Gail and the Boarding Houses of the War Years

Gail Lee Martin’s notes about the boarding houses she lived in while working at Boeing in the 1940s. These are emails between her and her daughter Karen. All the photos were taken by Karen a few years ago. The houses are still there.

Both of the emails date from July 15, 2011.

The email was in response to the photos of the house on Emporia Street that I sent her:

“I really enjoyed living in the 2nd tower room until I got the intestinal flu and the bathroom was downstairs.”

That’s when her Mother came to take care of her and immediately found the rooming house for her on Pattie Street.

Pattie Street house in Wichita where our mom lived in WWI while working at Boeing Aircraft.

Pattie Street house in Wichita where our mom lived in WWI while working at Boeing Aircraft. Photo by her daughter, Karen K.

This email is about the one on Pattie Street:

“Sure looks like the house Mrs. Dixon owned and I lived in the front downstairs bedroom, with the door opening off the front room.  There was a grocery store east across the street where I bought a package of 6 cinnamon rolls and ate them on the way to work.  The bus stopped there during the daytime and then I had to change buses to go on to Boeing.  Even the front door looks the same.  It was 1000 S. Pattie.”

You’ll remember that she often had to work after the buses had stopped running in the evening and that she walked (most?) of the way home.  I can’t imagine that she walked all the way from Boeing though.

Just checked and Boeing was 5 miles south of where she lived at 1000 S. Pattie,  South Wichita has never been safe, but maybe during the war people were more respectful of those involved in the war effort and refrained from raping the girls.

Maybe the buses just ran a limited route after hours and she didn’t have to walk the whole way.

Karen

Gail and Rosie the Riveter

Mom identified with Rosie the Riveter, although she was chagrined to find herself too slight to handle the kick of the rivet gun. Despite that, Gail found other work to do at Boeing Aircraft and contribute to the war work. Here’s a memory piece that Gail Lee Martin wrote for the Our Echo site about her fondness for Rosie.

Friends by Gail Lee Martin

My Merriam Webster’s Concise Dictionary large-print edition states that a friend is ”person one likes.” But it works both ways. I treasure this person as my friend and she proved she thought of me as a friend.

At my writing group, Prairie Prose & Poetry’s monthly meeting in February 2003, I read my essay titled, My Wall of Books (one of very first that I posted on OurEchoes April 4th, 2006). One paragraph was about our collection of books and calendars of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. At another meeting, I shared what I had recently written about working for Boeing Aircraft Company during World War II.

My friend, Mary Skipworth, put two and two together and one day in July she came to our house and presented me with a t-shirt with Rockwell’s ’Rosie the Riveter’ on it. I was moved almost to tears. But settled on a great big hug.

Rockwell’s Rosie must have been the fad of the year as my daughter, Cindy, gave me a Rosie, We Can Do It, pot-holder for Mother’s Day. Not to be outdone my sister, Carol, gave me hand towels with the same logo for my birthday. No one knew what the others had done until later. Family can be great friends too.

G is for Gail’s Bookshelf – Slacks and Calluses

Slacks and Calluses is a first-hand account of women factory workers in WWII. It’s the memories of two school teachers in California who used their summer vacation to help the war effort. They took jobs in a bomber factory and found the work much harder than they expected.

 

slacks and calluses goodreads

Book Cover

This book is their lively account of what it was like and reads somewhat like a diary. It gives a glimpse into an aircraft factory during WWII. The authors are Constance Bowman Reid and Sandra M. Gilbert.

 

I found this quite interesting, as my mother, Gail Lee Martin, had worked for Boeing during the war in Wichita, KS. After I read the book, I passed it along to Mom for her bookshelf. Later, I asked how she liked it. She said it was fairly similar to her experience at Boeing.

I kept nagging my mother to write more about her memories of working at Boeing and she did oblige with several emails. Sure wish I’d been able to get her to tell more details. In Slacks and Calluses, they mention the problem of getting aluminum slivers in their hair. You’ll note in the cover photo above, the young woman has a snood over her hair.

The photo below is my mother, Gail McGhee, at that time. She has on her work uniform and has her hair pulled back away from her face, but not entirely covered.

