A ‘Rosie the Riveter’ recalls WWII work at converted Fresno Ice Rink

February 12, 2016

Then: Marjorie Arnold, 93, a "Rosie the Riveter" worker during World War II, revisits her past with a visit to a B-17 bomber at Castle Air Museum at Atwater.

When Marjorie Arnold arrived in Fresno in the fall of 1943, the city was abuzz with, as she says, “war work.” Fresno, like other cities on the West Coast, had become an important World War II military supply center.

Many buildings became assembly plants seemingly overnight, and an untapped labor force, women nicknamed “Rosie the Riveters,” joined in to help the war effort. This was the world that Marjorie Arnold entered for a short, fulfilling time. “It was a good feeling, you couldn’t help but feel as if you were accomplishing something,” she says.

Arnold went to work in possibly one of the most unlikeliest of buildings tapped for war service: the new Fresno Ice Rink.

Plans for the rink at the northwest corner of Olive Avenue and Fresno Street began pre-war in 1940 and called for a $125,000 building with a trussed, arched roof. To make the ice surface, 12 miles of brine freeze pipe was used. Bleachers seated 3,500.

The Fresno Ice Rink was billed as one of the largest and most modern ice skating pavilions on the West Coast when it opened on Feb. 5, 1942, just eight weeks after Pearl Harbor. The grand opening “Gala Ice Carnival” featured performances by 32 international stars in figure skating, speed skating, ice dancing, novelty and comedy acts.

But the Fresno Ice Rink’s vast interior (160 feet by 240 feet) caught the attention of more than just central San Joaquin Valley residents looking for recreation. On March 31, 1943, officials of the Vega Aircraft Corp. (a subsidiary of Lockheed) and Army Air Force officers flew a B-17 to Fresno and announced at a luncheon plans to convert the Fresno Ice Rink into a military sub-assembly plant where components for the B-17 bomber could be manufactured then shipped to the main factory for final assembly.

A story the next day in The Bee quoted Maj. Howard Angus: “The Flying Fortress (B-17) is one of which we cannot get too many since it is highly effective and is needed on every front where the United States forces are engaged. The cooperation of Fresno in this production is needed and I am sure it will be forthcoming.”

Vega immediately began remodeling the Fresno Ice Rink working with local contractor Harris Construction Co. Plans called for the installation of a concrete and wooden floor, installation of a sunken loading ramp and building a preschool, offices and storage area.

The round-the-clock makeover of the rink took just 15 days, with sub-assembly production beginning on April 19, 1943. The plant’s primary product were bulkheads, the circular, reinforced sections that gave strength to the B-17s and also housed the bomb bay. The plant also produced dorsal fins, catwalks, lower turrets and nacelle fairings (aerodynamic engine supports).

The age of ‘Rosie the Riveter’

The B-17 plants needed a lot of workers – new workers, since more than 10,000 former Vega employees were serving in the armed forces. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, a resounding rallying cry was heard from shore to shore, with newspapers widely circulating the story of 60 Pearl Harbor widows who went to work at Lockheed and Vega plants in Burbank. Their motto: “Keep ’em flying to avenge our husband’s deaths.”

Doors were opened, largely for the first time, for women of all backgrounds: housewives, war widows, grandmothers and girls just out of high school. Handling the rivet guns and welding were but one of the jobs they did. Others became production engineers, inspectors, lathe operators and office workers, for instance. Day care centers were established at the plants to help out those with small children.

American popular culture reflected the change in the wartime workplace. Widely seen was the Saturday Evening Post’s Memorial Day 1943 issue featuring Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of a female riveter with “Rosie” painted on her lunchbox. A 1943 song “Rosie the Riveter,” by the Four Vagabonds was a hit: “All day long, Whether rain or shine, She’s part of the assembly line. She’s making history, working for victory, Rosie – BRRRR – the Rivet-er.”

Women in the war workforce rose from 14.6 million in 1941 to 19.4 million in 1944, when 37 percent of all adult women were in the labor force.

