"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.
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
Sitting up there on the fuselage.
That little girl will do more than a male will do..."
– “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb
Nettie Jones grew up on a farm deep in the heart of West Virginia and graduated high school on a Friday in late May 1943. That Monday, she and her 17-year-old sister packed their bags and headed for Baltimore. Their father, who worked for the railroad, bought the two girls one-way tickets and gave them $100 each.
“Well, to be honest, I had been dating a guy, an old boyfriend, who had gotten a job at Glenn L. Martin [the aviation and defense company in Middle River],” Jones recalled. “That was my incentive for coming."
“I was a little naïve then,” she added with a smile.
The sisters didn’t know anyone in Baltimore or even have an address of a hotel. A taxi took them from Camden Station to the Stanley Hotel on Howard Street.
The next day, she ventured out to Glenn L. Martin to look for her former beau, but was told he was gone. “He’d joined the Navy,” she said.
Naïve country girl or not, Jones, then 18, needed a job and landed work at Glenn L. Martin just the same. Handed a rivet gun, she found herself on the B-26 bomber assembly line.
She pulled a regular 7 a.m. shift for the next two-and-a-half years, building planes for the World War II effort—an original “Rosie the Riveter.”
Recently, at her home in Logan Village, she laughed as she looked back at the futility of long-distance communication in those days and trying to find her old boyfriend. It wasn’t like they’d stayed in touch via e-mail, Facebook, cell phone or text messaging. “We didn’t have television,” Jones said. “We didn’t even have electricity on the farm. The only power we had was from the car, which my father used to run the saw, to cut wood.”
Meanwhile, in Baltimore City, Jones and her sister, Virginia, who’d found a job at Montgomery Ward, rented an apartment close to where the Pratt Library stands —"318 Park Ave.," she said—above a family-owned grocery store. They ate a lot of Chinese carryout, which they loved, from a nearby restaurant. And they discovered two young working women could have a lot of fun.
“We went to the movies, at the Hippodrome, to Carlin Park and Patterson Park, local beaches,” Jones said. “And on Saturday night,” she continued, eyes alighting at the memory, “we went to the USO shows on St. Paul and danced. There’d be sailors, servicemen from the Army and Marines, all the branches, home on leave. As a young girl, you looked forward to that.”
On the assembly line, Jones, then Nettie Sirk, popped rivets into gun turrets. The holes were already in place, and an older, squatly built man held up a six-inch piece of solid metal on the other side to flatten the rivet.
She said she has “no idea” how many rivets she fired in a day or turrets that passed through. The work, she said, actually wasn’t that hard.
“Not after growing up on a farm, milking cows and tilling corn,” Jones said, with a laugh. “Piece of cake.”
She said she worked with a small group of men and women, mostly a few years older.
“Some of the women had kids and were working to earn a living because their husbands were in the service,” Jones said. “I packed my lunch. At break we just talked about everyday things, nothing special." The men, she said, were “very respectful” of the women working at the plant.
Jones added that she was “very proud” of her contribution toward the war effort.
She was at work when she learned the war was finally over. It also meant her assembly line career was over, too, as the women got laid off “when the boys started coming back.”
Coincidentally, she got married in late August 1945, just as her riveting job ended. Not to anybody she met at Glenn L. Martin or the USO dances, but to the bus driver who took her back and forth every day from Baltimore to Middle River.
His name was Ross Merchant. He’d served several years in the Army before receiving an honorable medical discharge. He became a truck driver and the couple raised four children, Bill, Ronald, Patricia and Terry, in Dundalk where they moved into their first and only home in 1951. Two of their sons served in the military, including Bill, a U.S. Marine, who was wounded in Vietnam.
Jones said she never liked watching or reading the news of various military campaigns, whether during World War II or Vietnam.
“I didn’t want to know how much danger the boys were in,” she said. “Boys going off to war always bothered me.”
Her first husband passed away from cancer in 1985. She and her second husband, Steve Jones, will celebrate their 25th anniversary Nov. 30.
She remains proud of her military contribution today, and also in any small way that she and other “Rosie the Riveters” broke ground for future generations of working women—whether it be in a mill or plant, the armed services, or in the opportunity that grew for women to become lawyers, doctors and athletes.
“I think it’s a positive change,” she said.
Jones never slowed down until she fell and broke her neck in 2008. She worked for Bethlehem Steel as a clerk, as a Harbor Tunnel tool clerk, and after 20 years raising her kids, she took a job with C & P telephone for 13 years.
Also, when she was raising four kids, she watched neighborhood kids for years and cleaned doctor’s offices in the evening.
“I worked all my life,” she said, adding her sister worked 37 years at Bethlehem Steel and also still lives in Dundalk.
She said if she could to do it all over, she’d do it again in Dundalk, too.
“January 1, I’ll be here now 60 years,” Jones said. “It was a great place to raise kids. And now the neighborhood is more elderly and it’s quiet. I like the whole thing. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”