From THE WAR, Episode 2
NARRATOR: Emma Belle Petcher was from the tiny town of Millry, Alabama. Most of her girlfriends had taken secretarial jobs once they’d gotten out of high school, but Emma Belle, like her father, loved to take things apart.
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: I always fixed my own appliances at home, growing up. The washing machine got a nail in the pump. I took the pump apart and took the nail out of the housing of the pump. And, you know, run, I didn’t have the patience to call in a repairman who would be, maybe three days later and he wouldn’t tell you morning or evening, so I’d empty the washing machine, turn it upside down, take the screwdrivers and, course I, I knew how to do all this stuff. So, I packed my little cardboard suitcase and got on the bus and went to Mobile. So they put me in a school to learn airplane accessories – that was starters, generators, alternators and some other things. So we did those parts, just those little instruments, over and over and over until graduation. We had to almost put them together blindfolded.
NARRATOR: Petcher breezed through all her tests and got a job working on airplanes. By 1943, six million women had entered the work force, and nearly half of them were working in defense plants. LIFE magazine paid tribute to the mythical “Rosie the Riveter” as “neither drudge nor slave but the heroine of a new order.” In Mobile, 2500 women worked at Alabama Dry Dock, twelve hundred at Gulf Shipbuilding, and 750 at Brookley Field, where Emma Belle Petcher worked her way up to inspector, responsible for quality control.
EMMA BELLE PETCHER: You would be assigned X number of planes to be responsible for. I was to inspect the torque in the screws in the wings, and go into the gas tanks, and crawl up in the wings with flashlights. Well, I was so conscientious, I just didn’t make the mistakes.
KATHARINE PHILLIPS: I worked at the government nursery school which was downtown in Christ Church rectory and we had the children of the women that worked in the shipyards. “Rosie the Riveter” would come bring her child in all of her headgear and her togs that she did her riveting in and drop her precious little baby off and go down and work all day and come back at five o’clock and pick the child up.
NARRATOR: So many children flooded into Mobile that its overrun schools were pronounced the worst in the nation by the U.S. Office of Education.