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Our War: Swansea woman helped sew fabric of America's war effort

Bernice Loewe of Belleville.
Bernice Loewe of Belleville.

A Swansea woman did her part during World War II with needle and thread.

Bernice Loewe, 95, earned $104.80 every two weeks as a civil servant at what was then called Scott Field. She was an aircraft fabric and leather worker with the 3310th Maintenance and Supply Group at the base back when Scott Field was known for its radio school.

"We had the sewing machines, and I think there was just one double-needle sewing machine," Loewe said. "They were all heavy-duty machines, and we had a few for fine work, like silk or when we had to make new flags."

Moving parts within B-17 or B-24 wings as well as the rudder had to be covered with mercerized cotton fabric before they were stiffened and painted and put back on the plane. They worked on new and battle-worn planes. They did leather work for the instrument panels or worked on seat coverings for the interior of the planes.

"Once the war started over there, the planes would come back with holes and all battered up. They were dirty and shot up, and those that could be repaired, we repaired," Loewe said. "We had to strip that piece of the airplane off the old fabric before we could sew the new fabric on to it. We had to learn a certain stitch and sew it with a really long needle. After we were done, we had to carry that part up to the paint and dope shop so they could put six layers of dope on it and paint it."

Dope was a thick liquid that workers painted over the fabric and let cure, hardening the material to make the part flight worthy. The sewers weren't only responsible for plane parts, they also repaired flight jackets.

"Some needed zippers, some needed entirely new fronts because they came back to us all tore up," she said.

They helped sew parachutes and made helmets for radio operators out of the No. 2 hangar on the base.

"It was still the radio school, and we would get the helmets," she said. "They were made of sheepskin, and we had to take these hard leather cups and sew them into where their earphones would go. The wire had to be in a very specific place -- it was a very tricky job."

While "the boys" were overseas, those left on American soil rationed gas and cigarettes, and carpooled.

"At that time, there were only two women in our shop who drove cars," she said. "Everyone carpooled. There were usually six in a car. If you didn't carpool, you took the bus. If I didn't go on the bus, one of the GI's would pick me up and take me out to the base. You wouldn't believe the buses -- they would all line up in downtown Belleville to take the workers out to Scott or the GIs out for entertainment. And the streetcars, there were streetcars. Downtown Belleville looked so different then."

The workers were required to attend a movie once a month, as a group, she said.

"We'd have to see this movie that was about what was going on with the war and what was going on over there," she said. "Another one we had to watch was about health and what a person might look like with a social disease. You don't see that now."

She started her job at the base in 1943 and worked through the war. She was employed as a fabric and leather worker for 10 years before she married her husband, the late Lester Loewe, in 1949 and left her job to raise a family.

She has a framed picture of herself and several other women she worked with receiving an award from Army officials for a job well done. If you look closely, you can see several women with their hair up in curlers and covered with caps. She knows that picture was taken on a Friday.

"On Fridays, we'd all wash our hair at home and do our own pin curls before we came to work," Loewe said. "Our forelady was working in a beauty shop part time, and at break time she'd comb our hair out. We had no idea they were coming that day to take our picture, done up in our curlers!"

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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