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A Rosie the Riveter Looks Back

One of the last living Rosie the Riveters celebrates life with publishing her first book. Over the past decades, current Oceano resident Irene Milko Cooper, 93, spent time jotting down memories as they came to her. When her daughter Janine Cooper Ayres discovered the notebooks of recollections, she gathered them together and published the book, “Looking Back: Life in Detroit from the Great Depression to World War II & the 70’s.”

The name Rosie the Riveter was attributed to women who worked in factories and shipyards building machines and supplies during World War II. The term was made popular by a song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. The lyrics were inspired by the Norman Rockwell 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a woman taking her lunch break with a riveter and a lunchbox labeled ‘Rosie’ across her lap and her feet resting on a copy of Mein Kampf.

Cooper spoke of her time working for the Packard Motor Car Company like it was yesterday. She left high school in her senior year to support the war effort, and partly, she admitted, because school was boring. She can still recall the first time she stepped into the factory and remarked how the noise was “deafening.” During World War II, the United States was desperate to fill the working void left by drafting all the eligible men to fight. Cooper said that most women she worked with were either homemakers or worked in office positions, and working in manufacturing was a new and exciting experience.

“They needed women desperately, don’t forget that all the men were gone —all the eligible aged men for the draft, said Cooper, “That’s when I went to work in a factory.”

She worked six days a week for 54 hours on the night shift earning $0.50 an hour with additional time and a half for work over 40 hours. She assisted in the construction of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Bombers by marking parts with serial numbers that were later assembled at a different location. These planes ran daytime bombing runs that targeted German industrial and military targets. These excursions were notoriously dangerous and suffered heavy losses not being able to hide under the cover of night. The Memphis Belle was one of the first of these planes to finish 25 missions without losing one of its crew members, a virtually unheard of feat.

Cooper speaks of the time in the factory fondly recalling practical jokes the workers pulled on each other (she once smuggled dead goldfish in a mean workers lunch) and how the older men would purposely whistle tunes that would prompt her singing during the long nights. In her book, she recalls the shift when Carl, one of her co-workers, received a telegram saying his son was missing in action and the team united to do double the work in honor of him. Later Jerry, Carl’s son, was discovered in a hospital and was okay.

Cooper’s book reads like she talks, to the point and full of joy. There is little flourishing in her memories to make the book more extravagant. The tone of the book is conversational whether it speaks of the time she barely avoided being kidnapped or her family’s brush with gangsters to the people she is grateful for being in her life or her first tuna fish sandwich. The book also contains several poems that Cooper has composed over the years.

The public will have a chance to meet Cooper at her book signing taking place at Coalesce Book Store in Morro Bay on Saturday, Sept. 15 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. she will also be reading from her memoir. Looking Back is also available on Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/Looking-Back-Detroit-Great-Depression/dp/1541079329.

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