Meet Houston’s Real-Life Rosie the Riveter

At 94, Frances Vinelli finally flies in a B-25.

By Heather Saucier December 27, 2019 Published in the January 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Reflecting on her life, 95-year-old Frances “Fran” Vinelli almost seemed to travel through time, back to 1941. World War II was raging, and she was contributing to the effort, working inside the windowless North American Aviation Plant in Kansas City, Kansas, helping to build B-25 bombers.

Vinelli and her work partner, also named Fran, would rivet nacelles, the aerodynamic cylinders that protrude from planes near the wings, housing their engines. They’d make four a night, working 10-hour shifts, six days a week, earning a staggering “66 cents an hour!” Vinelli exclaimed, seemingly still delighted.

She remembered the process like it was yesterday. The two Frans would secure two halves of a nacelle in a large iron frame. “One girl would be outside with a rivet gun, and the other would be inside with a bucking bar,” Vinelli explained. “The girl on the outside would put the rivet in the gun and shoot it through, and the girl on the inside would put the bucking bar against the rivet to flatten it on the inside.”

Their plant was one of just two factories in the entire country that manufactured B-25s. During the war its assembly line produced 6,680 B-25 bombers, which are perhaps best known for their role in the Doolittle Raid over Japan in 1942.

This was the era of the Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign that swept the country, imploring women to help the war effort by going to work in factories and shipyards. Posters of the iconic Rosie, dressed in a blue-collared work shirt and red headscarf, are ubiquitous even today.

Vinelli, who moved to Houston in 2012 to be close to family, is one of the few remaining Rosies. It hadn’t occurred to her that she’d never seen a completed B-25 bomber until November 2018 when, for her 94th birthday, her family took her to the Lone Star Flight Museum at Ellington Field, which permanently houses 11 warplanes.

When Vinelli saw the B-25, she stopped dead in her tracks. “I built that!” she cried.

Lone Star is the rare flight museum that invites the public to fly in its planes. After meeting Vinelli, the staff insisted she return to fly in the B-25—one of only a few dozen that are still operational, out of nearly 10,000 that were manufactured during the war.

“There was a lot of buzz before Fran came. A lot of volunteers knew she was a Rosie,” said Larry Gregory, a volunteer pilot. “It was something that meant so much to her as a young lady, her contribution to the war effort.”

In March of last year Gregory and Vinelli took off into the clouds in the B-25. “I never dreamed I was going to fly on it. That was just an incredible thrill. I still can’t believe it,” Vinelli said. “I was looking out over the wing, and the motor nacelle is just under the wing, and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I put together these things.’”

Climbing out after the 20-minute flight, Vinelli was a hero. “Captain Larry dropped the bomb bay door and had me sign it,” she said. “Isn’t that amazing? It made me cry.”

Vinelli in her riveting days.

It was in 1940 that Vinelli, then an 18-year-old known as Fran Smith, left her family’s Boonville, Missouri, farm to join the war effort along with 6 million other women. “I felt very good about what I was doing,” she said. Two of her six siblings had gone off to fight, and she read the headlines daily. “Our feeling was we were helping our boys.”

Bob Wehnert, 95, a World War II Army Air Force veteran and museum volunteer, said many don’t recognize the importance of the wartime work done by women like Vinelli. “It wasn’t just one night of people flying the airplanes and frontline troops shooting,” he said. “If we didn’t have the production we had and the togetherness we had, we would never have won the war. We really won the war by outproducing the Axis.”

In 1943 Vinelli left her riveting job to pursue work in California. Not long afterward Allied forces prevailed, and her brothers returned safely from battle. The experience left Vinelli craving another adventure, and in 1959 she accepted a secretarial job with the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Over the next decades she married and had two daughters, founded the Women’s Auxiliary of the Honduran Red Cross, became manager of Honduras’s Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, and traveled to 35-plus other countries. In 1977 she divorced and moved back to the States, but in 1993 returned to Honduras, establishing a nonprofit for families devastated by Hurricane Mitch. And after her 2012 move to Houston, she had no plans to slow down.

“I’ve had a crazy life and more to come,” she said. On her 89th birthday Vinelli went skydiving, despite her fear of heights. And even with a cane, she was determined to climb into that B-25 bomber.

Sharing wartime stories has been something new for Vinelli. “I don’t talk to anybody about my life because my life has been so different,” she said. That began to change when she met veterans like Wehnert, who regularly shares his own experiences as an aerial gunner in the 15th Air Force at the museum. “The reason I do it,” he said, “is to keep the memories alive for those who gave their all during the Second World War.”

Last year both Wehnert and Vinelli agreed to appear in a video for the museum. Featuring Vinelli is “a way to continue to inspire young girls in the aviation field,” said Chris Richardson, the museum’s chief operating officer.

Knowing the world of employment options open to today’s women, Vinelli said she hopes her story inspires them. “It was wonderful for women of my generation to contribute to the war,” she said. “I hope today’s young girls will go beyond the ordinary and pursue the careers of their dreams.”

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