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Gail Lee McGhee, later Martin – wearing her Boeing uniform in WWII

 

After Graduation in 1942

In May of 1942 I graduated (barely) from Hamilton High School in Greenwood County, Kansas. I lived with my folks in the Seeley school district where Daddy worked as an oil field pumper for Phillips Petroleum Company. By the time school started in September I was offered a job caring for three-year-old Ann Neumayer and doing light house work for her family. Her mother taught at the Seeley grade school, her dad was a pumper for the Ohio Oil company, and she had an older brother, Robert and an older sister, Peggy, who went to school with their mother.

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Hamilton High School in Kansas where Gail Lee McGhee graduated.

My job was like any babysitter of today. Ann was a darling toddler, who loved to tag-a-long doing whatever I was doing. That family ate big servings of fried potatoes every night for supper, with fried meat and gravy. I used to say after peeling that big pile of potatoes every night, “I might as well be on KP in the army.”

At the start of the next school year, Mrs. Neumayer was allowed to take Ann to school with her. So I was wondering what I was to do, then we heard about the government’’s NYA program for the young people of America. The closest school for girls was at Winfield, Kansas. My folks agreed for me to go and they took me down there. My boyfriend, Johnny Faylor, had been sent to Fort Leonardwood for training in the army. Our friend Clyde Martin was rejected when he was called up because he was a farm boy and was needed on the farm as his older brother, Ralph was already in the air force. He went to the boy’’s camp in Cherryvale and took welding classes.

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1942 postcard of Cherryvale, Kansas’ downtown.

My parents took me down to Winfield shortly after school was out in May of 1943. There they tried to teach me to be a riveter. But I was a skinny kid weighing only ninety-nine pounds so I couldn’’t hold up the big heavy rivet gun. So they tried to teach me to hold the bucking bar on the back side of the sheet metal. I couldn’’t even do that the way they wanted. I was so disappointed that I wasn’’t going to be one of the famous ‘Rosie the Riveters.’

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NYA poster  (source)

Due to politics and shortage of funding the NYA closed down July 12, 1943, just a week or two after I arrived. Most of the girls decided to take the bus to Wichita and try to get jobs in the aircraft factories. I went with them. I was lucky and got a job with Boeing helping build the B-29s in the electrical wiring department. I was thankful that Boeing was not union! After all the Phillip’s employees trouble with City Service union guys, I didn‘’t want anything to do with unions.

I found a room in a castle looking house at 1313 N. Emporia. I was on the second floor and in the north turret. The biggest problem was having to go downstairs to the basement for the communal bathroom.

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Photo by Karen Kolavalli. The rooming house that Gail Lee McGhee stayed in during WWII while working at Boeing.

My paycheck sure looked good but the money disappeared so fast. I had to pay for my room and all my meals plus bus rides to work and back. No matter where I went I had to ride the bus or walk. The winter approached and I had to buy a warm coat, mittens and a stocking cap that would pull down around my ears. I bought a few things for Christmas presents but also had to save money to buy my bus ticket to Emporia in Lyon County for the holidays. My parents and little sister, Carol drove up from our home in Greenwood County to  Emporia to pick me up. Being with my loved ones was so good that I do not remember what gifts were given to whom.

After working in the electric wiring department for several months I became unhappy when the inspectors ran a slight electrical charge to see if my work was OK. They didn’’t tell me when they were going to do it and I became scared that the charge might get stronger so I asked to be transferred to another department.

The next department was in the tool shed, where the employees checked out tools they needed to work with. I enjoyed this after learning what each tool was called and where each was stored. It was kinda like working in a library only at the end of the shift all tools had to be checked back in and I had only a short time to get them put where they belonged before I could check out.

(Aug 11, 2012 email from Gail Lee Martin to daughter, Virginia Allain)

 

Mom’s Experience at Boeing During WWII

Boeing plane signed by Gail Lee McGhee and other aircraft workers who built the plane in 1944.

Boeing plane signed by Gail Lee McGhee and other aircraft workers who built the plane in 1944.

Allen Hauser – “Gail…how long did you work making planes during the war? How did you end up getting involved?”

