A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Peggy to the Defense
by Melissa Neely (Aug 2010)


As Peggy walked to work on Monday morning she had the eerie sensation that she was missing important information. Everyone seemed so subdued.  The manager of Kress Department Store came and quietly let all the counter girls in. He did not turn on the lights. He did not turn the open sign, instead he went straight back and turned on one of the radios. After several minutes the President of the United States finally began his address:


            Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives:

            Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

            The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

            Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

            It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

            The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

            As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

            No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

            Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

            With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.

            I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

                                        Franklin D. Roosevelt - December 8, 1941


         Peggy stood there with her mouth hanging open in shock. The counter girls all looked one to another. Our boys were going overseas. Our boys were going to war.

         “Go on home and report back to work tomorrow.” the manager said. 

         Peggy trudged home and told her mother everything the President had said in his speech.

         Peggy returned to work the next morning with her eye on the accounting job. It would mean a salary increase from $18 per week to $30 per week. She had to get that job when it became available. Peggy knew she wouldn’t have to hear she had been passed over again for a man who needed to support his family. Women would be replacing men everywhere.

         Men from the defense department went to different stores trying to recruit women into their line of work. Peggy was afraid of them. Her mother told her to stay away from men. They would try to kidnap her and sell her to Mexico as a slave. She was terrified of men.  The men just kept coming back. One man in particular came back almost every day. He would sit at the lunch counter and watch the girls work; it made Peggy a little nervous. Every few days he would offer her a job, but Peggy was still waiting for the accounting job.

         One day he said to her “Well, you know you’re making $18 a week at Kress’. At a defense plant you’ll make over $60 a week just to start, and you’ll be helping your country.”

         When he told her how much money she would be making, Peggy was excited. The defense department would pay more than the accounting job. The money was important for her and her mother.

         Soon after that Peggy began working for Northrop Aviation. She spent a week in training. They taught her to drill, rivet, and ream out a hole. Peggy had never touched a tool. Everything was new and heavy.  The first day on the job they told all of the girls to wear pants the next day.  Peggy did not own a pair of pants; most girls didn’t.  Peggy had to go out that evening and buy a pair of pants. That next day was the first time she had ever worn pants or any store bought clothing; it was a little strange. 

         The men passed out hairnets and bandannas for the girls to wrap their hair up. This was necessary so that hair would not get caught in the machinery or tools. But the girls didn’t like it. Most girls wore their hair long and curled it up. It took a long time to do their hair, and it had to last several days. The bandannas smashed the hairstyle flat and ruined it for after work. It was the one thing the girls always complained about.  The women didn’t chit-chat a lot because the work was noisy and they worked long, hard hours.  The work they were doing was urgent. It was important to our boys overseas. 

         After the week of training Peggy began working on the line on different sections of the plane. She started on the belly of the P-61 Black Widow, working on two person teams.  The one on the outside “shot the rivet,” and the one on the inside “bucked the back” of the rivet. Periodically the girls traded places because the gun that shot the rivet was heavy for a woman and required that she drag all the air hoses around as she went back and forth. The bucker had a small stool inside the plane to sit on.  Bucking could be difficult if you were tall or big because it required sitting on a small stool in a very cramped space.  Both riveting and bucking were very exacting work. The rivets had to be perfectly flat against the metal of the plane or air would come in, this would increase air friction when the plane was flying.  Peggy was very good at her job, she was a perfectionist. Peggy’s work was rarely tagged for correction. Peggy preferred to buck because she was small and it was easy for her to fit into the space. Her partner, Lena, was a tall, big girl, so she preferred to rivet. That made Peggy and Lena a good team.

         One day Peggy noticed that her boss was watching her a lot. He was starting to make her nervous.  Had she done something wrong? Would she lose her job? She knew the pay was too good to be true!” Finally he caught her alone.

         “Peggy, we would like you to go to the radio station tomorrow afternoon and do a special radio show,” her boss said.

         “Oh, no! I’m way to shy. I wouldn’t know what to say. I would embarrass myself and you.” Peggy replied. Her boss chuckled, “It’s not that scary, Peggy. You just read the script. Tell folks what it’s like to work for your country.”

