- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - Veterans come in all shapes and sizes.

Some are young, just home from war and looking to the future. Some are much older, and their number is declining: the veterans of World War II, who share stories of flying over enemy territory and liberating the oppressed.

And then there are veterans of a different sort, who never saw a battlefield but worked hard for the effort at home.

Mary Perez, 95, is one of those - she was a riveter for one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the United States during World War II.

Her memories of those years resurfaced recently when she heard about the death of the model for artist Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter.” The illustration, depicting a brawny woman in overalls eating a sandwich with her rivet gun in her lap, ran in the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day 1943. “Rosie” became the symbol of strong American women taking men’s places to work in factories and shipyards during the war.

Perez lived it.

She was 21 when she began working in a Curtiss-Wright Corp. factory in Buffalo, N.Y., in spring 1942, riveting together metal sheets for the fuselages of single-engine planes.

Buffalo is less than 10 miles north of her childhood home in Lackawanna, N.Y. Most of the women she grew up with worked in one of the region’s many Curtiss-Wright factories, which employed more than 40,000 people in 1943.

Perez bought a $15 toolbox and took the bus to work, a 10-cent ride each way. She earned $35 a week.

“I gave it all to my mother,” Perez said. “She gave me enough to get a bus ticket.”

It was not easy work. The riveters worked with a partner, the bucker, who helped to secure the rivet. One day, a piece of metal the bucker was working on hit Perez’s eye, sending her to the infirmary. Soon, she was back on the factory floor.

Another danger for women in the factory: their hair. After one woman’s long hair was caught in a machine, all of them were required to wear hats, Perez said.

She liked the precision required when shooting the rivet gun.

“You had to know how to hold the gun and how much air pressure you’re supposed to shoot,” she said. “If you missed just a tiny bit of a hole, we had to do it again.”

Perez quickly earned the nickname “Lefty,” for using her left hand to shoot.

She met her future husband on the job. The men working in the factory either were too old to fight or had some ailment that prevented them from being eligible, she said.

Anthony Perez, a stock boy, was deaf in one ear. She remembers first seeing him at the opposite end of a long balcony. She needed a metal sheet to rivet, and she was looking for it from him.

“I guess this fellow got my goo-goo eyes,” she said. “We were going around about six months, and he wanted to get married, and I said, ‘All right.’ “

She worked at the factory for three years. The Perezes had a baby girl. The war was ending, and Perez didn’t return to work after her maternity leave.

She lived in New York until four years ago, when her husband died. Perez still wears her wedding band.

“My Daddy-o,” she said, raising her chin and pursing her lips on the last syllable.

She lives with her daughter, Patricia Gebhardt, in the Pembroke Manor section of Virginia Beach. They walk and shop together.

“She’s not somebody who sits around all the time,” Gebhardt said.

Perez said her secret to longevity is eating dandelion leaves, before the flower opens and they turn bitter. She wishes she could crochet again. One of her afghans earned a first-place ribbon at a fair in Erie County, N.Y.

But her hands don’t work like they used to. So many years have passed since she handled a rivet gun.

“I liked that job,” she said. “I really did.”

___

Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com


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