”
Take the daily scene on the catwalk that circled the inside of the immense factory where Ruth made bomber wings.
“Every day you’d look up and see all these new employees coming. Oh, golly – 50 more,” she said. “Boeing got paid by the government for each new hire. There were more employees than there was work.”
Or take the day she finished her assigned task early and asked her boss what else he had for her.
Nothing, he told her. Make yourself scarce.
“So I went back and crawled into the wing I was working on and fell asleep,” McCall said.
She awoke to a factory full of unfamiliar faces. She realized she’d slept through a shift change after coming to work at 6 a.m.
“They didn’t like it if you didn’t clock out. You were called out on that,” she said. “So I thought, what do I do? Do I just walk out, or do I clock out?”
She chose option B – and collected three hours of overtime for a shift she in part slept away. No one said a word.
McCall started out at Boeing building wings for B-17s and later got into B-29s. She first wielded a drill as a mechanic.
“You really had to be careful. There was an angle to it, and you had to make sure the hole you were drilling was straight and not at an angle because it would ruin the wing,” she said.
Riveters, too, were expected to implant accurately. Generally speaking, McCall said, buckers worked their way up to riveting, but they worked together.
“If you didn’t get the rivet in right and the bucker didn’t hold that just right then you got it off,” McCall said. “You’d have to drill it out and redo it.”
By late 1943, when McCall started work at the Boeing plant a handful of miles south of downtown Seattle, Rosie the Riveter was already an American icon.
It began as a propaganda poster in 1942. Songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb picked up the Rosie theme with a tune made mainstream by Kay Kyser, the popular big band leader.
All the day long whether rain or shine, she’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory ... Rosie the Riveter
Within a week or two of Ruth Hemmesch’s graduation from New Rockford High School in North Dakota in 1943, the Saturday Evening Post came out with Norman Rockwell’s famous depiction of a buff Rosie on the cover.
Rockwell portrayed her on lunch break in coveralls, sandwich in hand, riveter on her lap and feet firmly planted on a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
It’s a misconception that women hadn’t entered the workforce before the war, but now millions were shouldering manufacturing jobs theretofore left to men.
Ruth was among some 310,000 women building planes in 1943. Where just 1 percent of the U.S. aircraft industry’s workforce had been female before the war, in 1943 the percentage had risen to 65.
As McCall recalled, her starting salary was either 82 or 88 cents an hour, eventually climbing to “a dollar, or close to it,” she said. “That wasn’t bad.”
The paycheck for an 18-year-old kid who came of age during the Great Depression was one thing, and the sense of working for a greater cause was another.
“Yeah, you thought you were doing your part,” McCall said. “I thought, hey, I’m building the planes that my sister is going to carry the wounded in.”
Five years Ruth’s senior, Marion Hemmesch was in the first training class of air evacuation nurses for the U.S. Army Air Force.
Based outside of London, Marion was among the nurses who made the first air evacuation flights to and from Omaha Beach in Normandy five days after D-Day in 1944.
In April 1945, she and her fellow air evacuation nurses helped a record 17,000 patients.
Highly decorated with medals for her work in Normandy, northern France and Germany, Marion clearly was a hero in her little sister’s eyes. It wasn’t until she came home, McCall said, that she learned the planes that carried her sister to the battlefields were built in California, not Seattle.
McCall was digging through old pictures and memorabilia last weekend and came upon an item she didn’t know she’d kept.
It was her resignation from Boeing Aircraft Co., Seattle, dated Sept. 8, 1944, and signed by O.C. Scott, supervisor of manpower stabilization.
“Well, boredom,” McCall said of her reason for quitting the high-paying job. “There you were, and it’s hard to pass eight hours without having something to keep you busy. I just got tired of the job.”
She’d turned 19 in June. Ruth and two girlfriends from North Dakota, Maxine and Alice, decided "there must be more excitement someplace else.” They headed for California on a bus.
The next several weeks are a whirlwind of memories: A marriage proposal in a San Francisco taxicab from a soldier heading overseas, a wild roller-coaster ride in Los Angeles. Low on money, the girls headed north. At San Francisco, a handsome Merchant Marine climbed on a Greyhound bus going home to Seattle on leave.
By November, Ruthaleen and John Murray were married, a union that lasted until his death to cancer in 2000.
Ruth got on with Alaska Communications System in downtown Seattle, the Army-run news service to Alaska Territory. She was staffing a news ticker on April 12, 1945, when a special bulletin came over.
“I said, ‘Look at this. The president died.’ And everyone came rushing over to look at this tape as it was coming out," she said. "I was the first one in Seattle to know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died.”
John went back to sea with the Merchant Marines, in Alaska and the South Pacific. He was in Italy in early 1946 when son Tim was born. When he was discharged, the family moved to North Dakota, where Ruth’s father, a railroad employee, taught John to telegraph.
Her husband spent the rest of his career working for the Great Northern and Burlington Northern railroads in Montana.
The Murrays lived in Havre, the Hi-Line whistle stop of Bowdoin, Conrad, Great Falls and Billings before becoming snowbirds upon retirement in 1989. Through most of the 1990s they spent winters in Mesa, Arizona, and summers in Sapphire Village at Utica in the shadow of the Big Belt Mountains.
Ruth was deputy treasurer of Pondera County when they lived in Conrad and worked for insurance companies for many of the 50-plus years before retirement. John’s death coincided within weeks with that of a good friend, Madelyn McCall, who lived across the street in Arizona.
She married Madelyn's widower, Floyd, in 2001. Ten years later, the McCalls moved to Missoula, where Ruth’s daughter and three granddaughters live. Floyd died in 2012.
Today, on the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, Ruth McCall has memories of World War II tucked away in shoe boxes and photo albums.
There’s one she keeps close to her heart. It was 1945, she was in Seattle, John was out to sea, and her mother was on one of her periodic visits from North Dakota.
It might have been on May 8, or on V-J Day in mid-August. Ruth had just learned she was pregnant with Tim.
“We were downtown and word came out the war was over,” she said. “People just flocked in from all over. There were servicemen all over the place, and this sailor came and grabbed me and kissed me. My mother kept saying, ‘Leave her alone. Leave her alone. She’s pregnant.’ ”
The usual 10-minute ride on the electric streetcar from their home on Capitol Hill downtown lasted much longer. Mischievous passengers kept pulling the overhead trolley off the wire, and the driver kept having to stop and put it back on.
After nearly four dark but life-changing years of war, the joy in Seattle and America was unbridled.
“It was nothing like their celebrations now, when they set cars and buildings on fire,” McCall noted. “Instead of hugging and kissing they fight and fire and shoot.
“This was just fun and happiness really.”