Juanita Eggers was still in high school when the Japanese bombed the United States naval yard at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Her aunt and uncle were stationed on the island when the attack occurred, and no one was sure if they were safe. Her family spent a fraught 20 hours listening to radio broadcasts, hoping for good news.
While her family members were unharmed, this was the first time World War II directly impacted Eggers' life. The second was when she became a real-life “Rosie the Riveter.” On Thursday, Eggers was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of her service during an afternoon ceremony at Brookdale Senior Living in Albany.
Most people have seen the now-iconic image of “Rosie,” flexing her biceps in a show of strength with the words “We Can Do It!” written over her shoulder. While it’s become a symbol for strong, independent women all over the world, it can be easy to forget that the image initially was a recruiting poster for American women looking to join the work force and help with the domestic war effort.
There were Rosies in real life, too, and one of them landed right here in Linn County.
Eggers, 94, was fresh out of high school when she left her home in Ontario, Oregon, to become a welder at the Portland shipyards at the age of 17. Shortly after, she went to Seattle to join the factory line of women who were helping put together Boeing B-17’s and B-29’s for the United States Air Force in 1944.
“I was told, being a woman, that I was the fastest welder they’ve seen,” Eggers said.
Women joined the factory work force in droves while American men were sent overseas to fight. Not only was this the first time many of them had worked outside the home, their jobs were highly technical — assembling and outfitting the war machines that would be sent off to the Pacific and European theaters.
Eggers said that they took their responsibility very seriously.
“We were very aware … that we had to be really good at our jobs,” she said. “We didn’t want those things falling apart with our boys in them.”
Eggers worked on the Boeing production line for less than a year, but the experience has shaped her perception and her life ever since. Not only did she go on to hold many different jobs until she settled down in Coos Bay with her husband, she also went back into the work force after her children grew up.
Even outside of her professional life, the “We Can Do It” spirit never left her, from walking 10K’s in Portland and all 50 states to visiting 27 countries around the world.
Congress recognized the value of these civilian efforts during World War II, enacting a bill last year that expanded the Congressional Gold Medal program to include these working women.
That’s how the Albany ceremony came about.
“This is so remarkable to have a (senior) living community do this to honor a member,” said Yvonne Fasold, former president of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, who presented Eggers with the award. Along with her Congressional Gold Medal certificate, Eggers was presented with an American flag that was flown over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Eggers didn’t just embody the Rosie spirit of independence during the war, she also became something of a spokesperson for the association since its inception in 1998. She went all over the country to speak at schools and other sites to explain the background of Rosie the Riveter to children.
She and another Rosie, Margaret Denison, were guests of honor during the annual Veterans Day parade in downtown Albany in 2018.
When she was honored at Brookdale this week, the staff all dressed up as Rosie the Riveter, sporting the telltale blue denim shirts and red polka-dotted kerchiefs. Many residents have taken to calling Eggers “Rosie” now that they know her story. It may surprise some to learn that it’s not something she really talks about often.
“For me, it’s just something I did 75 years ago,” Eggers noted. “I sometimes forget how big of a deal it really was to people.”
The “big deal” isn’t just that these women helped to win the war, but also that the image of Rosie — and the role that women played in the work force from then onward — represented a cultural shift in the way we view women.
“We found our place in life being Rosies,” Eggers said. “We could do things as good as the guys. In fact, some things we did even better.”