San Diego, California
as told to Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Esther Terwilliger says:
“When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was in Portland, Oregon, working in the Pendleton woolen mill near Sellwood. I worked in Lake Oswego for a while as a waitress, and also did housework. Though there was talk of war in the Pacific before the attack, reaction to the Pearl Harbor bombing was dread . . . and excitement about what might happen. The war started on December 6, and I turned 21 on January 1.
Soon after the attack, my sister Helen moved to San Diego, and I joined her about a month later. We had been planning to move there anyway. We got jobs at the Air Force’s Consolidated factory. I worked as an assembler. I drilled holes for rivets on the wings of B-52s and might also have worked on B-17s and maybe B-24s. I worked on a big board, about 5 feet by 5 feet, and put the parts in. I drilled different sized holes in just the right spot, so it wasn’t too boring because I had to change the drill all the time for the various sized holes for the rivets. I put a clippie in there to hold them together, then took it off the board and gave it to the riveter. It was interesting. It was kind of fun, and I liked it.
Helen was 4 years older. She worked in the same area and did a lot of metal filing to smooth parts. She had to file things just so, so they fit. I remember Helen was really good at sharpening my drills. She had a good eye. She did a good job. I can sure remember that.
Helen and I had a room with kitchen privileges in the home of Mrs. LaPrade on University at about 36th Street out in North Park. We took a street car in, and it took a long time. Sometimes we fell asleep and almost missed getting off.
Later, when our sister Gertie, who is 6 years older than me, came down, we got an apartment together in Mission Beach. It was about a mile away from the factory.”
“It was a long day,” chimes in Gertie. “We had to get up at 4 a.m. to get there at 6. They had three shifts. Later we got the afternoon shift that started around 2 p.m. and ran to around 10:30 or something. That was really nice.”
Esther continues, “Gertie worked in a different section of the factory. She went up on the wings. I don’t know what she did up there. She used to have to get way up high on the ladders to rivet.
We had to wear a bandana or “some darn thing” over our heads. Sometimes we wore a long scarf that wound around our hair like a turban, like a sheik would wear. That was fun. We, and the factory directors, didn’t want our hair getting caught in the drills. We thought we looked really cute in them. We could have all different colors.
During our 15-minute break, and sometimes during our half-hour lunch, we’d look down from the second floor, where we worked, at the boys on the first floor, who worked there on more intricate machines. And we’d say among ourselves, “Gee, do we want that one, or that one, or that one . . . if they’d only ask us to go out! We had to have some fun.”
We also wore goggles so that steel splinters didn’t get in our eyes. I got one once when I didn’t have them on. It didn’t hurt. Doctors were on duty at the factory, and one took it out for me. I always wore my goggles after that.
We earned about 60 cents an hour.
Eventually Helen and I quit and took an office job at North Island (today known as Coronado Island). That job started a little later. We took a ferry every day, very early in the morning.
During this time we went out with boyfriends. We went to Big Band dances and dancing at the Paladium. All the biggies were there, like Frank Sinatra.
Our main passtime was roller skating. We could dance-skate, and people from New York would show up and they knew different dance steps. We liked their accents. It was fun. We mostly did it on our own. Once in a while someone wanted to escort us home, but we were careful. All of us girls were. (Esther eventually married Earl Terwilliger, a Marine-skater from Poughkeepsie, New York.)
Some people we knew were in the service. I’d find someone I liked and then they were sent out. We all had that same problem. I knew a few girls in the office who were also in the service.
One guy from our school in Gresham, Oregon, came through San Diego, and we went out. His last name was Hauson. He was from a large family. Helen and I came back from a night out with him singing and laughing and having a good time. Then he went off, maybe in the army, and we never saw or heard of him again.
We didn’t do like nowadays—go out on a date and then go to bed with them. (Gertie agrees.) We did correspond with a few guys. We were happy to get a response and know they were ok. A few we saw a few years later.
Our brother Johnny was a 4-F-er, a farmer. They needed the farmers in those days.
I don’t remember having many girlfriends. There was one girl who lived up the line here in a little town, but we just didn’t continue.
We ate ok and got lots of exercise. People would share their ration coupons. We never had much trouble with rations. We’d eat out and get our chicken pies at Whitney’s Department store downtown. They were so good.
The war gave us work experience, but it was a heck of a way to get it. The job was given to us. We didn’t really think about unions. We were just young kids having fun.
I remember going to the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park. The zoo might have been free in those days. I enjoyed the monkeys and bears. We took pictures and like that. We didn’t have any responsibilities in those days.
The day the war ended, I was married with a baby. I was busy. Earl, my Marine husband, and I were in San Francisco, and there was lots of excitement and relief.”
Gertie Steinert says:
“I was at home on the farm in Gresham and I didn’t hear much about the Pearl Harbor attack. Later, in San Diego, the thing that got our attention was the blackouts. At the farm, we didn’t have electric lights until after the war. The streets were dark. Who knew what was coming next?
At the farm we lived in the pioneer days. We had a Model T pick-up and mud-and-plank roads. There weren’t many social activities, maybe a movie once in a while. We had to watch our money.” Esther chimes in, “I can remember having to push the car up the hill at the farm. The road out to the farm was built by WPA.”
Gertie continues, “I came down to San Diego after the war started to join my sisters, who were already here for about a year. People came from poor areas like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Alabama to get a job here in San Diego. One woman told me she traveled here by motorcycle. You can imagine what that was like. Those were hard times. And the men, of course, got paid better. But it was good for women because you couldn’t get anything else then, except housekeeping-maid work.
I lived with my sisters in Mission Beach. We went to the beach when we weren’t working.
Lots of stuff was going on at the USO. I met Martin (Steinert, her eventual husband) at a USO after the war. A big band was playing—someone famous.
When there were shortages, you shared with others. You gave others what they needed. That’s how come we don’t put sugar in our coffee. We were raised without sugar dating back to World War I.
At the factory, we were paid 40 or 50 cents an hour, which was good in those days. Some of the men working elsewhere, like with the WPA, were getting $1 a day plus maybe room and board.
I remember winning a war bond for $25 for not missing work for a specific period of time, probably about three months. That was a big deal. I probably just saved it.
We had to wear a scarf to keep our hair from getting tangled in the machinery. I had a couple. I wore the same one over and over. Heck, who was going to look at you?
I was a “bucker.” I had to get inside the wing section. The girl on the other side was the “riveter,” and I told her when the riveting was finished. I held a piece of solid metal the size of a square half-pound of butter, which the rivet hit and then was flattened by the bucking bar.
But I wasn’t there that long. Just over a year. They were discharging people when I quit after the war! My job continued for a while, and then I started taking care of babies.”
* * * * *
*Helen died in 2001, before this piece was researched and written; Gertie died in 2008. Esther passed away in 2020 at age 99.
*An interview with Esther Terwilliger–”It Was a Woman’s War Too”– was published in the San Diego Union Tribune on July 29, 2012.
*The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park is now open to visit in Richmond, California
My Mom was a Rosie, and my Dad was a Marine:
IN MY FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
A Marine’s Daughter Tracks Down Dad’s World War II Hawaii