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Civilian Women Played Major Role in World War II Victory

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 30, 2004 – No one knows what the outcome of World War II would have been if more than 18 million women hadn't worked in home-front defense industries to free men for overseas battlefields and to keep the nation running.

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World War II factory worker Thelma Snyder poses with her daughter, Linda Denney, in front of one of the National Women's History Museum exhibits at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial in Arlington, Va. Photo by Rudi Williams

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

World War II factory worker Thelma M. Snyder believes the war would not have been won without the help of millions of women on the home front. And she's right, according to historians.

Women across America -- Snyder, a former country schoolteacher among them -- gave up their jobs to work in the defense industry, performing jobs previously reserved for men. Other women who previously hadn't been in the work force added jobs in the defense industry to their traditional responsibilities of cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.

Snyder said this turned "traditional" housewives and mothers into wartime workers.

The "Rosie the Riveter" poster was the most famous image of working women during World War II. "Rosie" represented women who were working as welders, machinists, mechanics, pipe fitters, electricians and boilermakers.

But women performed many other jobs that men had done before heading for battlefields in Europe, the Pacific and East Asia.

"Everybody was working to win that war," Snyder emphasized. "The National Women's Historic Museum is recognizing the women of that period because they contributed an awful lot to the winning of that war. A lot of the workers in the war plant were women. They were struggling too, because they had families and they'd work eight or 10 hours at the plant and then go home and have to do laundry, ironing, cooking and so on to take care of their families."

The museum is partnering with the Women in Military Service to America Memorial Foundation to present a comprehensive look at the roles of women in World War II. The exhibition, "Partners in Winning the War Women in World War II," which opened today, recognizes the roles of civilian women who also served and sacrificed to protect the country while large numbers of the male population went off to war.

Snyder flew in from Kansas on May 28 to be with her daughter, Linda Denney, at the unveiling of the exhibit.

"We felt that recognizing the contribution of women, particularly civilian women, was very important," Denney said. "There isn't a great deal of recognition given to that, nor is there a place that really tells their story. The war couldn't have been won without the women in the factories, the government, raising victory gardens and doing all the things they did during World War II."

Noting that the exhibit is slated to grace the Women's Memorial gallery until late September, Denney said museum officials feel that the women half of the wartime partnership needs to be recognized equally as the people who were on the battlefields.

"And thus, the exposition for Americans to learn about the role of civilian women in World War II," Denney said. "And, in this particular venue (the Women's Memorial), the role of military women, too."

Women served in the military in unprecedented numbers during World War II, Denney said, "but the women on the home front really contributed a great deal by stepping into many jobs that men performed before."

She said that's especially true in the production area, because the country had to produce the military materials needed to wage the war.

When the United States entered the war, Snyder pointed out, the country didn't have a whole lot of ships, airplanes, bombs or anything else to fight the war with. "We had to build a lot of that stuff after we were into the war," she said. "That's the reason they were coaxing the women to go to work. And women did go to work because they felt their boys were over there needing all of these materials."

Women put in some awfully long days, but everybody was working together during that period, Snyder said. "Never in the history of the country was there a time when everybody was seeing eye-to-eye," she noted. "We didn't have a lot of criticism, and the news people were very good about not publishing anything that would hurt the cause. It's kind of hard for some of us that went through that to accept some of the stuff that goes on now."

She said there hasn't been that much togetherness in this country since then. "People were not together like that during the Vietnam War," Snyder noted. "All these wars that have been going on lately are definitely not like that."

Snyder, a farmer's daughter, was teaching in a little country schoolhouse in Hallowell, Kan., when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. "I finished that term of school and went to work in the ordnance plant in Parsons, Kan.," she said. "I had different jobs there, including working on the assembly line for the M- 21 boosters that went into shells to detonate bombs and running a big machine making big pellets."

She said working long, arduous hours wasn't as hard on her as it was for women who had families to care for. "I wasn't married and didn't have any children, so I got along pretty good," said Snyder, who later became a war bride.

