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Home : News : News
NEWS | March 25, 2021

Women's History Month: Legacy of the ‘Kelly Katies’

By Samantha Mathison 433rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Before the 433rd Airlift Wing arrived at Kelly Field in 1960, a major shift in workforce demographics had already taken place on the flight line.

World War II and the Korean War forced people on a national level to reconsider women’s capabilities in what used to be regarded as “men’s work.”

Initially, the United States was reluctant to enter into World War II, which began in 1939. However, the threat of war caused President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress to initiate the first peacetime military draft in September 1940.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, changed American sentiment. The next day, President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, which passed with only one dissenting vote.

Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. The nation was now at war with three formidable adversaries and needed to be prepared to fight on two distant fronts; Europe and the Pacific.

This demand’s immediacy resulted in the U.S. government requesting cooperation and contributions from all Americans, including women and minorities.

The U.S. had to quickly raise, train and outfit a military force and find a way to supply itself and its allies with war materials, resources and labor. America’s military had grown to 2.2 million personnel and consisted of men and women drawn from civilian life.

With so many, mostly men, being called off to war, there was still a need for hands to turn wrenches, build engines and fix aircraft on the home front. War production drove the need to recruit women.

In the 1940s, the United States government began a publicity campaign to encourage women to sign up for non-traditional jobs using “Rosie the Riveter” as a symbol. At Kelly Field in San Antonio, the women who worked these jobs were known as “Kelly Katies.”

By 1945, more than 10,000 “Kelly Katies” worked alongside men, consisting of 40 percent of the workforce and providing support for aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang fighter and the B-29 Superfortress bomber.

With these women’s help, Kelly Field became the world’s largest air depot by the end of World War II, and women worked in almost every shop there.

Not only did the “Kelly Katies” face discrimination and defy stereotypes, but they also had to deal with the worry of their loved ones fighting in the war.

Examples of their grit can be found in an article by Air Force News published in 1999:

~ “Julia Macha worked in the maintenance shops. She received a telegram at 10 p.m. one evening notifying her that her son was missing in action. Julia still came to work the next morning.”

~ “Pearl Murphy worked for the supply division. She was one of the few African American women employed at Kelly at the time. Before coming to Kelly, she earned $51 per month as a 'domestic.' Her government job paid $128 a month. With that salary, she was able to put her son through medical school.”

~ ​“Estella Davis, 68, celebrated 27 years at Kelly. Stella was the first woman to come to work at Kelly Field in December 1917. She retired in September 1945, but only after she was sure she was no longer needed to support the war effort.”

After World War II ended in 1945, most women went back to their pre-war roles, relinquishing their jobs to returning veterans. However, the nation’s perspective on women’s capabilities continued to change.

For instance, the impact of women’s contributions during World War II resulted in the Army requesting them full permanent military status. On June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. This authorized women to serve permanently in all military branches, including the newly formed U.S. Air Force.

So when the Korean War began in 1950, it was easier for “Kelly Katies” to return to Kelly Field to overhaul B-29 Superfortress bombers and B-36 Peacemaker engines.

Maintenance crews also labored to overhaul other aircraft recalled from storage, such as P-51 Mustang fighters, Curtis C-46 Commando transports, T-11 Vampire jet fighter trainers and various helicopters, not to mention the hundreds of radios, propellers, airframe parts and engine accessories the Kelly Field shops repaired and manufactured.

When the 433rd AW moved to Kelly Field in 1960, women already had boots on the ground and paved the way for future generations.

Currently, it is not so uncommon to see a woman working or leading in the maintenance and industrial fields out on the flight line. They’re embedded as civilians and as members of the military. While equal pay and treatment are still topics of discussion, the “Kelly Katies” helped dissolve gender roles and advance the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s.

The 433rd AW, also known as the “Alamo Wing,” is an Air Force Reserve unit with approximately 2,400 members. The wing headquarters and 20 subordinate units are tenants at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

The wing is the first Air Force Reserve Command unit to fly its own C-5 Galaxy aircraft, the world’s second-largest aircraft. The C-5 is designed to provide a massive strategic airlift for deployment and supply of combat and support forces worldwide. It’s capable of carrying vast and heavy cargo at intercontinental ranges and jet speeds.

As a C-5 wing, the Alamo Wing’s mission is to provide combat-ready Reserve Citizen Airmen anywhere and anytime. The wing stands ready to perform airlift and other types of operations around the globe at a moment’s notice.