PITTSBURGH — Mary (Schevchik) Torres was a shy, bright-eyed 18-year-old when she ran away from home to help her country win the war.
It was June 1942 and Torres had just graduated from Donora High School. She saved up all of her money from her job at J.C. Penney to buy a one-way ticket to the West Coast.
"I saw an ad in the newspaper that they needed workers in California," said Torres, from her home in San Leandro, California "My brothers had already left for the war and I knew I wanted to do my part, too."
Torres left a note for her parents, Michael and Julia Schevchik, while they were at church one Sunday, and took off with just a small suitcase and her dreams in tow.
She didn't know it then, but Torres would become one of the original "Rosie the Riveter" women who stepped up to work on assembly lines around the country after the men went overseas to fight in World War II.
While decades have passed since she made the five-day bus trip to California, the spry 91-year-old remembers the experience like it was yesterday.
"I was never so scared in my life," she said. "I didn't know a soul and I had never been that far from home before.
"I left on a wing and a prayer."
The bus was filled with other young women and older men still looking for work as effects of the Great Depression wore on.
Torres remembers the bus driver pulling over to the side of the road for bathroom breaks.
"The driver would tell the girls to go behind the bushes on one side of the road and the men to go on the other side," she said.
Torres finally made it to California and found a job as a clerk at McClellan Air Field.
"I only had $5 in my wallet when I got the job, but then I found out I would have to wait a whole month before I would get my first paycheck," she said.
Torres said she lived on oranges she found on the side of the road and a box of saltine crackers. By the end of the month, she was on the verge of starvation, she said. She remembers getting sick after eating her first full meal at a restaurant.
Torres said the clerk job wasn't challenging enough, so she got a job at Moore's Shipyard in Oakland where Liberty ships were built. The ships were used to carry cargo overseas during the war. Torres said the company built whole ships from the ground up at the shipyard.
"My dad always taught me that any job a man could do, I could do, too," she said.
Torres finally sent a letter home to her parents, proudly telling them she was building ships to help the soldiers overseas.
"My parents took my letter to St. Michael's Church that Sunday and told everyone how proud of me they were," she said.
Within six months, she took the journeyman welder's test and began welding large steel plates for the ship's hull.
"After six months, I was the top welder," she proudly noted.
Her skill and beauty didn't go unnoticed as she caught the eye of her boss, Frank Torres. A Portugal native, he moved to San Leandro at age 3 with his family.
After they started dating, they decorated Mary's welding helmet so it would be easier to spot her among the more than 4,000 women working on the shipyard floor.
She worked at the shipyard until 1945 when Moore's began laying off all the women workers to provide jobs for men returning from the war.
Her husband continued working at a larger shipyard, retiring as a foreman after 48 years of service.
The couple were married for 62 years when he died in 2004.
They raised two sons, Jeffrey and Douglas. Torres has four grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Torres grew up "dirt poor" on Castner Avenue in Donora with her brothers, George, Mike, John and Edward; and sister, Agnes. Her father was laid off from his job at the steel mill. She is the last survivor of her immediate family.
"We were one of the poorest families in the neighborhood," she said. "I remember many Christmases we didn't get anything. But one Christmas I got a red stocking hat. I wore it to school and got teased terribly. Those years were pretty hard."
While she lost touch with most of her friends and relatives in Donora over the years, she remains close pen pals with her childhood friend Paula (Siba) Badzik. The women had a chance encounter in the San Francisco airport more than 30 years ago.
"I heard someone calling me by my maiden name and I didn't recognize her at first," she said. "We call it our miracle trip."
The women now write to each other at least once a month.
Over the years, Torres and her husband invested in the stock market, and purchased a bowling alley in Fremont. After 10 years, they sold it and Torres became a beautician, opening a salon in a nearby shopping district.
And, she's still working today.
Torres says she continues to "do hair," a few days a week at The Meridian salon, and she takes her supplies to the homes of her older clients unable to travel.
"I have about seven ladies who have turned 100 on me," she said. "I don't charge them a penny. I want to help people."
Torres says she feels "blessed" to be healthy and still mentally sharp at her age. She also credits her humble beginnings for her keen sense of money and her dad for instilling the importance of hard work.
"I'm always busy doing something," she said.
In 2008, she told her life story in her book, "My Journey Through Life."
The once-shy teen who had a hard time making friends in the shipyard is now a public speaker. She shares her story at schools and clubs.
Torres also spends every Saturday volunteering at the national Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Park in Richmond, California
"I talk to people all over the world there," Torres said. "All of us Rosies are now in our 90s. I want to keep our legacy alive for generations to come."
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com
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