Eastern Kentucky's "Rosie the Riveter"

Dec 6, 2011

SADIEVILLE -- She was 17, a mountain girl from Perry County on a weekend visit to her father's Leslie County sawmill when a relative brought Lela Sizemore the news. "I was outside with a brother when somebody came out and told us Pearl Harbor had been bombed," 87-year-old Lela Sizemore Byrd said Monday.

"We knew the Japanese had people visiting the president. We had no idea there was going to be a war," Mrs. Byrd said.

But 70 years ago Wednesday, Japanese aircraft bombed, torpedoed and strafed American ships, air fields and Army bases on Oahu, the third-largest island in Hawaii, then a U.S. possession less than 20 years from becoming a state.

"I knew where Pearl Harbor was because we studied geography in school. I knew it was a possession and that's where the ships and everything were," Mrs. Byrd said.

"At the time, my emotions were up and down, fear and not knowing (what was going on). We didn't have instant communication," she said.

But over the next few weeks, as she wrapped up her senior year at Hazard High School, Lela Sizemore learned more from radio news broadcasts and newsreels shown at movie theaters.

"I had two brothers who served in the Army, Elmer, my older brother who was drafted and Dewey, who served under Patton. I don't remember who Elmer served under," Mrs. Byrd said.

And after her high school graduation, she contributed to the war effort like hundreds of thousands of other American women who filled manufacturing job vacant left by men gone to combat.

"I went to Ypsilanti, Michigan, to build B-24 bombers," Mrs. Byrd recalled.

"I worked on an assembly line at Willow Run," she said, referring to the Ford Motor Co. aircraft production facility. "I worked in the bomb bay section of the plane, running wires through conduit."

Though women joining the workforce are credited with playing a large role in the war effort, Mrs. Byrd certainly doesn't count herself as a hero.

"I was just an ordinary person doing a job," she said. "You went to work, you did your day's work, and you came home."

Asked how many airplanes she helped assemble, Mrs. Byrd said, "I have no idea."

In all, the plant built more than 8,000 bombers.

One day in early April, 1945, "the landlady met us at the door and said President Roosevelt's dead," she remembered.
"I worked until the war started winding down in Europe," she said.

After the war, she returned to Perry County where she began dating an old friend, Carlen Byrd, himself just returning home after years with the 101st Airborne. He'd seen action parachuting into Normandy the night before D-Day, as well as in the besieged city of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

They married and built their life and family in Hazard. He died in 1990.

Mrs. Byrd remained in Hazard until two years ago, when she moved in with her daughter and son-in-law, Jean Harrison and retired Georgetown dentist Ershal Harrison, in their Pokeberry Road home.

She's also learned more about the Japanese: Her grandson, Daniel Harrison, married Michiko Suzuki, whom he met on visits to Georgetown's Japanese sister city, Tahara. She's embraced her daughter-in-law.

"She's got a great heart," Daniel Harrison said about his grandmother. "She said hate doesn't get anybody anywhere."

And last summer, Mrs. Byrd was treated to some memories.
An event at Lexington's Bluegrass Airport brought in a couple of World War II vintage aircraft, including a B-24. She took her daughter and son-in-law.

"I showed them the part where I worked," Mrs. Byrd said.