MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Like so many of her generation forever immortalized by the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, 94-year-old Mabel Humes, of Martinsburg, answered the call for service in her country’s time of need and, in doing so, unknowingly became a part of a special group of women who became an inspiration for women in the work force for decades to come.
Originally from the tiny town of Bayard in Grant County, Humes boarded a train bound for Baltimore, Md., in July 1942 to answer a call for workers at the Western Electric Company and to do her part to support the war effort.
“I went down and got on the train. It was that simple. I had a sister that lived in Baltimore, and I went there and spent the night. I went out and caught a bus, or a trolley or whatever it was, and went to Western Electric and signed up. I didn’t have a bit of trouble getting a job at Western Electric. I went there and just a few days after I signed up I had a job,” Humes said.
Humes, who was just in her early 20s at the time, never had such a job before, let alone any experience using a soldering iron at a manufacturing plant. She proved to be a quick learner and became extremely skilled at her new trade. Humes said she and her other female co-workers helped build panels the size of piano benches, soldering resistors, condensers and other parts into place.
“We had a whole big long table full of workers practicing with their soldering irons and so forth. I put them on so nice and neat, and so it wasn’t but a few days that they had me making the panels. I could read the blueprint. How I knew to do those things I don’t know, but I could read the blueprint,” Humes said.
It was a big change from the small town she hailed from, but Humes said she enjoyed the work. She was so good at her new-found job that she soon found herself transferred to the engineering department, where she helped engineers make any changes that were needed to the panels that were being manufactured.
“I was good at it if I must say it. It wasn’t too long – I think it was in August when they put me in with the engineers. They took me out and put me up with the engineers,” Humes said.
Known by workers as simply “the cage,” Humes said it was a big room filled with engineers.
“They locked me up there with them and anything that had to be changed I changed it for them, because I could get in with my soldering iron and make a nice job out of it. I didn’t make a mess,” Humes said.
The one thing the women who worked to manufacture the panels weren’t told was what they were to be used for, other than what they were building was going to help the war effort.
“They never told us. They never told us what we were making, so I just made them,” Humes said.
According to documents detailing the company’s history, Western Electric manufactured a number of important items for the war effort, including specialized communications equipment used in radar systems. Most of Western Electric’s products for the Bell System during the period were radio and wire communications equipment for war use at Army and Navy bases and defense contractors across America. The company also produced equipment for overseas use to keep up with the needs of America’s military installations there, as well as cable and wire, switchboards and other equipment, documents show.
Humes is a humble woman. While her generation of Rosie the Riveters inspired countless women for decades, she said that she felt she was just doing what she could do to help.
“With so many serving in the war, I thought, it was the least I could do,” Humes said.
She would remain at Western Electric for several months before meeting her future husband. She then left her job at Western Electric and the couple moved to Paris, Texas, where they married in August 1943. Her husband was later drafted to serve in the war and served overseas until 1946. Her two younger brothers also served during World War II in the U.S. Navy.
When her husband went to war, Humes moved to Martinsburg, graduated from beauty school and went to work here. After his return, Humes’ husband, who had been a school teacher before the war, went to work for the VA and the couple remained in Martinsburg. Humes eventually opened up her own beauty shop in Martinsburg, Rosemont Beauty Salon, before retiring in the 1960s. She still lives in Martinsburg today and is the mother of two daughters.
“I felt I was just doing my part to help during the war effort. I’m very proud of myself that I could do the job,” Humes said.