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Real-life "Rosie the Riveter" remembers building B-17s
Jul 05

Daily Inter Lake

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) _ A historic formation of World War II aircraft touched down at Glacier Park International Airport this week, and within the field of fighters and bombers was the iconic B-17.

Thelma Leighty Carter is no stranger to this quintessential WWII bomber.

As a rivet bucker during World War II, she got to know them from the inside out, The Daily Inter Lake reported.

She helped bring these ``Flying Fortresses'' to life _ a small cog in the American war machine.

Carter and members of the public had the opportunity to tour aircraft, just like the ones Carter helped build as the Wings of Freedom Tour displayed its fleet of vintage aircraft. The tour will visit more than 100 cities on a mission to educate and celebrate the WWII era of American history.

Carter actually lived it _ she was a real-life ``Rosie the Riveter,'' one of 5 million women who stepped up to fill jobs in factories and shipyards, allowing their male counterparts to fight on the battlefield. These women built ships, tanks, planes and other materials and played an important role in the war effort.

``I felt important, the fact that we was out there helping the war effort, because I'm patriotic,'' Carter said.

She and her twin sister got jobs at the Boeing factory near Seattle in 1942 after graduating high school. There, she helped build B-17s and B-29s until just before the war ended in 1945.

``(I) worked in shop 309 in the bomb bay section _ that's where the bombs were,'' she said. ``I worked on B-17s; I worked on the last one that went out, and I worked on the B-29; the first one that went out.''

B-29s were heavy bombers, also called ``Superfortress'' aircraft that were first flown in 1942 and constructed at five plants across the United States, including Seattle where Carter was employed. Two modified B-29s, the Enola Gay and Bockscar, were used to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. By the time production ceased in 1946, a total of 3,970 had been built. Similar to the B-29, although smaller in size, the B-17 or ``Flying Fortress'' was also a heavy bomber-style aircraft. The B-17 was designed for high-altitude, strategic bombing in daytime hours and Boeing built more than 12,000 of them over the course of the war.

Carter, of Columbia Falls, is 95 now and her years at the Boeing factory seem a lifetime away. But she recalls snippets with clarity _ bowling with her fellow riveters in off-hours, the sense of bewilderment she felt on Seattle's busy streets and the cramped sensation of working inside the airplane wings. At just 4 feet,11 inches, Carter was smaller than the other workers and was often called to the uncomfortable duty of rivet bucking in the tiny wing cavity.

``I hated that wing. Can you imagine being inside of that thing? How much room do you think you had in there?'' she said.

But Carter stayed on until the war was all but over.

Her childhood had taught her perseverance and also instilled in her a great sense of responsibility.

She was one of 18 kids raised on an 80-acre farm in Columbia Falls, where she still resides to this day. Back then, Carter recalled, things were much simpler.

``We took baths in front of the wood stove in the kitchen and we never dumped that water from one kid to another kid,'' she said.

She lived without luxuries such as electricity and indoor plumbing. She grew up in the garden, pulling carrots straight from the earth and eating raw spuds _ she even credits the latter to her long life.

After she married and her children were grown, Carter spent 20 years in the medical field, working as a certified nursing assistant at the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls.

``When I went up there to get a job, I thought I'd go in for housekeeping, but the nurse up there, she was born and raised right next door to me and I knew her. When she seen me, she asked me if I wanted to become a CNA,'' Carter said.

As a mother of seven she had a knack for taking care of folks and even earned the distinction of CNA of the year in 1986. But just because she excelled in her work didn't mean she didn't bend the rules from time to time. She'd wager on baseball games with her patients and sometimes, Carter liked to sneak a Dixie cup of ice cream to the ones with diabetes.

``I said you eat that right now and you throw that in the wastepaper basket when you're done,'' Carter said. ``He wasn't supposed to have it but I thought, my God, those guys are there for one purpose _ to pass away. Having an ice cream maybe once a month or so, is that going to kill them off right?''

Looking back at her entire journey, from farm girl to WWII riveter and nurse, Carter is most proud of raising her family.

``Raising my family is my biggest accomplishment,'' she said, at her home on Monday afternoon. Across the table, her daughter Mickale Carter chimed in: ``And none of us ended up in jail!''

The two of them dissolved into laughter.

The day wore on and Carter retired inside while Mickale headed out to the garden. Multiple plots are filled with a menagerie of flowers, peppered with eccentric decor like bowling balls and colorfully painted tires. Carter hasn't lost her wartime frugality; she's found a use for everything.

In the field beyond, rows of bushy leaves pop up from the ground.

There must be hundreds and they can only be one thing _ spuds.


Information from: Daily Inter Lake, http://www.dailyinterlake.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019