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Hanson shares her role during WWII

Dollie Hanson

It was 1939.

Nazi Germany had taken control of Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia.

And "This... is London." Edward R. Murrow was reporting over the airwaves that Britain and France had declared war after Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939.

Back on the home front, North American Aviation, a major U.S. aircraft manufacturer, was gearing up for war, opening plants in Ohio, Kansas and Texas.

Noava "Dollie" Melton, born in Chicota, Texas and raised on the family farm, had just turned 18. She was working in the high school cafeteria when her sister, living in Dallas, contacted her about job openings at the combat aircraft plant.

Dollie, her mother and her sister, Joann, decided to leave their small town, originally an Indian village, and move to the city - "on Burlew Street" - to become engaged in the war effort.

After six months' at the North American Aviation training school, Dollie was on the assembly line, stamping parts for the P-51 Mustangs.

The planes were initially designed for the British as a medium-altitude fighter. But once the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, built in the United States, replaced its Allison engine, it became arguably the outstanding American fighter of the war.

Dollie donned her uniform - pants and shirt, dresses were impractical - her NAA badge and headed to work at 8 p.m. When most of the city was ready to retire for the day, she and her sister headed through a somewhat questionable neighborhood to begin their tour of duty.

Guards, wearing Stetsons with guns in holsters, met them at the gate. They underwent inspection every evening.

Joann headed to the "big bomber" department where she worked on wiring. Dollie picked up her big wooden mallet. A brief stint as Rosie the Riveter convinced her the hammer was her tool of choice. "Riveting was too loud," she said.

"We never stopped," she recalled. "We had to get the parts out for the boys. There were boys dying over there - and inspectors were watching us," she said, a Texas drawl remaining, despite spending more than a half century in Minnesota.

A crooked index finger bears testimony to the precision required. "I was putting a ball in the rudder and my finger went down with the bolt," she said.

"The most I earned was $1.40 an hour. We thought we were rich."

A mid-shift break afforded a meal in the cafeteria, with goat meat on the menu, Dollie recalled of the repugnant meal.

So she'd often wait 'til the end of her shift - at 4 a.m. - and head to the local cantina for enchiladas "smothered in onions.

"We were tired, it was a tiresome job, but we went out to eat." She recalls hoarding her ration stamps for ice cream.

'If I had a nickel...'

An in-house newspaper, "Take-Off," updated the employees on the results of their labor. "Mustang saved air battle of Germany," a 1945 paper declares, Dollie marking an X by the article.

But a call for contestants to become a P-51 pin-up girl, with her photo to be painted on the side of a Mustang "fighting against the enemy" held no interest for the mallet-wielding worker.

"I worked right with the men. Having worked in the fields, I knew what it was to work" - and joke.

Because she moved from station to station, her duty was spreading the "Kilroy was here" updates. And songs: "If I had a nickel, I know what I would do," she croons.

"I made a lot of friends," she recalled. Lucille Cadell, a Cherokee, is paramount in her memory. After being out of touch for years, Lucille located her. They would learn both had named their daughters Charlotte.

'Saving our boys' lives'

From 1938 to 1945, the company produced 43,208 aircraft, more than any other U.S. manufacturer.

"I was there when we learned Roosevelt had died," Dollie recalled of FDR's death in April 1945. "Everyone was crying."

Germany surrendered in May 1945, Japan in August after U.S. forces dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshma and Nagasaki.

"We were told to get our tools and go home," Dollie said. She headed out from her workplace to see sailors atop buildings cheering, the country in a state of revelry.

"There were no jobs, but it was worth it," she said of her tenure with the aircraft manufacturer.

Married in 1947, "to a GI I met at the fairgrounds," she and husband Melroy Hanson moved to Park Rapids in 1953.

A trip back to the Dallas neighborhood a few years ago proved poignant. "Everything, all the buildings were gone."

But, at 88, the memories of her years on the assembly line remain vivid.

"We worked on whatever had to be assembled," she said. "We had to get those P-51s out. They were saving our boys' lives."