After about a year at the ordnance plant, Snyder was talked into quitting and returning to teaching school. "A school out where my uncle was living near Wellington, Kan., (30 miles south of Wichita) didn't have a teacher," she noted. "So they begged me to come and teach in their school that year. So I did."

In those days, it wasn't necessary to have a college degree to teach school. "I took a course in high school that they called the 'normal training course,'" Snyder noted. "You had to take a state examination to get a teaching certificate. But I went to school in the summertime and got a few hours of college work. But I never got a degree.

"Those little country schools were lucky to get anybody to teach," Snyder said with a chuckle.

After a year in the classroom, Snyder went to work at the Boeing Aircraft Company in Wichita. "I worked there until I got married on Feb. 3, 1945," she noted. "My fianc finally decided that he wasn't going to have to go overseas, so we got married."

Even though she had to travel on a train about 550 miles from Wichita to Austin, Texas, to get married, her mother insisted that she take a wedding cake with her.

"I was going down to this Army camp to get married, and my sister went with me," Snyder recalled. "My mother insisted that I had to have a wedding cake, so she had one made. It wasn't a big fancy one like we'd have now.

"We were carrying it in a box on the train," Snyder said. "Back then, the trains and buses were so full that you couldn't get a seat a lot of the time. We couldn't get a seat that day, so we turned our suitcases up on the end and sat on them and held the wedding cake on our laps."

After rotating the cake back and forth from her sister's lap to her lap during the nearly 550-mile journey, they finally arrived in Austin to face brief disappointment.

When they arrived at the Army camp, her fianc's commander wouldn't let him out of the camp.

"The boys had made arrangements with a minister in Austin to marry us," Snyder said. "But when we were ready to go, the captain wouldn't let him go. When he finally allowed Kenneth (the late Kenneth Snyder) to leave the camp, we were late for the appointments with the minister and the photographer."

The photographer had left, and the minister was getting ready to leave when they arrived at the parsonage to be married.

"The minister wanted to know if we wanted to go to the church for the wedding, and I said that would be fine," Snyder said. "Several of Kenneth's buddies that were in the Army with him and their wives went with us. We had a nice wedding. Then we went to a place to eat and had our wedding cake."

Calling the men who fought in World War II "Depression kids," Snyder said that when they came home after the war, all they did was go to work. "They figured they had to go to work to make a living, so everybody just came home and went to work," she said.

"Nobody talked a lot about the war," Snyder noted. "In our home, we had four children, and we didn't talk a lot about the Army or the war. As far as Kenneth, who died in 1996, telling about his experiences during the war, he just didn't talk about it."

She said her husband served three years, nine months and 14 days before getting out and going to work building roads in his uncle's construction business.

Her husband was an Army infantryman, but he never saw combat. "They kept him on coastal guard during the whole war," said Snyder, adding that she and her husband had four children, two boys and two girls. "He walked underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in California. His unit guarded the coastline on the West Coast.

"There were a lot of things that went on that the public never knew about," she said. "I guess it was to our advantage to keep it quiet."

Everybody was intense on keeping everything moving along during the war, Snyder noted. "We wanted the boys over there supplied with what they needed to work with," she said. "I was happy to be able to work like I did, because a lot of women had families and they couldn't work."

However, she said it wasn't easy on the home front because of rationing. "We couldn't buy a new pair of shoes every time we wanted to," Snyder noted. "We got one pair of shoes a year. Tires, gasoline, sugar, meat, wool clothes and all kinds of things were rationed.

"They even quit making cars and pennies out of copper; they made them out of zinc," she noted. "A lot of things changed, but I didn't suffer a lot from any of it."

The World War II experience changed women's lives forever in America, Snyder said. "Women hadn't really gone out and worked out of the home as much before the war as they have since the war," Snyder noted. "I guess they found out that they can work and take care of a home all at the same time, so they do it now. But they didn't so much before the war."

Even though she didn't go to the National Mall for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on May 29, Snyder said she cried while watching the dedication on television in the comfort of her daughter's home.

"It makes me really happy that they're recognizing the women a little bit," she said. "The women play a very important part in that war."

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