DAVENPORT, Iowa – When Martha Wahe was born, the “War to end all Wars,” and the Great Influenza outbreak were still fresh in people’s memories. You could buy a Ford Model T in “any color as long as it was black” for $310, but you couldn’t legally buy alcohol.
A century later, Wahe can look back on her long life and know that she made a difference.
Wahe, the sixth of eight children, was born on Nov. 8, 1921, in Beardstown, Illinois, which is located 103 miles directly south of Rock Island, Illinois. When she was 6 months old her family moved to Rock Island, where she grew up.
After graduating from high school in 1939, Wahe worked a variety of jobs to include waitressing. She later went to work as a seamstress at the Singer sewing machine store where she met her husband, Vern, who worked at Rock Island Arsenal as a munitions supply clerk. They married in 1941; they would remain married for 63 years until his death in 2004.
Like many Americans, Wahe was shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s declaration of war three days later. She also wanted to do her part and serve her country.
“It was the patriotic thing to do,” said Wahe.
While Wahe didn’t join any of the women’s service branches, she did, “free a man to fight” by serving her country as a Women Ordnance Worker, or WOW.
During the war she worked at RIA, and later went to work at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Melville, Rhode Island.
WOWs were symbolized by the famous “Rosie the Riveter” posters and song. They pulled the same load as the men they replaced by operating heavy machinery such as cranes, milling machines, forklifts and trucks. They also made weapons, crated ammunition and did anything and everything else that would assist in the war effort.
For many women this was the first time they had ever done work like this. At the height of World War II, there were over 5,000 WOWs working in armories across the nation.
Wahe began working at RIA in the summer of 1942.
“They were hiring that summer because of course the Arsenal was growing and growing and growing,” she said in a 2012 interview conducted as an oral history project by Augustana College about the home front. “I mean they were working 24/7/365.”
Her first job was working in the transportation department driving “mules”. A “mule” was a vehicle used to pick up and drop off trailers used to move supplies around the complex.
Eventually she stopped driving “mules” and began driving a forklift inside one of the RIA’s warehouses.
The warehouse was so big that a train was able to drive through it. Trains carrying war materials would stop on the tracks located in the center of the warehouse, to allow the women to off-load the cars.
Wahe said that some of the cars held tank engines that needed to be unloaded and then taken to another area at RIA where the tanks were built.
“I remember the engines were so big that once they were on our lifts, we had to drive backwards to be able to see,” said Wahe.
There was, among some of her male co-workers, the belief that the work was easy because women were doing it.
Wahe remembers a man from another department in her building going to the loading docks to help out the women as they drove forklifts. At the end of his shift he said it was too hard and went back to his department.
Wahe’s job driving forklifts backwards around the warehouse was even more dangerous because, during the war, the only safety equipment women had was a helmet on her head.
Wahe said there were no seatbelts or back up lights or cameras.
“If you ran into something, or if something fell on top of you, there was a good chance you were going to have a bad day,” said Wahe.
Eventually Wahe was moved from the loading docks and into an office where she did clerical work.
“The chemicals on the docks bothered my lungs,” said Wahe. “My doctor suggested I transfer away from that environment.”
In 1943 Wahe’s husband volunteered for the Navy. After basic training he was sent to Quonset Point Naval Air Station.
“My husband knew he would be drafted and didn’t want to be in the Army because there was too much walking,” said Wahe. “He had flat feet so he enlisted in the Navy.” Wahe’s husband was trained as a yeoman and sent to Quonset Point.
There were no WAVES -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service -- at Quonset, so the base used Navy Yeoman to do record keeping and other administrative duties, Wahe said.
Yeoman performed, and still perform, administrative and clerical work. On Navy ships it is not practical to hire civilian administrative assistants, so yeoman perform the tasks. Both men and women can serve as yeoman.
Wahe’s husband became a yeoman because he had worked as a clerk at RIA.
“My husband’s mother made him learn how to type and do shorthand because she didn’t want him working in a factory when he grew up,” said Wahe. “So she made sure he had a skill.”
In 1944, after working at RIA for two years, Wahe requested a transfer to Quonset Point NAS to be with her husband who was working as the base commander’s administrative assistant.
However, quitting her job at RIA and securing another one in Rhode Island wasn’t as simple as it is now.
“If you were working for anything that had to do with the war effort you couldn’t just quit the job when you wanted to and go somewhere else,” she said in the Augustana interview. “You had to get permission. It had to be a good reason; or you couldn’t get another job anywhere except in a store or something, because you wouldn’t get rehired in anything to do with the war effort.”
After securing permission to leave, Wahe made her way to Rhode Island where she was able to find a job at the base, as well as a place for her and her husband to live.
One of her most vivid memories of working at Quonset Point was getting to work. Wahe’s job was located on an island.
“We had to take a ferry to the island,” said Wahe. “The flag went up at 8 a.m. but sometimes, if the Marines on guard duty would see us running late for the ferry, they would slowly raise the flag and give us time to get on the boat.”
Her first job at Quonset Point was to help load the igniter of the torpedoes. Eventually she moved to the purchasing department where she worked doing filing.
Once the war ended, Wahe and her husband returned to Rock Island and started a family raising a boy and a girl.
Over the next 45 years, Wahe would work at the Arsenal on-and-off for a total of 23 years while taking time off to raise her two children. Her daughter, Carol, also worked at RIA in the late 1970s.
After her retirement in the early 1990s, Wahe maintained a connection to the RIA through the Rock Island Arsenal Historical Society. She remained an active member of the society until 2020.
Wahe’s daughter, Carol, said it was always her Mom’s goal to live to be 100 years old, and have a big party with her friends and family. She got her wish on Nov. 7, when her family and friends gathered to celebrate her first centennial of life.
On Nov. 8, Wahe's birthday, representatives from RIA stopped by her home to wish her a Happy Birthday and present her with a Public Service Commendation Medal and a "Two-Star" note in gratitude for her contribution to the nation.