Boeing honors Mexico resident for her 100th birthday

Boeing honors Mexico resident for her 100th birthday
Boeing representative Chris Bray, right, presents Bertha Clarke with a commemorative bandana on Tuesday, April 20, as Kurt LaBelle records the moment. Boeing helped celebrate Clarke's 100th birthday. [Dave Faries]
By: 
Dave Faries
Editor

In 1942 Bertha Clarke went to Boeing in search of a job. Her husband, a military policeman, was stationed in Seattle and her allotment from his pay only went so far.

“I needed a little pocket money,” Clarke explained.

On Tuesday representatives from Boeing came to her home in Mexico to thank Clarke for her work. The occasion was the approach of Clarke’s 100th birthday, so they brought gifts – books, collectibles and the model of a B-17, the plane she helped to build.

But their real purpose was to record her story and add it to the pages of history.

Some 16 million Americans joined the military in World War Two. Battles were fought on land, sea and in the air around the globe. But victory depended upon the production of materials for the fight. And that required labor.

“They advertised for anybody,” Clarke recalled. “They paid 92 cents an hour — that was wonderful wages.”

For the first time in American history, large numbers of women donned overalls and took places on assembly lines around the country – especially at Boeing, which along with its affiliate companies would build almost 100,000 aircraft over three and a half years.

In slogans of the day, factory women were hailed as “Rosie the Riveter,” although Clarke’s family says she went by “Bert the Bucker” during her time at Boeing.

Clarke worked on the B-17, a long-range bomber capable of reaching Berlin. She assisted the riveter by working the rivet bucking tool.

Her memories of a year on the assembly line when the outcome of the war was in doubt and the nation was in motion are fading. But she recalls the training, the mass of workers flowing in and out of the plant as shifts changed and the sense of purpose. There was a war to be won.

“I remember standing on the platform with the bucker in my hand,” she said. “The airplane – that’s what saved us.”

Clarke grew up in Laddonia, the oldest of five children. When her husband joined the military and was stationed in Seattle, she followed him.

“I was kind of lost, coming from a small town,” Clarke said. “It was different.”

She was part of the first wave of Rosies, the women who were praised at the time and then faded into the background of history as men returned home at the end of the war as heroes.

But over the past two decades the role of women in the workforce during World War Two has regained public attention. The Rosie the Riveter Historical Park in Richmond, California honors the 16 million women who supplied the front lines with the tools of war. And last fall, Congress passed a bipartisan bill – The Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal Act — to recognize their role in victory.

“I’m proud, but I never talked about it,” Clarke said. “That was to get the war over with.”

Chris Bray, Annie Harper and videographer Kurt LaBelle of Boeing’s Global Engagement department in St. Louis brought citations from elected officials along with gifts from the company.

“I wasn’t expecting all that,” said Lisa Shoneboom, Clarke’s granddaughter. “I just thought we would get a hat, shirt or a birthday card.”

Shoneboom sent an email to a general address at Boeing letting them know about Clarke’s birthday. Boeing responded, inviting her to the company’s St. Louis office. But her ability to travel is limited, so Boeing came to her, eager to record Clarke’s story.

“This is an honor,” Clarke said. “I don’t feel I deserve it, but I like it anyway.”

One gift that brought a smile was a commemorative bandana. Women on the assembly line tied their hair up for safety, often using a cloth. Rosie the Riveter was depicted wearing a bandana in the famous “We Can Do It” poster.

Clarke left the factory in 1942, returning to Laddonia. The couple moved to Mexico in the early 1980s. Occasionally she would tell stories about her days on the assembly line. But for the most part Clarke considered it something that had to be done.

She treats her approaching 100th birthday, which will come on April 28, with a similar shrug.

“It just happened,” she said. “It’s just luck.”

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