One of Everett’s “Rosie the Riveters”
By Teri Baker
Rosie the Riveter. Her picture was everywhere. A fit, young woman sporting a bandanna and wearing blue coveralls, sleeve rolled up and arm flexed to show a worker’s muscle. Her motto was “We can do it!”
Two days after arriving in Everett from Haugen, Wisconsin, Lorraine E. Smith answered her country’s call for female factory workers and went to work at the Boeing Branch Plant, located in what is now Everett Public Market. She knew she “could do it.”
“My two sisters and I grew up on an 80-acre farm,” she recalls. “We grew all our own food and had 14-17 cows to milk every night. We all worked, and we all worked hard” Looking on the bright side, she adds, “At least living on a farm during the Depression, we always had wood to burn to keep warm and food to eat.”
After high school graduation, Lorraine worked two full-time jobs in Highland Park, Illinois, one at a restaurant, the other as a telephone operator. “At the telephone company, they left me on my own and told me nothing,” she says. “Bells were ringing, the board was all lit up and there was no one to help. I was pretty nervous, but I finally found out how to shut the thing down.”
She moved to Chicago to work in a quilt factory and on the occasional weekend visited her uncle in Milwaukee. It was there that she met Army Tech. Sgt. Gordon Wells. It was 1942, and although they did not become engaged, Lorraine and Gordon had “an understanding” when the sergeant left to fight in Europe. In October 1943, Gordon’s parents, Orly and Lucy Wells, who had become close to Lorraine, decided to head to the West Coast to look for work. Dissatisfied with his job at a Wisconsin creamery, Orly felt he could be of more use in a “war job,” possibly at a shipyard. “They asked if I would like to go with them,” Lorraine says. “I said ‘yes’ and packed my clothes and my new little Singer sewing machine. They picked me up in a 1939 Buick, a real gas guzzler, and we headed west.”
The trio eventually arrived in Everett. Orly got a job the next day, and the family moved into a new, two-bedroom, partially furnished apartment at Baker Heights. A day later Lorraine was hired at Boeing, where she was required to wear overalls and a bandanna similar to Rosie the Riveter’s. The head scarf was a safety precaution to keep hair from catching and being wound onto the drill. She called the uniform her “tux.”
Everywhere she looked, Lorraine saw reminders that she was involved in a serious business. Walls displayed Rosie posters and signs that said “Buy Bonds” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Lorraine says, “You didn’t say ‘boo.’ Not a word. No one talked about what was being built or how many worked at the plant or anything else that might be useful to the enemy.”
Lorraine started out as a bucker. She explains, “When the riveter goes rat-a-tat-tat, the bucking bar flattens it on the other end.” It was not glamorous work, but it was vital to the war effort. Boeing had not yet built its great complex in Everett. To increase production, the company opened branch plants in Everett, Chehalis, Bellingham, Aberdeen and Tacoma. Initially, the branches accounted for 15 percent of the Seattle Division’s Flying Fortress (B-17) production, but that number soon increased to 20 percent.
A monthly branch edition of Boeing News was started and included small articles about the plant, along with personal events such as births, marriages, visits from sons in the military, etc. of branch employees. In the first Everett edition is a photo of former major league pitching great Cy Young working at the Everett plant as a jig-maker. Lorraine is in the background, clad in her Rosie uniform, operating – what else? – a riveter.
Lorraine still has the pay stub from one of her biggest checks from Boeing. For two weeks of work, including overtime, she was paid $77, a grand sum in those days. She recalls that to address the concerns of its “feminine employees,” Boeing added a “women’s supervisor and councilor” for each shift to be available at all times “either for discussion of ‘on the job’ problems or any other matters women wish to discuss.” Lorraine never went to her councilor, but her heart went out to those who did, women who received telegrams beginning, “We regret to inform you…” which meant a son, a husband, a father or a brother had been killed.
The war was never far away from Lorraine’s mind. She anxiously awaited the mail and was thrilled whenever she heard from her intended, even if the censors blacked out some of the words. Day after day she toiled, hoping for more mail, dreading the thought of a telegram. Then one afternoon, shortly after she checked in at work, an announcement blared from the loudspeaker. The war was over! “There was just this big celebration, then we went home” she recalls. “That was the last day we worked.”
She and Gordon married in 1946 and, along with Gordon’s siblings, lived with Orly and Lucy, who had by then purchased Olivia Park Store, until the young couple purchased a house nearby. “I was happy to be a stay-at-home mom,” Lorraine says. “We had been in the Depression, and we wanted better for our children.” She grows quiet for a moment and speaks of her generation: “I think we made it too good for them. There was just too much materialism.”
Lorraine, who taught sewing for 4-H, wove fabric and turned it into stunning garments. She has passed down her giant loom to her daughter. When Gordon died in 1984, Lorraine coped by staying active in church, maintaining friendships and continuing to travel at home and abroad. She started a daily journal that she still keeps up and became active in Widowed Information Consultation Services. It was at the Eagles Hall after a WICS meeting that she met John W. Smith. “John said he was going home to read a book,” she recalls with a smile, “but my friend Margaret found out he could dance and told him, ‘You are not going home!’” Being a gentleman, he asked Lorraine to dance, and in 1988, a year to the day after they met, John and Lorraine were married.
Among the couple’s interests are fishing and travel. Lorraine belongs to a “Rosies” organization and was honored along with 90 others in 2002 at Seattle Center by Washington Women in Trades Association.
Six decades have passed since Lorraine moved to Everett and first took her lunch pail to work at an airplane plant. Two more stars have been added to the flag. Boeing stopped making B-17s long ago. But the spirit of the Rosies, women like Lorraine Smith, lives on. Rosie’s poster said, “We can do it!”
And they did.
Source: Personal interview with Lorraine E. Smith, 2002.; WLP Story Number 20