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She was a Rosie: An American hero tells her story of perseverance during WWII

Caroline Kilgore talks about her role during WWii
Caroline Kilgore, a member of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, stands with her American quilt she made for presentation at the Veterans Medical Leadership Council luncheon event held earlier this year at the Arizona Biltmore. (Photo: Terrance Thornton/DigitalFreePress.com)

Caroline Kilgore offers first-hand account of service during WWII

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

American heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

“Oh, you’re small — you’ll be a ‘bucker,’” said Sun City resident Caroline Kilgore Friday, Dec. 16. “You know? I was small you see so I could fit in the wing, so they made me a ‘bucker.’”

The year was 1944 and Ms. Kilgore was 17 years old, lived in Rockford, Illinois, and after her studies she was working as a bucker — the practice of smoothing pop rivets on both wing and fuselage — of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, which during WWII provided vital military transit throughout the European theater of war.

Ms. Kilgore was a ‘Rosie.’

Ms. Kilgore, who now is a sharp, witty 96-year-old, travels around the Valley of the Sun telling her story representing the American Rosie the Riveter Association effort to preserve the history of the efforts of American women during WWII.

“At this time, you see, America was a very poor country because in 1929 we had a stock market crash and we were just recovering from that,” she explained of the country of her youth. “Because of that there were countries who thought they could overcome us. They were Germany, Italy and Japan and they thought, ‘sure we can.’”

Ms. Kilgore explains of the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the memorial of the loss of life on that day was just observed earlier this month on Dec. 7 — didn’t immediately resonate with her and her peers.

“Japan did hit us at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. I can remember that day: we had a little radio and of course radios had just come in then. Just think how long ago that is. Many times, we would have to pound on top of the radio to make it work. Then it would static like mad. But then, we heard it was Pearl Harbor that was attacked, and we said, ‘Where on earth is Pearl Harbor?!’ Years ago, the world was not as connected as it is today. The world was a very big place.”

In the following hours, days and weeks, Ms. Kilgore and her community of Rockford realized the gravity of the situation and things changed, she recalled.

“When we found it was American then we were mad,” she said of those harrowing days. “The boys from school they wanted to go to war; they really wanted to work for America and make [the world] free again. The men left the factories, well then, the women had to work.”

A different American landscape

An American landscape only still alive in figments of imagination, Ms. Kilgore explains.

“At this time women only wore dresses, they never wore slacks, they never wore shorts, they never left their homes,” she said. “They never worked outside of their home. It was really new for them, but they did leave their homes to work in the factories. But what do we do with the children? We can’t carry them on the back while working. We couldn’t have absentees because we had a job to do. That’s where we came up with daycare.”

Ms. Kilgore explains an American economy spurred by one cause.

“Typewriter people made machine guns. Stove manufacturers made lifeboats,” she said of common factories being transformed into a war manufacturing machine. “We took our own lunch. We had to buy our own tools. We wore a blue one-piece overall and they were one-size-fits all, so I took it home and sewed it up. We didn’t wear those pretty little blue and white turbans like you see in the pictures. They gave us hair nets; I think they were horrible.”

Turns out the image of a “Rosie” is a 1942 painting by Norman Rockwell.

“That name was made for us,” she said. “It was given to us during the second World War. The first time we saw it was from a Rockwell painting. This says it was painted in 1942. She really was a model and was paid $10 for sitting for him.”

All of this, Mr. Kilgore recalls, was when she child and into her high school studies.

“They would let me out early if I had good grades,” she said. “It was a job that we all worked at. It was something we all knew was important. We all worked very hard, and we did the very best we could.”

The very best they could resulted in an estimated 13 C-47s being assembled “on a good day” in Oklahoma City as in Rockford, where Ms. Kilgore was working, was only assembling the wings of the critical war bird.

“I had a boyfriend and I wanted him to come back,” she said of those uncertain times. “We all just knew it was job we had to do — not a job I would like to do for the rest of my life. I wasn’t able to do all the three years because I was too young to work in the factories until my senior year, but I had friends who did. They had stories to tell but a lot of them are not with us anymore. There are not a lot of ‘Rosies’ left.”

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