One might call Florence DiTullio Joyce the first lady of Fore River Shipyard. “I was the first woman to fill out an application, to be interviewed, and to be hired,” Joyce said last week as she recalled the early days of 1941.
She and several others were hired early in the war years, before women were urged to work in defense plants for the war effort. Two uncles, Dan Libertini and Rocco DiTullio, worked at Fore River and encouraged the 19-year-old beauty and recent high school graduate of Quincy High School to apply. “They’re thinking of hiring women,” Joyce’s Uncle Rocco told her. Joyce was raised on Washington Street and lived on Pond Street after her marriage. Joyce got the job and the rest is history.
The first women, like Joyce, were so successful and good at the jobs, that thousands of women were subsequently hired for defense work. At the time, Joyce was a pioneer in a man’s world and no one called her “Flo” or “Florence”. “I had a gorgeous figure and they put ‘Woo, Woo’ on the back of my welding jacket,” Joyce recalled, adding that her male co-workers gave her the nickname ‘Woo, Woo’ and it stuck.
“I loved it,” Joyce said, adding that “the majority of men were respectful.” She recalled that the green suede-like protective clothing was heavy and cumbersome as was the helmet which Joyce had to wear when welding to project her eyes. “You’d get a flash, if you took your eyes away,” Joyce said of the dangers of looking at the welding flame, even from the corner of an eye. “The flash burns the eye tissue.”
Shortly after Joyce was hired, four other women joined her and the women began the heavy-duty, and sometimes dangerous, welding work previously only performed by men. “We were an experiment,” Joyce said when she recalled those early days. “We were an experiment, but we must have done a good job because they kept us and hired many, many more women welders. When they found that women were capable of any job, they hired women as burners, welders, shipfitters.”
“I welded parts of THE WASP,” said Joyce, recalling one of the ships she’d worked on and others commissioned after being built at Fore River. Records suggest that many more than 2,000 women shipbuilders worked at the Fore River Shipyard for the war efforts.
Ron Adams, a history teacher at Broad Meadows Middle School, has done extensive research with his students on the Fore River Shipyard. His students recorded oral histories of the workers and invited Joyce and her fellow workers to the school for “Winne the Welder” tributes. Adams says he believes that there were many more than 2,000 at Fore River but official records are elusive at this time due to asbestos lawsuits.
Workers at Fore River were exposed to asbestos and to the lung diseases associated with asbestos.
Women were employed as welders, painters, pipe coverers, crane operators, burners, sheetmetal workers, nurses, and cafeteria workers. As a group, the women workers were called “Winnie the Welder.”
“There were thousands of people that worked there. It’s too bad it ended up the way it did. It could give a lot of people a job,” Joyce said of the Fore River Shipyard. According to reports, the Shipyard, which was operated by Bethlehem Steel Corporation, produced more ships than any other shipyard in the country. At its peak, the shipyard employed 32,000 people. Once the war was over, the women workers were forgotten for years.
In 1991, Mayor James Sheets dedicated “Winnie the Welder Day.”
Joyce said she’s still in touch by mail at holidays with two former workers who live out of state. At 88, she said she can still wield a welding tool, but she is content to work at her painting. Her four children and grandchildren keep her busy now. They are Gail Plant, Rockland; Michael Wilson, Atlanta GA; Jace Wilson, Pembroke; and Lynette Frederickson, Halifax.
by Laura Griffin, Quincy Sun (November 6, 2008)
These ‘Winnie the Welders’ at the Fore River Shipyard helped win World War II. Quincy’s Florence DiTullio Joyce is in the middle of the second row dressed in full protective gear with the welder’s helmet.
[Photo courtesy of Broad Meadows History Project]