By Becky Riley-Bakeman

At RAI Jets, we have a military history within our ranks, from members of our families to the distinguished retired military pilots who now fly with us. On Monday, March 27, we were proud to become part of history itself as transportation for a Talons Out Honor Flight for nine ladies representing the Women Ordnance Workers (WOW).  The WOW were women involved in the production of military hardware during World War II, but most people know them better by their World War II nickname—Rosie the Riveter.

Who was Rosie the Riveter?

Rosie-the-RiveterRosie the Riveter was not one person but a mascot for the millions of women who entered the workforce during World War II. Baring her forearm to show her strength, Rosie was the model of the determined woman who wanted to help the war effort.

At first, only the young, unmarried women headed to the factories to fill the employment gap left by the fighting men, but by 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home too.1 About six million women took jobs in the factories during the war 2, working around the clock to produce planes, bombs, munitions, and the military supplies so desperately needed for the cause.  The aviation industry had the most “Rosies.” By 1943, 65% of the jobs in the aviation industry were held by women. 1

The work was not easy, and arguably, the workers in the factory faced more daily risks than some soldiers did. 3 Remember, it was the 1940s and OSHA wasn’t there to police the working conditions. The “Rosies” bagged gunpowder and manufactured artillery shells and high explosives. They worked with dangerous chemicals and endured the residual effects of spray painting, welding, hanging from single suspension scaffolds, and shooting hot rivets into the hulls of ships under construction.3 Industrial accidents, including fatalities and permanent disabilities, were common. Between 1942 and 1945, there were two million fatalities or disabling industrial accidents annually.4

Creating the Michigan Rosie the Riveter Honor Flight

RAI Jets was first approached to help with the Rosie the Riveter Honor Flight because of our work hosting the Talons Out Honor Flights for veterans. On several occasions, we had gathered the honored vets here at our hangar for a meal before they boarded their Honor Flight on a commercial jet out of Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International airport bound for Washington, DC.  When Angie from Talons Out reached out to RAI Jets to see if we could make a Rosie the Riveter event happen, I was on board… literally! I had the honor of both coordinating the aircraft and attending the Honor Flight with nine Michigan ladies from WOW, ranging from age 95 – 101!

The flight was sponsored by WOW Eastern Michigan Chapter (aka Rosie the Riveter Association) and Boeing.  Boeing has a rich history with Rosie the Riveter. By 1944, Boeing employed 30,000 women, and Mae Krier was one of them. She worked at Boeing producing B-17s and B-29s for the war effort from 1943-45 and pushed for Congress to declare March 21 as Rosie the Riveter Day of Remembrance. 5  She met us in Washington, DC to join our group.

Rosies-for-a-special-dinner-held-at-the-Kalamazoo-AirZooThe evening before take-off, we gathered with the “Rosies” for a special dinner held at the Kalamazoo AirZoo. For some of the ladies, it was a reunion, as they knew each other from other WOW events. Some came from out of town and had never seen the AirZoo. All were all decades younger than their 90+ years in spirit and vigor.  My husband and I sat a table away and could hear them chattering like old friends, often breaking out in loud laughter as they discussed memories of the past and making more in the present.

A Special Charter for RAI Jets

Rosies-and-their-escorts-gathered-at-RAI-Jets-before-boardingThe next morning, the “Rosies” and their escorts gathered at RAI Jets before boarding. I looked around and was amazed at the energy within this spunky group.  I was impressed with their willingness to make the trip. Then again, the “Rosies” have always lived their motto, “We Can Do It!”

Dressed in red, white, and blue, the “Rosies” each sported a scarf with a red background and polka dots in the traditional “Rosie” style.  I learned that on the scarves of the WOW organizers, the polka dots were actually shaped like small flames in tribute to the famous shell and flame insignia for the WOW Corps. Yes, the “Rosies” inspired style and even a Rosie the Riveter song.

Charter-Company-RAI-JetsMost Honor Flights contain dozens, if not hundreds, of vets, so commercial airlines are always used. We were pleased that RAI Jets, operating as a charter company, could be of service and secure a smaller private plane for our group. I arranged a Dornier 328, a 30-seat passenger plane. There were special considerations, like boarding a group of senior citizens. It is a tradition that all Honor Flight attendees be boarded in wheelchairs, regardless of their health status. This inspired some good-natured grumbling from the many ladies in the group who had absolutely no trouble walking!

Ramps are not regularly available with smaller charter flights, so I had to procure the special equipment, making sure it was appropriate for the plane’s unique measurements. We also found aisle chairs to assist with boarding and stowed the travel wheelchairs in the cargo/baggage area  for use in Washington, DC.

