John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.
Everyone has seen the lady who is flexing her muscles in blue coveralls, wearing a red bandana keeping her hair up saying “we can do it!” That lady was a part of something big. An icon of World War II; representing the women who took initiative during the war to support the soldiers overseas. Local Madison County resident, Geraldine Buell was a part of that notable group of women everyone called “Rosie the Riveters.”
Geraldine Buell was born Nov. 23, 1925 in St. Ignace, Mi.; just four hours north of where she would make a lifetime memory, just 18 years later. The story began in 1942, in the middle of World War II, when Buell’s Father went to Ypsilanti, Mi., to complete work on the electrical construction of a newly built plant. The Willow Run Bomber Plant was imagined by Henry Ford and built by the Ford Motor Company for the mass production of the B-24 Liberator. The B-24 Liberator was a 32 and a half ton military heavy bomber that had a wingspan of 110 feet and was more than 68 feet long. Production in the plant began in the summer of 1941 when it initially produced components. By October of 1941, Ford received authorization to produce B-24 Liberators at Willow Run.
Buell’s mother and father rented an apartment in Ypsilanti, Mi., her father, David was finished with his work at the plant. Buell stayed home with her sister, Susie, in St. Ignace in a house her father built next to their former home. But when she was finally able to visit Ypsilanti, she was ecstatic. “It was the summer of 1942 when I got a chance to stay with them for a few weeks,” said Buell. “It was quite a vacation for me except for short excursions to Brevort Lake for a picnic or just for a drive around the area.”
Buell graduated from high school in 1943 at the age of 17. That September, Buell’s parents convinced her and her sister, Susie to go to work at the Willow Run Bomber plant. The plant was hiring women to work in place of the men who were drafted into the war. At the time, it wasn’t such a bad idea to Buell until her application was declined due to her age. Getting a job at the age of 17 was a difficult task for any young woman in that period of time. Buell had saved some money but she said, “it didn’t take long before that was gone.”
On Nov. 25, 1943, Buell turned 18 and was called in for an interview with the Willow Run Bomber Plant. After her application was completed, the clerk told her “Happy Birthday,” and sent her to have a physical performed. Every morning, Buell and her sister, Susie, would leave their boarding home and catch a bus that was nicknamed the “Cattle Car.” The only benches were along the side of the bus, next to the windows with straps hanging from the ceiling for stability. “If you were lucky, you got to sit down but most of the time you had to stand up and hold onto a strap,” said Buell.
The women who worked in the plant could not wear dresses or casual clothes. All of the “Rosie the Riveters” had to wear blue or denim jumpsuits, that could often be purchased at the plant directly. Most of the women wore red bandanas to hold their hair up as well as red socks underneath heavy duty boots.
Buell recalls her first assignment at the plant. She remembers lining up the ribs of the wing so that the worker on the outside could put clecos in. Clecos acted as temporary screws to hold the material together until a designated spot welder could join the pieces together. A squeeze gun was used to insert the cleco into the pre-drilled hole. During the second day on the job, Buell learned to work by herself, when she needed to. Her partner went to take a smoke break, leaving her sitting around, waiting on him to get back. Her bosses came around asking what she was doing and once they left, she started holding the ribs up with one hand and putting in clecos in with the other. After a while, most of the women figured out easier ways of holding the parts up to be assembled instead of working strenuously.
After working at the plant for a while, Buell’s department was moved and she began working closer to her sister, Susie, who was a bucker. A bucker was a person who riveted two parts together by making the rivet head flat, to make the two parts incapable of moving. Some parts were too small for Susie and many others so, the plant hired dwarfs to climb inside to rivet and buck.
Before the war had ended and Buell’s time at the plant came to a stop, she was moved to a department were stringers were made. Stringers were thin pieces of metal to hold the skin of the aircraft onto the skeleton or ribs of the wing. The stringers were also made to hold all of the electrical wiring and component pieces inside of the aircraft. Buell recalls that each stringer was eight to 10 feet long.
One day after the war ended, Buell received a government letter thanking her for her time at the plant and terminating her employment at Willow Run. Some went back to their home towns and like Buell, others drew unemployment. A friend whom Buell met in Ypsilanti, Dorie Buell invited Geraldine and Susie to their farm in Cambridge Junction, Mi. It was the first time she saw her husband Ray.
You may ask what brought Geraldine Buell and her late husband Ray down to Madison from Michigan. Geraldine and her husband began working as farmers and beekeepers after the Willow Run Bomber Plant. They kept sheep, goats, pigs and other animals as well as multiple beehives for honey. It was noted that during the winter, much of their bee stock would die out due to the cold weather. The Buell’s bought a home in Pinetta, where bees are still kept today by Buell and her children. As Geraldine Buell says, “That’s my story and if it weren’t for the Bomber plant, you wouldn’t be here [reading this].”