“All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter.”
The words are lyrics to a popular World War II tune, “Rosie the Riveter” by Evans and Loeb. The song was part of a campaign to utilize women in the workforce during the war. At the time, the men were being shipped off to war at alarming rates causing an acute deficit of defense workers and factory workers.
A local family contributed several “Rosie the Riveters” to the war effort.
Born in 1923 to World War I veteran William Charlie Batley and his wife Eupalena Lucinda Dame Batley, Mary Lou Batley and her six siblings grew up in the Carson community of Washington County, near Leroy.
Mary Lou Jones in her early years and today.
Mary Lou and her siblings learned the value of hard work at an early age when their father was killed in an accident at a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp. He made $25 a month. After his unexpected death, the family had no source of income. They relied on their garden, on hunting and fishing, and on the goodness of family and neighbors to have their basic needs met.
In the early 1940s, Mary Lou’s older sister Willie Yvonne worked at Vanity Fair in Jackson. At the time the plant was making hose for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) and the WACS (Women’s Army Corps). Vanity Fair was one of the few local businesses that hired women locally. When Mary Lou graduated Leroy High School in 1942, she sought employment at Vanity Fair also, but they weren’t hiring then.
Eager to find work, Mary Lou and another sister, Elizabeth “Bessie” Walker went to Mobile to find work. Jones recalled that they lived with a relative in a boarding house at 208 St. Joseph Street in Mobile. Their first jobs were at ASK Entertainment on Dauphin Street.
“There was new technology,” Jones recalls. “People in the restaurant would choose a song on the Rock-Ola and I was in a different building and my job was to make their song play.” Soon, the sisters started looking for more lucrative employment because they were only making 25 cents an hour. Brookley Field was never hiring and the sisters worked at the Malbis Bakery boxing vanilla wafers for 35 cents an hour before being sent into Gulf Shipyard in Chickasaw as a part of the “Rosie the Riveter” campaign.
The Rosie campaign was a recruitment tool used by the government during World War II to encourage women to enter the workforce. Rosie was a fictitious character, but the strong, bandana clad beauty became an iconic image of a working woman during the war.
With most of the men at war, women began taking positions as manual laborers in jobs that were usually performed by men. Mary Lou started out as a beveller. Bessie became a welder.
Mr. and Mrs. Wilber Jones with two of their children, Wilber Jr. and Lanita.
Mary Lou was extremely efficient at beveling the long sheets of steel that would eventually become the outer hulls of ships. Her work was noticed by a supervisor who handed her a torch and pointed to a pile of scrap metal.
“He told me to go practice because they needed a burner in the engine room. So, that’s what I did. I was inside the ships then. If I didn’t do my job right, the welders couldn’t do theirs right, so I had to get it right.” The burning job was a very precise one. Very soon, she had it right. Jones had mastered the task of adjusting the flame to cut the steel without breaking it apart.
Gulf Shipyard operated in eight – hour shifts and the attire for female workers included blue overalls, gloves, steel-toed boots, and hardhats. Like the iconic Rosie the Riveter, women’s hair had to be pulled back in bandanas beneath the hardhat. The cost for work clothing was deducted from the first paycheck.
A fourth Batley sister, Elma, was also a part of the workforce. She worked at the Alabama shipyard and in Pascagoula. Later, Elma decided to go to another facility near Oak Ridge, Tenn. The facility in Oak Ridge was building something extremely important, but none of the workers knew what it was until Aug. 6, 1945. This was the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The atomic bomb was manufactured in the Oak Ridge facility.
By the beginning of the war, Mary Lou had already met the man that she would eventually marry, Wilber Jones. Batley laughed as she said, “The Clarke County boys always came across the river to get girlfriends.” They wrote many letters from February, 1941 to August, 1944 when they were married. Jones was drafted January 14, 1941 and went to training at Fort Riley in Kansas. He eventually was sent to Laredo, Texas where he and his unit guarded the Rio Grande River. He was among the first group of men drafted from Clarke County.
Wilber Jones became a marksmanship instructor in Laredo. He credited his upbringing in Gainestown during the depression for his excellent shooting skills. “It was a time when you had to kill animals for food,” Mary Lou explained. After their wedding at the base in Texas, Mary Lou returned to Leroy and commuted to Gulf Shipyard. “I didn’t want to miss work. I wanted to do my part. It was a scary time. You could be working next to a man one day and then the next day he’d be gone. That’s how we knew when somebody was drafted.”
The couple’s agreed-upon separation only lasted a short while. Once Wilber had secured housing for the couple, Mary Lou headed to El Paso where the couple started their family.
They settled in Jackson when the war was over and raised three children, Wilber Jr., Lanita Jones Steiner and Sally Jones Beverly.
At 94, Mary Lou Jones continues to drive her car to town and her truck to tend her cattle. She lives independently and is observant and adventurous. Jones attended the 20th annual Rosie the Riveter Convention, along with 30 other “Rosies” from across the nation June 1-3 in New Orleans, La. “I enjoyed all the stories and there were people from everywhere. We all have stories to tell from that time. There’s been a lot of changes since then.”
There have been so many changes since the World War II era, but one thing that has remained constant is Mary Lou Batley Jones’s resolve and patriotism. As she looked over her photos from years past and mementos from the convention, the petite Rosie chuckled, “I’ll bet I could still burn.”
Without a doubt — she could!
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.