When 16-year-old Doris Bier (née Hastings) showed up at Fort Lewis as one of the Rosie the Riveter mechanics during WWII, one of the older men on the assembly line was furious. Upset that a teenage girl was coming to do a man’s job, he angrily remarked, “She should be at home playing with dolls!” Doris proved him wrong. She made up for what she lacked in size in pure grit and determination. Her “We can do it!” attitude and tenacity showed just what a girl could do.
Raised in Adna, Doris was no stranger to hard work and overcoming challenges. Her father died when she was only two years old. For most of her childhood, Doris struggled with severe asthma that caused her to miss weeks of school. She repeated sixth grade due to numerous absences but worked hard to learn independently.
“I read a lot,” she said. “I read every book in Adna and all of my stepdad’s detective magazines.” The proper medication, given to her when she was 11 years old, improved her quality of life. At last, she was able to roller skate and ride a bike — things she could only dream about before. With nothing slowing her down now, she skated, rode her bike from Adna to Chehalis and even biked all over Tacoma, where her stepdad worked.
Her stepfather E.B. Larsen was instrumental in helping Doris achieve her dreams. When he heard she wanted a bicycle, he painted a woman’s house in exchange for one. Doris was the proud owner of the second bike in Adna at the time. By example, he instilled in her a strong work ethic and taught her that she could do anything she set her mind to. When he noticed her interest in woodworking, he took her to his woodshop and showed her the ropes. Soon, she had her own key to his shop and could run any machine and use any tool there. “I just liked putting things together,” Doris recalled.
She also shared his love for trucks and was driving by the time she was 11. Her stepdad taught her everything she needed to know about taking care of vehicles, from changing a flat tire to filling the gas tank. Her common sense, know-how and keen mechanical skills would soon serve her well.
When Doris was only 13 years old, WWII broke out. She remembers the curfew and blackouts and the warden coming to check her home in downtown Adna for lights showing. “We couldn’t turn on our porch lights or use flashlights at night,” she recalled.
When local farmer Erett Deck began producing food for the war effort, Doris, along with several classmates, got a job working in his fields in Boistfort and the cornfields along Highway 6. The students were excused from school in the afternoon to hoe the beet and corn fields and help with the harvest.
Doris proved to be a hard worker, completing four rows in the time it took most of the other kids to finish two. The boss took notice, and soon 14-year-old Doris was given the coveted job of driving the truck through the fields. Some of the older boys weren’t too happy with the arrangement. “They were mad that a girl was driving, and so they would chuck corn through the open window of the truck at me,” Doris said. But that didn’t stop her. She was proud that her skill and hard work earned her the same wage as an adult — 95 cents an hour — almost double what the other kids were making.
In 1944, a friend told Doris about an opportunity for women to work at Fort Lewis and encouraged her to apply. Thinking she would be too young to get the job, Doris tried anyway.
Twenty to 30 women of all ages came to seek employment for war support jobs. Doris remembers going to a room where they all filled out pages and pages of paperwork. After reviewing the applications, half of the women were excused. Doris stayed and filled out more paperwork. She thought the second set of questions was obvious. “If you get a flat tire, what do you do?” “If you run out of gas, what do you do?” She answered them practically. “Fix the flat. Keep the tank filled, so you don’t run out of gas.” She applied the commonsense solutions taught to her by her stepdad.
The next thing she knew, she was called in for an interview. “They specifically asked questions about my health,” Doris recalled. She honestly shared her struggle with asthma and how she coped with missing school. Instead of disqualifying her, they were impressed with her positive attitude and determination and said these factors made her eligible to participate in an “experiment” at Fort Lewis.
The experiment was to see whether women could do the same job as men.
“I’m Irish, and I like to be challenged,” Doris said with a laugh. She was chosen along with a few other women to take the six-week-long basic mechanics training course at Clover Park Vocational School. To graduate, the students were given a washtub full of engine parts and a key. The only part already assembled was a carburetor. “We had to assemble the engine and make it run. (We had) two chances with the key to start our engine — mine did.” Doris graduated in July 1944 and became an official Rosie the Riveter, assigned to work at the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot.
Doris remembers showing up on the first day of work wearing bright red fingernail polish, long hair, and tennis shoes. “No one told me we were supposed to wear steel-toed shoes,” she laughed. Doris would soon don the iconic Rosie outfit — coveralls, steel-toed shoes, and bandana head cover — but on that day, she definitely made a memorable first impression on her new coworkers — a crew of 20 workmen.
