Olivia McCreary recalls that she “never showed off” when she went to work to make airplanes during the war. After all, her husband was fighting in Africa with the Royal Air Force; her brother had been killed in service with the Royal Navy; she had taken only a short leave of absence from her seven-day-a-week job as a machine operator to have a baby.
She was worried about earning money to support her family, about doing her job well to ensure the safety of the men on the front — and about her arms.
“It made my muscles big,” she said. “I was ashamed to wear a short-sleeved dress. I always wore three-quarter-length sleeves. I looked like a man. Eventually, I learned to love my muscles.”
McCreary, now 95, reminisced about the challenges and opportunities of women who worked during the Second World War.
“It was a great time,” she said. “It’s was also an exciting time where I learned how to rely on myself and do things I never would have thought possible before.”
Shortly before the war in 1938, McCreary and her husband George moved to London from rural Yorkshire, England, to find better opportunities for work.
“I was born in Ireland, but I grew up in England,” she said. “It was tough being black back then, and it was always tough being Irish in England. Being a Black Irish was about as tough as it gets. “
When the war broke out in 1939, McCreary feared the day her husband would be called to service.
“We were young, and I was fairly helpless and pregnant,” she said. “He was my whole world and if I lost him, I didn’t know what I’d do.”
Eventually, her worst fears came to pass, and George McCreary was drafted and ordered to report to the RAF for basic training.
“I begged him not to go, but he just kept telling me he ‘had to’ for our future and the baby’s,” she said.
Olivia McCreary remembered the feelings of hopelessness and confusion she had when her husband officially left. She did not know what to do with herself, and she had bills to take care of and a child to prepare for.
“So I got myself a job in a factory because all of my friends were doing it, and other women were doing it as well,” she said.
Through the recommendation of a friend, she set up an interview with the owner of factory in downtown London and she was almost immediately hired. When she reported to work for her first day, she remembered how scared she was to be on the factory floor and to have to learn how to use a machine.
“It was something I never dreamed of doing, but after I learned how, I loved it,” she said.
She also recalled switching her dresses for coveralls and putting her hair up in a cap. “I kind of learned to like the rough stuff anyway,” she said.
After a few months of working in the factory, she became very self-reliant and the only thing she worried about was her unborn child not being able to meet its father.
“I got letters from George that the war wasn’t going well, and I was afraid every day that I’d get that letter that he was dead,” she said.
Then the bombings started.
“The bloody Germans bombed us every night,” she said. “At first I was scared but after a few months it got more annoying than anything.”
As time went on, McCreary gave birth to her daughter Mary, named after her best friend and her grandmother.
Olivia McCreary did not take much time off to be with her newborn child; in fact, she only took two weeks. Her mother took care of her daughter.
“I had to go back to work. I needed the money, and above all, I actually liked where I worked,” she said.
McCreary worked seven days a week for five years until the war was over. Reminiscing, she never complained once; she just remembered how worried she was for her husband.
“I missed George terribly,” she said. ‘Every time I opened my mail, I expected to receive that letter, but thankfully it never came.”
Then victory came for the Allied forces on V-E Day on May 8, 1945.
She remembers the elation of everyone in London that day.
“It was pure madness,” she said. “Everywhere I went there was some celebration and people shouting and being drunk all over the place, but it was such a wonderful day because I knew George would finally be coming home.”
Finally, the day McCreary waited five years for came. On June 28, 1945, her husband George came home.
“He walked into the yard of our house wearing his uniform, dropped his bag, and I just ran into his arms,” she said. “Aside from the day Mary was born, that was the happiest day of my whole life.”
However, her joy soon turned to sorrow.
“I went to my job one day a few weeks later and they tell me that they don’t need me anymore and that the men were back and they would do a better job,” she said.
McCreary said she could not believe what she was hearing. She had served her country well during the war and now she was being tossed aside and told that she was no longer needed because she was a woman.
“I didn’t have a job anymore, as far as I was concerned I had no identity,“ she said.
With no factories willing to hire her, McCreary had to come to terms with being a stay-at home mother.
“It was bloody terrible. I was so bored all day and by this time Mary was starting school. I was all alone,” she said.
But being jobless was the least of McCreary’s concerns post-war. Her husband had been changed by the war.
“He was just different. Before the war he was a loud jovial bloke, but when came home he was quiet and there would be times he would break out into sweats and have nightmares,” she said.
It worried McCreary enough that she begged her husband to go and see a doctor. Initially, he refused.
“He flat out told me no, but I begged him day after day. He never listened,” she said.
One night, George McCreary did not come home from his work at his usual time and he remained out past midnight. Olivia McCreary waited up all night for him, worried that something might have happened to her beloved husband.
Finally at around one in the morning, she heard a car pull into the driveway of her house and and then she heard yelling. She rushed to the door and there was George McCreary lying on the grass of her driveway, drunk.
“There he was drunk off his ass lying on the ground, yelling names loudly for the whole bloody neighborhood to hear,” she said.
McCreary ran over to her husband to help, but he refused and told her that he didn’t need help. McCreary had had enough. Tearfully, she reared back and slapped her husband right across his face.
