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Anno Domini: We can do it! - A riveting story from World War II
January 20, 2011 Jerry Purvis   
Before we put the paper to bed each week and get it on the press, everything must be proofread by several staff members. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to read all of our columnists. And I’ve learned something from each, for whatever it’s worth.

I enjoy reading my friend, Herminia Flores. Her heart-warming nature really shows up in her writing. She’s just a fun person to know.

I also enjoy Tom Gribble’s timeline of World War II. My father and three uncles took part in that one, once the Americans got involved. Two of those uncles I never met, as they didn’t make it home.
For several years, there’s been a concerted effort to get the personal stories of those World War II veterans written down and recorded, as we’re losing so many of them so fast. As I asked in an earlier column, what will happen to that first-hand, primary history when those who were there are no longer here?

One of those who are no longer here wasn’t involved directly in the combat mission. Instead, by mere happenstance, she became one of the faces of the home front. And a famous one at that.
Her married name was Geraldine Doyle from Lansing, Mich., who died on Dec. 26, 2010 at the age of 86. When she was much younger, her picture became the inspiration for a graphic artist to create one of the iconic characters of World War II – Rosie the Riveter.

It was 1942 and America was at war. Geraldine Hoff was 17 at the time and went to work as a metal presser in a factory in Ann Arbor, Mich. Then one day, a photographer from United Press International came to the factory to document the contribution of women to the war effort.

He spotted Geraldine in her coveralls, hair tied up in a bandana and peering into a machine while gripping the handle on a crank wheel.
The resulting picture ended up on the desk of J. Howard Miller, a graphic artist for Westinghouse. He was working on a series of posters aimed at building morale within the corporation. With

Geraldine as inspiration, Miller sketched a brunette in a red and white polka-dot bandana with rolled up sleeves and flexing her right arm. Underneath was the slogan “We can do it!”

With that poster, Rosie the Riveter was born. Although she was a caricature, Rosie, Geraldine and millions more were real. They were the women of America whose husbands, fiancées and boyfriends were fighting a war far from home.

“Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie. Charlie, he’s a Marine. Rosie is protecting Charlie, working overtime on the riveting machine.” Those are some of the words from the 1942 song obviously named “Rosie the Riveter.” It was a big hit during the big band era.

These women were trained not only as riveters, but also as welders, plumbers, carpenters and electricians. They packed parachutes, assembled bombs, and even ferried planes from the manufacturing plants to the air bases. Their contribution was an essential part of our final victory over Japan and Germany in 1945.

Until America entered World War II, millions of women had never worked outside the home before. The idea of taking an outside job was a totally new idea. But it was an idea they embraced, as the female workforce grew by 6.5 million. By 1943, their number was closer to 15 million.

It was September 1943 when some of the nation’s major magazines devoted their covers to women at work. That tied in with motion pictures, newspapers, radio, the trade press, employee publications and in-store displays.

Perhaps one of the best known illustrations of Rosie the Riveter was featured on the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post” – a painting by famed artist Norman Rockwell. A side note: In 2002, that Rockwell painting was auctioned by the highfalutin Sothebey’s auction house for nearly $5 million.

I suppose the underlying theme of all this publicity was that women in the workforce were now a patriotic responsibility, not just a social change. It was also an opportunity for the nation’s businesses to support the war economy.

With the arrival of V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, America’s soldiers returned to the workforce and America’s women happily returned home to raise families. Rosie became the happy homemaker hawking detergent and a host of other consumer products for the new American economy.

These women had seen real deprivation during the Great Depression and lived with an uncertain dread during the war. So they wanted to make sure their children would never have to go through what they did.

Consequently, they gave their children everything. Although their hearts were in the right place, the nation is still dealing with the blowback from children who were given everything. But that’s another story for another time.

So what happened to Geraldine? Well, after her famous photo was taken, she only worked in the plant a few more weeks. As a cellist, she didn’t want to injure her hands, something that happened to her predecessor.

Geraldine quit her factory job and took a position at a bookstore, where she met a young dental student named Leo Doyle. They married and she ended up managing her husband’s dental office.

It’s wasn’t until 1984 that Geraldine, then with six children, saw her photo in a copy of “Modern Maturity” magazine and learned that she was the unwitting inspiration for Rosie the Riveter.

What started as a morale booster during World War II became an icon of our popular culture. The Rosie the Riveter poster even ended up on a U.S. postage stamp in 1999.

The death of Geraldine Hoff Doyle last December reminds me of just how fast the eyewitnesses to World War II are joining the passing parade. Their lives and times deserve to be chronicled into our history as a lasting tribute – when those who were there are no longer here.


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