Hyatt shares 'Rosie the Riveter' story
Rosie the Riveter is one of the most recognizable icons in American history.
She represents millions of women who stepped up and into traditionally male jobs during World War II.
While Rosie is just a symbol, Jackie Phillips Hyatt of Waynesville is the real deal. She drilled those rivets on Lockheed aircrafts in Los Angeles, California for several years during the war.
Hyatt, who will celebrate her 90th birthday in December, has happy memories of her time in California and the work she did to help the nation through a tumultuous time of war.
In 1942, she was just a 17-year-old country girl from Cullowhee. Her parents’ wanted her to graduate college, but a ‘D’ in chemistry her freshmen year at Western North Carolina Teaching College (now WCU) had her rethinking her future.
After dropping out of college, Hyatt’s sister, Peg, and brother-in-law made arrangements for her to come live with them in L.A. Peg was already working at the Lockheed plant and her husband was an aircraft mechanic.
“I had just dropped out of college and they told me to come out there,” Hyatt recalled. “They sent me $50 and the bus ride out there cost $45. I had $5 left to eat and I still had $1 left when I arrived.”
Needless to say, being on the opposite coast for the first time in her life was quite a culture shock for young Hyatt.
“I had never seen anything like it — buildings so tall and all the lights — I was like a kid in a candy shop,” she said.
She thought she would be able to land a job at the Lockheed Vega plant with her sister right away, but she learned that she had to wait until she turned 18. After she was hired, she was placed alongside many other women and taught to drill holes for the rivets on the aircraft.
“I was so tiny they put me between the wingspan to drill holes there,” she said.
Hyatt said it wasn’t difficult work, but it did come with hazards. She had to be hospitalized and undergo surgery after a large electrical panel fell from the ceiling and crushed several bones on her face. But she said it was her own fault.
“Instead of getting up the ladder to unplug it, I jerked on the cord and it fell on top of me,” she said.
At that time there was no worker’s compensation insurance to cover such accidents and her sister helped her pay the medical expenses. The incident didn’t keep her from returning to work as soon as she could. And that is where she stayed for more than three years until the war was over and the troops returned to claim their jobs.
“We were paid very little, but I felt like I was rich,” she said. “It was very important and very secretive work. We worked on B-17s and B-29s. We might have made the same plane that bombed Japan.”
Hyatt had a job, she had new friends from different cultures at the plant and the women even had their own bowling league — the 49ers. Living right off Sunset Boulevard, she said they had plenty of opportunity to explore the city and to have fun in Hollywood. she said she'd never forget being a bridesmaid in her friend Vera's wedding — she was Mexican and her groom was Italian.
"I shall never forget her or how I stood out as the only blonde in the wedding," Hyatt said.
Homesick after the war, she decided to return home to western North Carolina. She enrolled in Beauty College in Asheville, which led to her to find her future husband — WWII veteran Jim Hyatt. She and a friend were on the city bus to Asheville when they saw two soldiers waiting at the bus stop.
“I told my friend, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry,’” Hyatt said. “I didn’t meet him for months, but he was the best looking thing I’d ever seen.”
She ran into him months later at a fundraiser dance, and as fate would have it, they were both good dancers.
“I kept looking at him and he came up and asked me to dance. We danced, and I must have been pretty good,” she joked. “I never went out with anyone else.”
Their first real date was a square dance at the Gordon Hotel in Waynesville.
Jim Hyatt was drafted on the Haywood County Courthouse steps when he was just 18. He was stationed overseas until the very end of the war, according to Jackie, and had the daunting task of cleaning up the concentration camps.
“I remember he came into the beauty shop where I worked one afternoon and asked if I wanted to get married,” she said. They were married in Clayton, Georgia, in 1946 and were married 62 years until Jim passed away in 2008.
They moved out to Northern California after their first son was born. Jim helped build the tunnel for a waterline running from Feather River Canyon to L.A. But Jackie discovered Northern California was nothing like L.A. They lived in a mining town and the winters were colder.
“And I thought we were poor in Cullowhee,” she joked.
The Hyatts decided to return to Jim’s family land in Waynesville after Jackie got pregnant with the second of their five children and that is where she has stayed. Jackie operated a beauty shop, Jac-O-Nette Salon, in Hazelwood for a number of years before she retired in 1996 while Jim traveled with jobs in rock and ironwork.
While her time as a “Rosie the Riveter” was short lived, Jackie said she feels lucky to have been a part of it all.
“I think I learned more in the three years that I lived there than some girls learn in a lifetime,” she said.