Elinor Otto was born in 1919. In 1942, scant months after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor, she starting working as one of the original “Rosie the Riveters” at Rohr Aircraft Corporation in Chula Vista, California. A single mother, Elinor worked for 65 cents an hour to support her infant son.
Elinor remained working until 2014, when she was laid off and finally laid down her rivet gun at age 95. Today, Elinor works as a Spirit of ’45 national spokeswoman, helping to promote awareness of the role that women played during World War II.
In this interview, she speaks about when she first went to work in 1942, learning about Pearl Harbor for the first time, what it was like to work alongside men in factories, and her experience as a single working mother.
Working as a Single Mother
Did you enjoy doing the work?
Oh, I enjoyed it very much. Because I liked to work physically, as I was a typist in an office, that was—nuh uh, you know [makes a so-so gesture]. So getting up and working around that airplane and building parts with hammers, and all the things we had to do—and rivet guns.
When you were working in the factory during the war, did you have a family? Were you married?
I had been divorced. I had a little baby to raise, yes. And I was making 65 cents an hour,and paying $20 a week to have the baby boarded out. On weekends, I’d take him. And it was $80 a month, which was quite a bit for what I made. But we were able to make it, which nowadays, that doesn’t even buy anything [laughing].
So you young people don’t know the difference in the prices that things were then. But we had rationing; we couldn’t get a lot of things. Everything went for the war effort: tires, cars, everything. Eggs, bacon, whatever. But we accepted it. You had to do what you had to do.
Working Side-by-Side With Men
Were people in your community supportive?
They just took it [women working] for granted, something that had to be done. I mean, you had to replace people that were working there when they went to war; that was the hard part. At least we didn’t have to face the enemy. We were working, but we didn’t have to face the enemy like they did.
And so everybody cooperated. The men that were left here had a reason to be here; maybe some physical problem or something that they couldn’t go to war. So they helped us: we all cooperated, building the airplanes as fast as we can. We had schedules. And like I said, they couldn’t train us; they didn’t have the time for that. Except the lead men would train us for different jobs that came in.
So did you work side-by-side with men?
Oh yes! All my life. I know men well. [Waves to other male interviewer] Hello! [laughing]
They had told us, when we were working, “Don’t let the men have the rivet gun.” They’re too rough with it and they can ruin the skin. So they said, “You keep the rivet gun and let the men go in there with the bucking bar.” [laughing]
They did what they were told to from the bosses, you know. In fact, the bosses didn’t like to say it in that way; they did it in such a way that they didn’t understand what they were doing. [laughing] So they wouldn’t get upset over them saying it.
Starting Work as a Rosie
When the war started, I was in San Diego. And they were advertising for women to replace the men that, of course, had to go to war. And so it was a big challenge to us women and we were excited that we could see if we could do the men’s work. Which we did—sometimes better than them, after they taught us. We didn’t have time to go to school and really have any training; you know, we had to get the ships out.
And then, after the war ended, we knew we’d be laid off. And we were. And we were happy for the men that were able to come back. God bless them.
And so we left the plant and that was it. We did other things; never thought about being a “Rosie” or never thought about any exciting thing that’s happening now! And it took all these years for the country to realize that the Rosies did something, which we didn’t realize at the time. And now with the attention and everything, it’s just an amazing thing. It’s very amazing.
I’m so proud of it: to pave the way for all these wonderful women I see with all of these top jobs. CEO women have told me that we helped them. It just gives you such a gratitude that we were able to do that, even though at the time we didn’t think we were doing anything but [helping] the war effort.
Learning About Pearl Harbor
I was in Santa Monica [California]. I was married then, and I was with my step-dad and my mother. We were driving around looking for a place to have breakfast. And all of the sudden that came on the radio, at 8 o’clock in the morning, saying that Pearl Harbor’s been bombed by the Japanese.
Then, of course, Roosevelt had to come on and say something—“This day will live in infamy,” and all that. And my step-dad said, “Oh, don’t worry; we’re not gonna be in any war.” [laughing] He was a Chief Petty Officer. But of course it didn’t happen that way.
Pearl Harbor [was attacked] in 1941: December 7. I went to work in January 1942, only a couple of months later. And right away, they needed women. Right away, they knew they were going to have to use all the men, you know, for war. And so, just a couple months later after the war [began], I was at work. Didn’t take long.