B-25 History Project: Keeping KC's WWII 'bomber builder' history alive

KANSAS CITY, Kan. - Mary White, 90, says she didn’t realize until just a few years ago that she was indeed a Rosie the Riveter.

“I didn’t rivet so I didn’t think I…would be called a Rosie the Riveter!” she laughed.

From 1941 to 1945, thousands of Kansas City men and women made B-25 bombers used in World War II at the North American Aviation plant in Kansas City, Kansas. 

White said at just 18 years old, she soldered the instrument panels for those planes.

Mary White and her husband, Dee

Photo of White and her husband, Dee, who will celebrate 71 years of marriage next year.
Photo courtesy Mary White.

Those men and women who made more than 6,000 B-25 bombers are now known by many as the bomber builders. At its peak in October 1943, the plant employed 24,329 people, according to Boeing historian Michael Lombardi. North American Aviation eventually became what is known today as Boeing.

“If they hadn’t been building them, the guys couldn’t fly them,” said Dennis Okerstrom. The Park University English professor has published books about World War II history and acknowledged the bomber builders’ contribution to the war effort. “They helped win the war in a very significant way.”

Saving that legacy is why Dan Desko started the B-25 History Project.

“Most of our bomber builders are gone,” he said. “There’s only a handful of them left.”

His grandparents worked at the plant, too.  

“My grandmother was an inspector at the plant. If you knew my grandmother, you would know why,” he laughed. “My grandfather was not medically able to serve so that’s how he ended up working at the plant.”

And before his grandfather passed away, Desko ended up helping him publish and send a newsletter written for Bomber Builders. Years later, he realized this was a history he needed to help save.

Now he collects any artifact he can find from worker documents to spare plane parts to pictures and of course, stories like White’s.

“I was stunned, I thought, ‘Who am I?’” she said. “Then I found out I was
an important part of history myself.”

She found out she was a ‘Rosie’ when she spotted a B-25 at an air show in 2012 and asked to touch it. When she told the crew why she wanted to and where she had worked, she said they got very excited.

“They said, 'You're a Rosie! You're a Rosie!' and I went I am?” she laughed. “And they went back and checked their records and said, ‘Mary, you worked on this plane!’ It was an unbelievable feeling. Unbelievable. Then he says, ‘You've got to get aboard and see the instrument panel!'”

With that, White said she not only climbed aboard and touched the instrument panel she may have soldered decades ago, but also the crew took her for a flight.

“So I have to be the most thrilled person in the world to have worked on a B-25 Bomber. Seventy-one years later, I got to ride in it and that makes me want to pucker up and cry," she said. “It’s just such an honor, such an honor and I mean such beautiful memories.”

Dekso hopes to someday share those memories and artifacts in a museum. He and the other B-25 History Project volunteers are now compiling all the information they can find on the organization’s website. Desko hopes to even someday be able to bring a B-25 Bomber back to life to fly in Kansas City.

”It’s work, it’s a lot of work but we're honored to do it,” he said.

There's a monument to the Bomber Builders in Wyandotte County. Click here for more info.

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Lindsay Shively can be reached at lindsay.shively@kshb.com.

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