In honor of Veterans Day, it is only fitting to share several of my grandmother’s narratives and photos from the Navy during World War II. [Related: The Book That Brought Us Together]
She led the first WAVES group and was stationed in Pearl Harbor after the bombing, all at a younger age than I am now. Can you imagine? The strength of individuals in the military is absolutely incredible, and veterans deserve highest respect. Thank you for your service.
The Trip Across the Country
I don’t remember that it was any great big decision to join the WAVES. It had been a year since the terrible day of Pearl Harbor. I had watched many of my nurse friends at Waltham Hospital outside of Boston leave for the Army or Navy and I felt a great urge to go also. At that time I was still an X-ray technician in training. We were beginning to feel the effects of the war in Europe. We had a couple of Jewish refugees who were interning at the hospital before they could practice in this country. The wife was a handsome woman who had been an acclaimed pediatrician in Vienna. I can still see her as I sat beside her in the dining room at the hospital. Her dark hair was pulled back in a bun. She was wearing pierced earrings long before it was popular in this country.
She would talk about all the things she left behind in Vienna, such as the tapestry-covered gilded chairs, and tears would be streaming down her face. Her husband had been a professor of urology in Vienna. They both felt that coming to the Waltham, Massachusetts hospital was a step backward in their lives. I’ve often wondered how they felt at the end of the war when the news of the Holocaust came out.
I don’t remember signing up to join, but I do remember that the week before I was called out in the middle of the night to be prepared to accept victims of the terrible Coconut Grove nightclub fire. We didn’t get any at Waltham but two of the girls who were supposed to be in our group going to Cedar Falls, Iowa were killed as they were celebrating their entry into the WAVES. What a tragedy to mark our entry into service!
I was in an upper berth in the train leaving South Station reading a huge book, which someone had given me as a going-away gift. I wish I could remember the name of the book because I can still feel how much I was involved in that story, and how lonely I felt not knowing what was ahead. I had been given a going-away surprise party by my friends at the hospital. One of the gifts they gave me was a pink-flowered and quilted bathrobe that reached to the floor. I had been a Depression child in hand-me-down clothes, so I cuddled up in the luxuriousness of this best of all gift. I can still feel the delight and joy when I wrapped myself in it for the first time.
We were the first group of enlisted WAVES to be trained at the Cedar Falls Teacher’s College, and our officers who also had been recently trained in the Navy were tentatively feeling their way. We were all in this experiment together. We were given batteries of tests and taught to march in formation. But because we were the first wave of WAVES, we were treated much more tenderly that the later ones who joined and went through “boot camp” at Hunter College in New York City.
We were taken to Waterloo, Iowa, the nearest city to be fitted for our uniforms, which had been especially designed by a French designer. It was a cold and sleeting day and I remember standing outside of the store with a group of others. There was one girl in pumps, open-toed shoes and, of course, she was freezing. She was from Atlanta, Georgia and besides thinking how impractical she was, I got my first glimmer of what it was like to be from the Deep South. Her very feminine voice and her drawling accent were music to my ears and very different from what I knew in New England. She was also an X-ray tech like myself, so we eventually worked together and our paths crossed many years later after I married and went to Atlanta.
After we had finally gotten our uniforms, we were called out for formal inspection. I remember standing at attention with the snow coming down and looking out across Iowa cornfields. I was very cold and looking across the flat land with only dried cornstalks on the horizon, and with a little drift of snow piling up on my left shoulder, I remember thinking, “Now I know how the Russian soldiers feel.”
A few days later, our assignments were posted on a bulletin board. I remember standing in front of this list assigning twenty-six of us to the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, and I with my name being first on the list was designated as being in charge! I thought, “Well, I guess it doesn’t mean very much, for I am the youngest in the group and certainly not experienced in leadership.” But it turned out to be that the situation creates the leadership!
Late one snowy, sleeting night in the middle of January, with the temperature registering at seventeen degrees, we were shepherded onto our train for the West Coast. I remember the sleet sparkling in the lamplight and the excitement and anticipation of our journey into the unknown. We were receiving the well wishes of our officers, who hoped they had prepared us for this historic event of being the first women in the Navy to be sent to our stations!
