Although I live in Minneapolis, I have a strong connection to Saint Paul. When I worked as a legal secretary in downtown Saint Paul, I could see across the Mississippi from my twenty-second-floor window to where my mother, Ione, worked in 1943 during World War II: Holman Field.
Born in Spicer, Minnesota, Ione moved to Minneapolis in her early twenties. During the war, she had a long commute from North Minneapolis to her job in Saint Paul: A bus took her to downtown Minneapolis, then a streetcar brought her to downtown Saint Paul, and a shuttle carried her across the Robert Street Bridge to the Northwest Airlines Modification Center, where she worked on a radio crew for the B-24 bomber plane known as the Liberator.
Designed by Consolidated Aircraft Company of San Diego, and mass produced by contractors like Ford Motor Company in Willow River, Michigan, over 18,000 Liberators were built from 1940 to 1945. The government contracted private companies like Northwest Airlines for final work. Ione’s crew added radios, communications, and lights, then routed and clamped cables. A petite and agile twenty-year-old, Ione did whatever job needed doing, including work in narrow spaces, like under the cockpit.
Production went on twenty-four hours a day, and each crew had to rotate shifts every two weeks (8 a.m.–4 p.m., 4 p.m.–midnight, midnight–8 a.m.). After work, she rode home on the shuttle, streetcar, and bus, often falling asleep on the last leg of her trip; the driver would wake her at her stop. A fellow worker acquired a car, and after that she rode with him, a great relief after months of public transportation. One night, she realized he had forgotten her. The plant gate was locked, she couldn’t return to the building, and she had missed the shuttle. Ione had to walk alone across the bridge in the dark to get downtown to catch the streetcar back, which was scary for her. That man didn’t forget again.
After Ione had worked almost a year, Northwest management discovered that she was four months pregnant and they took her off the crew. The only other work available to her was in administrative offices as a secretary, but she didn’t want clerical work; she was a competent mechanical laborer. She didn’t find another job until after my brother Bruce was born. She was hired at a clock factory to make cardboard boxes but soon proved her ability and moved into clock assembly.
Three million women had worked in the defense industry.
Three million women had worked in the defense industry. After the war, men replaced women in the workforce. It would be years before women would again be hired for those kinds of jobs.
When her husband returned from the war, Ione struggled with his abuse and alcoholism until she finally divorced him. She had witnessed the effects her father’s drinking had on her mother and family. After the war, she met Joe, a World War II veteran and a switchman on the Northern Pacific Railway. They married in 1948, raised Bruce, and had four children together, including me. Ione spent the next part of her life as a mother of five and a homemaker in Fridley.
Ione carries a certain pride from those days. She moved from small town to big city and also changed her life. She gained confidence in her ability to do skilled labor. She still learns as much as she can, reads avidly, and stays interested in new ideas and adventures. She was the family photographer, and recently we have been sorting and scanning her photos. New stories and old have emerged as we’ve gone through them, which brought forth these memories of Saint Paul. At eighty-eight, Ione continues to inspire me with her stories of survival during challenging times.
Gayla Ellis—photographer, writer, editor, performer, and publisher—is a Minneapolis resident who was a legal secretary in downtown St. Paul for many years and prefers that city’s scene to downtown Minneapolis.