At radio school in Madison, Wis., Helen learned Morse code and did communications work during the first part of the war. She and the other girls in the office would receive 24-hour news through the teletype machine and they were responsible to hand out a printed version and pass along any important information. They also communicated to other bases through code and operated telephone banks.
In November of 1943, Helen began working at the Air Traffic Control on the main base in Corpus Christi. There she worked with pilots, giving weather conditions, keeping track of flights and controlling the flow of air traffic. SNJ planes were used for training during World War II and Helen’s first airplane ride was on one of these small aircraft. Pictured below are two Navy WAVES washing an SNJ training plane in Florida.
(U.S. Navy Photograph)
Helen and her husband, Chuck, who was a pilot, later bought their own SNJ plane. They are pictured below riding in the plane over Palm Springs, Calif.
Helen’s mother came to visit her in Corpus Christi. Some of the girls, along with Helen, took her to Port Aransas or Mustang Island, off the coast. She took photos of some of the WAVES, insisting they pose on the beach in nothing but their underpants and bras. (Helen is third from the left.)
“I loved the water … the ocean is my main thing.”
Though the war was full of horrible things and hard times, Helen wanted to make the best of it. For her, the easiest way to get through the difficulty was to have fun and embrace those around her. She grew particularly close to a fellow WAVE named Theda, and they were “partners in crime.” Theda gained a reputation for sneaking into town in her civilian clothes and was continually getting into trouble for it. Helen is pictured below (third from the right) with friends, celebrating at the Swan Club.
“And I remember … a big ol’ Texan that listened to us all arguing one night to the pros and cons of women in the Navy and he sat back and he looked around and he said, well, one thing I can tell y’all. Sure smells better around here.”
Helen Gilbert was one of the first women to join the WAVES. Born in 1919, she grew up in Philadelphia and worked in the Navy as a radio operator during World War II.
Because she was part of the first group of women to enlist, they didn’t even have uniforms for the first several months of training. She had worked at the RCA (Radion Corporation of America) prior to joining the WAVES, and when her officers found out, she was assigned to train in Madison, Wis., at radio school, learning Morse code.
It was October of 1942 and Helen was excited and nervous to leave her hometown. She was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas, during the war, and Pensecola, Fla., at the end of the war.
“When we broke into that man’s world, the Navy, the United States Navy … when we did that and made them respect us, when I see Navy officers today who are women, admirals, women, I think, hot damn, we did it! We did it.”