The Woman of Steel
Duty and love for country were among the reasons Marina Metevelis answered the call to work defending the United States as one of the iconic bandanna-clad Rosie the Riveters.
Like so many other Americans, Marina Metevelis’ life changed Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into World War II. The 95-year-old Tulsa Community College historian has been telling the same story for decades, and it never gets old.
She was 16-year-old Marina Balafas back then, attending East High School in Wichita, Kansas, when she heard the sirens in the middle of the night. The next morning, she woke to the paper boys running up and down the streets yelling, “Extra! Extra! Pearl Harbor bombed.”
“Daddy gave me a nickel and said, ‘Run out there and see what the heck is going on,’” she recalls. Her father, Gus, owner of the local dry-cleaning plant, never went to bed without listening to news of the war on the radio.
Reading about the surprise attack that culminated in the deaths of over 2,400 Americans and 18 ships either sunk or damaged, she saw an ad in the paper for factory workers. She told her folks that she was going to sign up to help the family financially and save for college.
Her mother threw a fit. Anna Balafas never liked her daughter running around the neighborhood climbing trees with the boys, so she certainly wasn’t keen on her working in a factory with men. But her dad was quick to come to her defense, asking, “What men? They’re all at war.”
The next morning, Metevelis took a bus to the Wichita aircraft plant and stood in line with other high schoolers, mothers, teachers, hair dressers, barbers, and the Amish. When it was her turn, the man looked over the 5-foot-1 girl weighing less then 100 pounds and asked, “Are you agile?”
“What do you mean, sir?” Metevelis replied.
“Do you play sports?” he said.
Metevelis rattled off all the things she loved to do like roller skating, ice skating, riding horses and working at the school gym. She did offer up that swimming wasn’t exactly her forte. She guessed her swimming didn’t matter much because when she handed in her application, he told her she was going to sheet metal school for six weeks. “You’re going to learn how to rivet,” he said.
Metevelis was up for any task and after training, she returned as an inspector who could rivet with an 11-, 13-, or 15-pound gun. It was a prestigious position that earned her more money than many in the factory. And Metevelis took her job very seriously. She’d come home from school, jump into her coveralls and carpool to the plant where she’d work from 3 p.m. until midnight, then return home and do her homework.
According to A&E’s History channel, while women worked in a variety of positions previously closed to them during World War II, the aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers. More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the prewar years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as illustrated by the U.S. government’s Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign. Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era.
In movies, newspapers, posters, photographs and articles, the Rosie the Riveter campaign stressed the patriotic need for women to enter the workforce. On May 29, 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published a cover image by Norman Rockwell, portraying Rosie with a flag in the background and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s racist tract Mein Kampf under her feet. Though Rockwell’s image may be the most commonly known version of Rosie the Riveter, her prototype was actually created in 1942 and featured on a poster for the Westinghouse power company under the headline “We Can Do It!” Early in 1943, a popular song debuted called “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and the name went down in history.
“I inspected the blisters; that was the gunner’s position,” says Metevelis as she counts off all the positions on her fingers in the B-17, which was also known as the Flying Fortress. “The gunner’s positions were made of Plexiglass, and the German fighters would blast those boys. We were losing gunners left and right.” The B-17s had to climb above 35,000 feet to help protect the crews from the Germans.
Metevelis’ job was to make sure the rivets in the gunner’s position were “as smooth as glass.” She holds up her two inspection fingers. “That’s why I don’t have any fingerprints on these fingers.”
When Metevelis detected the slightest nick in a rivet, she would grab a gun, ream it out, put in a new one and make sure it was perfect because the men’s lives depended on it. “You go up above 35,000 feet and there’s no pressure on those planes,” says Metevelis. “One bad rivet could blow and the whole plane could fall apart.”
Production on the line was fast and furious. There wasn’t time for daydreaming about boys or dances, or thinking about school work.
“It was all business. We didn’t have time to think,” says Metevelis. “You had a certain time to do a certain thing. No matter what you did, it was push.”
Though Metevelis was all business during her shifts, she’d make time for socializing on the weekends. Every Sunday afternoon, they’d bring in two busloads of pilots from England and Wales for a dance in the East High School gym.
