A Rosie by another name would still rivet just as sweet

  • Published
  • By Ashley M. Wright
  • 22 Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Connie Palacioz heard a radio announcement a week before graduating high school in 1943 that changed her fate forever.

"I heard they needed women workers for the war effort. I went and applied at the job opportunity office," she said. "They said we could go work for Boeing, but we had to go to a school first."

Palacioz arrived at the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita, Kansas after a 30-mile bus ride to learn her trade.

"I said 'I will do anything,'" she recalled more than 72 years later. "They said we need riveters. I said 'I will take that.'"

In two weeks' time, the instructors recognized her talent, and she was ready to go to work at the plant. The next day she showed up to the factory and spent her first day handing rivets to other Rosie the Riveters in the factory.

"I went to Department 330, which is where they were making just the pilot sections of the B-29 Superfortress," the Newton, Kansas native said. "I got to work on the first one."

Riveters worked in pairs with buckers. One would install the rivet and hit it with the gun, while the bucker would hold the red-hot rivet in place. On her first day, Palacioz was told there was not a bucker available. On day two, managers said a lady here is a bucker, but no one else will work with her because she is African American. That did not phase Palacioz, she had a job to get done.

"I would not to mind working with her," the Mexican American said. "They had her picking up trash. She was the best worker. We became a team, and afterwards everyone one wanted her as bucker. We never separated. We stayed as a team. We worked on all those B-29s together."

Just like the B-29, she and Gerry Warden grew to be an inseparable, well-tuned machine.

"We worked 12 hours a day even on Saturday and Sunday," she said with a heavy sigh. "We worked to get those planes [ready]. Gerry was such a good bucker, and I guess I did okay with my riveting. We could rivet a nose section [at rate of] about two a day. Then, the inspectors would come. When we built the 1,000th, we had a big celebration."

In addition, the two became good friends.

"She was such a good person," Palacioz said with a smile. "At first, she was a little scared because she was black, and no one wanted to work with her. After she got to know me, she would joke with me. If I missed something when I was riveting she would yell, 'Connie get on the ball!'"

The two stayed together until Boeing laid the workers off. Gerry moved to Denver, but the partners managed to stay in touch for about four years.

"I don't know what happened to her, if she got sick and passed away or what," Palacioz admitted. "I would give anything if I can see her again."

Together, the two worked on the pilot section of 1,600 B-29s. At one point, 45 percent of the 29,000 Boeing Wichita plant employees were women, according to the B-29 restoration website, Doc's Friends. Those employees produced more than three B-29s every day working around the clock.

The work of millions of women during the war effort was immortalized in everything from Normal Rockwell paintings to a Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb song announcing:
"All the day long,
Whether rain or shine,
She's a part of the assembly line.
She's making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter."

However, the movement of women taking on men's roles did not last too long after the war ended. Boeing laid the workers off in September 1945. But Ms. Connie, as she is called by some, did not regret a moment of it.

"I don't know what we would have done without us women in the war effort. Everybody was so willing to do what they could," she said. "We came to the plant to work to get our boys back here. It is amazing how much us women can do. I feel so proud that we had some good working women, and we did our job."

"In those days, men did everything," she said, thinking of how much has changed for women today. "But when they went to war, the ladies had to take over, and it is amazing how much us women can do. Today, we have engineers. We have pilots. Keep up the work."

One thing that has not changed is Palacioz' work ethic as she has spent the last 15 years making the same 30-mile drive to Wichita to restore "Doc," a B-29 rescued after spending 42 years in the Mojave Desert.

"The reason I become Rosie the Riveter [again] is because when I came to volunteer in 2000, I wanted to restore this aircraft because I worked on it," she said. The volunteers, who have dedicated more than 300,000 hours to the restoration project, decided right then and there that she would be Doc's Rosie.

Nearly every day, Palacioz walks by the original rivets she and Gerry installed seven decades earlier.

"This plane has the rivets that I put in it in 1943. They used [the body] for target practice, but they never touched the nose section," she said with a grin.

On March 23, the men and women of McConnell ceremoniously "accepted" the B-29 in a rollout event recreating March 23, 1945, when the plane was delivered to the Army Air Corps.

Tears welled up in Palacioz's eyes as the glistening, silver aircraft rolled out into the Kansas sunlight with the Air Force song and 1940s era music playing in the background.

"I could not help but cry," the 90-year-old said. "I got so emotional thinking about the old memories about the war, how we worked so hard and about all the ladies that were Rosie the Riveters that are not with us."

Seventy years after leaving the factory and 15 years of volunteering, Palacioz found closure.

She saw victory in the war. She survived the plant that employed her closing. But at a few inches under 5-feet tall, without her heels, and in her ninth decade, she is still riveting.

"I thank the Lord for giving me the privilege to be here," she concluded.