WASHINGTON – Seven decades after their "we can do it" attitude proved invaluable to the Allied victory, about 30 "Rosie the Riveters" were honored Tuesday with a trip to Washington that included visits to the National World War II Memorial.
Wearing honor flight red cardigans, the women — now in their 80s and 90s — whose work helped the war effort posed for group photos with the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, had lunch at a Library of Congress building and visited Arlington National Cemetery. At every stop, people approached them, shook their hands, and said, "Thank you."
"They have those signs: 'We can do it.' They should say: 'We did it,'" said Helen Kushnir of Dearborn, part of Tuesday's group, which traveled from Michigan.
As women worked during the war at jobs traditionally done by men, such as churning out bombers at Ford Motor Co.'s Willow Run plant in Michigan, one of them was the inspiration for the Rosie character that came to symbolize female empowerment and the "we're-in-this-together" spirit of the American homefront.
"You incredible women are such an inspiration," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan told the women during the luncheon. "You opened the doors wider for (women)," said Dingell, who co-hosted the event with fellow Michigan U.S. Rep. Candice Miller.
When the four-bus convoy ferrying the women around town arrived at the WWII Memorial, they were met by throngs of supporters, drawing cheers and applause.
Sylvia Tanis of Holland, Michigan, was one of the first ones through, waving to the crowd, grasping people's hands, posing for snapshots and stopping to embrace a Girl Scout who had come out to greet the women.
"This is great. I can't imagine it being any better," Virginia Basler of Ypsilanti said while looking out at the memorial.
Afterward, the women were ushered into a prime viewing location in a cordoned-off area for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. They also visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
Laura Eglinsdoerfer of Milan, Michigan, said she met her future husband when both worked on the assembly line at Willow Run. Her husband later served in the Marines, and was wounded fighting on Iwo Jima — a battle honored at the Marine Corps War Memorial, not far from where Eglinsdoerfer saw the guard change at Arlington National Cemetery.
The honor flights provide one-day trips for veterans to visit Washington's monuments and memorials. The Ford Motor Company Fund has sponsored 10 such flights, but Tuesday's was the first designed specifically for Rosies, said Jim Vella, the fund's president. He said the women, who traveled around town with a police escort, were rightly being afforded "rock-star" treatment.
Mallie Mellon, 96, said she couldn't sleep Monday night.
"I was so excited thinking about my trip," said Mellon, who now lives in Belleville, but during the war worked as a riveter making B-29s at a plant in Detroit.
When their plane landed, dozens of flag-waving, sign-toting well-wishers greeted the women. A children's choir sang and onlookers cheered as each woman emerged.
"This is soooo overwhelming!" Tanis exclaimed, while Kushnir cried as she took in the adulation.