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Rosie the Riveter Series
We Sensed the Danger
by Maricia Mlynek

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(This is the second in a series of articles on local Rosie the Riveters, women who worked to support the war effort.)

Our next Rosie is Irene Jarvis Gunn, who was born on Jan. 20, 1921, on Little Bear Run, the daughter of Spencer “Dock” Jarvis and Effie Jeannette McClain Jarvis.

She recalls the two-room house that her family called home. She had two siblings, Rex and Sybil.

“It was a small house. We had hot biscuits for breakfast every morning, with blackberry jam and creamed tomatoes. It was all we needed,” said Irene.

Her education began in the Oka one-room schoolhouse, which she attended until eighth grade. She graduated from Calhoun County High School in 1938 and enrolled at Glenville State College.

“I wanted to be a nurse. When I was 12, I had appendicitis surgery, and I loved those perky caps the nurses wore, but it didn’t turn out that way,” said Irene, who was not yet 18, which was a requirement to begin nurses training.

Instead of sitting out for a semester, she attended GSC and obtained her Standard Normal certificate in two years. She began teaching at Oka School at age 19. Her class consisted of all ages and stages.

She recalled students that were almost as old as she: “Many young people had to work the farms. School was something they got to do only when the work at home wasn’t necessary. I had 17-year-olds to six-year-olds.

She began teaching in 1940, right on the brink of World War II. She taught until the spring of 1942, when she left Calhoun with her new husband, Denzil Clark Gunn.

They were married in May and moved to Macon, Ga., where Denzil served as a Master Sergeant and a link trainer for night flying at Cochran Field. His job required him to move about quite a bit, but Irene stayed in Macon and worked at Warner Robins Army Air Depot’s munitions plant.

Those were hard times for the newlyweds. Denzil’s base pay was only $75 a month. The cost of their one room apartment was $30 a month. Therefore, Irene had to work to survive. She began working in the plant in June of 1942, only days after arriving in Georgia. Her job was to make fuses for anti-aircraft shells.

“We were not told of the dangers, but we sensed it. I hope I’m not telling Army secrets,” said Irene. “Work was all business. We worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with only two 15- minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. Nothing was allowed in the room.

“We had to change our clothes when we arrived. We had to take off our watches and jewelry, even our wedding rings and hair pins. We bought green, cotton, tie-on, housecoat type dresses that were laundered every day by the plant.

“We also had a cotton mask to protect us from the fine powder in the air. The shoes were special made from the plant store. Nothing went in, and nothing could be brought out of the ‘fuse’ room. We had a special room with lockers, and we were required to shower at quitting time. Even our nails had to be kept short.”

Irene explained the process of fuse making. In a large room, there were several tables where eight women were positioned. Each table had a half-inch thick steel box in the center that ran the entire length. This left a very narrow workspace around the edges.

Three women were at each side and one at each end. There was a narrow opening to insert one hand into the box and a narrow opening to look through.

The process would begin with the first woman placing a small container through the opening in the box. Each container held a smaller metal container, about the size of a .22 shell, which was open at the top to hold powder. Carefully and gently, the container would move down the table between the women who would weigh and press the powder to create the fuse.

“I was the first weigher,” said Irene. “A tiny scale set in front of me inside the steel box. It had a scoop about the size of a fingernail. I dipped black powder, ‘pom pom,’ and tapped it gently into the opening in the container.

“I then pushed it across the table to a woman who pressed it with a machine. She then passed it on to the next weigher. There were three weighers, all with different kinds of powder. The process of weighing and pressing continued until the end of the table, where the container was removed.

“We were supervised closely. If even one grain of powder was spilled, work stopped immediately. We had to use alcohol and cotton balls to wipe up the spill. We concentrated on our work for eight hours. There was no talking.”

Irene worked in the Warner Robins plant for a few months, making 35 cents an hour. Her health became an issue. Doctors misdiagnosed her with tuberculosis, which required that she spend time in Hopemont Sanitarium.

After leaving the sanitarium, Irene returned to Macon until the end of the war.

“I never saw such wild celebration. There was no room to walk in the streets. People were dancing and singing. I will never forget the yelling and cheering. I danced too. Since Denzil didn’t drink, he served as security and would pick the soldiers up and put them to bed after they passed out. It was a full day and night of celebration,” said Irene.

Life would have a few more twists and turns. She moved back to Calhoun for a few years before moving to Jacksonville, Fla. She returned to her first career of teaching.

She and Denzil divorced in 1960. In 1970, Irene returned to her family farm in Calhoun. Her grandmother’s home was in disrepair. Her work began immediately in restoring the old homestead, which she continues to work hard to keep up.

When asked about the evolution of women in the workplace and the icon that “Rosie the Riveter” was during the war, Irene smiled, “I didn’t begin to work during the war. I worked hard my whole life. Work began for me as a girl on the farm and continues to this day.”

Close to 89, Irene is a mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two. She earned a master’s degree at West Virginia University in library science, writing a thesis on the first libraries of Calhoun County.

She retired in 1986 with 37 years of teaching, 26 in Calhoun and 11 in Jacksonville.

Her life, which began in Oka, has come full circle. The 175-acre farm she runs today has been in the Jarvis family since 1843. It is an exquisite part of the county due to Irene’s care.


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