There isn’t much time left to get to know someone like Ruth Mullis.
Mullis, 96, is one of a dwindling number of “Rosies,” named for Rosie the Riveter — women who stepped into men’s roles in labor and business during World War II.
In years past, Mullis has attended annual American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA) reunions, but health issues kept her home from this year’s convention in Iowa. With much of her generation fading into history, she’s hoping to meet some of her remaining sisters from the home front.
“People are starting to forget about us,” Mullis said from her Littleton home. “Before the war, women could be teachers, secretaries, nurses or housewives. But now, we’ve got women CEOs. We were part of that change. We proved our capabilities. We were some of the first to wear pants, for heaven’s sake.”
Rosies were a vital part of the American war effort, said ARRA President Donnaleen Lanktree.
“They did it because they needed to do it,” Lanktree said. “Without them, winning the war would have been far more difficult. Many felt a sense of duty to the country, and to do what they could to bring their men home. Others did it to secure an income if their husbands were killed.”
There were perhaps millions of Rosies, Lanktree said, who produced 80,000 landing craft, 100,000 tanks, 300,000 aircraft, 15 million guns and 41 billion rounds of ammunition.
Rosies possess a special spirit and gumption, Lanktree said: “I never met a Rosie I didn’t like.”
Mullis was born in 1923 in Michigan, and in the early years of the Great Depression, her father’s slew of respiratory diseases sent the family south in search of warmer weather.
Mullis, her parents and two brothers wound up living in the woods outside Orlando, Florida, where they slept on planks laid through the windows of their Model A Ford to keep them off the ground.
“I don’t like to talk about that time much,” Mullis said. “We ate what we could. We trapped rabbits. I was anemic.”
Eventually they moved in with relatives in Miami, and life steadied. In high school, Mullis met Ted Johnson, the man she would marry.
Mullis graduated from high school in June 1941, and wanted to go to nursing school, but her family couldn’t afford to send her. She was running a dry cleaners that winter when America entered the war after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Johnson joined the Navy, Mullis said, and gave away most of his belongings, expecting to die in combat.
Mullis said she, like many other young women, was eager to do her part to win the war. But her first application to work in a Convair aircraft plant was rejected for lack of experience.
Mullis went to work in the factory cafeteria and enrolled in riveting classes in night school. Though she showed little aptitude for riveting, she excelled at technical drawing and was soon put to work designing templates for aircraft wing parts.
“The tolerance for the parts was just three thousandths of an inch,” Mullis said. “The most exciting moment was when I’d finish a template, and they’d take them out to the floor, and soon you’d hear ‘whir-chunk. Whir-chunk’ — the sound of parts coming off the line using my templates.”
Mullis married Johnson while he was home on leave in 1943, and by the time the war ended, she was repairing damaged planes coming back from combat theaters.
After the war
In the fall of 1945, Johnson returned home, and Mullis said she and the other Rosies were eager to move on with life.
“We did our part as best we could,” Mullis said. “We all walked out those doors and went back to being women. We were thinking of starting lives with our husbands, of having children.”
A tumor, however, left Mullis unable to have children, though she flourished as a draftsman, building on the skills she learned at Convair. She went to work in an engineering firm, designing roofs for churches, gymnasiums and other large structures.
“I would design these complex roofs, then I would take them over to an engineer who would sign his name on them,” Mullis said.
Mullis and Johnson retired to a cabin above Deckers in Colorado in 1973. Johnson died in 2003, and Mullis stayed alone in the cabin for several years after.
In 2006, Mullis met Leonard Mullis, a World War II veteran and former head librarian at Arapahoe Community College, on Match.com. They became one of the oldest couples to ever connect on the dating site. The couple married and moved into Leonard’s home in Littleton.
Mullis has enjoyed meeting other Rosies at the ARRA conventions, but says they’re fading fast.
“There were 50 or 60 of us at the 2017 convention,” Mullis said. “By last year, it was down to 28. That’s how fast we’re dying off.”
Many women who lived through World War II may not even realize they were Rosies, said Jo Ann Fisher, president of ARRA’s Colorado chapter and a daughter of a Rosie herself.
“A woman saw my Rosie shirt, and said, ‘All I did was take over driving the tractor on the farm when my brother went off to war,’” Fisher said. “I told her: ‘You’re a Rosie!’“
The ARRA counts any woman who supported the home effort as a Rosie, Fisher said, whether that was in manufacturing, seamstressing, farming or growing a Victory Garden.
It’s taken decades for Rosies to appreciate the part they played in breaking down gender roles, Fisher said.
“They’ll say they went to work to bring the men home so they could get married and have babies,” Fisher said. “And we say, ‘no, you broke it all open for women!’”
Fisher said she’d love to help Mullis meet other Rosies.
“It’s been hard to get meetings going in Colorado,” Fisher said. “We’ve been trying, but I’ve kind of given up. People are so spread out, and the women are all at least in their 90s now.”
Mullis said she doesn’t know how much time she has left, but she hopes she can spend some of it in the company of some of the bold, strong women who answered their country’s call.
“Let’s get together,” she said, “before there’s no one left who remembers.”
Euclid Middle School student Katarina Henderson also shared Mullis's story this spring, performing in character for the National History Day competition. Henderson's project took her to the state level, where she finished in the top six at CU Denver on May 4. Henderson, 14, will start classes at Heritage High School this fall. Video courtesy Henderson's mother Julia Guzman-Henderson.