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 speaks boldly about what it was like to date service men during wartime. She admits that it was difficult knowing they may be shipped out the next day and never return. “We needed love,” she says.
Below: One of the men Helen dated for nearly a year, Bill from Arkansas. The girls jokingly called him the “greek god” because of his good looks and Helen complains that other women were always hitting on him in front of her.
“We were young and we were at the peak or our hormones and there was a damn war going on. There was a war going on. OK, we went to bed with guys. We made love. It felt good. It felt safe. It wasn’t something that we were running around getting money for or doing every days. We were in some people’s eyes, promiscuous. In my eyes, we were normal.”
Helen met her husband, Chuck, a commercial pilot, in the Los Angeles airport after the war where she worked in an airport restaurant. Their first date, oddly enough was at a strip club, and it was something they laughed about from that day on. They were married in Los Angeles in March of 1951.
“Chuck was 6 foot 4 inches, good-looking, and my favorite thing – a pilot.”
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 was born in Philadelphia, but because of the Depression, when she was young, her family moved to New Jersey so that her father could find work. She had one older brother, Jim, who also enlisted in the Navy, shortly after Helen.
Helen started working soda fountain and drugstore jobs when she was 15 and she jokes about going from job to job. Her life plan was to go to college, get married and have kids. The strike on Pearl Harbor, in 1941, changed her plans and sent her on an adventure into the WAVES.
“I got fired a lot. I gave too much ice cream to my friends.”
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.”
Eileen was one of the women who took advantage of the GI Bill, which had passed in 1944 before her first tour of service ended. It had always been her dream to attend college. She took a few night courses at George Washington University, while in Washington D.C., but as soon as she signed the papers to leave the WAVES, she went to Kent State University in Ohio to study Business Administrative Economics.
Her time with the WAVES was not up though. Eileen re-enlisted in 1951 during the Korean War and volunteered for a two-year term. She was again stationed in Washington D.C. and doing Yeoman’s work, except this time as a chief.
“A chief, you know, has privileges in enlisted cafeterias and stuff and mess halls. And so you go to the head of the line, and that always bothered me. But one time I was just kind of staying back, you know. And one of the other chiefs said, “You get up here” (laughs). So I did.”
One of the highlights of her service was doing research for Captain Walter Karig, who was writing a book about the Korean War. Her name is listed in the book as a contributor.
She had planned to stay on with the WAVES permanently, but in May of 1952 she met her husband, Walter, they married in August, and she left the WAVES for good in 1953. When his service obligations ended, they moved to the West Coast, where Walter had family. Eileen now lives in Grants Pass, Oregon.
Karig’s book, where Chief Yeoman Ethel Eileen Horner is listed as a part of his staff.
Eileen was positioned in the Bureau of Ships as a “flying squadron,” or a temporary, so she was continually being moved from project to project. World War II ended in August 1945 and though the WAVES were originally supposed to be kept for duration plus six months, Eileen and others stayed on much longer.
In July 1946, Eileen was assigned to work on Operation Crossroads. This was a military mission to test nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. At that time very little was known about how nuclear weapons were created and Eileen remembers hearing terms such as “nuclear engineer” for the first time that summer.
She looks back at this project as one of the most exciting missions of her service. (To learn more about Operation Crossroads and the Bikini Atoll blast click here. To see a gallery of photos from Operation Crossroads click here.) She worked specifically with the USS Wharton, taking care of the paperwork and processing travel orders for the men assigned to this ship that would sail for Bikini Island. She was even able to wave goodbye to the ship when it left. The damaging effects of this nuclear testing were a difficult surprise for Eileen and she alludes to feeling some responsibility for the “mess” the men were sent into.
The USS Wharton (U.S. Navy photograph)
“I don’t know if any of them realized the power of the atom bomb. To the extent of what it became. Maybe the scientists themselves had an inkling, but I don’t know think they really knew.”
After training at Yeoman’s school in Cedar Falls, Eileen was stationed in Washington D.C.
The photo above was taken at Iowa State Teacher’s College in Cedar Falls where Eileen (and Thorngate ) trained.
“I always say I joined the Navy to see the sea and I saw D.C.”
She was in the city when President Roosevelt died in 1943 and remembers seeing, through tears, the riderless horse follow the procession down Pennsylvania Avenue (pictured below).
“I really did at that point realize that I was, you know – small minute part, but a part of history.”
Eileen had a moment of doubt when she was in boot camp. She remembers waking up at Hunter College in New York to a particularly rainy and overcast morning. The WAVES were marching to breakfast wearing “havelocks.” (A havelock is a covering, pictured below, that hangs down from a military hat for protection in rain or sun. Eileen calls it, “rain gear.”) She questioned her decision to enlist for a moment that morning.
“Clump clump clump. We probably looked like we were nuns from the nunnery or something. You know, dark clothes, marching along. And I looked over at the – there was the El train you know, high. You could see the lights of it. And I thought to myself, “What on earth did I sign up for? What did I think I was doing? Marching along at this ungodly hour to get breakfast? … And that was the one time when I wondered why I was where I was.”
Navy WAVES, pictured above, marching in Cambridge, Mass. (US Navy photograph)
First “chow” is served by the Red Cross at the Hunter College campus, as the facility is placed in service as the basic training center for Navy and Coast Guard women, 8 February 1943. (US Navy photograph)
Eileen remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor while she was at a church meeting. It was shortly after this infamous attack that her uncles and brother joined the Navy.
“We knew it was serious, but I don’t think any of us realized how serious, because we were teenagers, you know. So… see, I graduated in June of 1941. That first year, a lot of my classmates were killed… in that first onslaught of the war.”
The fact that the Navy WAVES uniforms were fashionable was a big hit with the women who enlisted.
“Well, look at khaki. I mean, who looks good in khaki? Or even, you know, that drab green the Marines have. But there was something more exciting about the Navy, and sea, and ships and so forth.” – Eileen Blakely
“I would look good in blue, and after all, my uniform was a dress designer: Mainbocher. … My eyes are blue so they matched. Blue is my color. ” – Eileen Blakely