         And that’s how Peggy found herself standing in front of a microphone, her boss right beside her, answering questions.

         “Yes! I like the work. My bosses are very good to me. They are so patient with all the girls.”

         “The pay is good, better than I could make anywhere else.”

         “It feels so good to serve my country and our boys overseas. What we are doing is really important to the war effort.” 

         And so her radio show went… without a hitch.

         Peggy called in sick for work. It was the first time she had missed a day of work in the year and a half she had worked at Northup, but Lena told her about this job and the pay and hours were better. When they discovered she had not used a single sick-day and the work she had been doing, Peggy was immediately hired. She was placed on the assembly line making gas cans.

         Peggy first job was to stack the gas cans as they came off the end of the conveyer belt.  Everything was coming at her so fast. She couldn’t keep up.  Gas cans were clanging to the ground. With every bang Peggy got further and further behind. And the tears came faster and faster- she thought she would be fired for sure. Her supervisor Max came around the corner and saw her crying and trying to keep up.  He put both hands on her shoulder and bent way down like he was talking to one of his own children.

         “Peggy don’t worry about those cans. Just let them fall and do as many as you can. When the line stops, catch up on the ones that have fallen. You will get the hang of it in no time.”  Then he patted her arms and walked away. Peggy sucked up another sob and went back to work.  Max was right, in just a few days Peggy had no trouble keeping up and often had to wait for the next can to come down the line.

         During lunch the women would often help each other paint a line down the back of their leg to make it look like they were wearing nylons. Of course, no one was. Nylon was rationed along with food and so nylon stockings were very expensive. So the girls just kept painting the line up the back of their leg to make it look like they had on nylons.  No one knew better then these women that every stitch of nylon was need for the parachutes stowed in their planes. And none were more willing to sacrifice their nylons- just not the look of nylons. Lucille was the best at it; she made a nice thin steady line. The girls ate their lunch and waited turns to have their nylons drawn on.

         Peggy , Lucille and Lena had big plans one night.  They were meeting Peggy’s brother Moe at the Bond Rally. Each of the women had several dimes to purchase a Bond or two.  Moe was bringing his two shipmates, Gene and Andy, with him.  Moe was just sure Peggy would like Gene. Peggy was not so sure, but she trusted her brother.

         The Bond Rally was terrific fun. Patriotism zinged through the air. Peggy had to admit her brother was right; she did like Gene. He was adorable in his sailor’s uniform. It looked as if Andy and Lena were hitting it off, too.  Moe and Lucille were as silly as ever.  They all decided to cut out of the Bond Rally and go back to Peggy’s. Her mother made them popcorn while they set up the card game. They laughed and joked and ate while their mother watched from her chair and sewed.


         The air raid siren screeched on and on. The men jumped from their seats and began shutting all the blinds and turning out the lights as they went. The Blackout was under way. How long it would last was anyone’s guess. Was it a drill? Were they doomed to another boring night, sitting in the dark on the floor or was this the real deal? Had the Japanese attacked California? Were they safe? Only time would tell. Of course, if you had to sit on the floor in the dark it was nice to do so with Gene. 

         As it turned out it was only a drill, and one that was much too short to Peggy’s thinking. Holding Gene’s hand in the dark had been wonderful and made her feel safe. She would worry about him and her brother when they shipped out in a week.

         Peggy and Gene spent every free moment together. Gene was shipping out Sunday morning.  By Wednesday, neither could bare the thought. Gene got down on his knees and begged Peggy to marry him. So Thursday morning Peggy went to work, came home early and changed and met Gene on the courthouse lawn. They were married with only Moe and Lena as witnesses. On Friday morning Peggy was back at work, bucker in hand, stool underneath her, and Lena at the rivet gun. By Saturday night Gene and Moe had reported for duty on board their ship. Now the work they did had a beloved face to go with it, and Peggy would work twice as hard for their Defense.

         After almost 60 years of defense work, Peggy retired in 1999 at the age of  79.

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