“Whether rain or shine, she’s part of the assembly line. She’s making history, working for victory…”
Long before he learned the role his grandmother played in history, Elinor Otto was John Alexander Perry’s role model. Whenever he had a decision to make, he asked himself one question: “What would grandma do?”
Aside from being the inspiration for her son and grandson, there have been two constants in Otto’s life. She simply cannot sit still for long, and she loves working on airplanes.
“If she had an outlet you could plug into her, you would never sleep again,” Perry said. “There’s nothing about her that’s normal. She just goes and goes and goes and doesn’t stop. She is truly the Energizer Bunny.”
Otto was one of the original the Riveters, the thousands of women who took on jobs for men deployed overseas during World War II. She worked on airplanes for almost 50 years until she was laid off in 2014 at the age of 95 from the Boeing Company plant in Long Beach, California, where she shares a house with her grandson.
“Everything with me is an adventure,” said Otto, who’s now 96 years old. “That’s what life is – one big adventure.”
Perry then pointed to a photograph of his grandmother as a young woman and smiled wistfully.
“See, she was beautiful,” he said. “People wanted grandma to be an actress.”
But Otto had no interest in an acting career because she had a destiny – an important one for not only her life, but also for the then-fledgling Air Force and nation.
“I had to work on airplanes,” she said. “They used to ask me, ‘Why do you want to do a man’s job?’ I said, ‘Because you get a lot of exercise, you’re on your feet and move around.’ That’s what I like. I just don’t like jobs where you just sit still all the time.”
Co-workers and visitors would marvel at the sight of Otto at work, moving her hands and stomping her feet along with the vibrations of the riveting gun. But not everyone initially accepted women in jobs usually reserved for men.
“Of course, the men resented hearing that women were going to be working with them, at first,” Otto said. “But after we proved ourselves and proved to them that we were able to keep the schedules up and get the jobs done right, they started respecting us, and we all cooperated together.
“Some of the guys would say, ‘You’re working too hard. You’re making us look bad.’ But I would say, ‘Well, go to work then!’”
Eventually, the men saw that the women worked as hard and as effectively as they did. In fact, the women were often selected to handle the rivet guns because their work was more precise, Otto said.
“They told us, ‘You women handle the rivet gun. Don’t let the men do it,’” she said. “They wouldn’t let the men do that because we were more careful. With the sets we had to make, it was so easy to make a ding on the skin, and they would have a hard time fixing it.
“Things were smaller then – smaller parts and rivets. Now we need guns that are so heavy. But I could do that, too. I would say, ‘I’m not as frill as I look,’ because I’d been doing it for a long time. I had to tell some of them that I’d been doing this work since before you were born. You had to fight your way sometimes with the men.”
During the war, Otto made 65 cents an hour, which didn’t go far, since she paid $20 a week to board her son while she worked. To motivate themselves before heading to work, Otto and her female co-workers would sometimes sing along with the song, “Rosie the Riveter” by the Four Vagabonds on a .78 rpm phonograph. She still knows the words today: “Whether rain or shine, she’s part of the assembly line. She’s making history, working for victory…”
After the war, Otto worked as a car hop and other equally unsatisfying jobs before she returned to factory work in 1951. She worked for Ryan Aeronautical Corporation in San Diego for 14 years until she was laid off. Almost a year later, Otto moved to Long Beach to work for Douglas Aircraft Company, which merged with McDonnell Aircraft and later with Boeing.
By the end of 2014, when the Air Force ended its relationship with the Long Beach plant, Otto had worked on every Boeing C-17 Globemaster III they had. Throughout her half century working on planes, whether on the C-17, KC-135 Stratotanker, or the Douglas DC-8, McDonnell Douglas D-9 and D-10, Otto’s fast-paced style never changed, mostly because it was the way she worked since childhood. But she admits there was also another reason.
“When I would sit down, they were about ready to call the paramedics,” she said. “They thought that maybe something was wrong with me.”
Interest in the Rosies peaked a couple of decades later, with the renewed popularity in the “We Can Do It” poster during the women’s rights movement in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“We didn’t know we were doing anything important,” Otto said. “We thought we were just working people, working together for a purpose. We had no idea that this was ever going to happen, that we’d get all of this attention about it. Otherwise, I think I would have taken more pictures.”
At the age of 12, Otto’s grandson learned about her role during World War II only after he was given a history project on the Rosie the Riveters in junior high school. His father Ronald Arthur Perry told him to write about his grandma.
“Everyone at that point wanted to meet her and talk to her,” John Perry said. “I kind of got swept to the side and grandma was famous.”
Perry and his father introduced Otto to the world through the “Keep the Spirit of ‘45 Alive” group and the Weider History Group, and soon all of the major networks and newspapers were calling. Otto decided on NBC for her first major interview.
“After I was on The Today Show, I walked out in New York City, and here comes everybody. ‘Oh, there’s a Rosie!’ Everybody wanted a picture on their cellphones,” she said. “I think it’s cute, all this stuff they do.”
The awards and recognition also kept coming her way. In 2014, Otto received the Lillian K. Keil Award for Women’s Contributions to the Military from the American Veterans Center for her contributions as a Rosie the Riveter during the war.
“There really are a lot of Rosies left,” Otto said. “Most of them are still healthy, but they didn’t work until they were 95. They weren’t that crazy. In my day, if I were to see an old lady like me working in there, I would have said, ‘What is that old bag doing over there?’ I am so grateful that anybody even cares.”
The forced retirement, especially so close to reaching the 50-year milestone of working on airplanes, hurt Otto deeply. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched the last C-17 tip its wing goodbye before it left the Long Beach plant for a four-hour flight to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina.
“The layoff hurt her,” Perry said. “For a long time, she was not grandma. She moped around the house trying to fill her day because she was so used to getting up and going to work. I shed some tears on that, too.”
Since her retirement, it hasn’t been easy for Otto to stay busy but she does the best she can. Her friends and co-workers remain special to her, especially after so many attended the graveside service for her 71-year-old son who died in 2013. So many of her Boeing friends showed up that Otto thought they were coming for another funeral.
Once a month, Otto meets with her former Boeing co-workers at a Long Beach restaurant by the marina in Shoreline Village. Carol Hill, who was in charge of product distribution at the plant, looks up to Otto for her longevity and never-stop attitude.
“She’s my idol,” Hill said, “to have worked that long and still have all of her faculties. This woman is remarkable. She was this little person working those big riveting guns, just standing on her stepstool.”
Otto may not be holding her handy riveting gun as she closes in on her 100th birthday, but she shows no signs of giving up on the motto that got her so far as a Rosie and as a person.
“I just believe that people have to keep moving,” she said. “People are staying healthy longer, and they get bored and want to get out and do something. You don’t want to sit around and do nothing. You can fall apart that way. So just keep moving. That’s the secret to life.”