Connie Hammar just celebrated her 98th birthday on Aug. 21.
She is one of the small number of remaining Rosie the Riveters in the U.S.
“At the time, I never knew I was a Rosie,” Hammar said. “I thought it was just a saying, like ‘GI Joe.’”
Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of all women who worked in the war industries during World War II. These women sometimes took entirely new jobs, replacing the male workers who joined the military.
Connie Hammar, of St. Croix Falls, grew up in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, where her father ran an auto repair shop.
During the Depression, people were unable to pay for their repairs, so the family closed shop and moved to nearby Hill Crest Resort, where they managed vacation cabins.
“Times were really tough then,” Hammar said. “People were fixing weeds and eating them to fill the stomachs of their kids because they didn’t have money to buy food.”
When Hammar was 17 years old, she remembers hearing Adolf Hitler on the radio. “I didn’t understand him, but his voice was so severe sounding,” she said.
“I also remember when President Roosevelt announced we were at war,” she said. “It was a Sunday morning at nine ‘o clock. It was Pearl Harbor, and I remember thinking that I never heard of Pearl Harbor before. I will never forget that.”
When the war started, Hammar said the resort business went down the drain with the war. “People didn't have tires or gas. In fact, my dad borrowed his tires to a friend so he could go to a funeral in Illinois.”
After she graduated in 1942, her brother Warren was already working at the Douglas Airplane Company in California. He encouraged the family to join him to work in the airline industry. Their father moved first. Hammar and her mother followed.
Hammar applied for work at Northrup Aircraft in Hawthorne, California.
“The first thing they did when I applied at Northrup was a physical, and then I had to sign something that said I couldn’t talk about my work,” Hammar said. “I went to aircraft school to learn about blueprinting, and the day my teacher was gone, these people came and said they needed riveters. They took me, and my teacher was upset when he came back because I was gone.”
Hammar was put to work bucking nacelles — casings for the engines of the P-61 Black Widow night fighter. Hammar said the plant and the parking lot were camouflaged to look like something else from the air.
She said one day when she arrived at work, there were a lot of planes parked under camouflage. They were gone the next day.
“I never spoke about them to anyone,” said Hammar. “I didn't want to ask any questions, because I didn't want to get into trouble.”
Hammar said she worked at the Northrup Aircraft plant from about 1942 to 1943.
According to history.com, more than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce.
Hammar said her family returned to Wisconsin before 1945, opening a bar/restaurant near Siren. She said on the day the war ended, all bars were closed, so the family traveled to St. Croix Falls to celebrate with others.
Hammar met her husband, Eugene Gray, on a train.
“When we met on the train, I was going north to Minneapolis and he was going to Ohio,” Hammar said. “During the trip, the Platte River flooded, so we stayed on the train for a week. He was on leave from the Army and about to ship out to the European theater — 3rd Armored Division.”
The couple wrote letters to each other and eventually married. They have two daughters — Judy and Susan.
They settled in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Gray worked in Fridley at Northern Pump Company and worked on naval launchers for the U.S. Navy.
While raising their two daughters, Hammar decided to go back to work. She got a job at a sewing factory in the theater building in St. Croix Falls.
“We made women’s dresses and sewed on New York labels,” she said. “Then we made children’s robes.”
Hammar also worked at Plastics, a factory in Dresser, Wisconsin, where she made parts for sewing machines.
In 1987, Gray passed away suddenly from a heart attack.
“I decided to retire early and gave my notice at Plastics and that weekend, my husband died,” she said. “We never had one day together of retirement. My oldest daughter lived in Las Vegas and my other daughter was visiting her friend in Kansas City. I had no family here when he died.”
Hammar has lived in St. Croix Falls for over 60 years. She still lives independently in her home and still drives her car.
“I recently renewed my driver’s license, and it's good for eight more years,” she laughed. “I thought they were going to make me take a driving test, but they just checked my eyesight and I gave them money.”
Hammar said she doesn't drive into the Twin Cities anymore.
“I quit when the virus started,” she said. “Up until then, I was still driving to my daughter's house in Inver Grove Heights.”
Hammar recalled that after the war, she and her husband never talked about their war experiences.
“He knew I worked in an airplane factory and that we were building bombers that never got finished in time,” Hammar said. “But I never told my husband that I was a Rosie.”