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Reflecting on the Legacy of the Last Real-Life Rosie the Riveters

If Lila Tomek had her preference, she would have joined her two brothers in fighting during World War II.

She expressed, “I thought, ‘If they can go, I’m going too,‘” to The Post. “But they put a stop to that.”

Instead, at the age of 19, the Humboldt, Nebraska, native became one of the initial 50 women employed at the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant. She earned 60 cents per hour working on riveting and splicing cable for B-26 Marauder and B-29 Superfortress aircraft.

Working tirelessly seven days a week, sometimes up to 14 hours a day, she embodied the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter: a symbol of women’s contribution while American men were at the front lines.

Last week, Tomek and other real-life Rosies received recognition in Washington, DC, many years after their dedicated service to the nation.

“We didn’t receive any special recognition when the war concluded,” Tomek, now 101 years old, informed The Post. “So it was truly surprising to be acknowledged all those years later. I had to pinch myself to believe it was real.”

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Mae Krier, aged 98, accepted the medal on behalf of her fellow real-life Rosie the Riveters.

Rosie the Riveter emerged as an emblematic figure representing working women during World War II.

Twenty-seven women were honored with congressional gold medals, the highest civilian honor from Congress, by Speaker of the House Mike Johnson on April 10, representing the estimated 20 million females who contributed to sustaining the country.

Adorned in red and white polka dots, the Rosies ranged in age from their late 80s to as old as 106.

Tomek described the medal ceremony as “a pinnacle in my life.” She recalled, “Most of the women who entered the plants were eager to work, and they were diligent and patriotic.”

Tomek vividly recalls the visit of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the plant where she was employed.

Lila Tomek commenced her work at a bomber plant at the young age of 19.

Now at 101, Tomek traveled from Nebraska to DC to accept the prestigious medal.

“That was quite a thrill to see the president — I had never seen a president before, and there he was saluting us,” she reminisced.

Meanwhile, Sylvia Tanis remembers Henry Ford personally visiting the Detroit Ford factory where she worked from 1942 to 1945, expressing gratitude to the women.

“I refrained from asking him for an autograph, as he was my boss,” Tanis, now 99, shared with The Post.

Tomek reminisces about then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (center) visiting the plant where she was employed.

At just 17, she secured a position at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge factory, involved in assembling and repairing the fins of B-25 bomber planes, working 10 hours a day, five to six days a week.

Coming from a family reliant on government aid, the opportunity to earn $1 per hour at the factory was irresistible to Tanis.

She skipped school to apply for the job and was promptly hired as a repair personnel. Due to her petite frame of 98 pounds, Tanis was easily lifted with a harness to access the plane tails for repairs.

“My primary goal was to ensure [soldiers] had their provisions, airplanes, and weapons, so the boys could return home,” she emphasized.

“In those days, most individuals were patriotic. Growing up in an American household instilled a sense of patriotism,” stated Susan King.

Sylvia Tanis, at 98, described the congressional ceremony as “absolutely awe-inspiring.”

Now 99, the Baltimore native contributed to constructing the wings of fighter jets at Eastern Aircraft Company for 10 months between high school and college.

“My motivation was to earn money for college,” King shared with The Post.

Undoubtedly, the positive outcome of the domestic war effort was the expanded opportunities for women — fostering independence, confidence, and financial stability.

Post-war, Tomek married, raised two children, and pursued a career in the insurance sector.

Women operated riveting guns in factories during World War II.

“It marked a significant change for women,” she affirmed. “They discovered their capabilities, and I believe most women who worked in the plant proceeded to other employment opportunities because they enjoyed having financial independence.”

King, who later married and had two children, utilized her earnings to finance a master’s degree in education from Morgan State University and served as a science educator in Baltimore public schools for many years.

Accompanied by her two daughters, she attended the ceremony at the Capitol Building last Wednesday.

Susan King (second from right) contributed to the construction of fighter jets to save up for her college education.

“It is crucial for the American populace to acknowledge the vital role women played in the war, including black women,” Susan King emphasized.

“It is crucial for the American populace to acknowledge the vital role women played in the war, including black women,” she reflected. “I suppose the medals served as a way to showcase to the world our contributions.”

“The ceremony was absolutely amazing. It was just absolutely awe-inspiring,” Tanis expressed. “Wow, I received gratitude from thousands of people.”

She and the other Rosies made the most of their time in Washington: “We visited the White House. We explored the Treasury building. We toured museums. We didn’t waste a moment; we kept moving forward.”

All the Riveters were presented with miniature replica medals from Congress.

Dolores Leonard, aged 88, is considered the youngest member of the group.

As a 7-year-old in Iowa, she scoured fields and ditches for milkweed pods, which were utilized in creating life preservers and parachutes for the troops.

“They said two bags save one life,” Leonard, now residing in Arizona, recollected. “It was cold and sticky work. It wasn’t very fun, but it was necessary.”

During WWII, children collected milkweed pods, which were essential for making parachutes and life vests.

She earned a dime for every 15-pound bag of milkweed and donated her earnings back to the war effort by purchasing stamps for her War Savings Bond booklet.

“The experience has always stayed with me, and [the medal ceremony] was the cherry on top, so to speak,” shared the mother of three. “I raised my daughters to be patriotic. I have always been proud of the United States and have had the American flag flying on our front door.”

Dolores Leonard contributed the money earned from collecting milkweed pods back to the war effort.

Dolores Leonard and her sister, aged 7 and 9 at the time, scavenged for milkweed as children.

For Leonard’s daughter, Lisa Simpson, accompanying her mother to DC last week was a unique experience — a reminder of how the succeeding generation is gradually losing the kind of patriotism that motivated the Rosies.

“I don’t believe there are many young adults today who would simply drop everything and unite. We don’t witness that American spirit, that pride, as much anymore.”