‘Rosie the Riveter’ Mary Barrows visits museum

  • Published
  • By Mike Wallace
  • Skywrighter Staff
When she was 17, Mary Barrows was a high school graduate who went to work riveting together wings for the B-26 Marauder bomber in Case Manufacturing, Racine, Wisconsin. She recalled that the company's contract called for "'x' number of wings," and when they were done, she was out of a job.

At 17, she didn't realize the historical significance of her contributions to the U.S. effort to win World War II. At 80 today, she wishes she had kept a journal, but she at least can say that she helped her country.

She visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Sept. 24, and was able to see, for the first time in her life, a B-26 bomber. She said that she and her husband had visited a number of military museums, but she'd never seen a B-26 until she visited the NMUSAF.
"I remember that some people called them 'Flying Coffins,' she said, referring to new pilots names for the aircraft that had relatively small wing area, and was unforgiving to those with little flying experience.

Recalling that the rivets she used "were refrigerated, but I don't know why," she said that they came in different sizes, and "we knew which ones to put in the wings."

While working at Case, she said there were15 to 20 young people working on her shift, and "a number of people from northern Wisconsin" as well. She added, "Some of the boys who worked there did naughty things." She recalled, for example, that one of the "boys" put an ice cold rivet in his supervisor's sandwich.

Barrows also recalled that safety officials were less than pleased with how some of the "girls" dressed. They generally didn't wear approved shoes or safe headgear.

Barrows said that the girls usually wore a kind of turban to keep their hair from getting in the way, and she once accidentally punctured the topknot of a friend's turban with a drill.

"We cleared the rivet hole with a drill, and my friend was on the other side of the piece. The drill tore her turban off. It was lucky I didn't get her hair."

She said that when things got slow, her supervisor would mix the different sized rivets together, and "have us sort them, just to give us something to do." When the contract was up, Barrows went to a different company, Walker Manufacturing, and "made shells," for the war effort.

At age 49, she began college, eventually getting a degree in social studies. Married to a man who built airstrips in the South Pacific while he was in the Army in World War II, she had three children.

She later worked for Johnson Wax.

She said that she and her husband traveled to "50 countries on five continents," and walked on the Great Wall of China.

Her least favorite country was the Soviet Union, where American tourists were spied upon, and overall workmanship was shoddy. Her favorite was Italy, because of the food.

A jingle-writing winner in several contests, Barrows won two cars, a refrigerator, a stove, and "lots of frying pans" over the years.

Looking back at her experiences during World War II, she said, "It's hard to explain (my feelings). During the war, my friend lost an uncle. Young people you knew shouldn't have been seeing some of the things they did. Everything was rationed, sugar, gasoline.
"But when the war ended, everybody was in the streets kissing everybody. You thought that the people you knew were finally coming home."