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