She fought Hitler by day and jitterbugged at night, working to win a war and prove women’s worth along the way.
Mae Krier, 93, is an original “Rosie the Riveter,” a catchall for the women who flooded factories and shipyards during World War II to build the planes, ships, and bombs needed to vanquish Nazis and a bellicose Japan. As it happens, Krier, who lives in Levittown, was an actual riveter.
Rosies are best symbolized by an iconic 1943 poster by 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!”
Of her riveting days, Krier said, “We worked, we danced, and we slept on Sundays. Most of all, we were duty-bound."
With so many men at war, it fell to women to build up the nation’s arsenal. That opened a previously closed-off opportunity. "Until 1941 [when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor],” Krier said, "it was a man’s world.”
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Then, an army of women occupied the workplace, many for the first time.
These days, Krier and the Rosies are being considered for the Congressional Gold Medal, a civilian honor to recognize the accomplishments of an estimated 12 million to 18 million women, most of whom are no longer alive. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) introduced a bill to confer the medal last term, but it stalled. Another version was recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s not clear whether Congress will act.
Political dithering notwithstanding, there’s no doubt the recognition is meaningful, according to Hershel “Woody” Williams, a combat Marine who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor while fighting on Iwo Jima in WWII.
“Without these Rosie the Riveters,” Williams wrote to Congress last spring, “we would not have won the war.”
Since the mid-1980s, after Krier realized her kids didn’t really know what the Rosies did, she has worked to get the women their due. “It’s bittersweet,” said Cole Kleitsch, a Hackettstown, N.J., consultant who teaches civics. “Women like Mae dedicated themselves to service, and have yet to be formally thanked by their country. Mae is an American hero.”
Eager for recognition for her sisters in armaments, Krier speaks to veterans groups and active-duty service members across the nation as a Rosie ambassador. Often, she goes into her own pocket to pay for the trips when organizations can’t underwrite her travels.
These days, Krier spends a lot of time admonishing Congress to act. “There aren’t many of us left,” she said, as she prepared to travel to France to participate in the 75th anniversary of D-Day this week — a $30,000 trip for her and eight other Rosies and friends that she helped raise funds for.
“If we don’t get a medal soon" she says, "all the Rosies will be gone.”
Born in Dawson, N.D., in 1926, Krier, whose maiden name was Burkett, was the great-granddaughter of Austrian immigrants who pioneered the Dakota Territory in covered wagons in the 1880s.
“They came for the amber waves of grain they’d heard about," she said. “But no one told them you freeze your butts off up there.”
By 13, Krier had endured the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, two of the most catastrophic events in U.S. history. With the money gone and farms blowing through the air, most touchstones of permanence had disappeared. And that was just a few years before the onslaught of Japanese kamikaze pilots and Germany’s blitzkrieg.
Given the grimness, how did anyone from the Greatest Generation ever smile?
“We just didn’t have unhappiness,” said Krier, recalling upbeat parents — her father was in charge of a grain elevator, her mother delivered mail. “My two sisters, brother, and I had nothing but happy days.”
In 1943, after school ended for the summer, Krier, then 17, traveled west to Seattle “on a lark” with a friend. She explained, “The boys had all left to fight the war; why would the girls hang around?”
The women got jobs at the Boeing Aircraft Company, where Krier first saw the B-17 bomber.
“I’ve had a love affair with that plane,” said Krier, her eyes sparkling behind silver-framed glasses. “There’s just something there.”
Maybe it was the muscular aircraft’s lines, or just how important it was, especially for the D-Day invasion. But the four-engine “Flying Fortress,” bristling with machine guns and laden with bombs, captivated Krier.
To help build B-17s, she drove endless numbers of rivets into the plane’s 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.
“Hitler once said American women were too interested in makeup to work,” Krier said. “We showed him what American women were made of."
When her shift ended at night, Krier would go out jitterbugging. One evening in 1944, she met a Trenton guy named Norman Krier, who was in the Navy. They came in second in a dance contest, fell in love, then married in 1945.
When the war ended, Krier said, “Men came home to fancy parades but women in the factories got pink slips. Many of them were widows who were put out on the street. This angered me."
Someone once asked her, “Did you go back to the kitchen?” She responded, “Yeah, and to the bedroom, too. That’s where all the baby boomers came from.”
Krier and her husband 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. Norman died at 93 in 2014 after nearly 70 years of marriage. "He was a genuine person who respected me,” she said.
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Ever admiring of Krier, granddaughter Lori Netland explained, “My grandmother took a horse and buggy to school and now she’s on Facebook every day.” Netland, 47, who studied neuroscience at Temple University, is married to a radiologist and lives on a farm in Middleburg, Fla. “Being a Rosie is a small part of what she is to me.”
Netland said Krier introduced her to the writing of feminist Gloria Steinem. “She’d tell me, ‘By the time a man got what needs to be done thought out, I had it done.'”
Krier taught her to shop flea markets, and make dresses and quilts. “She’s sharp as a tack, filled with energy," she said. "The key to her happiness is to keep life genuine.”
Military people love her, from grunts to generals. Veterans invite her to fly in their planes or march in their parades.
“She’ll go to the Pentagon and be hugged like a celebrity,” said Deb Woolson, a curator at the nonprofit Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, which offers educational programs on civics.
Krier, known for driving her red 2005 Chevy Colorado pickup truck around town, enjoys addressing students, especially the girls: “I make sure to tell them, ‘Don’t think because someone’s a man, he can do things better.' I get thanked for opening doors for women.”
Krier’s home is filled with knickknacks, flowers, and innumerable pillows with animal faces, which she makes and sells. She displays photos of herself with the late Sen. John McCain, among others. She sews piles of the red “We Can Do It!” Rosie bandannas to distribute.
“I’m just having such a good time with this,” she said. “We Rosies lived through history."
"And, we deserve that medal.”