“I’d tell my mom I was going to the library. She’d ask, ‘What for?’ ‘I got to go get a book for a report,’ I’d say.” Metevelis’ mother would’ve died if she knew her daughter was dancing with the boys.
“I taught them how to do sit dips and aerials.” Metevelis gestures like she’s throwing someone over her head and shoulders and around her waist. “They were the sweetest kids ever and they loved swing dancing, jitterbug, boogie woogie and lindy hop.”
She pauses and laughs, recalling those tall and skinny boys’ smiles. “I never saw so many boys with bad teeth in my life,” she says. “I thought, ‘Don’t they have dentists in England?’”
Metevelis managed to keep her grades up while working on B–17s before her mother encouraged her to marry Don Metevelis, a tall, handsome boy from Tulsa who had his heart set on marrying Marina. After they were married in Tulsa, Metevelis finished high school in Kansas, quit her job at the plant and followed her husband from army camp to army camp. Since the camps were “in the boonies,” and there was no place for the wives, the women slept on army cots in attics or basements in rancher’s homes.
“I couldn’t sit on a cot every day and twiddle my thumbs,” says Metevelis. “So, I’d take the bus into camp every morning and do typing or file the orders of the day in the officers’ club.”
Not only did volunteering give Metevelis a nice place to stay during the day and a sense of purpose, but she was also privileged to information no civilian had access to.
“When you’re in the office and you’re hearing these generals, you sure keep your mouth shut and just listen,” says Metevelis. “I was in on all the orders coming out when General George S. Patton was told he was going to do the campaign in Italy for the Battle of Anzio,” says Metevelis. “He refused to go until he got his Aces, the African-American pilots known as the Red Tails.”
Metevelis trails off remembering how Patton got his Aces, and President Harry S. Truman ended segregation in the army because of it. “There were no more separate officers’ clubs for whites and African-Americans,” says Metevelis. “They were equal.”
Her memory takes her down a rabbit trail about Truman, and how her dad would meet young Truman in the coffee shop at the Muehlebach Hotel (downtown Kansas City), where they became good friends and would chew the fat.
“Truman would tell dad all his problems about trying to marry Bess [Wallace],” says Metevelis. “Truman would say, ‘I’ve done everything I can, but I haven’t a thing except a black Buick.’” When Truman asked for advice, Metevelis’ dad told him to go into politics. Truman replied, ‘Well, I tried everything else, I might as well.’”
Her mood turns a bit solemn as she recalls not being able to find a hotel room when they brought her little brother home from Iwo Jima to bury him in Fort Leavenworth (Kansas).
“My dad told us Truman said we could stay in his suite at the Muehlebach Hotel,” says Metevelis. “When I tell people I slept in Truman’s bed, everyone asks, ‘Was he in it?’ And I say, ‘No, it was my mama, my sister and me. Daddy slept on the couch in the living room.’”
Metevelis’ memories take her full circle back to the time in the officers’ clubs when she shared high tea with Mamie Eisenhower (wife of then General Dwight D. Eisenhower) and Patton’s wife. “They were two of the sweetest ladies I ever met.”
She describes the pomp and circumstance of the officers’ club with fondness. “When the boys were ready to go on a mission, they’d have these big banquets,” Metevelis recalls. “The servers would come in with huge trays of steaks, and they’d stop and other waiters would pour the whiskey, or whatever it was, and set fire to steaks, then put the fire out and cut the steaks. And serve it. Just like royalty.”
She recalls the time when her husband got shipped to Wales to train for D-Day. Metevelis returned to Kansas and took the Red Cross Nurses aid training. This turned out to be a blessing because when he returned injured from the Battle of Normandy, she followed him from army hospital to army hospital, volunteering as a Red Cross nurse’s aide for the next four years while he was being treated.
Today, at 95, Metevelis keeps World War II history alive through fundraisers and teaching at TCC. “They won’t let me retire,” Metevelis says. “They say, ‘We can’t let you go. You know too much World War II history.’”
But in true Metevelis fashion, she’s managed to get her way. “I agreed to do sessions,” she says. “I said I could tell a story or two for an hour or so.”
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