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Homefront memories: Mid-valley women look back on their roles in the war effort

Homefront memories: Mid-valley women look back on their roles in the war effort

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Several months ago, the Democrat-Herald published a story about a woman from Lebanon, Sally Craig, who was a Rosie the Riveter, one of millions of American women who worked in factories during World War II.

We believed she was the last living Rosie in the mid-valley, but readers let us know that wasn’t the case. And we received so much positive response to the story that we decided to write about other mid-valley Rosies.

Memorial Day weekend seemed to be an appropriate time to tell those stories. They appear below.

The American Rosie the Riveter Association is trying to locate women who worked on the homefront during World War II.

Thousands of women supported the war effort as welders, electricians, inspectors in plants, uniform and parachute seamstresses, ordnance workers, bandage rollers, clerical workers and, yes, riveters.

These women have stories of World War II experiences that are of historical value and many perhaps have never been told. The American Rosie the Riveter Association wants to acknowledge these women with a certificate and have their stories placed in archives.

The association is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to recognize and preserve the history and legacy of working women during World War II.

If you are a woman (or descendant of a woman) who worked during World War II, or if you just want more information, call 888-557-6743 or send an email to americanrosietheriveter2@yahoo.com. The organization can also be contacted by mail at: American Rosie the Riveter Association, P.O. Box 188, Kimberly, AL 35091.

Yvonne Fasold of Eugene is the national president of the association. She can be contacted at 541-343-4223 or fasold@uoregon.edu.

Lola Ragan

ALBANY — Eulalia “Lola” Atencio Ragan lived with her family on a small farm outside Albuquerque, N.M. during the Great Depression, so when her family moved to Los Angeles during World War II, it almost felt like escaping.

“We never had money,” said Ragan, 90. “A loaf of bread only cost 5 cents, but often, we didn’t have 5 cents. Fortunately, we had our own chickens and we could make do.”

Ragan said there were no jobs in Albuquerque, so in 1942, the family boarded up the windows of their home, loaded everyone into the car and headed west.

“I’ll never forget this trip,” Ragan noted in a letter she wrote about the adventure. “It was so hot, if you rolled the windows down it felt like fire blowing through the car. The only stops I remember were to replenish our water supply.”

An Albany resident since 1978, Ragan, her father, Patrico, and older sister, Rosela (Rosie), quickly found work at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank.

They also found a small apartment for all six family members.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, this was the best we could do,” Ragan said. “It was a struggle, but our mom always made sure we had plenty to eat. She could make a feast out of nothing.”

Lola, Rosie and their dad commuted to Lockheed for some time, and the family eventually found a two-room house with no bathroom in North Hollywood.

A family emergency forced her parents and two younger siblings — Tillie and Joe — to move back to New Mexico.

“Rose and I stayed on and continued to work at Lockheed Aircraft,” Ragan said. “We had never been separated from our family, so we spent the majority of our off time crying. However, we eventually got used to it and after a while, I never wanted to go back to Albuquerque.”

Ragan has a photo of herself and her sister working in a small parts room at Lockheed and a pay stub detailing her earnings for 1944, all of $677.42.

“Often, Rose and I would work on the same wing of a P-38,” Ragan said. “We took turns running the rivet gun because it was so heavy. We also worked in stocking and supplies and in the machine shop, making small parts for the plane.”

The P-38 was used extensively as a long-range escort fighter, especially in the Pacific Theater early in the war. It eventually was replaced by the P51D Mustang.

The factory work could be dangerous. Ragan said she got her hair net caught in a drill press and escaped harm after another worker turned the machine off.

“I couldn’t reach the switch and it was so noisy in the plant, other workers couldn’t hear me,” she said.

Ragan, just 18 at the time, said the Lockheed plant “seemed very big to me.”

She said many of the workers were from New Mexico and would gather on weekends to have dances like they did back home, which made it easier to be away from family.

After the war, Rosela, who was 3 years older than her sister, went back to Albuquerque.

Ragan went to work at a women’s clothing store.

