A photo from her factory days, earrings shaped like B-25 bombers and a heart-shaped pendant made from a plane’s plastic windshield are some artifacts Vera Davis has collected
South Kansas City resident recalls her Rosie the Riveter days
Photos and story by Jill Draper
One day in August, exactly 75 years ago, Vera Davis stepped out of her aunt’s 5th floor apartment at Linwood and Troost in Kansas City to start a new job. She boarded a streetcar, made three transfer changes and arrived an hour later at the correct location. “How I found it I’ll never know,” she says.
She doesn’t remember how she heard about the job, either. Until then she had lived her whole life on a family farm near Grant City in northern Missouri, helping milk cows before and after school, enjoying homemade ice cream almost every summer evening, and playing croquet on a hilltop court. She attended college in Maryville for two months, but decided that wasn’t for her.
Instead, she found herself that morning in 1943 dressed in slacks, a cotton button-up blouse and hard-toed shoes with a bandana from Kresge’s dime store wrapped around her hair. She was one of millions across the country represented by the “Rosie the Riveter” character depicted on World War II posters. Although women held many types of wartime jobs from operating cranes to soldering wires to organizing inventory, Davis was a riveter, working on B-25 bombers at the Fairfax assembly plant operated by North American Aviation in Kansas City, Kan.
The B-25 (and its many variants) was a sturdy, versatile aircraft used in every theater of the war. It first became famous when Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle struck mainland Japan with a fleet of 16 bombers four months after the Pearl Harbor attack. During peak production at the Fairfax plant there were 24,000 workers. Women on the payroll numbered more than 9,000 and worked in 98 of 100 departments.
Installing rivets on the wings of the bombers involved four steps, and Davis did all of them during the two and a half years she worked there, drilling holes, placing the rivets in position by hand, driving them in with a rivet gun, and bucking them from the backside.
She was paid 95 cents an hour, later receiving a raise to $1.05. “In those days, it was pretty good money,” she remembers.
She and her co-workers stood on tables to reach the wings that stood vertically as they rolled along an assembly line. It wasn’t hard or dangerous, she says, although once she accidentally stepped off the table and fell, causing a commotion. But it was boring.
“Every morning you knew exactly what you were going to be doing all day. It was as monotonous as could be, and very noisy. You were glad when the whistle blew at the end of the day. But it was a necessary thing. We had to do it.”
When the war ended Davis was happy to quit her factory job. She became a waitress at the California Ranch House, where she enjoyed a greater variety of tasks and a hot lunch. There she met her first husband, Charles McDougal, who later served as a paratrooper in Korea where he died as a prisoner of war.
Davis worked at a real estate and loan company before retiring. She married Floyd Davis, who was comptroller and assistant treasurer of the Kansas City Star, and in 1967 they were among the first residents to settle in the Verona Hills subdivision.
Now 93, she still lives in her Verona Hills home. But other parts of her life have disappeared. Her aunt’s apartment has been torn down, and the Kresge’s where she bought her bandanas closed years ago. The B-25 bomber factory was converted to a General Motors plant after the war, and in 1989 it was razed to make room for a new $1 billion Fairfax plant. Her husband and many of her friends have died.
The last of the “Rosies,” too, will surely slip away sometime in the next decade. But their stories and their pride in supporting the war effort will remain. As Davis says, “It had to be done.”