Having helped vanquish the Nazis during World War II, Mae Krier, 95, of Levittown, Bucks County, went to work fighting COVID-19, proving there’s not a scourge that the overachievers of the Greatest Generation won’t take on.
It’s a story that requires some explaining.
Krier is an original “Rosie the Riveter,” a catchall referencing the women who flooded factories and shipyards during World War II to build the planes, ships, and bombs needed to thwart Hitler’s Germany and a bellicose Japan. As it happens, Krier was an actual riveter at the Boeing Aircraft Co. in Seattle starting in 1943.
Rosies are best symbolized by an iconic 1943 poster by the graphic artist J. Howard Miller. A woman in a blue work shirt displays her right bicep, on her head a red bandanna with white polka dots. The copy reads, “We Can Do It!”
For years, Krier sewed Rosie bandannas that she distributed free of charge, all while lobbying for recognition for her sisters in armaments, who are credited with helping to win the war, and for showing a still-stodgy world that women were capable of doing “men’s jobs” with grace and ease.
When the pandemic hit, Krier switched to making masks with the same distinctive look, harnessing the World War II can-do spirit.
As a tribute to Krier and the other Rosies, Boeing, now known as an aerospace company, is scheduled to fire an unmanned rocket to the International Space Station on Tuesday that will contain “Rosie the Rocketeer,” a mannequin wearing a bandanna and mask made by Krier. The launch is to test a so-called astronaut taxi that may send space travelers to the station in the future.
“It’s amazing the experiences I’ve had,” Krier said the other day, reflecting on a lifetime of achievement. “These aren’t the kinds of things that happen when you decide to just sit home in your rocking chair.”
A Congressional Gold Medal
Last fall, the peripatetic Krier achieved a long-sought dream when the federal government decided to award the Rosies the Congressional Gold Medal, a civilian honor to recognize the accomplishments of an estimated 12 million to 18 million women. It’s unclear how many Rosies are still alive.
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) helped champion the legislation to confer the medal. Krier is credited with making the Rosies’ accomplishments known to official Washington with decades of campaigning. Her followers on Facebook pressured senators to sign on to the bill.
“Mae worked really hard on this,” said Tammy Brumley, a docent at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Park in Richmond, Calif., outside San Francisco. “She really stomped the halls of Congress,” giving out bandannas and talking up her cause.
Lauding the Rosies, Casey last fall said they were “among our nation’s greatest living heroines, and they deserve this long-overdue recognition for their tremendous service to our country.”
Krier recalled that, in a private moment, Casey “leaned over and said: `Mae, do you know how hard it is to get a bill passed in Washington? And you did it. If I had a problem, I’d want you on my team.’
“I thought that was so cute. I was so proud.”
Krier is expected to receive the medal, which has yet to be struck by the U.S. Mint, in the fall of 2022.
As the pandemic wore on, Krier said she felt helpless having to quarantine while Americans were suffering.
She decided that, with minimal alterations, bandannas could be turned into masks, and that a symbol of resolve in the face of adversity could be successfully repurposed.
“It was an attitude Mae brought from World War II,” said Deb Woolson, 66, of Phoenixville, a friend and a retired staffer for former State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester County). “‘Let’s come together and do this for our country.’”
Woolson put out the word on Facebook that Krier’s masks were available for free, and they went viral, with orders from around the nation and six countries, she said.
“People love Mae and the masks,” Woolson said. “They just can’t get enough. They have written her things like: ‘You’re a ray of light in a dark sky. Thank you for bringing the Rosie attitude to COVID.’”
Krier filled more than 5,000 orders between June 2020 and last May. She herself sewed more than 3,000 masks; the balance were completed by volunteers. Krier’s social media followers contributed materials.
“That was a lot of sewing,” Krier said with a laugh. “When I sit that long, I get a kink in back. My only exercise was trips to the refrigerator.”
That’s not to say Krier is simply sitting back. She still mows her own lawn on an old lawn tractor and is invited to take part in a ceremony on Dec. 7 for the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The trips are expensive. Brumley said it’ll cost $14,000 to take Krier and two other Rosies to Oahu; so far, they’ve raised $8,000. In 2019, Brumley collected $33,000 in contributions to send Krier and four other Rosies to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Despite her age, Krier loves to travel, a joy she first indulged when she turned 17 in her native Dawson, N.D. “On a lark,” she and a friend ventured to Seattle, where they set about building B-17 bombers.
Krier drove endless numbers of rivets into the planes’ metal sheathing for 93 cents an hour — half of what men got. She kept at it for two years, helping fill the skies with machines that saved the world from fascism.
“Hitler once said American women were too interested in makeup to work,” Krier said. “We showed him what American women were made of.”
Krier met her husband, Norm, in Seattle. After the war, they moved to Morrisville, where she spent most of her years as a homemaker. Norm worked as a machinist. They had two children, four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. Norm died at 93 in 2014 after nearly 70 years of marriage.
It always angered Krier that when the war ended, women were expected to drop out of the workforce.
Currently, Krier is acting on yet another perceived slight: There are no Rosie statues in the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
She’s been meeting with a sculptor to see what can be done about that.
“They tell me it’s difficult,” she said. “But getting that medal was difficult, and look what happened.”
If there ever is a Rosie statue made, Krier said, she and her surviving sisters will be happy to help out.
“You can tell anyone in Washington,” Krier added, “there’s still enough of us Rosies around to screw the thing to the floor.”