Meet Olympia’s very own “Rosie the Riveter,” a spry, engaging lady of 92, Regina Sawina Tollfeldt.
During World War II, when The Boeing Co. was cranking out B-17 airplanes from its Plant No. 2 in Seattle at the astounding clip of a dozen a day, Tollfeldt was there eight hours a day, seven days a week, one of 15,000 women employed at Boeing factories during the war years.
Tollfeldt — Sawina was her maiden name — grew up in a logging camp in Klickitat County and moved to Aberdeen as a high school graduate. She was recruited by the Boeing Co., and spent nearly three years on the graveyard shift, squeezing her 97-pound frame into the wings of B-17 bombers, drilling holes for the rivets that connected the plane’s aluminum skin to its ribs.
So technically, Tollfeldt wasn’t a riveter as illustrated in the May 29, 1943, Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell. But she’s a fine representative of the millions of women who played key roles in the nation’s home front war effort, keeping the defense plants humming with production while their able-bodied brothers, husbands and fathers fought overseas.
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Tollfeldt’s story is one of several researched and written about by members of the secretary of state’s Legacy Washington program. The focus on World War II veterans and war workers is titled “Washington Remembers.” The stories will be part of a state exhibit that connects to the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
There’s a sense of urgency as these World War II stories are collected and told about a generation that is passing on, noted Secretary of State Kim Wyman, whose uncle was a Marine Corps corporal who saw combat on Okinawa, and received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. “We’re losing these stories at a rapid rate,” she said.
When Tollfeldt was first contacted this spring by state historian John C. Hughes, she was surprised anyone would want to hear her story.
“I thought I was little stuff,” she said. “But then I started to understand that my role in the war is part of history. This project — what a wonderful idea for the state to do.”
Working in the heavily camouflaged assembly plant wasn’t easy. The summer heat was stifling, the work quarters were cramped, and many of the men she worked with resented women on the assembly line. But she takes pride in the fact that women like her proved to employers that they could do tough, physical labor.
“I think we had a positive effect on women in the workplace,” she said, showing me a photo of a mass of workers, nearly half women, standing around the 5,000th B-17 to come off the assembly line. “I may be in the picture, and I did sign my name on the wing of the plane,” she said.
Tollfeldt’s days building bombers stand in sharp contrast to her opinion about war today. She calls herself a “peace-afist,” and stood in silence every night for years with the “Women in Black” in downtown Olympia, protesting the Iraq War.
“I worry about war,” she said. “The way I see it, rich people start wars and the poor people fight them — that’s not right.”
On the other hand, she has no second thoughts about her role in the World War II war effort. Her parents’ homelands, Poland and Slovenia, had been ravaged by Hitler and Mussolini. Japan had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, escalating the war. The way she sees it, the bombers she and her inseparable sister, Viola, helped build played an important role in bringing tyranny to its knees.
LIFE AFTER WORLD WAR II
When the war ended, Tollfeldt, her sister and the thousands of other female Boeing employees were quickly terminated. That’s OK, she said. Her goal all along as a young woman was to go to business college. She invested her last paycheck in four months of business school while she worked at a bank in Aberdeen. Tollfeldt grew up thinking college was out of reach, even though anyone who spends time with this thoughtful, well-rounded woman knows full well she has the intellect and ambition to shine in any career.
After the war, she met a handsome young carpenter, Aberdeen native Roy Tollfeldt, who had been an infantryman in World War II. They didn’t marry until 1955, and it wasn’t always an easy road. He was haunted by memories of the war, and he developed Crohn’s disease.
Regina had a more than 30-year career with the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Olympia and Aberdeen. The couple, who had no children, moved to Olympia in 1980 and her husband died in 1999. She still lives in a large rambler built by her husband. She’s an accomplished painter, keeps up on current affairs, and enjoys her friends and extended family. She’s tried the church-going life, but it didn’t work for her.
“The way you live your life, the way you treat people — that’s what is really important,” she told me.
Her story was posted on the secretary of state’s website Monday (sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/washington-remembers). It happened to be Tollfeldt’s birthday. I was with her Tuesday when she saw the story for the first time online.
“Oh, how nice,” she exclaimed. “I’ve got some publicity.”