Doing Their Part

Women in World War II

By Lisa Schmelz

Doris Reinke is 94, and remembers the role she played in World War II like it was yesterday. Sure, some of the details are lost, like exactly how much she was paid at the Gibbs Factory in Delavan after Pearl Harbor was attacked. But the overall spirit of the time she spent assembling timing fuses for army anti-aircraft shells remains within easy reach.

“It was kind of fun if you can believe that,” says Reinke, on a recent overcast morning, sitting on a couch in an assisted living center on the outskirts of Elkhorn, where she now resides. “We were mostly women, working in the factories, because the men were all in the service. And we were singing. We sang a lot, just popular songs that we knew the words to. We were doing our part. I never quite understood what my little part did. Well, we never really saw the finished product. We all made a little piece of it.”

Even without seeing the finished product in the 1940s, history became the foundation of Reinke’s life. She taught kindergarten for over 30 years in Elkhorn. In retirement, she was the pintsized- powerhouse behind the Walworth County Historical Society. Today, its resource center fittingly bears her name. I have interviewed her many times over the years for various stories on local history. Always she was knowledgeable, but detached in a way a good historian is when serving up sources they didn’t live through.

When I asked her about her experiences working at Gibbs in Delavan at the height of WWII, though, she was a primary source. While her body struggles to keep pace with her still-active mind, she is keenly aware that the women like her — women who worked in factories across the country, producing materials necessary for an Allied victory — are nearly gone from this Earth. If they don’t share their stories, of what it was like and what happened, a part of our collective history will be lost.

For Reinke, these stories are as equally worth preserving as stories from the battlefields. She is quick to add that working in a war factory in Delavan cannot begin to rival what happened “over there.” Still, she doesn’t want stories like hers, or the millions of other women who stepped into the factories on the homefront, lost.

“I can remember it all so plainly because life changed overnight,” she says. “We were attacked and we were at war.”

DELAVAN FACTORIES MOBILIZE

The impact war production had on American industry cannot be understated. Businesses already intertwined with the military rapidly expanded. Automobile manufacturers underwent a drastic transformation. In 1941, more than three million cars rolled off the assembly lines. Yet only 139 were made during all of World War II. Nearly every factory in the nation willing to convert to war production could play a part in providing the U.S. and its allies the supplies necessary for victory. Delavan was no exception.

The economy in Delavan, which made it through the Great Depression less-scathed than many communities, was uniquely suited to covert to wartime production. Here, the Bradley Knitting Company, Borg Corporation, which made automobile clocks and clutches, and Gibbs Factory, which was already making timing and electrical devices, joined forces, servicing over 30 military contracts. Women, long shut out from factory work, were tapped for what was once the bastion of men.

In its inaugural employee magazine, dubbed GBB Broadcast and which came out monthly from June 1944 until Japan’s surrender in September 1945, recruitment was a primary focus. Firm headlines and persuasive editorial made the case for women to work:

IF YOU CAN WORK — YOU SHOULD WORK
Since before Pearl Harbor, when the freedom of our Nation was threatened, women have played an important part in war work at Borg-Gibbs-Bradley. While their sons, brothers, and other loved ones are fighting in far-off  battlefields of this global war in the fight to retain our inherited freedom, these women workers are doing the all-out production effort to defeat those who can take that freedom from us . . . Yes, we salute the women of our country for the heroic job that they are doing, and there is need for many more in the factories to make the weapons that will “back the attack” of our fighting boys over there . . . Never before have women been asked to play such an important part in preserving the freedom of our nation. With men taken from our production lines, it is a paramount necessity that women take their places – not to make the supreme sacrifices that will be made by our boys on D-Day — but to make only trivial sacrifices — we need not amplify — yes, IF YOU CAN WORK YOU SHOULD WORK.

“Women wanted to help. We weren’t going to battle, but we wanted to do something. It wasn’t easy for mothers or women who were responsible for also running farms,” recalls Reinke, who herself never married or had children. “They had a job in the factory and they still had a job at home. Was it the same as what the men were doing? No. But it wasn’t trivial either.”

THE DAY-TO-DAY ROUTINE

The first major war contract awarded Delavan during World War II called for “the vast output of army mechanical time fuses.” The fuses were used to fire anti- aircraft shells, and Reinke marveled that she, a young woman in the Heartland of America, was helping to assemble them.

“I never worked on a machine, so I was usually sitting down, putting little things together. I didn’t know what in the world they did, but I put them together,” she explains. “It was piece work. We sat at these long work tables, maybe 20 of us. And one of the best things was that the food was good. Your food at home was rationed, but apparently if you were working in a war factory and they had a cafeteria, it wasn’t. The food was delicious. I still remember that.”

Like most employees at Borg-Gibbs- Bradley, Reinke got to and from work each day on a company-provided bus.

“It was like a big yellow school bus,” she remembers. “And there were so many of us that they put boards across the aisles. There really wasn’t much money for gas, if you even had a car, and I think that was offered to all employees. I don’t remember paying for it.”

Reinke has heard the claim that Delavan was a top-10 target for enemy sabotage. However, she says the claim was most likely wartime propaganda.

“An attack on Delavan? No, I don’t think we ever thought that would happen. We’d have blackouts at night, but we were pretty far inland,” she says.

The company’s employee magazine boasted of having a fleet of 12 busses, with daily, round-the-clock runs, shuttling its thousands of employees nearly 240,000 miles since its formation in August 1942. Busses picked up workers in Lake Geneva, Walworth, Sharon, Elkhorn, Whitewater, Janesville and even Fort Atkinson. The standard work-day was nine-and-a-half hours long or 49-and-a-half hours a week. Reinke doesn’t recall what she was paid, but acknowledges women were a cheap labor pool in that era.

“It’s just how it was,” she says.

Plant security was tight. Reinke remembers having her purse inspected as she entered and left the plant each day. Chain link fences, with barbed wire, encircled the entire campus on East Wisconsin Street. Armed guards were stationed at every entrance. All told, the 20-member security force, governed by the articles of war, were tasked with protecting 190,000 square feet of floor space for war production.

“It was enormous,” says Reinke. “But it also felt like home.”

HONORING DELAVAN’S WOMEN WARTIME WORKERS

Patti Marsicano is the president of the Delavan Historical Society. When she was preparing subjects for the nationally renowned Walldogs, a group that paints historic murals in a select number of communities each year, she knew she wanted to remember women like Doris, who worked in Delavan war factories. She found inspiration for the artists in the pages of GBB Broadcast, with photos of Virginia Hand of Lake Geneva and Frances Huber of Darien. Both women were single when they worked for Gibbs and both would go on to marry unrelated men with the last name of Johnson.

Huber and Hand are both deceased, and neither of their obituaries mentions their work during the war. Today, though, they loom larger than life on the side of the new fire department building on Ann Street, just south of the Bergamot Brass Works, one the few remaining buildings likely used by workers to assemble timing fuses.

Face the mural, and you’ll see Hand to the left, Rosie the Riveter in the middle, and Huber to the right. Only Rosie looks back at you. Hand and Huber both have their eyes cast down, on their work.

“When I looked at these photographs, and I see them on this mural now, I think about them and their families and what they did for us all,” says Marsicano. “And there’s a sense of pride, knowing they played a part in World War II.”

This story is dedicated to Doris Reinke, a 94-year-old champion extraordinaire of local history. Thank you, Doris, for preserving all manner of local history and for every story you’ve helped me bring to life. Mostly, thank you for the service you gave our country as part of the Greatest Generation. Even when you didn’t know what the finished product would be, as you toiled in a Delavan war factory, you did so with a humbleness and grace we should all aspire to.

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