Another special consideration was the timing of the trip in regard to FAA requirements for charter flights. Because of our busy itinerary, the trip had to be divided into two separate pilot duty days so the pilots could receive the required minimum 10 hours of off-duty rest between flights. For the “Rosies,” this was going to be a 16+- hour day trip, which was a long time for anyone! How would our “Rosies” hold up?

Washington, Here We Come

WashingtonBoarding went remarkably well, and we left KAZO before 8am. Accompanying us was Erica Francis and cameraman Brett Dickie from FOX 2 Detroit, who were preparing an in-depth feature with plenty of interviews with the Rosies. We touched down at Dulles International about an hour later.

We met up with two more “Rosies” who were joining our tour group; one was from Maryland, and another from Pennsylvania. We were also joined by reporters from NBC who covered the story for the national news.  Upon landing, we were greeted with an honor guard ceremony. Then we boarded a special Talons Out Honor Flight tour bus, decked out in Talons Out Honor Flight banners and décor that took us to the Capital.

At lunchtime, we were escorted across the street via an underground tunnel to a special meeting room with a sizeable u-shaped desk and raised seating areas. Our hosts at the luncheon were the two Michigan representatives in U.S. Congress, Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Lisa McClain (R-MI). The Congresswomen graciously addressed the “Rosies” and thanked them for their sacrifices and hard work.

Back on the bus, we headed to the National Mall with a special stop at the World War II Memorial. I was glad that our group could visit when the famous cherry blossoms were blooming, and the weather was more akin to spring than winter. The next time we boarded the bus, we headed to Boeing for a presentation and a delicious dinner. It was our last stop before heading to the airport and boarding our charter aircraft for the flight home.

During COVID-19, Mae created Rosie the Riveter facemasks and scarves and shared them with workers at Boeing. At the dinner, Mae received her gift back from Boeing with a special revelation. Her facemask and scarf had traveled to the space station in Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.  Boeing also provided two challenge coins in a shadowbox for each “Rosie.” The challenge coins had also traveled on Boeing’s Starliner.

Returning the “Rosies”

On the way home, I was exhausted, so naturally I expected the “Rosies” to be tired too. I expected a quiet trip home. However, I didn’t see any one of them napping. I think they must have been running on adrenaline because they continued to talk and enjoy the flight.

For me, one of the best things about the entire trip was hearing the stories, both from the “Rosies” and from the excellent volunteer who talked to us on the tour bus. She recounted heartwarming tales from the veterans who had made Honor Flights in the past. She told us of their tearful reunions with colleagues in arms who they thought had fallen, and how the vets found it so deeply important to fight for democracy.

The women on the Honor Flight keenly felt the importance and their work in the factories so many years ago. They knew that the planes they were building, the munitions they were assembling, etc. could potentially be used by their husbands, sons, brothers, etc. fighting overseas. These women truly wanted to contribute to the war effort, some desperately so. One of the “Rosies” talked about how she even falsified her birth certificate so she could start working for the war effort at the illegal age of 15!

As our aircraft touched down at AZO around 11:30pm, I realized I needn’t have feared that the “Rosies” would struggle with the long day in Washington, DC. Apparently, once a “Rosie,” always a “Rosie.” Living out the “We Can Do It” motto wasn’t just something they said in the 1940s; it was alive and well and living in the hearts of these brave women and all who made this Honor Flight possible.

Thanks Again..

Thanks also to Angie Pettit and Bette Kenward for giving RAI Jets the honor to host this amazing event. Thanks too to Jim Swoboda, a volunteer photographer for the Honor Flights. I will never forget these fabulous women aboard the Honor Flight. May we all remember their unique service and place in our country’s history.

The 2023 Michigan Rosie the Riveter Honor Flight Roster

Virginia Basler – Riveter, Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant
Maxine Boeve – Turret Lathe, Puget Sound Shipyards
Majorie Haskins- Press Room Crib, Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant
Delphine Klaput – Tool Crib, Glenn L Martin Co
Frances Masters Riveter, Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant
Carolyn Oliver – Riveter, Consolidated Vultee Plant
Ruth Pegowski –Riveter, Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant
Virginia Rusch- Soldering Nose Cones, Republic Aircraft
Jean Zaranko – Riveter, Willow Run B-24 Bomber Plant

Meeting our group in DC were…
Susan King—Riveter, Eastern Aircraft (from Pennsylvania)
Mae Krier– Riveter at Boeing (from Maryland)