Memories of One Woman’s Contribution to the War Industry Following Pearl Harbor

Vina Greer Henry 1

Vina Greer Henry

December 8, 1941, 11:30 AM Central Standard Time, Athens High School, Athens, Louisiana. I will never forget this day, no matter how long I live. Mr. Whatley, the principal, called an assembly and turned on the radio for all to hear. The President of the United States was scheduled to address a Joint Session of Congress. We all huddled into the gymnasium, oblivious to the nippy temperature and echoes of footfalls on the bleachers around us. This would not be a typical assembly — announcements, a special speaker, boring day-to-day student life. This was different. You could feel the tension in the air, voices heard only in anxious whispers. In a speech that lasted less than ten minutes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States of America, would address the nation with words that would change the course of world history. Sticking with the facts alone, the cadence of his voice chillingly acknowledged the unprovoked attack by the Empire of Japan on Pearl Harbor, followed by attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Midway, and Wake Island. Reading the hearts and minds of the American people, he asserted “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, The American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory”. Throughout the broadcast there was no sound but that of the voice of our nation’s leader. At the conclusion of the broadcast, we quietly slipped away, some with eyes brimming with tears, some muttering silent prayers, other looking stunned. In those few short minutes we, the senior class of 1942, became a part of our nation’s destiny.

In the months between that cold December morning and the graduation festivities of the following May, our lives took on a whole new meaning. Instead of planning graduation parties and summer fun, we were planning our own contribution to the war effort. Many of the boys in our class left shortly after the declaration of war, ready to defend their country in uniform. Some waited only long enough to complete their academic requirements for graduation, not bothering to stay for commencement before shipping out. For the girls, it was different. There were few roles for women in the military, and I was from a very rural area so options were not abundant. But, we started where we could. For me, as salutatorian of my class, it meant choosing a message of significance to deliver at commencement.  I chose “What Youth Owe a World at War”. I was determined to add my contribution and to inspire others to do the same.

Unfortunately, life often presents us with detours not of our liking, especially when you are young. Immediately following graduation, I was sent to Atlanta, Georgia, to live and work with some of my relatives. As one month passed into another month, I grew more and more disillusioned. I was not making a difference. I was not meeting the challenge of our President. After ten months of frustration. I decided that if I was to find the right opportunity, then I needed to go looking for it. So, I returned to Louisiana. Soon afterwards, my former classmate, Inez Feazell, and I learned of an exciting new opportunity and seized upon it immediately. We heard that a trade school in Shreveport, Louisiana, would be offering a short course in assembly of bombers. and that jobs would be plentiful for those who completed the course and were willing to relocate. For the first time in almost a year I felt energized. FDR had said that “With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.” Well, I had that “unbounding determination” and now I had the vehicle for channeling it into a useful contribution to the war effort.

When Inez and I completed our training course, we examined the list of options of where to work. There was a consortium of manufacturers patriotically working to produce top performance bombers as expeditiously as possible to meet the ever-burgeoning needs of the American military. As we perused the list, we realized immediately that no matter where we went, it would be a long way from home, particularly as we did not own an automobile and would have to depend on public transportation. Accepting that fact, we decided that we might as well go where the pay was highest — Willow Run, Ypsilanti, Michigan. By June 1943, that is exactly where we were. Each carrying a small suitcase in hand, and the promise of a job, we stepped from the bus in Ypsilanti, about to encounter the adventure of a lifetime. I must admit, that I had always been a somewhat shy child, but with a playful side to me. And, although I had lived away from home for a few months following high school graduation, I was now more than a thousand miles from home and with only one familiar face around me. I was scared. I was excited. I was ready to meet the challenge. Finally, I could serve my country with pride and determination. But, patriotic duty and lofty dreams aside, practicality must come first. Here we were far away from home, exhausted from the long bus trip and no place to go. So, we inquired of the lady working at the bus station if she might know someone who would be willing to take in boarders who would be working at Willow Run. Much to our delight, she smiled and said “I think I might know just the right family for you”. She turned away and made a call. A little while later, in walked two people who would influence me for the rest of my life, Vera and Carl Furtney.

Next to my own parents, I would have to say that Carl and Vera Furtney were the best parents a young woman could have! They treated us with kindness and love. They opened not just their home to us, but also their hearts. I asked them once why they were so kind to us. They responded that their son, Don, was away in the military serving his country; and they hoped that should he need help while he was away that someone would be kind to him. That “love thy neighbor” philosophy was how they lived their lives and how they treated us.

In all, there were four of us young women who lived with the Furtney family – each emboldened by our desire to contribute to the war effort. Besides myself and Inez Feazell, there was also Ethel Parker and Helen Fielden. Two of us from Louisiana and one was from Smackover, Arkansas. Unfortunately, I no longer remember the fourth location. Our first home with the Furtneys was located at 705 Oak Street in Ypsilanti. It was a white wooden house with lots of windows and big trees. Some time later in my stay with them, Carl and Vera’s family, and their family of boarders, moved across town to another house, this one at 958 Sherman Street. Always fun-loving, Mr. Furtney teased us girls, saying that “now that you’re high-classed, you can’t hang your laundry in the window anymore!”