We soon discovered we were on a troop train. Our two cars were sandwiched between cars carrying male air-force personnel ahead of us and there were cars behind us filled with men recently off of Atlantic submarine duty heading toward duty in the Pacific. Well, nature took its course and the attraction between the seats took over. Our car soon filled with the male members of the serviced cars behind us. By the end of the day, our cars had been trashed with beer cans and cigarette butts and crowds. Crisis set in and another member of our group who was older than I, and a former gym teacher named Dorney, stepped forward and helped me bring order. We cleared the cars of the men and locked the doors at each end. I remember standing on a bottom bunk and hanging onto the upper bunk making my first speech, asking them to remember that we were setting standards for women in the service. When we stopped for meals at the Fred Harvey restaurants along the way, our women in uniform lined up by the side of the cars and marched in formation to the restaurants. Of course, we received cheers and jeers from the men, but we made it intact to Los Angeles. Along the way we were snowbound in Flagstaff, Arizona. The pipes froze in our cars and under many blankets, I can remember looking out the windows into snow-laden pine trees. It was a pretty miserable time at that point.
However, soon after that I awoke hearing the dinging of bells at a railroad crossing and looked out in great excitement to see my first palm tree. The weather was warming and we were in Needles, California. The rest of the trip was sheer joy and anticipation. We changed trains in L.A. for the line that goes down to San Diego. A movie star, whose name I can’t remember, but who was in the “Road” pictures with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, came back into our cars and sat on the arm of my seat pointing out the race track at Del Mar and other sights along the way. We, too, were celebrities being the first women in the Navy to go the West Coast. We were greeted at the station in San Diego by Captain Willet from the U.S. Navel Hospital in Balboa Park. My picture appeared on the front page of the San Diego Tribune being greeted by him, and also made my hometown paper back in Naugatuck, Connecticut. What a way to begin a Navy career!
Thirty years later, my daughter moved to the San Diego area in Solana Beach, Cardiff by the Sea, and La Costa. I have visited and seen the same train tracks and remember the excitement and joy of seeing the Pacific Ocean and California for the first time!
Flashbacks to December 7th, 1941
I put my microwaved oatmeal and banana dish and a cup of green tea down on the table, clicked on the TV to the Today Show as I usually do and saw Lower Manhattan come up on the screen. One of the towers of the World Trade Center had smoke coming out and I thought, “Oh, oh, a plane has accidentally hit one of the towers as had happened to the Empire State Building a few years back.” But then along came another plane to hit the other tower and a large fireball was coming out of both towers. My brain just couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. Was it real, a simulation, or a movie? Then I listened to the voices in the studio on Channel 9 and finally comprehended that it was an attack, an unbelievable attack with two high-jacked U.S. passenger planes. The scene unfolded on the screen and the whole horrible sequence of events continued. I, like millions of others watching most of the day, felt gut-wrenching reactions of extreme, unexpected, unbelievable vulnerability. I was immediately taken back to the feelings I had on learning of the Pearl Harbor attack.
That particular day, December 7th, 1941, I was living in the nurses’ home at Waltham Hospital in Massachusetts, where I was training to be an X-ray technician. It was a sunny, cool day and it was Sunday. I climbed into bed and was listening to the New York Philharmonic on the radio when the announcer broke in and announced that Japanese planes had attacked our fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At the time the question was “Where is Pearl Harbor?” Two and a half years later, I would be stationed at Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital!
