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Rosie the Riveter: Iconic World War II Hero Still Inspiring Today’s Youth

Rosie the Riveter, March Air Reserve Base, C-17,

Elinor Otto visits March ARB, California, on December 18, for a historic flight aboard a C-17 Globemaster which she helped to build. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Michelle Ulber)

Rosie the Riveter, March Air Reserve Base, C-17,

Elinor Otto visits March Air Reserve Base, California, on December 18, for a flight aboard a C-17 Globemaster which she helped to build. She is welcomed by Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, Air Mobility Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, Air Force Reserve Command commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Michelle Ulber)

Rosie the Riveter, March Air Reserve Base, C-17,

Elinor Otto, who helped build each of the 279 C-17s in the Air Force inventory, boards a C-17 for a flight from March Air Reserve Base in California in December. (U.S. Air Force photo Airman 1st Class Michelle Ulber)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. -- When Elinor Otto enters a room, her orange hair is often the first thing people notice. But her energy, joy and sense of humor quickly become the focus of people’s attention.

Despite turning down an opportunity to be an actor as a young woman, according to John Perry, her grandson, Otto has now reached celebrity status. She has spent the last few years traveling, appearing on television, being honored with awards, planting Rosie the Riveter memorial rose gardens and sharing her inspiring message with young people. Everywhere she travels, people line up to shake her hand and ask for a photograph together.

A brisk and bright Monday morning in December found her in Southern California at March Air Reserve Base, where she finally received the opportunity to fly aboard one of the aircraft she helped build over the course of her 68-year career in the aeronautical industry. The day began with a ceremony to recognize Otto and was hosted by top leaders of the U.S. Air Force including Gen. Carlton Everhart II, Air Mobility Command commander, and Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, Air Force Reserve Command commander, and ended with a flight aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.

While Otto was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Medal from the Air Force Association, it came to Everhart’s attention that Otto, despite helping build each of the 279 C-17 Globemaster aircraft to roll out of the Boeing factory, had never had the opportunity to fly in one. Motivated by Otto’s personal mission to share her story with young people with the hope of inspiring future generations of Rosies, the general came up with an idea.

A special mission was organized to honor Otto’s contributions and create an inflight mobile classroom to promote education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to young men and women. This unique flying classroom was comprised of junior ROTC, ROTC and Civilian Air Patrol youth with the opportunity to witness aeromedical crews performing medical training as well as experience the inflight refueling process.

During the ceremony, Otto shared her passion for youth, particularly young women who are interested in futures as high-tech Rosies.

“I’m looking forward to what they are going to do, and I pray that they will beat the men,” she said. “I know that they are ambitious, willing to try anything, and I am proud of them. If I can inspire one person in my life it is such an honor.”

After the ceremony, people of all ages lined up to meet Otto, many with “Rosie the Riveter” posters ready for her to autograph. Otto greeted each person with a kind smile and posed for many photos.

Otto’s legacy began in 1942 when she answered the wartime call of a poster to work in an aeronautical factory. It read, “Men are going off to war, come and do your part.” Otto and thousands of other women entered the workforce and were hired into industrial positions formerly occupied by men.

“Us women were all excited. It was a great challenge. And I thought, ‘Oh, that is wonderful. I can learn what men are doing,’” said Otto, who began her decades long career as a real-life Rosie the Riveter at Rohr Aviation in Chula Vista, California, making 65 cents per hour.

“It was fun; hard work, but fun.”

Otto said she and the other women who answered the nation’s call didn’t know they were doing anything important.

“We didn’t. We just kept working,” she said. “We had to get schedules out. There was no nonsense about silly things to make us feel important and everything. So, we didn’t know. And when they laid us off, they still didn’t say anything nice like, ‘You did a great job.’ So, we just went along doing our business until decades later, all of a sudden, they realized that we did do something. We are proud of that and honored that this generation does realize it.”

(Cozad is assigned to the 452nd AMW public affairs office at March ARB.)