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Time is running short to save Rosie the Riveter's plant

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 | 8:09 p.m. CDT
In this April 15 image from video, Ray Hunter, chairman of the Yankee Air Museum, shakes hands with Loraine Osborne, a former Rosie the Riveter who worked at the Willow Run bomber plant. They were at the Ypsilanti Township, Mich., plant for a ceremony that honored her and others who contributed to the war effort. Save the Bomber Plant officials have until Thursday to raise the remainder of the $8 million needed to save the plant from demolition.

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Loraine Osborne is a Rosie.

She isn't THE Rosie, but she worked as a riveter at the Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan alongside Rose Will Monroe, the inspiration for a character that came to symbolize female empowerment and the we're-all-in-this-together spirit of the American homefront during World War II.

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Thousands of Rosie the Riveters were there when their country needed them. Now, Rosie is the one who needs help.

All that stands between her old plant and the wrecking ball is two days and $1 million.

A group trying to save a slice of the factory west of Detroit raised $7 million, but it needs $8 million and has until Thursday to make that happen. If the Save the Bomber Plant campaign fails, a piece of U.S. history will be lost forever.

Osborne says that would be a shame.

"It should be taken care of so that everybody — our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren — can enjoy it as the years go by," said the Kentucky transplant whose brother and sister and their spouses worked at the facility in Ypsilanti Township, Mich.

From 1942 to 1945, Osborne and a cast of tens of thousands built roughly one B-24 Liberator an hour and 8,685 in all.

"It was really important to get those planes out so they could save people's lives," said Osborne, who met the man who became her husband at the plant and stopped riveting long enough to get married.

She lived in government housing near the massive plant that was built by Ford Motor Co. and featured a mile-long assembly line.

Women performed what had been male-dominated roles in plants all over the country during the war. But it was Monroe, one of an untold number of women in the Willow Run plant's 40,000-person workforce, who caught the eye of Hollywood producers casting a "riveter" for a government film about the war effort at home.

Monroe, a Kentucky native who moved to Michigan during the war, starred as herself in the film and became one of the best-known figures of that era. She represented the thousands of Rosies who took factory jobs making munitions, weaponry and other things while the nation's men were off fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

Although many Rosies were let go once the war was over and the soldiers returned home, they had shown that women were capable of doing jobs that had traditionally been done only by men. An illustrated poster of a determined-looking Rosie the Riveter rolling up her sleeve with the slogan "We can do it!" became an iconic symbol of empowerment for American women.

The Willow Run factory transitioned to producing automobiles after the war ended, and it continued to make them, as well as parts, for more than a half-century under the General Motors name before closing for good in 2010.

Now, the plant is coming down in part to make way for a connected vehicle research center.

The Save the Bomber campaign wants to separate and preserve more than 150,000 square feet of the plant and convert it into a new, expanded home for the Yankee Air Museum, which would move from its current location less than 2 miles away.

The site's manager, a trust set up to oversee properties owned by a pre-bankruptcy GM, has given the group a number of extensions, but there won't be any more. Demolition already is underway on other parts of the plant.

"Time is really short on this," said Dennis Norton, the president of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation and one of the leaders of the effort to save the plant. "We need people to help, but I honestly think we're going to make it."

Norton and his colleagues aren't going down without a fight.

In addition to working the phones and giving potential donors flights in vintage aircraft, they recently hosted a pair of fundraising events, including a "bomber buffing" party in which area residents polished planes.

Osborne embodies the Save The Bomber Plant effort.

The 88-year-old, who worked at an area Ford plant for three decades after the war, shows up at Willow Run-related events from time to time, often while wearing Rosie's trademark red bandanna with white polka dots.

"I don't let anything stop me, because my mother taught us, 'As long as you can put one foot in front of the other, you can go,'" she said.


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