An anonymous crew, featuring two women, welds the hull of the USS Cogswell, a Fletcher-class destroyer launched at Bath Iron Works on June 5, 1943. Photo courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum

BATH — When World War II began, millions of women answered the call to fill jobs traditionally held by men, many of whom had been drafted into the military or volunteered. Those women learned new skills and overcame adversity to contribute to the war effort. Seventy-five years later, the Senate passed on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, an act to honor those women — incarnations of “Rosie the Riveter,” the namesake of a campaign to recruit women workers.

The Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal Act, co-authored by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, awards a Congressional Gold Medal to the women who took on jobs to make supplies and defense materials during World War II.

The honor applies to the nearly 2,000 women who worked at Bath Iron Works producing warships at breakneck speed during World War II.

In 1943, Jean Croteau of Bath learned to be a welder at Bath Iron Works when she was 18 years old, according to her daughter, Carol Croteau.

“It was her very first job,” said Carol Croteau. “When they came out saying they needed women for the war efforts, she had no second thoughts. She was scared and nervous, but she always told us how excited she was.”

Carol Croteau said her mother had no prior welding experience and her training was all hands-on with very few safety precautions in place. She trained alongside workers on incomplete ship decks with holes in them, afraid she’d fall through with one wrong step.

“The men were not too excited about seeing women working there,” said Carol Croteau. “Most of them were nice, but some would make comments about welding not being women’s work.”

According to Carol Croteau, her mother’s male supervisor would tease her for jumping back when welding sparks flew at her, scared they would burn her, but she quickly learned the trade and came to enjoy the job. She even learned to aim the sparks at her male supervisor when he walked by, “and he would jump back, just like the girls did.”

Carol Croteau said her mother was asked to be on a shakedown crew, which tests a ship in the water once it’s finished, but she declined “because she was afraid it was going to sink.”

“She said she had no idea how big a destroyer was until she got to stand next to one,” she said. “She always said she felt like an ant next to one.”

Carol Croteau said her mother remembered being paid 60 cents per hour, equal to what men made, as they were guaranteed equal pay for equal work.

An unnamed “Rosie the Riveter” learns to rivet on an unknown ship at Bath Iron Works during World War II. Photo courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum

While women weren’t obsolete at the shipyard before the war, more began working there during World War II to replace the men who had left to join the military, according to Ralph Linwood Snow, author of “Bath Iron Works, The First Hundred Years.”

“The company began seriously hiring women for production jobs in 1942, starting with candidates for welding jobs,” said Snow. “By the time Japan surrendered in September 1945, 16% of BIW employees were women with most engaged in various production trades including welding, painting, pipe covering and machining.”

During World War II, the company boasted a peak workforce of 12,000 shipbuilders, about 1,900 of which were women.

“BIW production in World War II was extraordinary,” said Snow. “In the 45 months between Pearl Harbor and the Japanese surrender, BIW delivered 65 destroyers to the US Navy. By mid-1943, the shipyard was launching a destroyer every 18 days and it kept at this pace until the end of the war.”

According to the Department of Defense, around 5 million women served in the defense industry and elsewhere in the commercial sector during World War II.

“My mom and all those women deserve so much,” Carol Croteau said of the Congressional Gold Medal Act. “To think of those young ladies getting on that ship not knowing if they’ll get hurt. I don’t think young ladies today would do that. I know I wouldn’t.”

“This bipartisan legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the 16 million ‘Rosie the Riveters’ will provide a long-overdue recognition of these incredible women who stepped up in a time of great need,” said Collins in a news release. “During World War II, mothers, wives, and daughters answered our nation’s call to action by working tirelessly in factories, farms, shipyards, airplane factories, and other institutions in support of our Armed Forces. Their hard work, dedication, and ‘We Can Do It’ spirit has inspired many future generations of women.”

Jean Croteau visited BIW with her daughters and granddaughter last year before passing away in Dec. 2019. Though she only worked there for a year, her family was impressed by how much she remembered while battling dementia.

“It was amazing to be there and to see the work she did,” said Carol Croteau. “She said if she had to do it all over again, she would’ve done it in a minute.”

In a statement Tuesday, BIW Spokesman David Hench wrote both the company and the country “owes a great debt of gratitude to the women who stepped up to build ships during World War II — not just for their key role in realizing victory but also for paving the way for today’s women shipbuilders at BIW who continue to make Bath Built Best Built.”


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