Real life Rosie the Riveter recalls her life during World War II
Media >> June Robbins eyes sparkle as she recounts what it was like to be a young woman in Philadelphia during World War II.
The 91 year old resident of Wesley Enhanced Living Main Line was a Rosie the Riveter, who worked at the Philadelphia Naval Yard drafting various ship components.
“I was born during the Depression so that every time the rent came due, we moved,” she said. Her father, a house painter, left her mother when Robbins was 15 years old but her boyfriend, Melvin Robbins, who seven years later became her husband, “pulled me through it.”
“In 1940 the world was on fire,” she said. “The United States was an isolationist country. We had Lend Lease to England. We got the steel back at us, Dec. 7 (when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor). We listened to the radio. Where the heck was Pearl Harbor? We had no idea.”
When she was in junior high school ration books for various needed items began to be issued, she said. But the kids had fun, going out in groups on picnics, boating and to the shore.
Her dad had joined the State Fencibles of Philadelphia, a home guard unit.
“They taught the women and girls to shoot pistols to protect ourselves in case the Nazis came by parachute and Ju Jitsu lessons,” she said. “They taught us how to protect ourselves.”
At Olney High School many of the boys were either drafted or joined the service. Robbins was an only child and a latchkey child because her mother, Nan Rocklin, worked to support them after her dad left. Rocklin got a job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard working on aircraft.
“She was a little lady,” Robbins said. “She fit on the inside of there. Once she passed out and they had to drag her out of the plane by her feet,” she said. Robbins wanted to work, too.
“I felt very keenly I wanted to get a job,” she said. “I was sharing a bed with my mother.”
Later she added, “You have to understand posters were all over the place urging women to take positions that the men left. They were creating new industries and women had to fill those positions.” The posters were of “oversexed, voluptuous” Vargas pinup figures (by artist Alberto Vargas), she said.
Robbins’ homeroom teacher helped her get into drafting classes, which were only for the boys. Once she’d learned that skill, she was hired at the Navy Yard in 1943. Melvin Robbins, meanwhile, joined the Navy,
and “I cried a bucket of tears,” Robbins said.
“I was 17 years old, a baby among wolves,” Robbins said. She sat at a large drafting table and drew parts for ships. “In the summer fans droned and you would fall asleep in your own sweat with your nose touching the table. In the winter we frozeMost of the men were respectful. Some played tricks on me.”
Once she found a frog in her desk drawer but she had learned not to react to teasing.
“The only one that got me was they put rubber boobs in there and I still didn’t react,” said Robbins. The other women were supportive of each other and they went bowling together after work.
“While my husband (then boyfriend) was in training down South a plane crashed and he was writing me every day and I didn’t get a letter and I was extremely worried,” Robbins said. “The other women came to me and said, ‘We are going to pray for him.’ And they took me to Philadelphia. I’m Jewish and they were Protestant and Catholic. We went into this church and we all lit candles. I was never so touched in my life. What wonderful support that was. hostess.
“I was there to help,” she said. “We played cards with the fellows. I was even in a dance contest with a guy from New York who was a great jitterbug (dancer). We lost because he didn’t bring all his shipmates with him. dance unexpectedly.
“When my boyfriend showed up, my greeting was all tears,” she said of Melvin Robbins, who was stationed in England.
At the Navy Yard, she drew “the screws, nuts and bolts and part of ships,” she said. They were helping transform a cargo vessel into a troop carrier.
The women were taken to see a ship in dry dock and issued helmets.
“One woman didn’t want to wear one, saying it would mess her hair,” said Robbins. “As if on cue, something fell from high up. It was pointed out, that’s why we wear helmets. It would have cracked the helmet and her head.”
Inside the ship, she saw the tight crew quarters. “I felt very sorry for the boys who had to sleep on the top bunk, she said. There were pipes in his face.” They also visited the welding shop, the electrical shop and the wood shop. “It gives life to what you’re working on,” she said.
Robbins said she helped build 53 ships and repair 574 ships for both the US and its allies.
Civilians sacrificed for the war effort.
“There were no more silk stockings or butter,” said Robbins. “We gave up meat and sugar.”
At the apartment she shared with her mother, they had to go downstairs to the basement to light the boiler.
“There was one (light) bulb there,” she said. “I saw something that looked like a guillotine so I tiptoed back there. There was a fruit press and huge bags of sugar on the floor. That was rationed too. Huge bags of sugar to make wine. I went back upstairs and said, ‘Guess what, Mom,’ and she said, ‘Quick get the sugar bowl.'” So they borrowed some sugar from the landlord,