When Helmi McHardy graduated high school in 1943, she felt compelled to find a job where she could make a difference.
A year before, the United States had sent its men abroad to fight in World War II and, with the foundation of its economy fighting overseas, there was plenty of work left to be done at home.
During an afternoon cruise aboard the Naples Princess on Saturday, McHardy, 88, and other women who worked stateside during the war told their stories during the first-ever American Rosie the Riveter Association meet-up in Naples.
A Michigan native, McHardy worked at Murray Bodies Factory in Detroit where she and other women built the wings of P-47 Thunderbolts for the U.S. Army Air Forces. The job wasn’t easy, but McHardy said no one ever complained.
“There was no air conditioning and we worked eight-hour shifts,” she said. “Whatever you were asked to do, you did with a smiling face.”
For McHardy and the thousands of women who went to work during World War II, their dedication to the work force and strength at home would become immortalized forever in a classic World War II poster in which the famous “Rosie the Riveter” declares “We Can Do It.”
Part of a push to gather the stories of those who contributed on the homefront during World War II, the cruise hosted a group of veterans from various foreign wars and their wives and other women who took up employment in the 1940s.
“Everybody worked,” McHardy said. “All nationalities, races, religions — we worked together peacefully and happily to support our troops.”
For Marilyn Killilea, 86, the war was a time to earn a living at home while her fiancé, Ken, was fighting in the Pacific. Soon after graduating in 1943, Killilea found work at New England Telephone and Telegraph in Haverhill, Mass.
“I was busy working and writing letters (to Ken),” Killilea said. “I loved working for the telephone company.”
On weekends, a woman at the company would obtain a bus to take the girls from the company to the U.S. Army Base Fort Devens to go dancing with soldiers.
“I don’t think anybody got too dressed up,” Killilea said with a chuckle. “We just went to have fun.”
At times, working at the phone company didn’t feel like enough. After corresponding with Ken, Killilea felt compelled to join the service.
“But I was too young,” she said. “I was 16, so I went to Canada to get in the service, but they wouldn’t accept me. I had bad eyesight.”
With the war in Afghanistan soon reaching its 10th year, those aboard the cruise reminisced on the time of peace they experienced after World War II — times of marriage, family and blending back into American life.
Looking back at her time as a Riveter, McHardy had advice for those serving now or those returning from war.
“Have love of God and family,” she said. “And America, of course.”