Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, while the United States was not at war, it certainly was, to some extent, gearing up for war.
But the vast majority of people doing that work were men. However, after the United States declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, and Germany and Italy in turn declared war on the United States, the United States almost instantly went from a peacetime economy to one that was concentrated on war-focused work.
One of the huge challenges was how to do what was needed for a war on two fronts, while at the same time drafting almost every able-bodied man into the service. The answer, of course, was women!
An article in the July 10, 1942, Riverside Daily Press showed just how quickly things changed. Page three of that issue had a series of photos of women working at March Field titled “Hanger Line Sees Great Change in Year’s Time” and an article with the headline, “Women Take Tough Jobs at March Field.”
The photos showed Elizabeth Kaplan towing a plane with a tractor tug; Constance Powell and Betty Townsend welding; Ellen May Tomason, Carmen Navarro, and Gertrude Downey working on planes; Crystal Bucannan also driving a tractor tug; Georgia Davis and Bernice Eddins working on balancing a plane propeller; and Doris Hinksman assisting Major Barry L. Cole with stockroom records.
As the newspaper article noted, just a year prior, seeing any woman working on the hanger line at March Field would have been a “curiosity.” Of course, it would have been more than a curiosity, it just wouldn’t have happened.
The women at March Field were maintaining or repairing existing aircraft at the air base. The article and photos may have been designed to appeal to readers with a human interest style story, while at the same time encouraging women who had not yet engaged in war work to get out of their comfort zone and take on what had previously only been a man’s job.
This being 1942, the article makes comments that would not appear in print today. It mentioned that, while some of the women at March were experienced workers, other had no experience with “anything more mechanical than a combination egg beater and hair curler.” It also said that “girls used to back seat driving in the boyfriend’s sedan before the war are now driving for Uncle Sam.” It was noted that women sheet metal workers were running heavy presses with “dainty hands.”
That being said, the article also acknowledged that the work women were doing at March was “highly satisfactory.” The newspaper reported that the Army Air Force was planning on employing 25,000 women by the end of 1942.
Altogether, about five million women entered the work force during World War II, the vast majority taking over jobs previously done by men. The women at March Field were on the forefront of a great wave of women workers during that time.
If you have an idea for a future Back in the Day column about a local historic person, place or event, contact Steve Lech and Kim Jarrell Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.