Real-life “Rosie the Riveter” and Arsenal’s last-remaining Women Ordnance Worker turned 100 and reflected on a lifetime of contributions to the nation

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When Martha Wahe was born 100 years ago, the world was a very different place. Warren G. Harding was President. A new radio cost over $200, a movie ticket would set you back 15¢ and a new car was $525. World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic were over, as an age of prosperity began. The world was quickly changing and continued to do so at a rapid pace, but among it all, Wahe made a difference in her 100 years on earth.

Martha Wahe was born on November 8, 1921 in Beardstown, Illinois and she grew up in Rock Island. After her high school graduation in 1939, Wahe worked varying jobs, eventually working as a seamstress at the Singer sewing machine store, where she met her future husband, Vern, who worked at Rock Island Arsenal as a munitions supply clerk. The two married in 1941.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war in 1941, Wahe was drawn to doing “the patriotic thing to do” and “free a man to fight,” and she served her country as a Women Ordinance Worker at the Rock Island Arsenal.

During the war, Wahe worked at the Rock Island Arsenal and later the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Melville, Rhode Island. Women Ordinance Workers, or WOWs, were symbolized by “Rosie the Riveter” for pulling the same load as the men they replaced by operating heavy machinery, making weapons, crating ammunition and anything else that would help the war effort. At the height of World War II, there were over 5,000 WOWs working in armories across the nation.

In 1943 Wahe’s husband volunteered for the Navy. After basic training he was sent to Quonset Point Naval Air Station. In 1944, after working at RIA for two years, Wahe requested a transfer to Quonset Point to be with her husband, who by then was the base commander’s administrative assistant. Her first job at Quonset Point was to help load the igniter of the torpedoes, and she later moved to the purchasing department, where she did filing.

Once the war was over, Wahe and her husband returned to Rock Island and started a family. Through the following 45 years, Wahe worked at the Arsenal for a total of 23 years, while taking time off to raise her two children. After her retirement in the 1990s, Wahe worked with the Rock Island Arsenal Historical Society, remaining an active member until 2020. Wahe and her husband were married for 63 years until he passed away in 2004.

Wahe’s daughter, Carol, said it was always her Mom’s goal to live to be 100 and have a big party. She got her wish November 7, when family and friends gathered to celebrate. On Monday, her 100th birthday, Wahe had a special visit from Arsenal representatives to wish her a happy birthday and award her with a Public Service Commendation Medal and a “Two-Star” note in gratitude for her contributions and making a difference.

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