A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Sara Etgen-Baker
Real Stories of Real Rosies
Recently, I posted a story about Vesta Stoudt, the woman who invented Duck/Duct Tape while employed as a WOW (Woman Ordnance Worker) early in World War II. And yesterday, we shared the story of Mama Was a W.A.V.E. written by her daughter Muriel Mahall.
Throughout September, designated as Rosie the Riveter Month by RosieCentral, we’ll be sharing stories of women who contributed to America’s WW2 effort on the Homefront. These are stories provided by our readers.
If you have the story of a woman in your family who helped the war effort, just contact us and we will work with you to get it published on our website.
Meanwhile, here's another story.
I’LL BE SEEING YOU
by Sara Etgen-Baker
It was late afternoon when the captain announced:
“Ladies and gentlemen, in approximately five minutes, we will begin our descent into Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport where the weather is slightly windy and a lovely 78 degrees. At this time make sure your trays are clear and in their upright position. Please fasten your seat belts and remain in your seats until we are safely at the arrival gate. Thank you for flying with us today.”
The Plane Lands, Taking Me Back
Just as I fastened my seat belt, the plane tilted slightly to the left and began a slow, steady turn. I looked out the window; the ground below looked like square plots on a huge map. Gradually, the Kansas prairie came into view with its wheat fields waving as if to welcome me home. As the plane neared the ground, small cars heading down long highways of black ribbon appeared, as well as homes of different sizes and shapes.
Then a sudden bump—I jumped slightly as the landing gear was released. Trees and rooftops whizzed by as the aircraft made its final turn toward the waiting runway and ended with a mild rumbling as the tires kissed the tarmac. Once the plane taxied to a halt, I was the only passenger who walked through the fuselage door onto the jetway bridge disembarking into the airport.
The Odd Mixture of Anticipation and Sadness Still Filled the Air
Once inside the airport, I found it virtually empty. But I still felt the decades old combination of anticipation and sadness in the air. The emotions of WW2 still filled the building. As I made my way toward baggage claim, the floor beneath my feet creaked with the voices of the pilots and soldiers who once worked at this airfield during World War II. I glanced out the huge plate-glass windows and spotted the deserted AAF classroom buildings, abandoned hanger, and empty storage facilities. I fought back the tears wondering, Why did I expect this place to remain the same when nothing else does?
At baggage claim the skycap handed me my luggage.
“If you hurry, you can catch the cabbie before he leaves for town.”
I scurried through the lobby toward the automatic sliding doors, stepped outside, and stood at the crosswalk waiting until the cab appeared.
“Let me help you with your luggage, ma’am.”
I watched as the young cabbie easily lifted my two large suitcases into the trunk of his vehicle. He opened the backdoor on the passenger side and said,
“My name’s Tom. Where ya headed today?”
Going Back Home
“I’m heading into town….734 North Webster Avenue. Do you know where that is?”
“Certainly do, ma’am.” Tell me..., um, are you from around here or just visitin’?”
“Both. I grew up in Liberal. Then when my parents moved to Missouri in 1943, I stayed. I moved in with my uncle and aunt in their house on North Webster Avenue. Uncle Claude recently passed away so I’m here for his funeral.”
I looked out the window as the cabbie turned onto 8th Street heading west past the fairgrounds and Bluebonnet Park. The cabbie turned right onto North Webster and said,
“Here we are ma’am…734 North Webster Avenue. I’ll pull into the driveway.”
House Deserted…Not Like During WW2
Before getting out of the cab, I stared at the vacant, old house not knowing what to expect. Although it looked familiar, the paint was weathered and peeling off in spots; the slats in the shutters on the upstairs windows were mostly broken out. A slight breeze made the shutters tap, tap, tap against the house, and the hinges squeak. Despite ivy clinging to the outer walls of the house, I knew what it looked like inside the front door and into the house past the banister and stairway that led to the second floor bedrooms.
Hesitating to get out of the cab and return to the haunting memories of WW2, Aunt Jean, and Uncle Claude, I said to Tom,
“Just look up at the second story windows. From there, I watched as the airport, hangars, and runways were constructed. From there, I saw the day-to-day life of this town. From there I watched the military parade march through downtown Liberal the first day soldiers and pilots arrived at the airfield for their training.”
“A parade during war time must have been moving,” Tom commented.
“Yes, it was, Tom. Those parades kept us all—civilians and military—motivated and focused on the war effort. That parade convinced me that I somehow needed to join in the war effort.”
“So, what did you decide to do?” he asked.
