Still sporting pigtails, 18-year-old Muriel Cincotta became the first woman to work at the Bendix Aeronautics factory in Lodi, N.J., during World War II. It was hot, noisy and scary.
"Things blew up. But I got used to it," Cincotta, 80, said at a tribute to the war's "Rosie the Riveters." "I don't think I would have had the gumption to do nine-tenths of the things I've done in my life if I hadn't had that wartime experience."
Cincotta was one of almost a dozen Rosies at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday. They shared stories of working long shifts on the home front to keep the country thriving, paving the path for future generations of women and proving that a woman could do a "man's work."
The original Rosie the Riveter, Rosie Will Monroe, worked on the assembly line at Ford Motor Co. in Ypsilanti, Mich., building B-29 and B-24 military planes. She caught the eye of Hollywood producers who were casting a "riveter" for a government film promoting the war effort. She starred as herself.
Her exposure in the film resulted in the "We Can Do It!" poster, and she came to symbolize the generation of women who entered the workplace during the war.
Leona Phares, 82, of Elkins, W.Va., was one of those brawny, tireless and patriotic women who traded in their wooden spoons and spatulas for tools when the men went off to war - women who stepped into assembly lines, helping to build planes, bombs and tanks.
Shortly after Phares' boyfriend, and later husband, headed off to war, she wanted to do something that could help him and the country - to use her restlessness in a constructive way.
"It just took the life out of me," she said of her sweetheart leaving for the war. "I felt hopeless. I knew if I worked, it would help get him home."
Besides, she added: "We were just doing what had to be done. The boys were all gone. We women had to go to work and help win the war."
Phares was 20 when she worked on an assembly line in Akron, Ohio, building the B-29 aircraft.
When the war was over, she focused on raising her 13 children and working on the family farm. Those war years instilled in her a good work ethic.
"I really like to work. And all these years, I've worked myself to death on the farm," she said with a giggle.
Ford Motor Co. and the National Park Foundation have collected more than 7,500 stories and 150 artifacts from Rosies. About 6 million women went into the workplace during the war.
At Thursday's event, actress Sissy Spacek praised the women for their efforts and for starting a trend that would help later generations.
One Rosie who came to mind was her mother-in-law, who, Spacek said, even in her late 70s "could drive a horse trailer over Appalachia at night. She had a lot of gumption."
Cincotta couldn't wait to turn 18 so she could enlist in the war effort. She was a year shy of the required age to work at a federal defense plant when the war started.
At the age of 18, she was assigned to operate a drill press in the metallurgy lab at Bendix Aeronautics. No women had ever worked in the foundry before.
She drilled samples of metal from freshly poured ingots to be analyzed by chemists in the lab. She also kept track of the molten mixture that flowed into the furnaces, lugging the large canisters around on dollies. Her starting salary was 35 cents an hour.
"The whole experience was frightening at first, walking among those huge vats of bubbling, red hot metal," she said, recalling 120-degree temperatures and people getting serious burns.
She didn't mind giving up the work, but the lessons she learned on the job are still deeply embedded.
Since then, she has raised two children, taken courses, worked as a kindergarten teacher's assistant and led Girl Scouts.
By Siobhan McDonough