Jean Baker recently attended the performance of Willow Run at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater. The play really touched home for Jean, herself a real-life “Rosie, the Riveter” – she and her husband, Louis, who now reside at Chelsea Retirement Community, helped build some of the first planes manufactured at Willow Run in Ypsilanti.
Jean and Louis Baker were childhood sweethearts, growing up in Alpena where their families had farms across the road from each other. Each came from a big family – Jean had nine siblings and Louis was one of 15. Louis says he was smitten with Jean from the moment he saw her, and he still is!
At age 20, Louis and two of his brothers left Alpena to work at the new Willow Run plant. Jean couldn’t wait to turn 18 so she could join her brothers there as well. Jean worked at Willow Run for two years, riveting the wires onto the ailerons, the part of the airplane wing that allows the plane to bank or turn. She says the iconic handkerchiefs that the women wore to cover their heads were required as a safety precaution to keep their hair out of the machinery. Although virtually unskilled labor, they quickly learned the “ins and outs” of their new jobs.
Louis and his brothers worked on the first two B-24 bomber planes that were built at Willow Run. At that time, pilot Charles Lindbergh was a consultant and stood alongside them to observe their work. Louis describes the Willow Run plant: “Everything was brand new, neat and clean. The workers were all very patriotic with not one person goofing off.”
Called the “Liberator,” Louis says the B-24 was a very large, cumbersome plane which carried a big load of bombs. “The ground trembled when they revved up the planes,” says Louis. In its heyday, Willow Run produced one plane per hour!
Willow Run employed approximately 40,000 people, mostly women. Jean remembers earning $1/hour – more than her dad earned at the job he had had for years at the shale quarry back home. The Willow Run employees were paid in cash.
On May 15, 1943, Louis and Jean were married (this year they celebrated their 75th anniversary!). About a year after starting at Willow Run, Louis joined the Navy. Because of his experience at Willow Run, he was sent to an aviation metalsmithing school in Oklahoma where he learned to be an airplane mechanic. Afterward, he was stationed in Corpus Christi where he repaired planes, and Jean left Willow Run to be with her husband. Jean also worked at the base.
At the end of World War II, the Bakers had saved enough money to return to Alpena and buy a farm, six miles from their families, where they lived until 2017. The couple says Louis built every building on the farm, but Jean helped and was “on the other side of every board.” In addition to farming, Louis worked as the head mechanic at the local shale quarry. The couple raised their two children, along with welcoming several exchange students from the Philippines and India with whom they remain close. They say those days at Willow Run seem like a long time ago now, but they both agree, “Those were exciting times.”