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WWII riveters return one last time to bomber plant

Jun. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Wilma Rees, 90, of Arizona (right) and her twin sister, Amelia Kizer, 90, of Nebraska, members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA), worked on B-17 bombers at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle during World War II. Members of ARRA toured a portion of the former GM Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township. The 5-million-square-foot plant was built by Henry Ford to make B-24 bombers for the military during World War II and is likely to be destroyed by GM's bankruptcy trust to make way for new development.
Wilma Rees, 90, of Arizona (right) and her twin sister, Amelia Kizer, 90, of Nebraska, members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA), worked on B-17 bombers at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle during World War II. Members of ARRA toured a portion of the former GM Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township. The 5-million-square-foot plant was built by Henry Ford to make B-24 bombers for the military during World War II and is likely to be destroyed by GM's bankruptcy trust to make way for new development. (James Fassinger / Detroit Free Press)
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YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, MICH. — Rosie the Riveter returned to her factory, just a few months before it’s likely to be demolished.

The former Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti Township — built by Henry Ford to make planes for the military during World War II and later used as a General Motors powertrain plant — is likely to be razed later this year to make way for new development.

Three women who worked at the bomber factory came back Saturday for the first time since the war in a trip organized by the American Rosie the Riveter Association. Another 27 “Rosies” who worked in war production at other plants also attended.

With the sun splattering the industrial wreckage strewn about the gravel surface outside the abandoned factory, the Rosies peered up at the plant’s 150-foot-wide, 36-foot-tall bay doors as they swung open.

Those doors, an engineering marvel, opened 8,685 times to allow B24 bombers to roll out and onto the neighboring Willow Run Airport for immediate test flights during the war.

“I want to go to work!” said former Willow Run bomber plant worker Blanche Mericle, 95, of Belleville, Mich., as the bay doors opened.

The visit came as the nearby Yankee Air Museum is trying to raise $5 million in two months through SaveTheBomberPlant.org to acquire a 175,000-square-foot portion of the 5-million-square-foot factory to save space from demolition and convert into its future home.

“We’re going to do our best to preserve a little bit of your history,” Yankee Air Museum founder Dennis Norton told the Rosies gathered to visit the bomber plant.

The GM bankruptcy trust, which is soliciting demolition bids for the plant, has agreed to sell a sliver of the factory to the museum if it can reach its fund-raising goal. The rest will be torn down to make the property more marketable for future development.

The doors finished their climb, and Mericle’s eyes opened wide as memories flooded back.

“It was hot in here,” she said, strolling carefully into the plant with her nephew providing stability. “The afternoon shift was better because of the air.”

Before the war, women rarely worked in American factories. But by the time the plant shut down, women made up 40 percent of its workforce. They could make up to $300 a month, just like men, and often earned promotions, said Treasurer Randy Hotton of the Yankee Air Museum.

Sporting red bandanas, blue shirts and white hats emblazoned with “Rosie” in red stitching, the women bore a resemblance to Rosie the Riveter, a fictional icon that the U.S. government created to encourage women to enter the industrial workforce during the war.

But Rosie had real roots. One of the women credited with popularizing the image was Rose Will Monroe, a Kentucky native who moved to Ypsilanti, Mich., to work at the Willow Run plant.

None of the Willow Run Rosies who visited the plant Saturday had met Monroe — not surprising because she was just one of 42,000 employees at the plant’s peak.

The place was so big that it was common for workers to get lost. The community established temporary campsites for 5,000 workers because housing was not plentiful enough for everyone who migrated to work there.

The employees worked grueling shifts, but the Rosies said conditions were safe and their male colleagues treated them equally.

“All I did was just get ready and go to work and get out there,” said Ruth Pierson-Webb, 93, of Wayne, Mich. “I had to go and look at the rivets to make sure they were all right.”

The plant was the picture of industrial efficiency, churning out one B24 bomber every 55 minutes at its peak. Today, the smell of industrial fluids still hangs in the air, a reminder that GM made 82 million transmissions at this plant from 1953 to 2010.

South Lyon, Mich., resident Emma Rancour, who got a job at the Willow Run bomber plant at age 19 in 1943, was in awe of the plant’s sheer size.

“It was a like a town of its own,” said Rancour, 88, who did not join the tour. “It was amazing how many hands made the airplane.”

When Willow Run bomber plant worker Mae Perry, 88, of Taylor, Mich., worked at the plant, it was “spotless,” she said, peering up at the factory’s darkened ceiling. “It had to be.”

Now, she said, “it’s kind of dilapidated.”

The Rosies are aging, but their role in helping win the war can’t be diminished.

“This is such an important part of American history,” Hotton said. “There are so many fantastic stories and this plant, if we can save it, is a place you can come and see these stories come alive.”

After their tour Saturday, the Rosies watched the bay doors close, creaking slowly as the warm air fluttered through their red bandanas.

“It’s a big old plant, isn’t it?” said Pierson-Webb, peering up at the doors from her wheelchair.

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