Later on September 11th, 2001, my daughter would call from the big island in Hawaii where she, her husband, and two children were staying. Peggy’s voice sounded scared and it was early in the morning there and she didn’t want to wake the kids. Of course, I was worrying whether they would get back to Boulder all right later in the week. Later that day, I went down to my church to pick up some document. Some younger friends of mine were there setting out candles, preparing for a vigil to take place later that night. When I said I was having flashbacks to December 7th, they replied, “Oh no, it’s nothing like Pearl Harbor, it’s much worse.” I felt discounted and misunderstood. As I left the church, tears streamed down my face and flashbacks like fast forwarding on a video, or flicking ahead photographs on a projector, were going through my brain of how our lives were totally changed that day. I was remembering watching my nurse friends sign up to join the nurse corps and I felt envious because I wanted to join in too. Then the announcement that the WAVES, a Navy reserve corps for women, was being formed with Mildred MacAffee Horton, the president of nearby Wellesley in command, and I suddenly knew that was for me. So shortly after I left Boston, just before Christmas, I was on a train bound for Cedar Falls, Iowa for boot camp, where I learned to march in formation and was soon wearing a stylish dark blue uniform. At the end of a month in training, we boarded a troop train one cold stormy night with the temperature at seventeen degrees below. The sparkling snow looked like granulated sugar and twenty-six of us hospital workers were heading toward San Diego, California. Much to my surprise and anxiety, the list with the names of people going to the West Coast had my name in charge of this group! After one day of mixing with the air force men in front of us and the submarine men on the other, we locked the doors at each end of two cars and I marched our girls in formation off the train at every stop at the Fred Harvey Houses along the way. In those days the Fred Harvey restaurants in the train stations were the only places to eat on the trains going west of Chicago. We eventually arrived in Los Angeles after getting snowbound in Flagstaff, Arizona for a day and went down the coast to beautiful San Diego.
I was remembering the long rows of barrage balloons which were anchored all along the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean and the desk-like stations where large pieces of paper were attached that would change color when poison gas was in the area. I remembered the horde of wounded marines and sailors who came in on a boat from Guadalcanal and were hunkered down in the pink stucco patio of the hospital at Balboa Park. I was remembering the thousands of wounded we X-rayed with osteomyelitis before sulfa and penicillin came along. I was also seeing the mines which sank the destroyer my first love was on, and which killed all the officers on board as they were eating lunch. I was remembering the kamikaze planes that came down off Okinawa and crashed onto the deck of the destroyer my loved one was on.
The last six months of the war I was at the U.S. Naval Hospital, a Quonset-hut hospital in Pearl Harbor. Some of the time I was there, I was sent out to the wards to give penicillin shots to men with complete body casts. Then one day, while I was at breakfast in the mess hall, I looked over the shoulder of someone reading a newspaper and saw a picture of the Enola Gay dropping the first atomic bomb. A few months later, all the boats in the harbor were blowing their whistles at four o’clock in the morning and patients were wildly rolling their wheelchairs up and down the corridors. The war was suddenly over and we came home and forgot about those four life and nation changing years, where thousands and millions worldwide lost their lives. However, on September 11th, 2001 at the age of eighty, I was looking down the long corridor of time and remembering when time stood still… and then changed course, and tears were flowing knowing we’d never be the same again.
I went home and called my ex-husband in Atlanta, who had spent five years in the Pacific and was stationed on Tinian, poised to be on the front lines of the invasions of Japan and we commiserated on what was happening in New York.
Because I was in college and not paying too much attention to the war in Europe, like the rest of the U.S.A., I was unaware that Hitler had completely taken over Europe and was beating up on Britain. It is an irony of history, that if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor, which quickly plunged us into World War II, we might at this moment still be goose-stepping to Nazism! Thanks to Google on the Internet, I learned the extent of what was happening in Europe while I was involved in what was happening in the Pacific. This knowledge gave me a different take on the war with Iraq, which event I am still holding in abeyance. Who knows what will be the outcome! Freedom, as they say, is not free and we had paid dearly for ignoring what was going on in Germany in 1939. I think it is time the U.S. got away from the unreality of reality TV and into the true reality of what is happening in the Islamic countries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. We may have a global economy, but we are playing a global chess game politically! May God, or whomever or whatever is concerned in these affairs, grant us the wisdom to remember the far-reaching benefits of the Marshall Plan and bring us peace… true peace in our time.