During World War II, Althea Skelton contributed to the war effort by building B-29 “Superfortress” bombers. Ms. Skelton’s interview is an enlightening and endearing account of her childhood years leading up to WWII, her career as a civilian defense worker at The Boeing Company in Seattle, and the post-war years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Her early years were in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh. One of only a few African Americans in her school, she eventually moved to Pittsburgh’s Hill District. On December 7, 1941, Althea was at home doing homework when she heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. After graduating from high school and with the war still raging in 1943, she married Benjamin Skelton, who was in the navy.
Still a teenager, Althea then moved to Washington, D.C. to work for the Maritime Commission. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Skelton moved to Seattle to be with her husband at his new duty station in Bremerton, Washington. After moving to Seattle, she took a job at The Boeing Company and lived in military housing. Eventually, Althea’s husband was shipped-out from Bremerton to Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands, but she stayed behind and continued her work at Boeing.
Many minority women worked on the Boeing assembly lines. They came from all over the country, Althea recalls, including the Mexican border lands, Indian reservations, and the Deep South where high-paying jobs for women and minorities simply did not exist. Ms. Shelton worked faithfully wiring the bomber’s co-pilot-side cockpit controls. It was sophisticated and highly skilled work, with good pay and benefits. However, while most workers were unionized, Althea and other minority technicians were excluded from the union; prior to 1948, the constitution of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) excluded “people of color” from membership.
It was a just how things were back then, she remembers. She also recalls being unaffected by the bigotry of the time, working steady at Boeing until a few months after the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Then she and her husband returned to Pittsburgh after his discharge from the navy.
KEYWORDS: ADAK, AK; AFRICAN AMERICAN; ALEUTIAN ISLANDS; B-29 SUPERFORTRESS; BIGOTRY DURING WWII; BOEING COMPANY; BREMERTON, WA; CIVILIAN DEFENSE WORKERS; HILL DISTRICT (PITTSBURGH); INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF MACHINISTS UNION (IAM); MARITIME COMMISSION; MT LEBANON, PA; PEARL HARBOR, HI; SEATTLE, WA; US NAVY; VICTORY OVER JAPAN DAY (VJ DAY); WASHINGTON, DC; WOMEN DURING WWII