COLUMBUS -- While men were off fighting in World War II, women carried on vital work at home to keep the country and war effort going.
In the years after the war, they came to be summed up through the iconic character Rosie the Riveter, portrayed in a famous poster of a bicep-flexing woman.
Like World War II veterans, the Rosies are fast disappearing, as most are now in their 90s. But last week several gathered in Columbus for media interviews in recognition of Women’s History Month.
Jonnie Melillo Clasen, state director of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, organized the event. Her mother, who is deceased, was a Rosie the Riveter who ran the canteen at Camp Wheeler near Macon.
Clasen’s father, Vincent Melillo, met her mother while he was stationed at Camp Wheeler as a trainer. He served in Merrill’s Marauders, a special operations group that fought the Japanese in the jungles of Burma.
Melillo, 96, was severely injured in an accidental dynamite explosion at Camp Wheeler and spent time at the hospital at what is today called Robins Air Force Base. He later served in the Korean War, where he received two Purple Hearts.
He was at the event last week to show support for the Rosies and what they meant to the war effort.
“If we didn’t have them, I don’t think we would have won the war,” he said.
The Rosie the Riveter character is widely considered to represent women who worked in factories during the war or did other work that was traditionally considered a man’s job at the time. However, the definition is broader now.
Clasen said a woman who was employed in any manner in World War II, including running the family farm, is considered a Rosie the Riveter. Women who volunteered in support of the war effort are also considered Rosies.
The women are largely credited with sparking broader opportunities for women in the years after the war.
Liz Minton, 91, of Pine Mountain Valley, was an actual riveter. She dressed in the iconic Rosie uniform for last week’s event.
She worked for Doak Aircraft in California during the war, making bomb bay doors for the Douglas A-26 Invader. She was a newlywed at the time with a husband who was serving on Iwo Jima, and that gave her a lot of motivation.
“I needed the money, but I certainly wanted to help end the war because I wanted my husband back home,” she said.
Minton became a housewife after the war, and in 1960 she became postmaster in Pine Mountain Valley. She said she is proud of the opportunities that opened up for women as a result of what women did during the war.
“I felt like we showed the world that we could do anything we set our hearts and minds to,” she said. “The war certainly broke the barrier that the woman’s place was in the home.”
Faye Edwards of Newnan is not only a Rosie the Riveter but an actual World War II veteran. She worked at a factory in Baltimore but later joined the Army, doing office work in the Women’s Army Corp. She served in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Japan in the post-war occupation.
“I saluted him many times,” she said, although she never actually spoke to him.
She went out into the country often and well remembers the devastation she saw. She never imagined Japan would become what it is today.
“It just goes to show you how bad things can be and change for the better,” she said.
Clasen said the gathering last week was the largest number of Rosies together in that part of the state since 2011. In addition to being director of the state group, she is president of the Columbus Rosie chapter. The state has four chapters, but she said there is not a chapter in Macon. She said she would like to see someone start one.
“It’s a way to promote the history of what these amazing women did during World War II,” she said. “Those women really paved the way for all of the women in the workforce today.”
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, 256-9725.