Remembering Melba Brecht, an original Rosie the Riveter
WHITTIER – It should come as no surprise that Melba Brecht was the last original person in her neighborhood; having moved to Whittier in 1949, she was likely one of the city’s longest standing residents.
Still, it was quite the road to get to that point.
Brecht was born in 1929 in Crosby, Texas, amid what her daughter Kimla describes as “backwoods” living conditions with no running water.”
The first and only surviving child to a teen mom and a 40-year-old homeless man, she would find herself orphanage-bound by age 6, due to her mother’s departure and her father’s inability to care for her during the Great Depression.
“Melba’s mother left and started another family,” said Kimla. “When the Great Depression started in 1929…her relatives could no longer feed her and her dad, so they asked Child Services to take her.”
She would stay at Faith Home Orphanage until the age of 13.
During her time in the orphanage, Brecht earned an allowance by taking on certain responsibilities. However, her father would “visit” her and ultimately take her earnings. Her mother would never visit.
A faith in God was also encouraged during this period, previously planted by her deceased grandmother.
Finally, she would be adopted by her aunt and uncle who owned a ranch.
The story wasn’t much better, however, as Brecht would now have to endure verbal and physical abuse.
“Melba had scars from his belt buckle,” said Kimla. “She remembered heated arguments that included plate throwing.”
By her senior year in high school, World War II had broken out.
Bracht would work at an ice cream parlor, saving up her earnings so that she could attend riveting school upon graduation.
“She just had a love of country,” said Kimla. “Things started out hard for her…She valued the fact that you can make your own choices and become whoever you want.”
“That’s a really good question, of, ‘Why would someone be so patriotic after such a rocky childhood…I think she felt like it was more than a graduation; it was a life graduation, not just a high school diploma.”
After graduating, Bracht would save $300 and earn her riveting diploma.
With $22 left in hand, she would make her way to California.
Bracht would work on P38 plane wings in a vacated Hollywood studio that was “aerial camouflaged” to protect the workers from the potential threat of Japanese bombers.
“She only saw the wing; she never saw the plane together,” said Kimla.
What she did find, however, was her eventual husband, Glenn “Butch” Brecht.
Brecht was cunning in her courtship of the ever shy Butch, often asking to borrow tools from him in the hopes that he would ask her out.
It worked. He would propose six weeks after their first date. They would marry in January of 1944.
The couple would work five years to save for a home before starting a family.
Of course, the couple would end up picking a home in Whittier, which was still being built at the time.
Butch would find work at a detergent factory. Sticking to a budget and a strict policy of saving a dime of every dollar earned, Brecht was able to be a full-time homemaker.
They’d go on to have three children.
Melba was very active both in the community and with her kids, including as a Sunday school teacher, Girl Scout troop leader, and PTA member.
She even ran for a seat on the School Board.
Along with being able to provide many luxuries and opportunities to their children (much in part to their saving policy), the couple also agreed to never fight in front of their kids.
“My friends say, ‘This can’t be true, it isn’t possible,’” said Kimla. “But my parents kept this agreement.”
Butch passed away in 1981. She never remarried.
After her husband’s passing, Brecht remained very active and involved; she even finally got to see a completed P38 plane in 2011, while at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino.
She would live to see the birth of four grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
At the end of her life Kimla says that her mother wanted to be remembered most for “her friendship with God.”
She prioritized this relationship, treating the Bible like love letters from God,” said Kimla. “She knew how she was treating others through her choice of words and actions was how she was treating God Himself, and she hoped to inspire her family and friends by growing her love and knowledge of Him.”
Brecht passed away in 2019, and was interred next to Butch at Rose Hills.