For a group of formerly rural young ladies, living in town was fun. There were restaurants to try out and local activities to participate in. The public bus was handy for getting where we wanted to go, and Detroit was just a short bus ride away. On our days off we did enjoy an occasional trip to the big city – stylish fashions and movie theaters – the perfect outing for hard working young ladies in need of a break!

While we very much enjoyed our life, it was nonetheless dominated by our work. Whether we were working a day shift or a night shift, it was grueling work. I worked center wing and used a Cleco gun. It was tiring and tedious. Never for a moment did we forget the importance of our role in fighting the war. The image of the modern war-era woman was reflected everywhere in clever posters promoting women in the ear industry. Popular magazines such as Life and Saturday Evening Post joined in the effort with magazine covers that depicted the American woman as strong, confident, attractive, attired in work clothes and with appropriate accoutrements such as tools and protective goggles. While we were making bombers in Ypsilanti, women all over the US were contributing in war industries such as tank production, ship-building, steel production, and munitions. Some were even test pilots for the bombers we women manufactured.

We Can Do It

Willow Run was probably one of the most fascinating production designs of its time. Henry Ford stepped right up to the plate to meet the wartime need. The way the story goes, if I understand it correctly, is that Ford’s Vice-President for Production, Charles Sorenson, after observing an aircraft production plant in California, sketched out his vision. It was a single plant for the entire production of the bomber, start to finish. The size was massive. It would be one huge building, one mile long and quarter mile wide. The goal would be one B-24 Liberator per hour. My understanding is that, at peak production, we beat that goal, with one about every 56 minutes, and that our total employees reached more than 34,000, a big percentage of them women, and a surprisingly large number of them being from the Southern states.

Back at home in the Furtney domain there was no shortage of activity and sacrifice. The Furtneys had one son in the military (Don aka Bud), a daughter named Marilyn who was about 10-11 years old, and a toddler son named Jerry. I don’t remember meeting Don during my stay from 1943 to 1944 since he was stationed elsewhere. But Marilyn and Jerry were as much like siblings to me as if they were blood relatives. Jerry, the baby, was simply adorable. I wanted to hug and squeeze him every day. Being around this vivacious, trusting little boy helped ease the pain of being so far away from my own younger brother. And, Marilyn … I remember her vividly. She was at just the right age to look up to us four boarders — we like the latest fashions, great movies, and we were “on our own”. We considered her like a little sister, and we sensed that she felt like we were her big sisters. It was always fun when she came into our rooms to hear about our adventures.

As I said, the Furtney family sacrificed for the war just as others did, including their children who gave up their own bedrooms so that the “boarder family” could stay there. Vera Furtney, was busy with her own family’s needs, but also worked hard cleaning and cooking for her young boarders. Additionally, she had a lunch cart for a while at Willow Run. Carl Furtney was manager of the local hardware store. Like many other local business people, he saw business boom in response to the influx of thousands of workers coming to the Ypsilanti area to work in the bomber factory. The hardware store was adjusting its inventory to include hot plates, coffee pots and other items the workers needed.

In reflecting upon our stay there – and I was there 1943-1944 – I must say that Inez, Helen, Ethel and I had it really good. Our living arrangements were ideal, leaving us with beautiful memories. Others were not so lucky. Some lived in hastily constructed dormitories and other dwellings designed for maximum occupation that were constructed on-site or nearby. Sometimes workers actually “shared a bed” by renting the same space, but working different shifts so that use of the bed rotated with the factory shifts. And, quite a few of the workers commuted from the Detroit area.

Vina Greer Henry

Money-wise we did well. Neither my friends nor I had ever made so much money. In fact, it was while I lived at the 705 Oak Street location that I got my first Social Security card. I still have that original card with my Ypsi address! Not only was I able to support myself, but I also sent money home to my family in Louisiana, and I saved some for my future. While we were doing well financially, the people in Ypsilanti also benefited from the surge of cash into the economy. Certainly many of them worked at Willow Run, but others, such as shopkeepers, restaurants and other local businesses simply benefited from the growing demand upon their services.