The men on the assembly line where she was assigned had been forewarned that a female was coming. Many of them were skeptical about the government’s latest “experiment.” But one worker, in particular, was furious. When Doris walked in, he shouted, “No! You can’t be here!” Doris recognized the older man as one of her dad’s former coworkers, Bill. Even though Bill had known Doris for several years, he did everything he could to get her to leave. He even called her stepdad from work and told him, “She shouldn’t be here. She should be at home playing with dolls!”
“Watch out, Bill,” her stepdad replied. “She’s gonna have your job.”
At sixteen, Doris was the only female on an assembly line crew that put together Diamond T truck and Jeep axles. (The Diamond T was a heavy tactical truck used by the U.S. Army during WWII.) Like it or not, the men would soon discover that this spunky teen would not only keep up with the guys, but she would excel at the work.
Most of the other men on the crew ended up being friendly and willing to help. Some even grew to respect her, but Bill resented her presence. The fact that a teenage girl was getting the same wage as a man, $1.69 an hour, did not sit well with him. He kept complaining, saying she wasn’t doing her job and constantly telling her she should be at home playing with dolls, but Doris dished it right back. “I had fun teasing him,” she recalls.
Finally, the foreman grew tired of hearing Bill whine about Doris, so he called the entire crew to her workstation so Bill could see her work for himself. The Diamond T axle that Doris had assembled was perfect.
Doris was surprised one day to feel a tap on her shoulder. The foreman was calling her out of the line, but he didn’t say why. She noticed that Bill was grinning. He was sure Doris was going to be fired.
She was escorted in a Jeep to a bandstand at the edge of Gray’s Field and told to sit down in a chair with her name on it. She still had no idea why she was there. Soon a general got up on the platform and began to speak. He told the gathered crowd how proud he was of everyone working for the war effort. Then to Doris’s surprise, he called her name. “Young lady, will you please come here?”
After being escorted on stage, Doris stood next to the general. He continued talking about the program of women working for the war effort and emphasized that they were of all ages. He then said that the experiment at the Mount Rainier Ordnance Depot “proved beyond a doubt that women could do anything they want.” After sharing with the crowd — and a stunned Doris — all about her struggle with asthma and how she was chosen specifically for the experiment because of how she overcame that challenge, he went on to boast that Doris was not only meeting expectations, but she was also exceeding them. She was able to assemble almost twice as many axles a day as most of the men. And even though she had been threatened and harassed, she went about her job with a smile.
As the crowd applauded, the smiling general pinned an ‘E’ award (E for Excellence) on Doris’s collar. He shook her hand and said, “I’m proud of you. Your parents raised you right. Fort Lewis is proud to have someone of your caliber.” After receiving a red rose, Doris’s photo was taken, and she was driven back to work.
Doris had no clue she would be recognized for her outstanding efforts. “I was just working and having fun,” she said. And fun is exactly what she had when she sashayed back to the assembly line with the long-stemmed rose between her teeth and a grin on her face and told a stunned Bill to watch out, or she’d have his job. The next day, some of the men on her crew presented Doris with her own rolling toolbox and, as a joke, a tiny baby doll which she proudly displayed at her workstation until she went back to school.
Doris returned to Adna High School and impacted her school with the same spunky determination she showed on the assembly line. At the time, girls were not allowed to take woodshop. Doris, who had already proved her woodworking skills by designing and building the scoreboard hanging in the Adna gym, decided to do something about it. Prompted by a school assignment, she gathered enough signatures on a petition, submitted it to the school board, received approval, and soon a woodshop class for girls was started. Despite inferior materials, an inexperienced shop teacher, and a principal who opposed the idea, the course was a success. The beautifully crafted cedar chests made by the girls were tangible proof of the Rosie “We can do it!” attitude inspired by Doris.
Now in her 90s and a proud great-great-grandmother, Doris lives in Chehalis with her son’s family. She still enjoys sharing stories of her experience as a WWII Rosie the Riveter with local school children. When students ask her what advice she would give them, she says, “I would encourage any girl to do a man’s job — if it’s legal, moral, and within their (physical) capabilities.” Doris certainly proved anything is possible.
Today, Doris’s bedroom is filled with family photos, Rosie the Riveter memorabilia, model trucks, a bright red rolling toolbox, and an entire wall of shelves filled with dolls from around the world. When asked what inspired her doll collection, Doris grins and holds up a tiny baby doll, the same one given to her by her crewmates on the assembly line. Years ago, Bill told Doris to go home and play with dolls. After first proving she could do a man’s job, that’s precisely what she did!