A Victory Garden and Rationing
“I took a job as a clerk at the new airfield. When not working, I tended to our Victory Garden.” I pointed to the vine-covered backyard. “As a matter of fact, my Aunt Jean and I planted it back there.”
“A Victory Garden?” asked Tom as he raised an inquisitive eye brow. "What was that?"
“Because sacrifice was part of the war effort, the government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat, and canned goods. Supplies were needed for the military. Like many other women, we planted a garden so we’d have our own fruits and vegetables. At some point we canned our fruits and vegetables leaving commercial canned goods for the troops. Later in the war, I built nest boxes for eggs and raised chickens just so we’d have eggs for protein to replace the rationed meat. We saved our meager sugar rations for special treats and combined with the eggs allowed us to bake occasional treats."
“Must’ve been hard to make those sacrifices,” he said.
“Like most Americans I didn’t feel like I was making a sacrifice at all. I felt patriotic doing my part—however small—to insure America’s victory.” I opened the car door. “Tom, would you mind waiting for me while I go inside? I won’t be long. Then you can take me to the motel where I’m staying for the funeral.”
“Sure thing, ma’am. I’ll wait as long as you need me to. Take your time.”
Memories Crowd In
I stepped onto the uneven gravel driveway and gingerly climbed the rickety steps onto the porch. Using my antique skeleton key, I turned the rusty lock and opened the front door. Although only dust motes greeted me, my brain still expected Uncle Claude and Aunt Jean to welcome me. Of course, I knew that wouldn’t be true.
I entered the house, the sun—now low in the sky—illuminated the downstairs rooms.
Although the old house was decaying, the floors inside were not rotten and looked sturdy enough to bear my weight. As I walked through the entryway, I noted the long since stopped grandfather clock. I closed my eyes and imaged myself in another time altogether when blackout curtains hung over the windows and I sat in the living room listening to radio shows like “Amos ‘n Andy,” “Bing Crosby,” and “The Green Hornet.” I even thought I heard the old phonograph playing songs from big band leaders like Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.
I opened my eyes and discovered the chandelier that once shone upon the piano was now covered in cobwebs and dust. I headed toward the kitchen, looked back and thought I caught a glimpse of Aunt Jean—her hands dancing across the keyboard—playing her favorite wartime song, “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
The buffet and china cabinet were just as she’d left them; but mold from damp nights in this drafty house had seeped into the walls making gray streaks across my aunt’s favorite wallpaper. In the kitchen I found an empty teakettle sitting on the stove patiently waiting for Aunt Jean’s return.
Ribbons of moonlight drifted through the kitchen window and shimmered across the kitchen table where I often drank coffee and talked with Uncle Claude about the war. At this table, my future husband—a mechanic on the flight line—asked Uncle Claude for my hand in marriage. I remember that despite the war, this house was alive and full of people—a sort of a wartime oasis for soldiers, pilots, and locals that my uncle invited to his home.
Now, though, the old house—hallow and lifeless—echoed only with memories not voices of joy. Although the night was new, darkness soon forced me to say goodbye to the old house. So I walked down the moonlit driveway turning back as though summoned and drinking in the sights—relishing the flood of memories. I stared up at the moon. Then something caught my eye. On the second floor, the curtain moved; and I saw the woman I used to be—an innocent, patriotic wartime bride full of hope and anticipation about her future.
Just as Tom and I pulled out of the driveway, I thought I heard Aunt Jean playing her piano and singing her favorite song to me:
“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places
that this heart of mine embraces all day through.
In that small café,
the park across the way,
the children’s carousel,
the chestnut tree,
the wishing well.
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely, summer’s day;
and everything that’s bright and gay;
I’ll always think of you that way.
I’ll find you in the morning sun;
and when the night is new,
I’ll be looking at the moon,
but I’ll be seeing you.”
Telling WW2 Stories
There are many ways to tell a story — the tense — the voice — the style — the level of details — and more. Sara Etgen-Baker took a fascinating approach to capturing her mother’s wartime experiences.
Sara writes: "Many years prior to her death my mother returned to Liberal, Kansas, for her uncle’s funeral. I distinctly remember her telling me of her thoughts and feelings upon her arrival in Liberal, the Army Airfield, and visiting her uncle’s house. I decided to let her become the narrator of her own story (as she told me); her voice seemed the most appropriate. My mother, Winifred C. Stainbrook married my father, Edwin R. Etgen on November 19, 1944. She was 19 and my father was 22.
Thanks from RosieCentral
Sara, we thank you for this peek into your mother’s memories of life during World War 2.
And To Our Readers...
We hope you've enjoyed this adventure back in time. And if you have stories of women in your family from WW2, please let us know. We can discuss how you might tell it.