Gail Martin“Funny you should ask, Allen. The Butler County Historical Society recently video interview me about my work at Boeing in conjunction with the Smithsonian exhibit “Posters on the American Home Front, 1941-1945” coming to the museum from the middle of May to middle of June. I also found some Country Gentleman magazines from those years that I loaned the museum for display. Wish you could hear & see the tape. I will see if somebody will make copies. Cindy is viewing it now.
I graduated in 1942 and worked one year as a nanny for a woman school teacher then in 1943 I signed up for a government-funded training for women to work in the aircraft field. I had to go to Ark City and when the school lost their funding I went with most of the other girls to Wichita and applied for a job. I choose Boeing because I did not have to join a union to work there. My reasoning for that is a whole different story from Daddy’s experience in the oilfields.
Boeing put me in electrical wiring department because I was small in those days. Couldn’t hold up the heavy rivet guns. A lot on my work was in the tunnel that led back to the tail-gunner in the B-29’s. In May of 1945 the war was over and I quit so homecoming soldiers could have jobs. In June, Clyde & I were married.”

Allen Hauser – “Thanks for the information! That must have been some experience, though I suppose growing up around the oil fields, heavy machinery was pretty familiar. So you mostly worked on B-29’s (or perhaps it was solely on B-29’s). Those were used exclusively against Japan. You said you stopped in May, did soldiers come back so quickly to take over jobs even before the war was over in the Pacific? It’s strange to think where all those planes you helped make went. It is also interesting the role women played overall in the B-29s, from building them, testing them, and flying them to deliver them where the military needed them. It was quite a time.”

Carol Garriott – “My, what memories this photo brings back! Being 10 years younger than Gail, I was of course still at home and in elementary school, and enormously proud and in awe of my big sister. I LIVED for the weekends she would come home.

A time or two she brought a boy a bit older than me, who was, I think, the son of her landlady in Wichita, and had never been to the country. On his first visit, he was wildly excited about the oil field we lived in. A pumping well was adjacent to our house and yard. Everyone had trooped into the house after a cursory tour of the outside. Everyone, that is, it became apparent, except our young visitor. Daddy looked back for him, and saw him astraddle, like riding a horse, of the pumping mechanism on the well. I remember Daddy walking so steadily and calmly out and snatching the boy off the well. He could so easily have gotten his pant leg caught in the mechanism and been drawn inexorably into it! We, of course, had grown up with the understanding of how dangerous they were, and knew, under peril of severe consequences, mechanical or parental, not to mess. As I recall, Daddy had a private discussion with the boy, who never went near the wells again.

An example of a Kansas oil pumpjack at the museum in El Dorado.

An example of a Kansas oil pumpjack at the museum in El Dorado.

(This discussion comes from the Martin-McGhee My Family site, May 2002)

Another Street Photo

Carol Garriott – Dec 28, 1999 “It seems like I ought to know, having seen this photo before — but, who took the picture? Boyfriend? Roving reporter, spotting a beautiful girl?”

Karen Kolavalli – Dec 28, 1999 “I’m sure Mom can tell you in a more interesting way than I can since it’s her story, but I believe it was a street photographer. There’s another one of Mom and a girlfriend of hers, too, taken by a street photographer. Both are postcards. Oh, now that I think of it, the second one is actually a postcard addressed to you, February 19, 1945, Wichita, Kansas. I’ll get it scanned and uploaded soon.”

Gail Martin – Dec 29, 1999 “Well, of course, I loved this coat too! It was a chocolate-brown & cream colored plaid. Mother never said anything about my choice of clothing I bought while working at Boeing. I lived in a home with a divorced lady and her two sons. 1000 S. Patty.

Gail Lee McGhee - photo taken in Wichita KS by a street photographer in the 1940s.

Gail Lee McGhee – photo taken in Wichita KS by a street photographer in the 1940s.

In the Photo Booth

Gail McGhee in Wichita, Kansas in 1944

Gail McGhee in Wichita, Kansas in 1944


Mom’s commented on this photo,

“I had this photo taken in a little 3 for $1.00 shops that were around Wichita. They were patronized by many military guys and their girlfriends because they were developed fast while you waited.

You’ll notice I still thought I looked better without my glasses.”

She would have been 20 years old in 1944.