The unique history of the Torpedo Factory carries with it the story of Rosie the Riveter. Most people can recognize the iconic image of the woman in the blue work coveralls sporting a red bandana and flexing her muscles with the slogan “We Can Do It,” but many do not know what the image truly represents.
Lenna Reid, now 102 years old, was an original Rosie the Riveter! Lenna worked at the Torpedo Station during its early years. Her close friend Bridgette Donahue, who lived next door to Reid for over 20 years, has heard stories of Reid’s days working at the factory.
During the war, millions of women were recruited to work in jobs that had been exclusively held by men, e.g., heavy construction, machinery, lumber and steel mills, and unloading freight. America’s Rosie the Riveters supported the war effort by making the products and doing the jobs men normally would.
The courage and commitment these women had in the time of war inspire all generations today. They were trailblazers who changed how women were viewed in the workforce.
Lenna was born on March 21, 1921, and grew up without running water and electricity on a farm in Middlebrook, Virginia. She moved to Alexandria at 20 and was hired by the torpedo station to work in the machine shop. She lived in a boarding house on King Street and walked to work every day where, to this day, she says she” made the screws.”
Lenna really liked her work and the many other women who worked there. She spoke fondly of a friend named Marie. They remained friends until Marie died. Lenna married in these years and, in 1956, purchased a home in the Del Ray neighborhood with her husband, Calvin. In that neighborhood, she would eventually become friends with Bridgette Donahue.
Bridgette met Lenna in 1998, and they were neighbors until 2018 when Lenna moved to Sunrise Living Center. “When I met them, they were the longest-living residents on the block,” said Donahue.
Although Lenna was quite a bit older than Donahue, they became fast friends, spending many hours together “shooting the breeze over an occasional beer.” After Calvin passed away, the two friends “hung out” more frequently and Lenna began to open up about her time working at the Torpedo Factory. She had many stories to tell.
Over the years, Lenna often returned to her childhood home, where she continued to farm a small plot of vegetables well into her 90s. “Her work ethic and can-do spirit exemplify the ideal of the greatest generation,” said Bridgette.
Today, Lenna Reid is one of the very few women left who can call themselves a proud, original Rosie the Riveter. She lives at the Sunrise Living Center at 3520 Duke Street, where the staff threw her a party last year to honor her 102nd birthday.
Donahue made a poster highlighting Lenna’s life and time working at the Torpedo Factory. Most Sunrise staff were surprised to hear about her Rosie the Riveter exploits.
Lenna is soft-spoken these days but lights up with a beautiful smile when greeted by Activities Director Tracy Scully, who often asks about those days at the Torpedo Factory. Lenna doesn’t say much but does quietly respond when asked about the job she did. As she tells everyone else, she “made the screws.”
The Torpedo Factory was initially responsible for the manufacturing and maintenance of the Mark III Torpedo and served as a munition storage area until 1937. It was then, leading up to WWII, that production of the Mark XIV began. After the war ended, the factory manufactured parts for rocket engines. It was used as the Federal Records Center before being purchased by the City of Alexandria in 1969 and eventually becoming The Torpedo Factory Art Center.
Lenna brings special meaning to National Rosie the Riveter Day, March 21, when we celebrate the strong, devoted women who kept our country working at home while our men fought overseas.
For more information about The Torpedo Factory Art Center’s history and current activities, you can visit torpedofactory.org.