There was no one type of Rosie the Riveter, the bandanna-wearing, arm-curling American Athena who took over the assembly lines and kept the country moving while men fought World War II.

There were grandmothers who were sent boxes of rivets to sort at home. People with disabilities who worked on radio parts and knit sweaters and other clothing for the Red Cross.

But Georgie Kunkel sure fit the iconic profile. In 1943, she was a 23-year-old teacher who spent her summers at the Boeing plant in Chehalis, where she drilled holes into the wing panels of B-17 bombers.

“They paid me 65 cents an hour, which was a lot more than the 20 cents I got cleaning houses,” Kunkel said one recent morning at her West Seattle home.

On Monday, she will be 100.

“I don’t have any pain,” she said. “Your life span is pretty much built in. Unless you walk in front of a car.”

Some memories are out of reach, but those summers on the Boeing line are clear as a bell. Yes, she wore a bandanna. Slacks, too. 

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Was it hard work?

“Not bad,” she said. “But I was young then. I thought it was cool.”

Women hired during World War II to work at the Boeing plant in Chehalis drilled holes into the wing panels of B-17s, among other duties. (Courtesy The Boeing Company)
Women hired during World War II to work at the Boeing plant in Chehalis drilled holes into the wing panels of B-17s, among other duties. (Courtesy The Boeing Company)

It was also an awakening for Kunkel and many other women who were given men’s jobs and realized they could do them well, sometimes better. And that there was something beyond their kitchen doors.

“The women didn’t get out and do too much before the war,” Kunkel said of working at Boeing. “It opened a lot of things up for them.”

In June 1943, Boeing was “desperately” looking for pools of workers after men were sent overseas and the workload increased exponentially, said Michael Lombardi, the company’s senior corporate historian.

“The biggest untapped worker pool was women,” he said.

But they had to be persuaded to work in the factory and the shipyards, where conditions were rough and where society didn’t think women belonged.

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“It was hard work, dirty work and it was something that was thought of as something only men do,” Lombardi said.

To attract workers, Boeing put two women in the window of its downtown Seattle building and had them make parts beneath a sign that said “Come to work at Boeing.”

Seeking to draw women to apply for jobs at its plants during World War II, Boeing put women to work in the window of its offices at Second and Union in downtown Seattle. (Courtesy The Boeing Company)
Seeking to draw women to apply for jobs at its plants during World War II, Boeing put women to work in the window of its offices at Second and Union in downtown Seattle. (Courtesy The Boeing Company)

“Women who were shopping downtown would pass by and see that,” Lombardi said. “And there wasn’t a lot of competition to get in. If you were willing to work, there was a job.”

The company hired 300 women in one day.

Kunkel worked at Boeing for three summers, spending the rest of the year as an elementary-school teacher.

“I should have taught junior high or high school,” she said. “The little ones are too wiggly.”

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She liked the factory work. The money, the camaraderie, the escape from small-town life.

“I was always a free spirit,” she said. Her father died before she, the youngest of 11 children, was born. Her mother, Myrtia Bright, was superintendent of schools in Lewis County, a job for which she was given a Model T in order to make the rounds. Mrs. Bright taught herself to drive in an open field with young Georgie riding shotgun.

She remembers the day an inspector stopped at her spot on the Boeing line and said someone was drilling crooked lines. He wanted to see her work.

Kunkel drilled a perfectly straight line. The man beside her did not.

“He wrecked everything,” Kunkel said. “I don’t know what they did to him, whether they fired him or told him to shape up.”

“I just never got tired,” she said.

Women at work in the Boeing plant in Chehalis during World War II. (Courtesy The Boeing Company)
Women at work in the Boeing plant in Chehalis during World War II. (Courtesy The Boeing Company)

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When the end of the war was announced over the intercom, the plants shut down for two days so everyone could go home and celebrate — with pay.

Within months, many of Boeing’s contracts were canceled, so the company cut the number of workers from 90,000 to just 9,000. But women were encouraged to stay, “and they were welcome,” Lombardi said.

Kunkel remembers the day the war ended.

75th anniversary of the end of WWII

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“They told us the war was over and we threw down our tools and never came back,” she said. She didn’t celebrate with alcohol, she said; she had two brothers who were alcoholics. She has never had a drink in her life.

Not long after the war ended, Kunkel met the man she would marry, Norman, at the Trianon Ballroom in Seattle.

“I got tired of dancing with guys who I had to follow,” Kunkel said, “so I went and sat in the corner and my future husband came over and found me.”

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Not only did he know how to dance, he had driven an ambulance for the American Field Service in Italy and helped liberate some of the concentration camps in Germany. They married and had four children — two daughters and two sons. One son, Joseph, was killed in an accident in 2001. Her husband died in 2009.

Kunkel continued to teach, wrote a column for the West Seattle Herald and even dabbled in stand-up comedy.

“Someone in the audience once said, ‘You should be home making pancakes and not making (penis) jokes,” she said. “I said, ‘I will do as I please.’”

All this talk about World War II made Kunkel a little wistful, and a little angry.

“I don’t know why we have to have wars,” she said. “But we seem to have to have them all the time. Men have to have something to do.

“But my family did our share.”