Elinor Otto was a mother in her 20s when she picked up a riveting gun for the first time at Rohr Aircraft Corp. in Chula Vista during World War II.
One of the original Rosie the Riveters, Otto, now 98, returned for the first time Saturday to the place where she began her nearly 70-year career on the aircraft production line.
“Walking in there, 73 years [later], it brought back a lot of nostalgia,” said Otto, who lives in Long Beach.
The company now operates as a subsidiary of UTC Aerospace Systems. Even though the plant was much changed, Otto’s visit evoked memories of carpooling to work from her home in San Diego, working on the assembly line alongside her sister, and the tunes that were broadcast over a loudspeaker, like Vera Lynn’s “You’ll Never Know” or Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
Otto would go on to work for Ryan Aeronautical Co. in San Diego, then Douglas Aircraft Company, which merged with McDonnell Aircraft before it became part of Boeing. She worked until she was 95, when she was laid off in 2014, and she makes it clear she did not voluntarily retire.
Otto’s trip to Chula Vista coincides with Spirit of ’45 Day, which is being celebrated Sunday and honors the legacy of men and women of the World War II generation.
The trip also served as an effort to plant the idea of a Rosie the Riveter memorial rose garden in Chula Vista to honor the women who took on the jobs left behind by men who served in the war.
The idea was well-received by Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas, who met Otto at a gathering at the Veterans Home of California — Chula Vista.
“I think that's something that we should do to honor and respect these wonderful women, because that generation is passing and yet we shouldn't forget the foundation that they built for us,” said Salas, whose mother worked as a spot welder at Rohr in the 1940s.
Salas said her mother, now 94, attributes the middle-class life they were afforded to her job at Rohr.
During the midday gathering at the veterans retirement community, Otto joined dozens of residents for lunch in the cafeteria. Many residents thanked her for her important work during the war.
Members of the nonprofit group Pin-ups for Vets sparked up conversations with residents, causing them to reminisce.
In a brief Q&A, Otto spoke to residents about life at Rohr, where she started working in 1942 for 65 cents an hour.
“I wanted to see if the men kept as busy as they said they did,” she joked.
Otto, who wore her original Rohr badge, recalled the men who welcomed her and other women as they learned on the job.
Asked if she knows how many military airplanes she helped manufacture in her career, she said she had no idea.
“If you were too busy counting, you wouldn’t have gotten the job done,” she replied.
Otto also touched on the struggles women overcame on the job, of union-led negotiations and strikes for better wages.
Otto said she is proud of the road she and other “Rosies” paved for women and how far women have come since then.
“We made history — now it's your turn,” she said.
Otto said she is overwhelmed by the recognition she receives and is humbled by the idea of planting rose gardens across the U.S.
“I don't just take it for granted,” she said. “I can cry about it just thinking about how wonderful everybody is.”
Warren Hegg, national coordinator for Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive, said his organization will work with local groups for a rose garden in Chula Vista in the coming year.
It’s part of a larger vision to create a Rosie the Riveter rose garden in every congressional district across the U.S. by 2020. About 80 gardens have been planted in more than 15 states since March, when Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive launched the campaign, Hegg said.
In the San Diego area, there is a Rosie the Riveter rose garden at the Coronado Public Library and the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park.
Otto plans to attend the Spirit of ’45 Day celebrations at the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park on Sunday. The event begins at 11 a.m.