By Elizabeth C. Crann
At 79, Josephine Rachiele’s memories of her contributions to the United States during WWII are as crisp as though they happened yesterday. Although the United States was at war, she has fond memories of a time when people pitched in to help the war effort.
Most of Rachiele’s friends refer to her not as Josephine or “Josie,” but as “Rosie,” and she doesn’t mind at all. After all, she’s very proud of what the nickname symbolizes. She was a “Rosie” during WWII—a Rosie the Riveter to be exact.
When the U.S. entered WWII, many women sprang into action by accepting jobs that the men were not around to take as they went off to war. The slogan, “Do The Job He Left Behind,” was born. A WWII poster, commissioned by the War Production Coordinating Committee depicting “Rosie The Riveter,” was used to encourage women to join the war production workforce.
The women, contributing in different ways, soon had a song dedicated to them. “Rosie the Riveter,” by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, proclaimed, “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. Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage, sitting up there on the fuselage. That little girl will do more than a male will do. Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie. Charlie, he’s a Marine. Rosie is protecting Charlie, working overtime on the riveting machine. When they gave her a production ‘E,’ she was as proud as she could be. There’s something true about, red, white and blue, about, Rosie the Riveter.”
Rachiele, and many women like her, riveted together the parts of P-47 fighter planes at Republic Aviation on Long Island where the aviation manufacturer had its plant.
“Being a Rosie the Riveter proved we could do the jobs men traditionally did,” she said.
Rachiele started at 60 cents an hour.
“By the time the war ended, I was making 90 cents an hour,” she said. This was still a far cry from the $10 a week Rachiele was making in a coat factory prior to joining Republic.
“What an interview that was,” Rachiele laughed as she recounted those special days, from her West Babylon, Long Island home. “I never wore slacks in my life. Suddenly I had to buy slacks. I also had to buy coveralls; but I’ll admit, I looked pretty good.”
It wasn’t all “Rosie” at first. Rachiele had originally applied for a mail girl position, but instead was hired as a riveter.
“I had to handle a big fat drill. I was scared to death,” Rachiele confessed. “I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t; there was a war on.”
As the days wore on, though, Rachiele became a very adept riveter.
“There were a few young men, and the supervisors were men, but by and large women were working in the plant,” she said.
With both Grumman and Republic on Long Island, Rachiele recalled that traffic on the roads was at times overwhelming.
“At one time there were 32,000 to 33,000 people employed by both of these companies,” she said. “We were all clocking in at 8 a.m. Eventually, Republic started its day at 7 a.m., so its workers could travel with less traffic.”
Republic wanted to make sure morale remained strong as their workers produced the P-47 Thunderbolts. Rachiele vividly remembers visits from the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Buddy Rich and comedian Spike Jones.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. “Tommy Dorsey did two shows in the hangar for 4,200 people. I still have the tape of that night. We also had a company band. We worked in Building 17, which had a very wide aisle; we called it Broadway. Another aisle was named 42nd Street. Even though it was war time, we had a lot of fun.”
Rachiele’s two sisters, Sarah and Theresa, also worked in the Republic plant. Sarah sharpened drills and Theresa was a secretary at the plant. “We were all doing our best to help the war effort,” Rachiele said.
Their father, Biagio, not to be outdone by having three daughters in a defense plant, became an auxiliary policeman.
“He was assigned to the streets of West Babylon where we lived,” she said. “During the war, we all had to make sure there were no lights visible from the street in case of enemy attack. My father would walk the streets and tap on people’s doors, alerting them to pull their shades down tightly or turn off a light that was glowing too brightly.”
Many of those who were stateside also wrote to soldiers on the battlefield to help lift their morale. Rachiele’s pen pal, a local boy named Frank Colombo, died the same day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, April 12, 1945.
“I sent him a letter telling him about the Tommy Dorsey concert at the plant. It was returned stamped ‘deceased’,” Rachiele recalled. “I never opened that letter for years. Finally about four or five years ago, I opened it to see what I had told him. I still visit him in Pine Lawn cemetery.”
When the war ended, Rachiele ceded her job to a returning soldier. A year later, however, she was back at Republic where she stayed for the next 40 years, retiring in 1946. During that time, she built many planes, including the A-10 Thunderbolt II, employed during Desert Storm.
“We had a local pilot over there whose mother was worried about his safety,” she recalled. “I assured her that he was well protected by the titanium on the bottom of the airplane. I wrote to him a few times and was even invited to his homecoming.”
When asked how she feels about today’s possibility of war with Iraq, Rachiele responds, “I’m afraid we shouldn’t, but what are we going to do with this guy (Saddam Hussein)?”
She adds that while she was a Rosie the Riveter, everyone was dedicated, and did whatever needed to be done.
“We were very patriotic,” she said, adding that she doesn’t know if people are as motivated today.
Rachiele is still active in aviation and keeping the memories of that time alive. She gives talks at museums, including Long Island’s Cradle of Aviation Museum. She belongs to Republic’s retirees club which meets about once a week, and to the P-47 Alumni Association. She has also served on the Long Island Republic Historical Society.
“I’m still plane-minded,” she mused.