Diaries through the Decades

When our country faced one of its most defining moments, Mary Jane Nelligan became Rosie the Riveter.

Nelligan, now 92 years old, grew up in Attica, a small town in western New York, during the Great Depression. Though she said she wanted to go to college, her family could not afford the cost. Instead, she went to trade school in Batavia for $75 per year and became a registered nurse. Nelligan remained in Batavia until 1941 when the United States joined World War II and her husband, Bill, was drafted.

"I had to do something that would help him," she said. She moved from the more rural areas she had known all her life to Buffalo, which had a significant hand in the steel industry. For the next two years, Nelligan was a riveter in the city's Bel Air airplane factory.

Men traditionally filled factory positions, but after war broke out women traded their aprons for welding goggles and took up the workload. Nelligan recalled the changes in the female population during that time. For example, instead of skirts or dresses, women began wearing pants to work. "When you're climbing over an airplane, you're happy to be wearing slacks," she said.

Nelligan was at Bel Air when they began construction on the first jet airplanes.

The transition from propellers to jet engines was a major advance in aircraft technology, and she participated in the experimental stages.

Nelligan recalled punching rivets into jets while men with design plans looked on. Sometimes they told her the next day to remove the rivets and place them somewhere completely different. Years later, she visited the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institute and recognized some of the crafts that she worked on.

Though she said she thinks fondly of her years at Bel Air, Nelligan also remembers lonely days in Buffalo. Bill served in the South Pacific for four years, during which their only means of communication was through letters and V-mail, a type of message similar to a postcard that was specifically for military personnel.

Because V-mail could only contain a limited number of words, Nelligan said she and her husband abbreviated phrases they planned to use in every message. This included phrases like, "I love you with all my heart," which became "ILYWAMH." Smiling, she recalled, "We used that [abbreviation] the rest of our lives … it was just us."

When talking to those who have experienced life and often reflect on it, it's easy to pull lessons from what they say. Mary Jane Nelligan weathered some hard times, but as she sat on a couch in the Morgan Estates Assisted Living Facility, she laughed. According to her, you have to believe: "You're one day closer to something better, and hopefully believe it, most of the time."