One of those was Marjorie Arnold, a 21-year-old when she moved to Fresno with her parents in the fall of 1943. A native of Vallejo, she had been living in Berkeley and working for the U.S. Naval District in San Francisco. In Fresno she was hired on the spot at the new aircraft sub-assembly plant. She took pride in having a hand in building the B-17s, a plane piloted by her older brother, Army Air Force Lt. Joseph R. Arnold.

“There were a lot of posters of ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ showing her with her hair tied up and muscles,” Arnold says, “Actually that’s really what brought women into the workforce. That’s how we all started wearing pants and that’s how we really moved into a man’s world.”

Arnold’s main assignment was working on the bulkheads, the mid-section of the bomber.

“I had never handled tools before so that was a new experience for me. I was almost immediately sent to work. I was the backup person, the driller was on the other side of the bulkhead and I backed up with a lead block to hold the metals together. But we alternated, so I was riveting part of the time – it was a small air gun riveter.”

The work had its dangers. “I was on the backside of a bulkhead, I could not see my partner, and we had a tapping message to tell each one what was going on, if they were going to drill or rivet or whatever, and somehow her message or my understanding of the message didn’t coincide, and she drilled my hand as I was bucking up the metal, and this drill was the size in circumference of a pretty hefty ice pick, and it went right through my center finger.”

“It was an absolutely amazing thing to see these big sections of an airplane sitting on an open bed truck and pulling out of Fresno on its way south to be completed.”

The 1,000th B-17 built at Lockheed’s main Burbank plant was flown to Fresno on Jan. 15, 1944, escorted by a formation of P-38 Lightning fighters. The B-17 dropped pamphlets thanking Fresnans for their contribution to the war effort, circled the plant for the workers to see and landed at Hammer Field (now Fresno Yosemite International Airport) for a reception. The bomber also landed at Bakersfield, Taft and Pomona where the company had other sub-assembly plants. When the plane reached the combat theater where it was assigned, a surprise awaited the crew: a kitty of several hundred dollars for them donated by workers on the assembly lines, including Fresno. It was a great deal of money, considering the line work paid 45 cents an hour.

“We worked very hard, but it was fun, because we had that feeling of all working for the same cause,” Arnold says.

Arnold family’s sacrifice

Tragedy struck when Arnold’s older brother, the B-17 pilot, was killed. “His plane crashed in the Colorado Rockies, on his last training mission. It was a terrible blow to the family, of course, to have lost him, but still, I was building a plane that he flew, and there was a great need for those planes. It was a bad, sad time.”

His wish, if he should die in service, was to have his ashes spread at sea. But travel restrictions forced the Arnolds to improvise: They spread Joseph Arnold’s cremated remains in the San Joaquin River, which flowed to the sea.

Parts of the plane’s wreckage, flown on its last night training mission, still rests on the side of 12,148-foot Stormy Peaks. Marjorie Arnold says that in the mid-1990s she took part in a memorial service there: “It was just an astounding thing.”

The sub-assembly plant where she worked closed June 2, 1945 and in a few weeks’ time was put back to being an ice rink, renamed the Fresno Ice Arena. A popular attraction was the fledgling Fresno Falcons hockey team which played there; Arnold fondly remembers going with her father there to watch their games.

The McClatchy Broadcasting Company, like the military before it, found the ice rink ideal because of its vast interior and high ceiling and bought it in late 1952 for its KMJ-TV studios. But the building was deemed a fire hazard and torn down in 1956. Today the site is a post office parking lot.

After the war, Arnold worked a short time as a bank teller before joining The Fresno Bee in March 1946. She worked at The Bee 44 years, the last 19 as head librarian.

Today, people are surprised that Arnold, 93, was a “Rosie the Riveter.”

“I was pleased to be part of that history,” Arnold says. “And it seemed then while it was happening that it was a long time, and actually it was only a couple of years, but in the life of a young person, I guess that’s a long time.”

She had a rewarding experience several years ago, to fly for the first time in the massive bomber. “It was a cold and noisy ride. I understand during the war we lost many, many planes, B-17s especially, and I often wondered how these young men survived. It was such a noisy trip, but it gave me an opportunity to see what the completed plane was all about. It was a wonderful experience.”

Arnold sat among the bulkhead sections she helped build and thought of her brother. “I wanted to feel what he experienced.”

John Walker: 559-441-6197