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After Pearl Harbor attack, women got tough in W.Pa. factories

| Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010

Emma Rocco was with her cousin Marian Flati on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Like most Sundays, the two Monaca girls had walked across the Rochester-Monaca bridge over the Ohio River to browse stores in Rochester and sip floats in the Sweet Shop on Brighton Avenue.

"I remember thinking, 'Where in the heck is Pearl Harbor?' I did not understand the significance of it for several days," said Rocco, 85, a retired Pennsylvania State University music professor who lives in Beaver. "I think everybody my age remembers where they were that day."

Like many young women, Rocco was about to grow up fast. After graduating from high school at age 17 in 1942, Rocco joined legions of Rosie the Riveters who went to work in vital wartime industries while men were off in the military.

Sisters Margaret Szulc and Victoria Hruska of Braddock found jobs in a Rankin wire mill. Szulc became the first female machinist at the American Steel and Wire Co. plant.

Regina Kowalski of Lawrenceville went to work at U.S. Steel's Homestead plant. Kowalski and a crew of women had the fiery job of opening furnace doors while other workers tossed in raw materials.

In all, more than 6 million women worked in industry during the war, according to Joseph F. Rishel, a history professor at Duquesne University. Most of them were married with children, he said, noting that 25 percent of the married women in America were in the labor force by 1945.

In 1943, more than 30,000 were employed at Pittsburgh war plants, and federal officials estimated another 100,000 would be needed, according to the book "Men and Women of Wartime Pittsburgh and Environs."

Rocco went to work at Ambridge Electric, which was advertising for women workers. At first, the company said Rocco was too small at 5 feet tall and 90 pounds to weld pipe joints that were going to the Navy. She had to stand along a conveyer system.

"I said, 'Give me something to stand on,' and can you believe it, they did," she said. "I used to pray that I was doing it right."

She later landed a job with J&L Steel Co. in Aliquippa where she worked as a laborer in a pipe mill. Her job was to clean scale from underneath machines.

"Sometimes, I think back and wonder 'How did I do that?' I just did it, I guess," she said. "I think we all knew that we were doing something important for the war effort."

Szulc, 87, said she was working in a Braddock hardware store when someone from American Steel and Wire came in and told her he would soon be needing women for the machine shop. The company made nails and barbed wire.

Frank Ciesielski, Szulc's and Hruska's father, worked in the plant and helped get them jobs. Both worked while their husbands were in the military.

Szulc was in the machine shop where she made parts for wire-drawing machines. Hruska, 89, sorted nails for a short time, then worked as a receptionist and telephone operator.

"I was a hello girl," she said. "It was a different kind of situation (than Margaret's), but it was a very vital one and I loved the job."

The company featured Szulc on the cover of its February 1943 edition of Wireco Life magazine, which contained a story on the "Women of Wireco." In the photograph Szulc is wearing protective glasses, overalls, a workshirt and cap while bending over and tending to a lathe.

"Our cover girl -- Margaret Ciesielski, machine tool operator, Rankin Works, after only four month's experience on her lathe, sets up her own work and grinds her own tools," the caption reads. "She hopes someday to be as good a machinist as her brother."

Szulc said she had no idea she would be featured on the magazine cover.

"You couldn't be very glamorous down there," she said.

She said male co-workers treated her with respect, and she loved her boss.

Kowalski, 94, was married and her husband was in the Army when she applied for a job at U.S. Steel in Homestead. She lived in Sharpsburg and took three streetcars to work every day. Kowalski said she stayed overnight with a female co-worker, who lived in Homestead, when they worked the night shift.

Her first job was in the labor gang emptying railroad box cars. Later, she became part of the furnace "pull-up" crew. The job was to pull open doors on an open-hearth furnace while male workers threw in material.

"You would be about a room away from the furnace, and you'd pull down this big lever," Kowalski said. "You could only pull it open so far, because fire would come out. The men would be there sweating, and sometimes they called you names because you pulled the door open a little too far."

All of the women lost their jobs when the war ended, but they said they expected to quit work when their husbands returned anyway. Rocco said she was working part-time by that point.

Szulc, Hruska and Kowalski saved their money and used it to start families after their husbands returned from the war.

The money Rocco earned paid for her education at Duquesne University.

"Everybody was pitching in back then," Rocco said. "You knew you were doing something worthwhile. But I'll tell you, it brought me into the real world real quickly. It made me grow up in a big hurry."

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