"Billy the Riveter"
In the year 1944, Hilda Gray "Billie" Arbogast lived with her family in Durbin and was a senior at Green Bank High School. Although the challenges and uncertainties of World War ll shadowed the lives of all Americans at that time, she and her classmates fully embraced the usual joys and delights of teen-age life in small town America. One of their favorite hangouts was Warner's Restaurant, on Main Street in Durbin, where the jukebox featured such popular hits as "I Couldn't Sleep A Wink Last Night" (Frank Sinatra), "I'll Get By' (Dick Haymes), "Long Ago And Far Away" (Bing Crosby) and "String of Pearls" (Glen Miller).
However, these teenagers, in the midst of the happiest years of their lives, had to face the fact that their futures would be inevitably influenced by "The War," whose outcome was still uncertain. So, while giving some thought to jobs and careers, these young members of "The Greatest Generation" were determined to "do their part" in helping their country be victorious. In fact, some of the young men in Billie's class had already joined the armed services, cutting short their high school experience. Billie and her best friends, Ruth Arbogast (no relation) and Jessie Robertson, decided they would go to U.S. Navy nursing school and serve their country in that way.
Soon after graduation, Billie and Ruth, in the late summer of 1944, boarded a bus in Durbin, passed through Elkins and headed on to Richmond, Virginia, to join Jessie at the nursing school there; however, they quickly learned it would take more than a year to complete the nursing course. Furthermore, all nursing students had to work within a framework of very restrictive regulations, including being in their rooms by nine o'clock at night and spending weekends only with relatives. For three young ladies, this was far too confining, and they decided to take another direction.
Since Ruth's parents were already living and working in Baltimore, Maryland, the three friends decided to get jobs in one of the aircraft plants there. Living with Ruth's parents, they all applied for jobs, and Billie, the only one who already had a social security card, was the first one hired. She got a job as a riveter at the Eastern Aircraft plant in Baltimore at a salary of $1 per hour for regular shifts and $1.50 per hour for the night shift (the plant had previously made Chevrolet automobiles for General Motors and, for a time, made trucks for the U.S. Army; however, General Motors, following a complete conversion/refitting of production lines, set up Eastern as a new division for the production of parts for two aircraft for the U.S. Navy- the Grumman "Avenger," a torpedo attack plane, and the Grumman "Wildcat," a fighter plane; the parts made at Eastern were rear fuselages and control surfaces-upon completion and these parts were shipped to other plants for final aircraft assembly; completed on January 1, 1942, Eastern Aircraft became the first assembly line in the U.S. to be completely converted from automobiles to aircraft. Ruth also landed a job with Eastern as a "sander." Another old friend from Durbin, Kate Slavin, was employed at Eastern and had the job of applying fabric to plane parts. She was able to take scrap fabric home and make dresses from it.
After joining the union and undergoing two weeks of intense training, Billie became a riveter. Interestingly, although not naturally left-handed, she was more proficient riveting with her left hand and this special skill proved to be an advantage as, after donning safety glasses and a hairnet to protect her hair, she commenced her work making bulkheads for aircraft fuselages. She was assigned to work with a veteran lady riveter named Helen Novack. According to Billie, her new partner made it very clear she didn't want to work with a "rookie;" however, when the spunky Billie asked her if she was born knowing everything about riveting, the ice was broken and they became good friends. With Billie working on the left side and Helen on the right, the two proved to be a very successful and productive team. Their union gave them a quota of three bulkheads per day (they worked eight-hour rotating shifts, changing shifts every two weeks). Billie and Helen worked so well together that they completed four bulkheads per day- they were then told by the union shop foreman that they must complete only three since their performance made their male colleagues look bad. Having been restricted to only three bulkheads per day, the two riveters were then assigned the task of drilling rivet holes in the fuselage- Billie had to look up to reach the fuselages and was sometimes burned by the hot falling metal.
Initially, Billie, Ruth and Jessie lived with Ruth's parents, Jim and Emma Arbogast, in Baltimore's O'Donnell Heights community, locally known as "Hillbilly Heaven" because so many folks from the southern Appalachians, who had come to work in the war plants, resided there. Although their jobs were very demanding and left little time for recreation, the three friends often went on Saturday nights to "Keith's Roof," a dance hall for 18-21 year olds, where they danced with servicemen . They often thought of home but were able to return to Durbin only once during the year they worked in Baltimore.
In the Spring of 1945, Jessie Robertson, still determined to be a nurse, left Baltimore and successfully completed nursing school. About the same time, Billie and Ruth moved in with Evelyn Lee Slavin, also from Durbin, when Kate Slavin, Evelynﾑs mother, went home to Durbin and Emma and Jim Arbogast relocated to Pennsylvania.
In addition to doing her riveting job, Billie faithfully did her best to help out the home folks in Durbin. In a time of severe wartime shortages, she periodically sent candy and other items normally hard to find on grocery shelves- she also sent her shoe allotments to make it easier for those at home to buy shoes.
Billie's riveting career ended on August 14, 1945 (V-J Day) with Japan's surrender. She and her crew went to downtown Baltimore for a wonderful celebration and the next day they turned in their tools and equipment.
Eastern Aircraft received many government awards and citations for exceeding production quotas.
It had been a challenging, but rewarding and satisfying experience for Billie and all those other good Americans, women and men, who supported their country's war effort on the home front. Billie and her colleagues must have sometimes thought, while doing their daily jobs, that they, in making the planes, and the pilots who flew them, were a team, winning the war in far distant lands. For many from the South, it was their first opportunity to work in a racially integrated environment. In a very profound way, the ability of Billie, and thousands of other women like her, to successfully and efficiently perform jobs traditionally done by men forever changed the landscape of America's workforce.
With the war's end, Billie and Ruth went to the Newport, Pennsylvania, area to live with Ruth's parents. This proved to be a lifelong blessing for Billie as she met and married a local young man, Harry E. Wright, the love of her life.