“I started at Christmas and I worked fast, so they liked me,” she said. “I stayed there several years.”

She also managed a doughnut shop, was a housewife for several years in the early 1950s and then got into the electronics industry in 1958.

After her first husband died, she met and married Bill Ragan in 1960. He was in the plastic moulding industry. They lived in San Jose for several years, moving to Oregon in 1978 after Bill recovered from a motorcycle crash.

They worked at Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis until she retired in 1993 and he retired in 1994.

“We really liked working there,” Ragan said.

They have three daughters: Bonnie Thorne, who lives in North Albany, Sandra Ragan of Scappoose, and Patricia Weed, who lives near Sacramento.

They also have four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Ragan enjoys volunteering with RSVP, is a foster grandparent, and works with bilingual grade school students. She also enjoys painting and crafting dolls.

She feels connected to other Rosies and has gathered materials detailing their stories.

And she hasn’t lost any of her adventurous spirit. She and Bill are scheduled to take a hot air balloon ride today, to celebrate her 90th birthday.

Irene Johnson

LEBANON — Junction City native Irene Johnson had never been afraid of hard work, so welding oil tankers at the Swan Island shipyards in Portland during World War II was right up her alley.

Johnson, 94, graduated from high school in 1937 and was married with two children when the war broke out.

The family moved to Portland and her husband, Marion, joined the Merchant Marines. Johnson became a welder.

“I took second place in a welding contest at the shipyards,” Johnson said when asked if she was good at the trade.

Her first weld may have been the toughest.

“I had five days of welding school and they told me to weld a piece on the ceiling of the engine room,” Johnson said. “It was a D shape and I remembered to tack weld both sides and work from there. I watched them run a heavy chain through it and lift an engine up with guys working under it. I was plenty worried, but it held.”

Johnson said she earned about $1.30 per hour and still has her last check, for 69 cents.

“I had measles and hadn’t gotten in many hours,” she laughed.

Johnson — whose nickname since high school has been Rene — worked the swing shift, starting about 3 p.m. and getting off about 11:30 p.m. She and her children lived in a housing complex for workers. The complex also offered child care.

“I’d take the kids to the nursery and go to work and pick them up the next morning,” she said. “The kids slept there. I had a 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.

“We never thought we were doing anything special,” she said. “It was something you had to do. I always try to do what has to be done.”

Johnson said it was often difficult to weld when she was suspended on a floating scaffolding.

After the war, Johnson and her husband moved back to Junction City and had another five children.

“I worked at a poultry plant and drove a truck with eggs, chickens and turkeys to Portland,” she said.

Her husband died in 1993, and she has lived at The Oaks since 2001.

She enjoys oil painting and playing bingo and pinochle.

Johnson said she doesn’t think about the war effort very often, except when someone asks her about it.

“I am proud of what we did,” she said. “It felt good to help out.”

Jean Allen

LEBANON — Having pulled green chain in Sweet Home as a teenager, Jean (Evans) Allen was no stranger to doing a man’s job when she went to work as a welder at the Kaiser Shipyards in 1942.

“I quit high school my junior year and worked at Santiam Lumber and at a plywood mill,” Allen said. “I had a friend who lived in Vancouver and said I could get a job at the shipyards.”

Now 89 and living at The Oaks in Lebanon, Allen was 18 and married when she headed north to learn a new trade — welding.

“They sent me to welding school and it was a bit scary,” Allen said. “I hadn’t been away from home much and I got homesick quite a bit.”

She worked on aircraft carriers, although she doesn’t remember their names.

“I remember that my mother, Thelma Evans, rode the bus up to watch one of the ships launched and she loved it,” Allen said. “She thought it was wonderful.”

Allen said there were about three men for every woman working at the plant.

“I worked with shipfitters a lot,” she said. “I was small and could fit into places upside down.”

Allen said she and other Rosies welded together numerous gun turrets, what she called plate work.

Allen said working at the shipyards is also where she learned about diversity.

East Linn County “wasn’t very diverse in those days, and at the shipyards, there were many African-Americans who had come here from the South to work,” she said. “It was a new experience.”

