Soon after the bombs and torpedoes devastated Pearl Harbor and ushered the United States into WWII, infuriated American males lined up at recruiting stations to seek their revenge. In other long lines, American females applied for normally male-dominated factory jobs so the men could go to war. Millions of these women learned trades and skills never before offered to females. Collectively and individually, these women mechanics, welders and production line workers would virtually work their way into the history books as Rosie the Riveter.
Societal status fell to the wayside as debutantes, housewives, mothers and daughters, even dirt poor farm girls were judged by their talents and adaptability instead of wealth or celebrity. The famous and well-recognized Rosie the Riveter poster from WWII was a highly successful propaganda tool utilized by the War Department, yet a bit misleading. A good percentage of the women entering the work force did not adapt to a chosen field, like welding or fabrication, but instead of being “sacked” from their job, plant supervision found work they could do.
I had the honor to interview a “real Rosie” at her modest home in Hampton, Fla. Born and raised in Hamilton, W.Va., Betty Webster Bishop and her family moved to Charlottes, W.Va., when she was a young child. Bishop described what she called, “My hillbilly days,” in West Virginia.
“Shoot, we lived in the sticks. Our house was just a shanty, and I remember the Great Depression like it was yesterday. My mom made pancakes with flour and water … and apple butter, if we were lucky. We lived a few feet from the railroad tracks so a lot of bums riding the rail would come along and Mom would feed them, too. We had kerosene lamps for lighting and things were tough, but I’m 96 years old and still don’t wear glasses and have all my teeth, so a tough life never hurt me. My brother utilized a Model-T frame and put wheels on it that fit the railroad track. We had the best fun riding up and down the railroad tracks in a modified Model-T railroad car.”
Bishop described a “special” treat. “The shanty wasn’t much of a house, but we survived. We used kerosene lamps, and I reckon we were poor, but we didn’t go hungry. We missed things like peaches and apples and oranges, but my older sister worked at the TB hospital so she could save to go to college. She would come home from the TB hospital with oranges.…man, that was a big treat! We made it OK. Mom papered houses and got hungry when folks cooked food. Dad worked as a lumberman and a train engineer. Dad started operating the train in 1913, Ole’ #4 out of Cast, W.Va. Ole’ #4 is still running today as a scenic attraction.”
The rock: “There was a big rock, I guess you’d call it a boulder, in the woods behind the shanty. Mom loved that rock; it had designs all over it. The rock was in Shaw, W.Va., near Elk Garden, and Mom was real unhappy when the area was flooded to form Jennings Randolph Lake. But we found out later Mom’s rock had been excavated and now sits at the head of the dam.”
The move to Tidioute, Penn: “We moved to Tidioute, population about 500, less than 130 miles south of Niagara Falls. That’s where I spent my teenager years. I was the editor of our high school paper.”
Pearl Harbor: “Sure, I remember Pearl Harbor, but the weird thing is, it wasn’t that big of a deal until the war really came to our hometown. We were seniors by 1943, and suddenly the boys were going off to war. I know it sounds strange, but we sort of played at being patriotic, I mean, we were teenagers, then suddenly our boyfriends were overseas. One boy went in with a known heart condition, how he got in was a mystery to us … I remember doing his homework for him. He was the first to sign up, and he was the first to get killed.”
Niagara Falls: “One of my girlfriends was already working at the Bell Plant in Wheatfield, N.Y., near Niagara Falls. Just about all of the kids from Tidioute went to work at the Bell Plant. I had two weeks of orientation and training, then went to work fabricating metal for the P-39 Airacobra fighter. Well, I wasn’t too good at it, so they moved me over to the production line for the P-63 Kingcobra. Out of 21 workers on the landing gear gang, I was the only female. There was a little hole in the wing where the landing gear came down and a man’s hand couldn’t fit down there, but mine could. We synchronized the landing gears, bled the brakes, filled the oxygen lines, things like that.”
NOTE: The P-39s and P-63s were not up to the standards of the new breed of fighters coming off production lines, airplanes like the P-38 Lightning, the P-47 Thunderbolt, or the celebrated P-51 Mustang. The vast majority of Bell fighters were shipped to Russia under the Lend-Lease program. The Russians used the Bell fighters with great success as ground support aircraft. It is widely believed that the Russians used the Bell planes primarily as “tank killers,” but their major function was low-level dogfights with German planes. “Ground support” via Russian jargon was entirely different than the American definition.
On her pay and the Russians: “My starting pay was $28 per week, and I don’t remember any pay increases. But we got by just fine. I remember the day Russian technicians visited the plant to evaluate production and inspect the planes. Shoot, we got their autographs, I mean, those guys were sharp dressers, and teenage girls notice those type of things.”
When asked if she ever sat in the cockpit, Betty replied, “Shoot, I took naps in them!” Asked if she ever flew in a Bell fighter, she replied, “Yeah, they offered me a chance, but since it only had one seat and I’d have to fly the thing myself, I turned them down. I think they were teasing me.”
Her future husband at war: “My future husband, and only one for that matter, served in the Army. He drove tanks and half-tracks all the way from Normandy plus one all the way to Berlin, including the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded two Purple Hearts, but never talked about his time in the war.”
The war ends, but not the casualties: “As the war was coming to an end, we knew our jobs would be ending, too. I took a leave of absence to be with my pregnant sister down in Florida, but they offered me vacation and severance pay so I took both and my duty was done. My sister’s husband, Max, served with Patton as an L-4 Grasshopper pilot (Piper J-3 Cub, utilized as an observation and utility aircraft). Patton asked Max to stay with him after the war was over to help him with things. One week after Patton died from a vehicle accident, Max was killed flying over the Alps. Max went down in December of ‘45. They didn’t recover his body until July of ‘46, his body perfectly preserved due to the frigid temperatures in the Alps.”
Her thoughts on being a Rosie the Riveter: “I didn’t think about it for years, then the Commemorative Air Force out of Peachtree City (Falcon Field) got in touch with me about a P-63 coming into the airport and wanted me to be there. What an honor. They named it after me. You know, the Bell Plant was my first job, first paycheck and first time away from home, but we didn’t think we were doing anything special. Then some rah-rah guys came through with motivational speeches, and suddenly we realized just how important we actually were. Oh, the Bell Plant also had what I believe was the first jet (P-59 Airacomet). We had to get special permission just to look at it; the airplane was heavily guarded. Man, did it look weird, with those big open ducts and sleek airframe. I was walking past the back of the jet when the thing started … almost blew me across the field!”
Her final thoughts: “I still love America; but it’s not America’s fault what they’ve done to it. They sure have messed it up, but I haven’t given up on her yet. I’ve lived through 16 presidents; Biden will be 17, and I always figured whoever won, well, you just accept them and the world moves on. But after Trump was elected, and I saw the way they were beating up on him, well, there’s no respect left for the office.”
Bishop’s sons, Rylie and Rim, joined us for the interview. Bishop lost two of her sons, one to cancer, the other via exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Certainly one of the most enjoyable interviews ever, we laughed and cut up the entire time. When looking at one of her photos from WWII, I made the comment, “Shoot, Betty, you were hot to trot back then.” She replied, “Still was, up until about two years ago!”
God bless the Greatest Generation.