“I hadn’t cried in years, and I bopped him good for making me do it,” she said. “I pleaded with him to get help. He looked at me and said, ‘Olivia I love you,’ and cried into my shoulder, and I cried with him right there on the lawn. The neighbors must have thought we were mad.”
The next day, George McCreary took the day off from work, and the McCrearys went to the doctor to have him examined. The doctor did a thorough examination and after a few days, diagnosed him with a case of shell shock. The doctor explained that it was a common condition for soldiers returning from wars and that he had already diagnosed 20 ex-soldiers with the condition.
“But what cheesed me off was that he told George he simply had to ‘get over it.’ I had never been more angry in me life,” she said. “Come to find out all these years later George had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). If I could have met that doctor again, I would have knocked him right on his arse.”
Determined to get her husband back to his normal self, McCreary took her husband to a therapist in London, who was more sympathetic to his condition.
“This doctor knew what he was doing and worked with George a lot to get him back to the man I loved,” she recalled.
Eventually, with extensive therapy George McCreary returned to the gregarious personality that he was before the war. Still, he did “every now and then” have nightmares of the horrors of the Western Front.
During her husband’s “struggles with therapy,” McCreary never stopped applying for jobs, despite having a second child, whom they named Dwayne and called Will. She did not want “a woman’s job”; she wanted to go back to the only place she felt comfortable, the factory. Eventually, she got a break.
“They opened up a new steel factory not too far from our house, and I applied. The foreman interviewed me, and he was impressed enough that he hired me,” she said.
Finally McCreary was back where she wanted to be, but it didn’t come easy.
“The boys teased me hard at first; they called me ‘Mick’ and ‘Molly’ for the first few months and said that a woman didn’t belong here and that I was moving too slowly. It was a bloody lie, but that just meant I had to work twice as hard,” she said.
McCreary eventually came to be known as one of the top workers in the factory and earned the respect of her male co-workers as the hardest working, rarely taking a day off and working late into the night. That earned her the nicknames such as “Olivia the Great,” “The Iron Shamrock” and her favorite: “The Woman of Steel.”
McCreary worked in the steel factory for over 35 years – from 1950 until 1985, first as a floor worker, then as a forewoman in her later years.
“George would get mad at me often when I came home late and asked why I worked so hard,” she said. “I told him if he wanted me to stay at home, he never should have gone to war,” she said with a laugh.
Shortly after her retirement in 1985, George McCreary died and left a very large hole in her heart.
“I cried for weeks. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. It was like he went to war again,” she said.
With no job and no husband, McCreary needed to find something to occupy her time. She tried endless hobbies, but nothing worked to get her mind off of her boredom and grief, until one day, she got a call from her daughter Mary in America.
“Mary and Will had moved to America to go to school and ended up staying there for work in New York,” she said. “For years they tried to get me and George to move across the pond, but I told them I’d sooner rather kiss a Frenchman.
“It’s not that I didn’t like America. We’d gone there on vacation before. It’s just that England was much better, and I hated bloody baseball,” added McCreary, a big fan of cricket.
After a long conversation with her daughter, McCreary decided that she needed to be closer to her children and grandchildren, the only family she had left. So after a few months of planning and making a visit to New York City, McCreary moved into a studio apartment in Harlem.
“Mary and Will fought over who was going to put me up, but I told them that I wanted my own place. I was a young woman, and if I was going to bring a man back to the apartment I didn’t want them to tell me anything,” she said.
McCreary came to like living in America and loved being close to her grandchildren, on whom she always imparted wisdom.
“I told me granddaughters to never cry themselves over a man because they’re not worth it,” she said with a smile.
“I told the grandsons that if they didn’t treat their mothers and girlfriends right that I would always be there to pop them up their heads,” she added, laughing.
Though she was happy to be with her family, McCreary still wanted something to do to take her mind off her boredom. And that’s when she got the perfect idea.
“It came to me as I was looking back on old pictures of meself that that there must have been thousands of women who worked in the factories during the war,” she said. “We should have a reunion.”
So McCreary called some of her old co-workers who lived in America and asked them to see if they had interest in a reunion with their friends. The response she got was overwhelming.
“I had over 200 riveters tell me they were interested in the reunion, so I hired an organizer and we put together the reunion in the lobby of the Sheraton in Manhattan,” she said.
The event was a success. Almost 350 riveters came and reminisced about the “good old days.” McCreary got to meet so many new people and hear so many interesting stories that she felt as though she had a purpose again.
“It was such a success that we had to do one again a few years later by popular demand,” she said with a laugh. “I was just happy to do it because it gave me something to do.”
Life went on for McCreary, who saw society change around her.
“People these days aren’t as nice,” she said. “In the old days people would ask you how you were on the street. Now they just tell you to piss off.”
But she doesn’t hate everything about today’s society.
“I must be the only person in America who doesn’t hate the Kardashians,” she said. “They’re fabulous!”
And what she would tell young women today?
“Don’t be dependent. Work hard and don’t complain,” she said.