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Long Island Our Story: LI's own Rosie the Riveters

Josephine Rachiele's ID badge from 1944, when she

Josephine Rachiele's ID badge from 1944, when she worked at Republic Aviation. She was nicknamed "Rosie the Riveter." Credit: West Babylon Public Library

This article was originally published in Newsday on Sunday, May 17, 1998 as part of the Long Island: Our Story series.


Josephine Rachiele kept her World War II in a shoebox for years: metal caked with dirt. A chunk of a P-47 Thunderbolt that had crashed during a test flight on the East End. A soldier lugged it to Babylon for Rachiele. "Here's one of your P-47s," he said.

One of her P-47s. Rachiele riveted together the parts of those fighter planes, covering the metal with silver dots that lined up like rhinestones on a denim country-western jacket.

Rachiele held onto that chunk of plane for years, keeping it in the family's basement until her brother, think-ing it was junk, threw it away. She held more tightly to a letter from Frank Colombo, a family friend who didn't make it back from the front lines of Europe. "Are you still holding on to your job at Republic? We see many a plane going over to give the Germans hell," he wrote her. And she saved the letter she wrote him in 1945, sent back coldly stamped "deceased."

She had written of how big-band leader Tommy Dorsey visited the Republic Aviation plant in Farmingdale. A black-and-white glossy photo shows Rachiele with dark hair and a wide smile, perched on the wing of a P-47 with Dorsey below. "We had a lot of fun that night. And the music was right in the groove," she wrote.

When America went to war, so did Josephine Rachiele. Sure, she never left Long Island. But in 1943 she gave up her job in a coat factory to go work at Republic Aviation, to become one of the legions of women nationwide dubbed Rosie the Riveter. Thousands of women worked in Long Island defense industry plants such as Republic and Grumman, making war planes while the men who normally would have held the jobs went off to fly them.

"I wanted to do something for my country," Rachiele said. "Some of the boys where I worked were drafted, and I decided I had to help."

Virginia Maryweathers Gordon, of Lakeview, echoed Rachiele's patriotism. Her first husband was in the Army during the war, and she worked at Grumman as a riveter on the tail section of the F6F Hellcat. "I felt that I was doing something to help out."

Gordon is now 77. Rachiele is 74, white-haired and living in West Babylon. But back in the 1940s, just into their 20s, they put on coveralls and pulled their hair back in bandannas so it wouldn't get caught in machin-ery. They worked with partners. One of the women would use a rivet gun to shoot the rivet through a hole marked on the airplane part. At the same time, the partner would buck the rivet - stand on the other side with a steel bar wedged against the part. The rivet would slam into the steel bar, which would flatten it on the other side. Rachiele said her hands would vibrate.

Rachiele flinched at the loud noise inside Republic's cavernous Building 17, noise so loud that now, 55 years later, she has hearing loss she believes started in those days. She would work 10-hour days five days a week, and eight hours on Saturday, carrying in her lunchbox three or four sandwiches.

Rachiele earned 60 cents an hour, making far more in a week than the $10 she had earned at the coat fac-tory and spending most of it on clothes. By the time the war ended, she was making 90 cents an hour. Re-public brought in bands to boost morale, and offered monthly bonuses if the workers produced more planes.

It didn't bother Rachiele that she was making fighter planes. Sometimes she would go outside during her lunch break and marvel at them all lined up and shiny. They had room in the cockpit for only the pilot. The planes weighed 13,500 pounds each, could go 433 miles per hour, and were armed with eight machine guns and one 500-pound bomb.

"What a sight to see all the planes lined up," she said. "They looked so beautiful." Rachiele got into a P-47 once when she was years older and at an air show. "I said, I want to get in that airplane just to see what it feels like.' I had a hard time getting in it. I don't know how those men did it."

The plant newsletter did a story on Rachiele and her two sisters, Sarah, who sharpened drills in the same building, and Theresa, who was an executive secretary at the plant. They were called the Home Front Sis-ters.

They would go home each night and write letters to the boys at war - boys such as Frank Colombo. Their father, Biagio, was a volunteer auxiliary police officer. In the neighborhood, people were required to cover windows with shades so no lights shined out at night, in case enemy bombers reached American soil and were searching for a target. Biagio carried a billy club and would knock on doors and let people know if light was peeking through. The family had a victory garden to grow vegetables in the backyard, so that mass-produced vegetables could go to the men overseas. Once in a while the girls would dress up on a Saturday and go into Manhattan to see a show with other girls from the plant.

This was Josephine Rachiele's World War II.

Theresa and Sarah both now live in Florida. But Josie stayed on Long Island. She has since been featured in books, and people have asked her for her autograph at air shows. "When they find out that I was a riveter during the war, they say, A Rosie, a real Rosie?' They never came in contact with a real Rosie the Riveter because most of them are young." They ask to have their pictures taken with her.

When the war ended, she gave up her Republic job so a returning soldier could have it. But a year and a half later, she returned to Republic. She loved it. She worked there for more than 40 years. "We proved we could do the job as well as men - maybe better," she said. Many a Rosie the Riveter found she liked working out-side the home.

"Women were in the work force who previously would not have been," said Natalie Naylor, co-editor of a book called "Long Island Women: Activists and Innovators," published in March by Hofstra University. "World War II started the big shift and increase in women going into the paid work force, particularly in nontraditional jobs."

Along the way, Rachiele got married, and later divorced. She never had children. Rachiele is vice president of the local P-47 Alumni Association and treasurer of the Long Island-Republic Aviation Historical Society. Her apartment is filled with models and photographs of planes, and even a salt and pepper shaker set shaped like airplanes. Sometimes she'll go to Pinelawn Memorial Park in Melville to visit Frank Colombo's grave. And she'll think back to the war years, when a sign hung over the door inside the plant saying, "Keep That Line Rolling."

"During the war we had incentive to make more planes for our country," she said. "After the war it was a job. It was just a job."

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