Ann Bjorneby spent 12 years in the service of Uncle Sam during World War II with the U.S. Navy Women’s Reserve as a grease monkey. Although never considered active duty, she and other women across the country who wore uniforms without official titles are beginning to realize they are veterans. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Snohomish woman served as a ‘grease monkey’ during WWII

SNOHOMISH — Ann Bjorneby, then Ann Kloser, was wrapping butter on an Iowa factory line when she learned the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

Bjorneby and three of her girlfriends got together. They wrote down three cities on slips of paper — Detroit, St. Louis and Omaha — places they figured would have jobs open to young women who wanted to help. Then they tossed the slips in a hat, and reached in.

“We decided we wanted to do something for the war effort,” Bjorneby said. “There was nothing going on in Dubuque.”

Soon, with just $15, she was on a bus to Omaha, Nebraska. Her boss at the Iowa factory told her to just take a leave of absence — she’d be welcomed back. Bjorneby declined. She worried that if she didn’t quit, she wouldn’t be committed to her new job.

She never did wrap butter again.

Bjorneby didn’t find the job she was looking for, but she did find a home in the Woman Ordnance Workers, or WOWs, then a new division of the U.S. Army.

She ended up in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and received training as an auto technician. She stayed up late in the latrine — the only place with a light when she was supposed to be in her bunk — memorizing every tool in the toolbox. From there, she was sent to Camp Hale in Colorado, followed by Hill Field in Utah, and worked on engines for Jeeps, trucks, fire engines and airplanes.

“I was a grease monkey,” she recalls, an amused grin lighting her face.

That bus trip to Nebraska marked the start of more than a decade of life in military barracks and living by military rules, first with the U.S. Army and later with the U.S. Navy. Bjorneby, now 93, was honorably discharged in August 1945 at age 22 as an apprentice seaman, and remained with the U.S. Navy as a civilian worker another eight years.

In coveralls and with a bandanna on her head, Bjorneby evoked what would become an icon of the war.

What the bold images of a muscled Rosie the Riveter mask, however, is the much quieter response of the women themselves.

Like many women of the era who volunteered for service, Bjorneby struggled to apply the title of “veteran” to herself. The idea of doing so didn’t cross her mind until recent years, she said.

Veterans Day, which she celebrates each year, had been a day to proudly celebrate men like her late husband, a skier in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division who helped rid Attu Island in the Aleutians of Japanese occupiers. A flag-draped photo of Otto Bjorneby proudly hangs in her home above a shadow box filled with his service pins. He died of cancer in 1982, just shy of their 36th wedding anniversary.

“I never talked about (what I did),” Bjorneby said. “I fly the flag every day for my husband. But I never thought about it for me.”

‘Invisible veterans’

Japan’s surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, pulled the United States fully into a war that bathed the globe in blood.

Millions of American men disappeared from dining room tables, church pews and manufacturing lines to deploy overseas.

Hundreds of thousands of women like Bjorneby left their places, too, and took on jobs not with kitchen utensils and dresses, but with tools and coveralls.

The attack marked a turning point, for women as well as for the country.

“It didn’t break the American spirit. It motivated Americans like never before … and women played a critical role in that,” says Regina T. Akers, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.

Yet women who served in the U.S. military during World War II often are referred to as “invisible veterans.” Recognition of their service largely stopped at the posters that helped draw them in record numbers to the factories and armories.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that many of the contributions made by women in World War II were formally recognized through laws granting them veteran status.

Even then, many did not like to take on the mantle of “veteran.”

“They are so self-effacing,” said Akers, who has compiled numerous oral histories from female veterans of the era. “They don’t allow themselves to appreciate what they did. … Whether civilian or military, we could not have won the war without their many and varied contributions.”

Lots of tears

Like many veterans of World War II, Bjorneby hesitates to speak too much about her own role in the war because she feels it pales in comparison to the loss of over 400,000 American lives in the war, the vast majority of them men.

In April, she took a trip to Washington, D.C., through Puget Sound Honor Flight. The nonprofit pays for veterans — with an emphasis on those from World War II — to see the memorials made in their honor.

There is a Women in Military Service for America Memorial at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It opened in 1997. But Bjorneby didn’t mention it when recalling the trip.

It was the rows upon rows of white headstones that gripped her there.

As she stands in her dining room, she flips through a stack of postcards depicting the various memorials. She pauses at the image of the World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004.

Rows upon rows of gold stars fill a walled expanse. She taps the card gently, and puts her hand to her chest. That was her favorite stop, she says, holding back tears.

“I cried a lot,” she said of the trip.

The war drew the country together for a common purpose and, afterward, a common grief. Volunteers like Bjorneby were motivated by patriotism, a desire to help. It was an ethic that stuck, like it did for so many counted among the Greatest Generation.

A job well done

Many things have marked Bjorneby’s life since the war. She and her husband ran a chinchilla fur business for more than two decades, among other ventures. They raised three children, who still live in the area.

She adopted her husband’s Norwegian heritage, and worked at the Sons of Norway Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard until she was 80. These days, she remains active at her church and as a volunteer five days a week at Snohomish Senior Center. She lives independently and still drives.

What she remembers most fondly, though, were the military and civilian jobs she had during the war and the years that followed. She and the four girlfriends she drew from a hat with in Iowa ended up going their separate ways, but they reunited now and then at an Oregon farm to remember their initial adventure — boarding that bus to head for the unknown.

After her discharge in 1945, Bjorneby chose to stay on with the Navy in civilian jobs, first in Utah, and then at the Naval Supply Depot at the newly named Pier 91 in Seattle following the war’s end.

After marrying Otto, she continued working for the Navy at Pier 91 until the adoption in 1953 of the first of their children. She was trading one joy for another, and spent that last day of work in tears.

“It wasn’t always easy, but I loved it all,” Bjorneby said.

In the process, she played a part in paving the way for more formal military roles for women.

In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women as permanent members of the Armed Forces and made their pay equal to that of men, although their roles and opportunities still were limited.

What stands out most to folks like Akers, the historian, is that women who served never faced the draft. “Whether uniform or civilian, the number one motivation they give is patriotism,” she said.

They served voluntarily, “and did so with distinction.”

Melissa Slager: mslager@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3432.

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