One of Allen’s most valued mementoes is her last check from the shipyards, issued on June 24, 1945.

It’s for 3 cents.

“I had worked a day and by the time they took out war bonds and taxes, that’s what was left,” she said with a grin.

Her first husband, Dale, served in the Army in Africa and Italy and was headed to France when the war ended. He was transferred to a base in California, where Allen said they lived in a trailer near Paso Robles.

After his discharge from military service, the family headed back to Lacomb, where they had grown up and had three children.

“We ran a restaurant in La Pine and I had a lunch room at Lacomb,” Allen said. “Dale was a mechanic.”

The couple later divorced.

She remarried, to Bill Allen, who died in 2005.

She has lived at The Oaks since last August.

Thinking back to the wartime years, Allen said she viewed the rationing of key materials on the homefront as “something that was accepted. I don’t think our young people of today would be happy to do it. We accepted it as a part of the situation.”

Allen said she is proud of what she did during the war and added, “there were many people who had it a lot worse than I did.”

Virginia Lester

LEBANON — It’s been nearly 70 years since Virginia Lester welded oil tankers at the Swan Island shipyards in Portland during WWII.

“But I think I could still weld pretty good right now,” Lester said, waving her arms and laughing.

A Roseburg-area farm girl, Lester, then Virginia Dysert, was 17 when she graduated from high school in 1942, and she got married the following October.

The young couple moved to Portland, where her husband had a job at the shipyards. When she turned 18 on April 2, 1943, she learned to weld and joined her husband in the war effort.

“He was a lead man on the second shift, and once I learned all three welds, I was able to work the same shift,” Lester said. “I was the only woman on an all-male team. They were very nice people and treated me great. They teased me, but I could take it and they didn’t let anyone get smart-mouthed with me.”

She earned $1.42 per hour, the same as her male counterparts.

Although Lester was a “country bumpkin,” she enjoyed learning about new things from the men and women who came from all corners of the country looking for work.

“I was interested in seeing how other people lived, talked, and what they thought,” Lester said. “I planned potlucks to meet their wives and families.”

Lester recalled the World War II era as “so different than now. Everybody was involved. There was rationing on everything, including gasoline. My mother used to save her gas stamps up so I could use them to come home on holidays. Everyone was working for the war effort.”

Lester said she “loved welding, especially once I got good enough to do the finish work.”

“I also was a leak fixer,” Lester recalled with pride. “I worked with a chipper who would chip off the paint and they would put water on one side of the hull and I’d look for the leaks and fix them.”

Lester said working from a swinging scaffold was a bit scary, but overall, “It was fun work and good people to work with.”

And after work, she said, Portland was abuzz with things to do.

“The movie theaters were open around the clock, and sometimes we’d get off work at 11:30 p.m. and go to a movie before heading home to bed,” she said.

Lester wishes she would have taken photos during the war years, and she didn’t stay in contact with other workers.

“I kept in touch with my old boss for a while, but that eventually died out,” she said.

She also enjoyed golf, as well as bowling, a hobby she still enjoys.

“I bowl three days a week, but I may cut that to two days,” Lester said. “I tell people I do it to be social and for exercise, but if I bowl a good game, well, that’s a blessing.”

Lester worked at the shipyards until the end of the war and then found there weren’t many places that wanted to hire a female welder.

“Besides, it wasn’t something I was looking to do,” Lester said.

She had two children, and she and her first husband eventually divorced.

In 1965, she married Larry Lester, who had five children. He died in 1998.

They lived on a farm on Courtney Creek and another on Highway 228 near Brownsville and raised Appaloosa horses.

She has nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren with another one on the way. A daughter and grandson live with her.

Lester called being a Rosie the Riveter, “a good time and a bad time.”

She enjoyed watching the ship-launching ceremonies, although she doesn’t remember the names of any of the ones she helped build.

“It made you feel proud knowing that you were a part of it,” she said.

— Compiled by Alex Paul. Reach him at alex.paul@lee.net

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