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‘Kelly Katies’ helped maintain World War II warplanes in San Antonio

  • Published
  • By Nicholas Brace
  • 502nd Air Base Wing History Office

The attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II brought dramatic changes to Duncan and Kelly Fields in San Antonio, with the need for more pilots, bombardiers, navigators and maintainers that resulted in the rapid expansion of the U.S. Army Air Corps.


But by the summer of 1942, a congested sky over San Antonio had become dangerous. In response, the Army Air Forces combined Kelly and Duncan Fields in March 1943 under the single name of Kelly Field.


Flying training ended and its primary function became one of maintenance and supply, turning the base into a huge industrial complex that needed more and more workers.


Knowing they had men leaving combat duty, women workers were flooding in and, by the beginning of 1942, the depots had authority to hire in whatever numbers and whatever skill levels they could.


During this shift in its role in 1943 to logistics and maintenance, the workforce quickly grew from 1,000 to 20,000, many of them women known as “Kelly Katies,” who helped maintain U.S. warplanes at the San Antonio Air Depot. By the end of 1942, women comprised more than 27 percent of the depot workforce.


The demographic shift seen at the San Antonio depot was echoed throughout the country where women, known as “Rosie the Riveters,” contributed to the successful war effort by performing non-tradition work. At the San Antonio air depot, they were called “Kelly Katies.”


Kelly Field’s personnel officers understood that by hiring a large number of relatively unskilled employees, the previous use of on-the-job training was no longer practical. These workers needed some sort of classroom apprentice training.


As a result, the depot created the San Antonio Aircraft School in May 1941, attracting some 2,500 students in a three-month program by July. As civilian strength neared its peak by the end of 1943, the need for pre-employment training lessened, but the pre-employment training program continued on a much smaller scale.


By 1944, women made up nearly 40 percent of the Kelly workforce. While their numbers increased, this didn’t mean these “Kelly Katies” didn’t face harassment, prejudice and skepticism in their ability to do a “man’s job.”


Nonetheless, they persevered and ended up working in nearly every shop at Kelly Field, overhauling aircraft engines, taxiing aircraft and repairing damage where their small hands gained access to places larger men’s hand could not.


By 1945, these women had proved they belonged at Kelly Field, but as the men returned from combat duty in increasing numbers, the “Kelly Katies” returned to their prewar roles they had played before 1941. Their contributions would leave a lasting impression on the ability of the women workforce.


The United States called on these women again after the start of the Korean War. By January 1951, the “Kelly Katies” answered their country’s call, returning to their old jobs in the Kelly Field maintenance shops, overhauling B-29 bombers and repairing giant B-36 engines.


This time, they didn’t have to prove themselves; and at the end of this conflict, many of the “Kelly Katies” remained working at Kelly.