Born and raised on a farm in West Virginia, Wilodeen Brady was a young woman at the onset of World War II. Wilodeen plowed with her brother on her family farm and served as a riveter at Eastern Aircraft in Baltimore, Maryland, during the war. She learned a special riveting sign language and experienced a workplace injury in the factory.
In this interview, Wilodeen Brady speaks about her childhood in West Virginia. She discusses her brief work as a waitress in Baltimore until she turned eighteen and acquired a job at Eastern Aircraft. She details her time as a riveter learning the job process, the mandatory dress code, and the importance of her work. Wilodeen also shares a story about her riveting partner’s drill accidentally piercing a hole through her thumb. She discusses determination and ends the interview with advice to young women today.
Importance of the Job and Mandatory Dress Code
When we was being trained, we was told how important it was just to know about that air gun. That made such a big difference when you were put out on the floor, working on the planes.
And we had to wear caps. It had a bill, and a net-like around, and elastic to hold it up against your head. Because they said if you don’t keep your hat on, you might be a–drilling and catch your long hair in that. In the plane or in the place of working you had to have your goggles on and your cap—two things mandatory all the time.
Riveter’s Special Sign Language
When you went to working on the fuselage, you did by sign language. Like if you was gonna stop and go to the bathroom, you would hit the side of the plane, “Boom, boom, boom,” three times. That told her you were stopping for some reason.
And of course, she would come into the fuselage and look out the little window that was in the airplane to see if you was there or what was going on. And if you were going to stop completely, you had to do certain pounding.
Women Working for the War Effort and Men at Work
I just thought I was doing something wonderful. I know our boys was being killed. I know that one of the young boys that I was working with, he had to go and he never come back.
And one of the girls I worked with, her husband was killed. They had only been married maybe five, six months. And she came in one day crying her heart out. And I said, “Well, why are you here? Why didn’t you stay at home?” She said, “I couldn’t do anything for his memory at home. Here, I’m busy and doing something to help the rest of ‘em.” And that was mostly the attitude of all of the ones I worked with.
Segregation of Black and White Women Workers
Well, like I said a little bit ago, we was there and we thought we was helping our boys. Which, naturally, we were, because each fighter plane that went out there, it was used to drop bombs and shoot down the enemy. And the women that I associated with did not gossip about anything.
The only thing that was so sad was there was two colored girls. And they wouldn’t let us work—if they were in the fuselage, none of us girls could be there. They would be working in there themselves. But that only lasted so long, ‘til everybody just started [and] they would talk to them girls and acted just like they do today. They were part of us.
A Drill, a Thumb, and a Bloody Workplace Accident
One day, my partner was doing the drilling and I was up in the tail of the plane. She was sitting under the plane drilling the bulkheads. And the bulkhead was cup-shaped—you know, big, long—and I thought I was smart enough to tell when that drill she was using would go through the bulkhead or whether she was pulling it back out.
And of course, she had been drilling several holes, and there was getting to be a lot of them metal shavings in the bulkhead. And you had to pay attention to where the drill was making the hole, because sometimes it would get close to the circle in the bulkhead and you’d have to tell her to change the position.
But I couldn’t see that, so I thought, “Well, she’s pulling the drill back out, I’ll just flip them ashes out of the bulkhead, those shavings.” And I was doing that.
Well, this one time she was pushing the drill in and it just went right up my thumb, from the end up to the second or first knuckle on my thumb. And boy, you talk about something hurting. The blood was just a–squirting. And I grabbed around my thumb, and that made it bleed more.
I sat down out of the tail of the plane, and she let out a big scream because she didn’t know what had happened. And here the boss come bulldozing around over, and he said, “Willie, what did you do?” I said, “Well, I wasn’t as smart as I thought. I got my thumb in the way.” [laughs] So he said, “Well, just come on, go with me. We’ll go next door, let the nurse take a look at it.”
Boy, it had chewed that fingernail and flesh all to pieces. And it still was a–bleeding right smart. But she’d taken care of it. And the next day Bernerd was up and he said, “What did you do to your thumb?” I said, “Oh, my partner just drilled a hole in it. And he said, “Well, take that bandage off and let me look at it.”
Now, you’d have to know Bernerd. But anyway, he’d taken the bandage off of my thumb, and course, that fingernail just looked like a drill bit, it was so yucky. And out came his pocketknife, and he began to cut around on that fingernail, trying to get the flesh on my thumb to look smooth. And he’d done a fairly good job of cleaning it up ‘til I could at least wash it with some solution of some kind.
The Importance of Having Mothers at Home
I think a woman’s place when she gets married is staying at home and keeping a home for her husband. And then, when the children comes along, they need mama and daddy both. So many children now don’t even know their mother or their father until something goes wrong and then maybe mama’s there. But I think it’d be much better if mother would stay home and raise her children.
Of course, that is a very big no-no today because the price of stuff. It almost takes both to even put food on the table anymore.
Advice to Young Women Today
Get in touch with the good Lord and stay there with him. I know they don’t like for you to mention Christianity most anywhere anymore, but that is the most important thing. And then the Lord can help them when they get married, or if they want to work in the public, he can help.
They should do the very best they could in whatever position they take. We need good nurses, and we need good girls that know how to work in stores, to be waitresses in restaurants. But whatever you try to achieve, do the very best that you can.