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Effie’s efforts

For Tyler resident Elfriede Petersen, getting her first job meant helping to work on airplanes on the WWII homefront

December 15, 2012
Marshall Independent

TYLER

Elfriede Petersen still had part of the uniform from her first job after high school. The blue jumpsuit was faded and tattered in places, but the embroidered words "Northwest Airlines" across the back were still in good shape.

"We were expected to buy our own," Petersen said of the garment. "I remember I used to wear a T-shirt backward underneath it because it buttoned so low."

Article Photos

Elfriede Petersen of Tyler puts together two halves of a photo of a National Youth Administration radio training class she attended after graduating from high school in 1942. Petersen’s training would to on to help her get a job working with airplanes on the homefront of World War II.

The uniform, along with photos and documents she kept in a scrapbook, are reminders of when Petersen worked on the homefront during World War II. She was one of a hangar full of people converting bombers into reconnaissance planes at Holman Field in St. Paul.

"It was a good job for all of us," she said.

After graduating from high school in 1942, Petersen, then Elfriede Bruchmann, was looking for work. The search took her to an employment agency, and then to a National Youth Administration school in Glenwood. The NYA was an organization that provided job training for young people. Petersen said she took radio classes and picked up some other skills as well.

"I had to learn how to solder," she said. "I used to know the whole Morse code."

The NYA was closed down in 1943, and after that, Petersen applied to work at Northwest Airlines, helping to fill defense contracts.

At the time, she said, "that was the place to get a job."

Northwest had an aircraft modification center at Holman Field. The airfield was located down near the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Petersen said. Work crews inside "two big hangars" at the airfield would install camera and reconnaissance equipment inside airplanes that had had their bombing equipment removed. A dozen B-24 bombers would be carefully maneuvered into a hangar and then rotated through crews who would work on each stage of the conversion, Petersen said.

"Different people would do different jobs. I was a parts runner," Petersen said.

Her job was to pick up a "harness" - a section of wiring put together - and take it to the station where it was needed. "They had to be put in a certain place," with clamps and rivets, she said.

"I liked being a parts runner because I could go anywhere in the building," Petersen said. Other workers had to stay at one station.

There were many women and older men working on the bombers, she said. The pay was 60 cents an hour when Petersen started working there.

Petersen said she worked two different shifts, one from 7:30 to 3:30 and one from 4 to 12:30.

"Every two weeks we'd switch," she said. She shared a tiny St. Paul apartment with another girl who also worked for Northwest. Her roommate worked different shifts, so they often wouldn't see each other much except on weekends. When her shifts would change, Petersen would have time to catch a bus back to Tyler to visit family.

While she was at home, Petersen couldn't talk about her job because it was classified.

"I couldn't say anything," she said. However, Petersen said she doubts she or any of the other workers in the hangar could have leaked much information because everyone was limited to doing just one task in the modification process.

The workers did some group activities together in their spare time. Petersen was part of a choir made up of Northwest employees. Once, the workers got a chance to go for a ride over the Twin Cities inside a stripped-down bomber.

"I said, 'You betcha,' I wanted to go," Petersen said.

The experience of working for Northwest came to an abrupt end, once peace was declared in 1945.

"The jobs were over, just like that," Petersen said. She remembered the celebrations on V-J Day, on 7th Street in St. Paul.

"It was wall-to-wall people . . . Even streetcars were not getting through. It was amazing," she said. "We were singing all the patriotic songs, the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,' the Army, Navy and Marines songs."

After the war, Petersen went looking for other work and had a job at Montgomery Ward before coming back home to Tyler. Before she left, she did get the chance to learn how far she and her coworkers' handiwork at Northwest had traveled. The work crews had signed their names on one of the last planes they converted, and when Petersen was working at Montgomery Ward, she met a customer who recognized her nickname.

"They called me 'Effie' up there," Petersen said. That was the name the man remembered seeing on a plane while he was serving in England.

"What a coincidence. Of all things, the plane we touched was over in England," Petersen said.

 
 

 

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