Close to 75 years ago, a girl named Freda left her home in Greeneville and moved to Detroit. She put on long pants, and tied a bandana around her head. She didn’t know what to expect or what to do, but she learned. With a rivet gun in her hand, she walked into a man’s world, working in an airplane parts factory.
Freda Ricker Wilhoit, of Jonesborough, was 20 years old then and on the 29th day of August she will be 95. But those days so long ago are still fresh in her memory, as are many of her experiences that led up to her becoming a bona fide “Rosie The Riveter” during World War II. She was recently recognized for her contributions when she rode with Mayor Kelly Wolfe as Grand Marshall of the Jonesborough Days Parade.
“I left Greeneville in 1942, when they started drafting the men, the boys and they had to get women to take their jobs,” she recalled, “There weren’t many jobs in Greeneville so I went to Detroit.”
She had a girlfriend there who helped her get settled and she quickly got a job at Briggs, a company that had previously turned out car parts. Like many heavy manufacturing companies during the war, Briggs stopped their usual work and started making parts for airplanes to be used in the war.
“It was such a big city, and I liked it,” Freda says. “I liked my job too.”
A pioneer for the world of working women, Freda made Detroit her home until the war was over, and beyond. It was a city filled with thousands of young women doing jobs that had always been done by men. She was one of over six million women who entered the workforce during World War II.
In 1943, more than 310,000 women worked in the United States aircraft industry, making up 65% of the industry’s workforce — compared to 1% before the war. In 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.
“All of us were all about the same age and there were just no men around,” Wilhoit explained. “We wore bandanas on our heads so our hair wouldn’t get caught in the machines and we had to wear pants! You would never have dared to wear pants in Greeneville,” she added with a laugh.
“I adapted really easily, and we had a lot of fun,” she said. “I rented a room from a couple and I was in walking distance from work. After work, there were a lot of things you could go do. I remember going skating and horseback riding, and to a football game. We always had jokes and everything was funny.”
But even though she saw it as fun, it was serious work. These female riveters, working in teams, would drill hundreds of holes and sometimes drive thousands of rivets in a shift.
The rivet guns were noisy and hard to hold onto, and the guns could “get away” causing everyone to run for cover. The women worked in pairs, with one using the gun and the other working to flatten the rivets by holding an iron bar against the metal to be fastened.
Freda worked in the factory from 1943-45. But when the war was over, the men came home, and everyone was laid off as Briggs was converted back to an automobile factory.
“They had made car parts before and they went back to that industry,” she said. “They called the employees who had been there before the war back to work, but many of the women stayed on and worked in the plant too.”
She was one of those who stayed. Though she didn’t continue to use a rivet gun or a drill, she was given a new job as a “paper girl” working in the paint department. “If the (paint) job had a bad place in it, they had to sand it down and repaint it,” Freda said. “My job was to put paper on the area around the place they were working on so the paint wouldn’t get on the rest of the car.” She did that from 1948 – 1958, working on Packards and Plymouths. Then, in 1958, she was laid off.
Even though the job in Detroit had been challenging, Freda said it was much easier and the pay was much better than she was used to. The women — the Rosie the Riveters of WWII —were paid only about half of what the men had made, but nevertheless, she was pleased with her salary.
“We worked eight hours a day, five days a week and I made a lot of money,” she said. “I can’t remember exactly how much it was, but I’d never made a lot of money.”
Until she went to work in Detroit, Freda had become accustomed to working long hours for little pay. Her opportunity at Briggs was a sight better than her job back in Greeneville, where she had worked at the Brumley Hotel, making $5 a week and working seven days a week. If she was lucky, the “tobacco men” who frequented the hotel — especially in the winter months — would leave her a dime tip.
Life had been hard on Freda. Her father left the family when she was very young and offered no support; she had gone to work early in her teens.
By the time she was 17, she was using her talent as a singer to earn money. Every Wednesday, she took the bus to WJHL in Johnson City to perform with a local band during a 15-minute program called “Freda Ricker Sings.”
Freda loved both music and adventure — something that resulted in the experience of a lifetime during a chance meeting with a musical icon.
“I went to visit my aunt in Philadelphia and from there, I went on to New York all by myself to visit my girlfriend,” Freda said. “We went to the movies one day and afterward, they always had a band. That day it was Henry Jerome and the Stepping Stones, and Frank Sinatra was singing with them. That was before he got big.
“I was thrilled when my girlfriend told them I was a singer too and they invited me to sing! That was quite a day.”
Freda’s personal life was also filled with ups and downs. She met her first husband, Jack Rose, while she was working in Detroit. They were married only three years, when he was killed in a tragic accident.
After that, she remained single for 22 years, throwing herself into church work and rarely going out. Then she met Jack Wilhoit and they married on July 2, 1969 – 48 years ago. Their blended family includes Freda’s daughter and Jack’s three sons.
Since then the couple has lived in a number of towns, and Freda has had several jobs. Her last position was as the switchboard operator and receptionist for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. She retired in 1978, and the couple settled in Jonesborough in 2001.
Freda’s life has been filled with good times and bad, new experiences and adventures, and during it all, she says her faith has carried her through.
“That just shows you how the Lord works things out,” she said.