By Senior Airman Apryl Hall, Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
At 94 years old, she doesn’t look a day over 70 as she flexes her bicep with a smile on her face. A denim button-down shirt, bright red bandana holding back her curls and the strong, confident demeanor of a woman America recognizes instantly. She is a true Rosie the Riveter.
Margaret “Peggy” Wills was born in 1922 in Bozeman, Montana. Her father was a World War I veteran who left the war early due to injury, and kept a victory garden to help feed his seven children. Once the Great Depression had taken everything it could from them, including Wills’ mother, they picked up and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Then 19-years-old and looking for work to help the family, Wills applied for a job at Holman Field near St. Paul. Thinking she was going to be doing secretarial work, the Second World War forced a job title change, and she soon realized she would be doing work slightly out of her comfort zone.
“They call everybody who did anything on the planes, they called them all ‘Rosie the Riveter,’” Wills said. “They would have to say, ‘Rosie the Electrician’ because that’s what I did.”
Wills’ crew of around 12 people, both men and women, were given a crash course on electrical work before they began working on wartime aircraft.
“They brought the B-24s in at the end of our hangar, and we finished up by doing the electrical work like running lights and the warm air used to keep the pilots’ suits warm,” Wills said. “There was a lot of stuff, I couldn’t think of all the stuff we did!”
Wills caught on quickly and began to enjoy her work, despite the 12-hour shifts and the hard manual labor.
“To me, the most important thing was just doing it, not thinking about it,” Wills said. “I had had it hard all my life and it was never any harder than any of that. I was just glad I had a job and happy I could do a good job at it.”
To add to her sense of accomplishment, Wills took pride in her work. She realized in a short time she was doing her part in helping our nation during a time of war.
“I was doing the right thing,” she said. “Somebody had to do the electrical work or they wouldn’t fly. I was always so happy every time I left the plane. The guys would say, ‘Your work was all good,’ and that made me feel good. I never had accolades for anything I’d ever done really.”
Pride was evident all over Holman Field during WWII, Wills said. When they weren’t working around-the-clock to launch the B-24 fleet, they were giving blood for the Red Cross. A time Wills admits she stuffed tools into her coveralls in order to meet the weight requirement to donate blood.
“It was a large place, but we all were very patriotic I think,” Wills said “There was a time when they came in to give us a certain amount of money. We turned it down because our boys were fighting and dying over there.”
During a trip to Fort Snelling, a man approached Wills asking her if she would talk with him. He told her he was home on leave and was contemplating going AWOL because he didn’t want to go back to war, afraid he wouldn’t make it home again. Wills could see how distraught he was and tried her best to encourage him.
“Me with my big heart, I said, ‘You’re going to be okay, you just have to have somebody believe in you,’” she said. “He said, ‘I want you to say my name.’ He thought he wasn’t coming back. I’ve never forgotten it because he made me say it. I did a lot of praying for that boy.”
Wills recalls several occasions like that one throughout the three years working as an electrician. It was something she was used to, up until August 15, 1945, when she showed up to work and the atmosphere was celebratory.
“We were all on top of the wings of that B-24 dancing,” Wills recalls, smiling. “It was fun just to get together, we were having a good time. I loved working there.”
Women were invaluable during the desperate times of WWII. Whether they were fixing running lights on B-24s or encouraging panic-stricken soldiers to keep on going, their efforts were instrumental in America’s success.
“It was just that women had never worked and they didn’t know what they could do,” Wills said. “You know what happens, if a woman does it and it turns out good, she’s going to get the okay for it, but boy, the women just flooded in! It made me proud that I was a woman.”
Her pride may have been born then, but lives on today. As she looks at the old recruitment poster more than 70 years later, she still emanates the true spirit of a Rosie.