The Plane That Changed A City

Sep 29, 2015

World War II marked a turning point for the city of Seattle. Boeing built thousands of B17 planes at a facility on the Duwamish River. At one point, 30,000 people reported for work there, assembling the planes that would help the allies defeat the Nazis. But with most of the young, white men overseas, Boeing was forced to expand its hiring criteria.

The 5,000th B-17 plane was autographed by the Boeing Seattle workers. It completed 78 bombing missions in Europe before being scrapped in 1946.
Credit Copyright, Boeing Co.

The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter was born as more than 12,000 women went to work for Boeing building B17s.

[ARCHIVE VIDEO: 1:42 “And in growing numbers women are taking over in the plants replacing men who have gone off to war. These women used to drive the family car. Now they’re driving Hitler, crazy… ambi]

Are you picturing her in your mind? Hair tied on top of her head in a bandana? Clenching her bicep? Saying “We Can Do it!” What color is her skin?

Quintard Taylor: "For African American women, this was a way to transform their lives."

Quintard Taylor is a professor at the University of Washington and a leading expert on black history in Seattle and the west.

During the war years, African Americans came from all over the South to work in shipyards in Washington and Oregon – and to build B17s on the banks of the Duwamish River in Seattle.

The black population in Seattle grew to 4x what it was before WWII in just a few years. Portland saw a similar boom. Professor Taylor pulls out an old photograph. 8 black women stand proudly in front of the B17 they just finished building.

Quintard Taylor: "Think about what that means. They are building the planes that are bombing german positions. This is critical work. This is crucial work. These are the Rosie the Riveters that we don’t really talk very much about. These are the women, and women like them, who helped to win the war. And I don’t think they should be ignored."

[Scene at LouAnnie’s house fades up. We hear a little bit of tea stirring, talking “there’s some silverware over there.”]

Josie Dunn sets aside her cane and slowly eases herself into a chair at her niece’s dining room table. She’s 97 years old… and she’s lived in Seattle almost all her life. She came here when she was just 18 - when she boarded a train from Muskogee, Oklahoma, leaving behind her mom and 6 brothers and sisters.

Josie Dunn: "I’ll tell anybody, Muskogee is a good place to be from. You couldn’t work in the department stores, the supermarket. There was no blacks working in those places."

Me on tape: "You were one of the first African Americans that Boeing employed at the plant 2 facility. Right?"

Josie Dunn: "That’s right. I was there with Leanna and Amy and Lorraine and Odessa, those were the only four at that time that I can think of was there. We kept wondering why we couldn’t be a member of the union."

The local machinists union wasn’t happy Josie Dunn was there. She worked alongside thousands of other - mostly white - Rosie the Riveters. The white women, she said, were wonderful. They’d crochet with the black women at lunch. The white men on the other hand…

Josie Dunn: "They didn’t want us there in the first place, regardless of color, they didn’t want the women there. They’d try everything on us they could."

The men would send the women to ask for things like right handed hammers or left handed screwdrivers. One supervisor withheld their tools, so the African American workers were late to their stations.

Josie Dunn worked for Boeing for almost 40 years - starting at 62 ½ cents an hour. She was able to save up enough to bring her mother - who was back in Oklahoma picking cotton - out of poverty to a long, good life with her family in Seattle. Before her mother died she told Josie how proud she was that she’d made it to where she was, and helped so many others along the way.

Josie Dunn: "When mama left she told me, she says, I don’t want you to cry because you done the best you could. [Long pause] So I’m completely happy."

Josie Dunn doesn’t consider herself any kind of a hero for her work building B17s for the war effort. She said she was just deeply thankful to President Franklin D. Roosevelt for laying the groundwork for African Americans to get industrial jobs during the war.

You can hear the full podcast of Ashley Ahearn's reporting on the Boeing B17 by clicking here

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