Elinor Otto was in her 20s when she picked up a riveting gun for the first time at Rohr Aircraft Corp. in Chula Vista, Calif., during World War II.
One of the original Rosie the Riveters, Otto, now 98, returned for the first time over the weekend to the place where she began her nearly 70-year career on the aircraft production line.
“Walking in there, 73 years (later), it brought back a lot of nostalgia,” said Otto, who lives in Long Beach.
The company now operates as a subsidiary of UTC Aerospace Systems. Even though the plant was much changed, Otto’s visit evoked memories of carpooling to work from her home in San Diego, working on the assembly line alongside her sister, and the tunes that were broadcast over a loudspeaker, like Vera Lynn’s “You’ll Never Know” or Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
Otto would go on to work for Ryan Aeronautical Co. in San Diego, and then Douglas Aircraft Company, which merged with McDonnell Aircraft before it became Boeing. She worked until she was 95, when she was laid off in 2014, and she makes it clear she did not voluntarily retire.
Otto’s trip to Chula Vista coincided with Spirit of ’45 Day, which was celebrated Sunday and honors the legacy of men and women of the World War II generation.
The trip also served as an effort to plant the idea of a Rosie the Riveter memorial rose garden in Chula Vista to honor the women who took on the jobs left behind by men who served in the war.
The idea was well-received by Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas.
“I think that’s something that we should do to honor and respect these wonderful women, because that generation is passing and yet we shouldn’t forget the foundation that they built for us,” said Salas, whose mother worked as a spot welder at Rohr in the 1940s.
Salas said her mother, now 94, attributes the middle-class life they were afforded to her job at Rohr.
During a gathering at a retirement community, Otto joined dozens of residents for lunch in the cafeteria. Many residents thanked her for her important work during the war.
In a brief Q&A, Otto spoke about life at Rohr, where she started working in 1942 for 65 cents an hour.
“I wanted to see if the men kept as busy as they said they did,” she said.
Otto, who wore her original Rohr badge, recalled the men who welcomed her and other women as they learned on the job.
Asked if she knows how many military airplanes she helped manufacture in her career, she said she had no idea.
“If you were too busy counting, you wouldn’t have gotten the job done,” she replied.
Otto also touched on the struggles women overcame on the job, of union-led negotiations and strikes for better wages.
Otto said she is proud of the road she and other “Rosies” paved for women and how far women have come since then.
“We made history — now it’s your turn,” she said.
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