Rosie the Riveter is perhaps the most iconic image of working women during World War II and the star of a campaign aimed at recruiting female workers for defense industries during that time.
Bette Gorleski of Caro, who will turn 98 in October, is proud to have been a “Rosie the Riveter” and says most working women in the 1940s felt what they were doing was making a difference around the world for American troops.
Gorleski was born in Pigeon in 1920 and attended Pigeon School, which later became part of Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker schools. She graduated high school in 1938.
“All our boyfriends were going off to war so us girls would go out in the evenings by ourselves and work,” Gorleski said. “I didn’t actually do any riveting but I worked on a machine making rings for guns. The rings were dipped in water and when it was cool, I took them out and packed them.”
As widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the industrial labor force, American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the war.
After graduating high school, Gorleski found a job in Saginaw at Winkelman’s where she worked as head of the laundry department in 1939 and 1940.
In 1942, just months after Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor, she applied for a position at the Eaton Manufacturing Plant in Saginaw.
“I thought it was going to be much dirtier and smell more,” Gorleski said. “It was very clean in there. It was a very efficient operation.”
The Saginaw plant opened in 1913 and was acquired by the Eaton Corporation. It closed in the mid-2000s. She worked at Eaton for two years – 1942 and 1943.
Gorleski worked the second shift at Eaton, Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
“It was a big plant at that time,” Gorleski said. “There were two plants together there, but I’m not sure how many women were there. We were making things for the Army.”
Gorleski earned $1.05 an hour, a nickel more an hour than workers on the first shift made.
After working for one year at Eaton as a general laborer, Gorleski was named to a new position – inspector.
“When we came to work at three, I had to stand at the door and watch that all the girls had no hair sticking out of their hair nets, no jewelry or necklaces,” she said. “After that I would help out around the factory, filling in when needed at the machines.”
The uniform Gorleski wore at Eaton was similar to what is seen in the famous “We can do it!” Rosie the Riveter poster which showed a woman flexing her bicep wearing a blue jumpsuit and a red and white bandana.
“My uniform was a navy blue jumpsuit with a navy blue hat,” she said. “We wore mesh netting to cover our hair. It was the very same thing as the poster.”
Tuscola County Veterans Affairs Director Mark Zmierski, who has been the driving force behind connecting The Advertiser with veterans and widows, said that Gorleski “helped us win the war” and played a part in America’s war effort.
“Most of us felt that the work we were doing was really making a difference,” Gorleski said. “We all thought we were doing something good. I wouldn’t be here now if what we made didn’t work.”
According to history.com, between 1940 and 1945, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.
Not only was Gorleski a Rosie the Riveter, she is also a World War II widow.
Her husband Alfred Gorleski passed away in 2016 at the age of 94. He enlisted in the Army in the spring of 1942, achieving the rank of technician fourth grade. The couple married in 1944.
“He was sent to Panama on a mineplanter for two years, which was the only place he was at overseas during the war,” Gorleski said.
Bette Gorleski was in the minority when it came to the Great Depression in the 1920s and ’30s, in that she did not experience firsthand the hardships so many Americans were going through at that time.
“As far as knowing much about the Depression, I don’t because my parents were farmers and we lived on a big farm,” she said. “We had hundreds of cattle and all the meat markets around came to our place to do all the slaughtering so we had all the meat we wanted.”
Having been alive for nearly a century, Bette Gorleski, who never went to college, shared some advice for younger generations.
Without hesitating she said “Go to school. Even if you take a year or two of college, it means a lot when you get older.”
Gorleski had five children. One of her sons, James, died one month ago. She has seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.