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Brainerd's own 'Rosie the Riveter'

During World War II, the Rosie the Riveter character helped inspire workers on the homefront to produce gargantuan amounts of essential supplies in record time.

Jean Melby recalls her days as a “Rosie the Riveter” converting B-24 bomber aircraft into photo reconnaissance and radar planes at Holman Field in St. Paul. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)
Jean Melby recalls her days as a “Rosie the Riveter” converting B-24 bomber aircraft into photo reconnaissance and radar planes at Holman Field in St. Paul. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)

During World War II, the Rosie the Riveter character helped inspire workers on the homefront to produce gargantuan amounts of essential supplies in record time.

Today, Rosie the Riveter combined with the famous poster "We Can Do It!" serves as a symbol of feminine power: what dedicated women can do when they, too, roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Behind the enduring symbol were thousands of real women who stepped in when the war effort needed them. When their job was completed, the status of women in the American workplace would never truly be the same again.

One of those women lives in Brainerd, and her name is Jean Melby.

When she was a teenager and her last name was Orton, she labored in a Northwest Airlines conversion plant in the Twin Cities, modifying B-24 Liberator bombers with aftermarket radar and camera equipment. The work of Melby and her crew-in some instances considered highly secret-took out the bombing equipment of relatively crude death machines and changed them into state-of-the-art weapons in a rapidly evolving information war against the Axis.

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To Melby, though, it was just a job. She did it in part out of a sense of duty.

"Everyone was trying to get the war over as soon as they could," she said.

"You worried about what was going to happen next, because Pearl Harbor, it didn't seem really far away, and you worried something would happen in the United States."

The main attraction, though, was the pay: she went from receiving $7 per week working at a store to $1 per hour working at the aircraft plant.

After training at a school in St. Paul, Melby went on the line at a Northwest Airlines plant in 1943, only a year after she graduated from high school. Her job was bucking rivets; fasteners that can be described as similar to very thick nails with one flat end and one cylindrical end. When the other end of the rivet is flattened into its own head, or "bucked," the rivet can fasten two metal sheets together. Although it seems like monotonous work, Jean remembered the extremely low margin of error she operated under: correcting a mistake would risk widening the hole the rivet was supposed to go into, and ruining the metal sheet.

The working environment at the plant was deafening, and Jean has difficulty hearing today. Until VE Day in the spring of 1945, she worked multiple shifts a day, usually eight hours before she could go home for the night.

Jean and her female coworkers operated the plant alongside men who were classified as unsuited for military service. These included older men, men who had been wounded in combat and sent home, and those with mild physical disabilities. The men weren't hostile toward the women who joined them on the assembly line, Jean said.

"I think we all felt that we had to do our part," she said. "They were glad we were there to do our part, too."

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The modification assembly line she worked on removed the equipment that had to do with dropping bombs, and replaced it with things like extra fuel tanks, radar equipment and high-tech aerial cameras. The newly created photo reconnaissance aircraft could then fly in after bombing raids to study the effectiveness of the bomb hits.

Jean remembers one aircraft got a special early design for an automatic pilot system, which was so secret that it was removed from the plane every night, only to be put back in the next day.

Distinctly aware of the importance of their work, the assembly crew would try and communicate with the soldiers whose lives would be protected by the metal they put together.

"We even used to put notes in the planes, thinking that somebody would write back about it," Jean said. "(The notes said) that we worked on the plane, and hoped it helped."

The single women would put their phone numbers and addresses on the planes, in hopes an eligible airman would look them up.

Jean wrote letters to various male acquaintances serving overseas, including a Lloyd Melby-the man she would one day marry. When one of these men's letters would include information deemed sensitive by military censors, they would arrive in Jean's mailbox with black bars obscuring some of the lines, or with pieces of the paper cut out.

The letters from Lloyd didn't include much about combat. It could have been a way to avoid getting censored, but a more likely explanation is that those days were too difficult to talk about.

Jean remembers one of the very rare stories ever to come from his experiences in the war involved him firing his rifle for so long the barrel melted. A news clipping mentions that Lloyd, a Bronze Star recipient, was involved in a skirmish in the Philippines that killed 43 Japanese soldiers.

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Despite the horrors Lloyd had seen, he and Jean led a happy life together after he returned, enjoying the outdoors on hunting and fishing trips, and travelling. They were married for nearly 60 years before Lloyd passed away in 2005.

After her time in the aircraft plant, Jean kept working at various jobs for decades. Social convention at the time encouraged women to stay at home, but Jean chalked up her breaking of that convention to simple boredom rather than a specific desire to improve the status of women.

She had only one child to raise, and staying at home all day just wasn't enough to satisfy her relentless drive for living.

"It's been an interesting life," she said.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .

Jean Melby and her husband Lloyd are pictured in their wedding photo.
Jean Melby and her husband Lloyd are pictured in their wedding photo.

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