Our love lives were important to us during this period. To some extent this could be attributed to our age, however, in times of war we seem to have a heightened sense of the importance of relationships in our lives. There is an awareness of one’s mortality, particularly the significant threat of losing a loved one who is in the military service in a conflict zone. For me, the embodiment of this was my former classmate George Wayne Henry. Wayne was tall, strikingly handsome, had perfect posture and a wink and smile that made my heart stop every time! He was one of the millions of American teenage boys who left school and enlisted right after FDR’s Day of Infamy speech. To his credit, he did finish his course work for graduation, but was too eager to be a part of the fighting team for our country to be bothered with ceremony. The only piece of paper he was ready to receive was his deployment orders. We had kept in touch some after graduation, so I knew he had enlisted into the U.S. Marine Corps. His initial training was in San Diego. It was unrelenting, rigid and rigorous. But, when he finished, he was a Marine through and through. Afterward he was stationed for a while up in the Seattle area, I think on Bainbridge Island, and received specialized training. Then he was selected for a special mission and sent to Quantico to train for it. Wayne Henry knew this was a last stop for him before shipping out to the Pacific arena. He knew he may not survive the mission. More than anything, he wanted to leave the mainland knowing that his bride awaited his return. So, he proposed that I come to Washington, D. C.  and marry him while he was doing his training at Quantico. Fortunately my supervisor at Willow Run was very understanding and gave me a month’s leave. I must interject here that I was typical of my peers at the time. It was not at all uncommon to have a boyfriend, fiancé or husband serving in the military. We were one of the lucky couples – Wayne came home from the war. But, I’m getting ahead of my story. I took the train to Washington, D. C. on Wednesday, August 18, 1943. Wayne met me at Union Station. This was not my best moment. Certainly at the time I was terribly embarrassed. It had been quite a while since I had actually seen him. Unfortunately, the train baked into the station. It seemed to take forever, at least one to two hours. By the time the train screeched to a stop, I was quite nauseated and had the physical appearance to go with it. So much for making a fabulous impression!

We were married on Saturday, August 21, 1943, at the Arlington, Virginia, by Reverend Walter Lockett. It was a small wedding – just Wayne and me, the minister and some witnesses the minister was able to round up. God blessed this union in His church, and even blessed us with a fully decorated church. Another wedding, a large local one was planned for later that evening. So we were surrounded by all the accouterments of a big beautiful wedding!

Wayne rented an apartment not far from the base, and we stayed there for a month. When he was not at the base in training, we took advantage of the opportunity to be tourists. Since there was a war going on, some places were no longer accessible to the public, but there was still lots to do, some government sponsored events such as victory-themed shows and some just regular tourist activities. These four weeks together became precious memories for both of us, especially for Wayne during the two years that he was on those hot, rainy islands as he and other brave young American men combated the Empire of Japan. I did get to see my new husband once more before he shipped out. He had a brief furlough and came to Ypsilanti to see me and to meet my “family” there. He was an impressive figure in his dress uniform, standing tall and looking quite handsome. We took lots of photographs – our belated “wedding pictures”.

I continued to work at Willow Run until October of 1944. My father contacted me and told me that my mother was sick with cancer and that I was needed at home. There was no question that I would return to help take care of her. This did not prevent me from helping with the war effort, however, in that I also worked night shifts at the “shell plant” in Minden, Louisiana. So, by day I looked after my sick mother and by night I made ammunition. What few hours there were in between, I managed to sleep a bit.

After the war, Wayne and I lived a typical American life and raised five children, of whom we love dearly and are very proud. Like most of the other young war era women of my day, we ceased being a poster girl for the war production and slid back into more “traditional” roles. But we never forgot what we had done, and I never forgot my “Ypsi family”. Fifty-nine years after I returned with my daughter. We found one of Carl and Vera’s sons still living there, the one who had been away in the military. Don “Bud” Furtney and his beautiful wife, Joyce, in keeping with the special brand of Furtney hospitality took us to see the two houses we had lived in and showed us around town to see what had changed and what had remained the same. I also took advantage of this opportunity to go back to Willow Run. The plant was still there, but had long ceased making bombers, having moved on to other products more appropriate for times of peace. The highlight for me, however, was visiting the Yankee Air Museum. I talked with a volunteer, a gentleman about my age, and we reminisced about Ypsi during the Willow Run era. As I pointed out on an aerial photo the exact part of the plant I worked in, for a brief moment I was there once again: young, full of ambition, determined to make the best and safest bombers in the air, and full of dreams for a world at peace. For those few moments, I knew I had the security of my Ypsi family and the love and promise of a post-war life with my beloved Wayne Henry. I also knew that it was during those two impressionable years of my life that I acquired a degree of confidence that I had never before known. I had worked with some of the bravest women I had ever encountered. They were typically the laborers, rarely the management, never the executives. As I lived this life, worked in this environment, I made a promise to myself that if I ever had daughters, they would be equipped to climb even higher on the corporate ladder. With each of my three daughters, as well as my two sons, I made it a priority to emphasize the importance of independence, education and competition in the work environment.

Willow Run and related war production industries changed the future of the women of this great nation, empowering their generation of women and, though them, their daughters as well. Next to my family, my proudest life achievement in life is my contribution at Willow Run.

Epilogue: Vina Greer Henry died on June 14, 2005. Her obituary mentions that she worked at the Willow Run bomber factory and that she was proud of her service to her country during the war. She told her story to her children who have transcribed it herein. We, her children, grew up hearing these stories and about the wonderful people in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

 

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