Sally’s t-shirt has “Rosie the Riveter” on it, a cultural icon which now represents the American women who worked in factories and shipyards during WWII. Photo taken by Jennie Zeitler.
With the numbers of military veterans of World War II declining, there is a less well-known group of veterans declining as well… the women who worked in the factories and shipyards across our nation in support of the war from the home front. Over the years, these women have taken the title “Rosie the Riveter” and are associated with the recognizable image of a 1940s woman dressed ruggedly with her right arm raised to do the work that needed to be done.
One of the remaining “Rosies” is living her retirement years in Royalton. Marcella “Sally” Selinski Surma was born on a farm near the small Central Minnesota community of Bowlus in 1924. She was the seventh of 13 children.
“We were poor, with that many kids,” she remembered. “We were lucky if we got candy once a week, or an orange or a banana. But none of us were ever sick and only one of us wore glasses.”
While still in her early teens, Sally caught the eye of Merrence “MJ” Surma.
“He was friends with my older brother,” Sally said. “But mom wouldn’t let me go with him until I was 15.”
Their first date was in the summer of 1939, after MJ had graduated from high school. A photo taken of them on that first date shows them enthusiastically embracing. MJ was later drafted, but his military service was deferred for a year while he went to work in an airplane factory in Long Beach, Calif.
MJ eventually reported to Army training in Texas. He tried to convince Sally to meet him there so they could get married before he went overseas.
“My older sisters talked me out of it,” she said. “They told me that if he died and I was pregnant, I’d have to live with mom and dad the rest of my life.”
The still-single Sally had been taking care of her niece in Minneapolis and attending Edison High School. Once she turned 16, she could get a social security number, which was required for her to get a job. In March of 1942, she started working at Northern Pump in New Brighton as an inspector of bullets.
“They were six-inch bullets,” she said. “I had to pull the bad ones out.”
She worked the 3 – 11 p.m. shift along with her sister. Sometime later, the workers were told that welders were needed, and anyone who was interested could take an exam to see if they had an aptitude for that kind of work.
Sally scored high on the test, and in 1943, she and three other workers left to work in the shipyards of Portland, Ore.
“They sent us out on a troop train,” she recalls. “We were singing all along the way. We slept in our seats and ate in the dining car.”
It was arranged that the four girls would have the basement of a family home for their use. There were four bedrooms and a bathroom in the lower level, and they had the use of the main floor kitchen.
“It was a policeman, his wife and young daughter who lived there,” Sally said.
The girls attended about six weeks of welding school. Their work took them aboard many different ships – large carriers. They worked from eight to 10 hours per day, all over the ship – “wherever they put us,” said Sally. “The work was easy once you got used to doing it.”
Under her welding helmet, Sally Surma wore this leather head cover, signed with the names of her boss and a security guard. All of her other mementos of that time, such as numerous telegrams and photos, burned in a house fire years ago. Photo by Jennie Zeitler
The welders were provided with a leather head cover to be worn under their welding helmets. Sally is pleased to still have her head cover. All of her photos and other memorabilia from that time of her life burned in a house fire.
Sally remembers that Tommy was the boss. He and Mikey, a guard at the shipyard, signed her leather head cover.
“All the men there wanted to go out with us, but I never went out with anyone,” she said. “I was waiting for Merrence!”
Being that far from home in the 1940s was very different from how it is now; communication was much more of a challenge. Using the telephone was far too expensive and not something the girls could do.
“We had to send telegrams,” said Sally. “Merrence sent a lot of telegrams.”
The girls missed two Christmases at home while they were in Oregon. Sally remembers writing a letter to her mother the first Christmas, telling how lonely she was. Once she returned home, her mom told Sally how hard she had cried when she read that letter.
One day, Sally dropped a piece of hot metal weld about the size of a silver dollar on her breastbone. Being concerned about infection, the factory workers would not remove it there, but took her to the hospital. Eventually, the wound healed just fine.
There were many good times in Oregon. Sally has fond memories of a Greek restaurant operated by a man named Nick. “He would always make us whatever we wanted,” she said. “We were in there once or twice a week. He was very good to us.”
The girls played a lot of cards on their days off. They went fishing often. Since they were without a car, the policeman, whose house they shared was paid to drive them where they needed to go.
“We all knew how to cook and we made big meals,” she said with a grin. “We ate good, and we all got along real good.”
When the war in the Pacific ended in August of 1945, exactly 70 years ago, Sally remembered dancing until 4 a.m. But with their jobs now done, the women were laid off right away.
“The boys returning home had their jobs waiting for them,” she said. “But we couldn’t go home right away because the sailors were given their chance first and there wasn’t room for us.”
After more than a week of waiting, Sally and her friends were able to find spots on a train home.
“Everyone was very excited and happy,” she said. “There were a lot of sailors on the train celebrating, playing the harmonica and accordion and singing.”
Photo of Sally taken when she was 17, which accompanied her future husband Merrence throughout his World War II military service. It was safety tucked in his wallet.
Merrence also returned home from the war in 1945, and he and Sally were married July 16, 1946. They raised four children.
Years later, with the increasing visibility of Rosie the Riveter reunion groups that have sprung up around the country, Sally joined a group in Arizona in 2013. Her daughter had seen a notice in the Sun City paper.
“The meetings are once a month, with a nice lunch,” she said. “We can talk and stay to play cards.”
Sally has not joined a group in Minnesota. The closest one is in Minneapolis, and that’s too far for her to go every month.
The American Rosie the Riveter Association was founded December 7, 1998 in Georgia by Dr. Frances Carter to honor the working women of World War II.
“Dr. Carter felt that the ladies needed to tell their stories, so she founded the organization,” said Mabel Myrick of Birmingham, Ala., corresponding secretary. “We like to honor those women who did any kind of work that helped the war effort, from riveters and welders to those who grew a victory garden at home.”
To keep the legacy alive, it’s not only World War II Rosies who may join the Rosie organization. Membership is available to any woman who was employed in an industry or agency that was directly related to the war effort or who was employed in a capacity usually held by a man, thus releasing a man for military duty. This includes self-employment, such as farming. As a volunteer Rosie, any woman who participated on a sustained basis in one or more volunteer activities related to the war effort (examples: collecting critical materials, growing a Victory Garden, working at a USO). As a Rosebud, any female who is the direct descendant of a Rosie or a Volunteer Rosie. As a Rivet, any male who is the direct descendant or spouse of a Rosie, Volunteer Rosie or Rosebud. As a 21st Century Rosie, a woman who currently works or has retired in a job that prior to WW II was considered “man’s work” (examples: plumber, machinist, police officer, politician, pilot). And as Rosebud Partners or Rivet Partners, people of either gender who may not be able to establish eligibility through their ancestors may join by pledging support for ARRA’s purpose.
For more information, contact Mabel Myrick, P. O. Box 188, Kimberly, AL 35091. Phone (205) 647-9233 or email.
In 2000, the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park was established as the flagship National Park to tell the World War II Home Front story. It is located in Richmond, Cal. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/rori.