“Not Going to Make It”

SPARs, the Coast Guard women, had similar training as WAVES.  SPAR Dorothy Riley Dempsey remembers the physical training as being extremely taxing.

We were not prepared for boot camp. We had to jump through the tires, you know. Then the next thing we had to do was we had to scale a wall.  We couldn’t do it.  I said to the girl in back of me, “Quinn, push, because I’ll never get over that wall.”

There was a big rope and it had a knot on it.  And there was a pit with mud here.  We had to back up and jump and my friend Quinn who was with me, I said, “Quinn, I’m never going to make that pit.”  And she said, “Neither am I.”  So we sneaked over to another line. We never had to go over it.  We didn’t get caught.  I said, “If we’re caught, we’re out. They’ll get rid of us.”

The photo comes from a Navy post card set produced about the Hunter College boot camp. It’s from the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Getting the News

The Navy put out newsletters to keep the WAVES up to date. The newsletters at first started out quite simple – just a copied sheet or two of paper with a few sketches – but ultimately the publications became quite polished, featuring in-depth articles, photographs and even comics.

This newsletter was published in January of 1945. It was a national publication that was designed to go out to all WAVES regardless of where they served. The photo on a cover shows a WAVE working with sailors who are learning how to use pressurized masks for high-altitude flying.

The national newsletter focused on news of interest to any WAVE. But individual bases also put out newsletters, with location-specific information.

This newsletter is held in the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

New Year’s Day

Yesterday, we mentioned the idea of showing an image a day through 2012. Today we’re starting out with something festive.

During WWII, messages supporting the war effort were found in all sorts of interesting places. Including in fans.

This fan, found in the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, shows a woman dressed in patriotic clothing (note the braid and “overseas” hat she’s wearing), drawings of ships in battle at sea, and a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance.

This is the fan folded.

Why We Fight

The U.S. National Film Registry announced its latest selections late yesterday, and included on the list is a World War II-era documentary propaganda classic. The film is called The Negro Soldier. It follows soldiers from pre-enlistment through basic training.

What was remarkable about the film wasn’t that it included African American soldiers in training (though that was indeed unusual at the time). But what was really incredible is that the filmmakers were specifically instructed to avoid Hollywood stereotypes about African Americans. So the men featured were shown coming from a variety of jobs (lawyers, musicians, athletes). According to film historians Thomas Cripps and James Culbert, the cautions included to:

Avoid stereotypes such as the Negroes’ alleged affinity for watermelon or pork; also avoid strong images of racial identity (‘play down colored soldiers more Negroid in appearance’ and omit ‘Lincoln, emancipation, or any race leaders or friends of the Negro’).

While initially intended for African American military audiences, people who saw the film thought the film should be shown to African American and white audiences, civilian and military, a response which surprised the filmmakers.

The Negro Soldier was directed by Frank Capra, who also directed the famous “Why We Fight” series of propaganda films (1942-1945). These films were designed to raise morale in the U.S. film audience and help people understand the complexities of the war. Capra began working on the films shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Capra saw them as the American answer to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s powerful Triumph of the Will. He used footage mostly produced by the U.S. Office of War Information to craft his seven-film series.

The first film in the “Why We Fight” series, 1942′s Prelude to War, won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 1943.  The “Why We Fight” series became part of the National Film Registry in 2000. With the addition of The Negro Soldier, this means that another important part of World War II-era domestic propaganda will be restored and preserved in the Library of Congress for future generations.

World War II women didn’t get the Capra treatment. However, this OWI film Glamour Girls of 1943 does show how the government was trying to get women to participate in the war effort as well.

70 Years Ago….

It was in the just-past-dawn hours of a quiet Sunday morning at an exotic base for U.S. military personnel. The ships were anchored in the port, lined up like sailors at attention waiting for an inspection. A routine day.

And just after 6am, the first wave of Japanese planes launched from Japanese carriers in the Pacific. Two hours later, the planes reached their targets. Pearl Harbor.

More than 90 ships were docked in the harbor, including eight battleships. The USS Pennsylvania was in dry dock on one side of the harbor. The rest sat in battleship row:  the USS Oklahoma, the USS West Virginia, the USS California, the USS Maryland, the USS Tennessee, the USS Nevada and the USS Arizona. Five of the ships received some damage in the raid. The USS Oklahoma flipped upside down (“turned turtle” in Navy parlance) and sank. The West Virginia also sank. But a sinking ship can be a slow-moving process and for the most part men were able to escape those ships.

That wasn’t the case for the crew of the USS Arizona. At just after 8am, the ship was hit by an armorpiercing bomb that ignited some of the ammunition aboard the ship. It exploded. And 1,177 men were killed – the largest number of men lost on any ship that day and about half of the total casualties of the attack.

And then came the second wave of Japanese fighters.

By 10am, the attack was over.  Two-thousand and three Americans were dead. Twenty-one ships were sunk or damaged. One-hundred and eighty-eight aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged.  Most planes were hit on the tarmac.

The news would gradually trickle back to the mainland that Sunday afternoon. And the world would forever change.

We remember Pearl Harbor.

Why Women Choose the Military

Today approximately 20 percent of all new military recruits are female and 11 percent of the U.S. forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been women. (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America)

Why do women choose military service?  Here’s what Army First Lieutenant Jessica Scott, contributor to the PBS “Regarding War” blog,  says:

” There are a number of things that the military offers that makes joining and staying in the military attractive for women and men alike. According to the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services’s Annual Report for 2008, the number one reason women stayed in the military was their sense of job satisfaction and job performance. Other reasons for women to stay in the military included access to health care, education opportunities, a sense of purpose and being part of a team. “

To read her full article click here.

Joining the service in the ’40s was a different story.  Taking the same jobs in the Navy as men had never happened before, the WAVES were breaking out of traditional roles and looking for a way to get involved in the war effort.

Pearl Harbor was a milestone for many WAVES in their decision to join.  Read more about women’s roles in society and the military before WWII on the Homefront Heroines site exhibit “Before the Waves.” 

So Women Can’t Write About War, Huh?

The Guardian UK published a piece Friday from author Julia Lovell where she talks about “common knowledge” in publishing that women can’t write about war. In it, she argues (quiet compellingly, I might add) that the view of military history as only being about explosions and battlefields is in fact an old fashioned model of military history. A more contemporary view, she says, is to think about military history as a multidisciplinary field, which embeds “political, social, cultural and personnel contexts.” In other words, war is about more than just battles.

Yet “we” don’t want to hear that. I’ve been told that the everyday stories of the WAVES I’ve interviewed are just anecdotes, and not really “important” history.  Or (horrors!) the stories are told in a way which is too conversational and attempts to reach to a larger audience, so so clearly can’t be “proper” history. The criticism seems to echo what the women have told me frustrates them about the World War II histories they’ve seen: it’s evident their story isn’t really worth telling (at least to the powers that be).

Hospital Corps

The larger story of war, of course, is all about the minutiae. The battles and explosions are few and far between when compared with the everyday: the people who work behind the scenes to make sure the troops on the front lines have what they need, the waiting and training in between the fights, the political machinations as each side jockeys for position. One women we spoke with described her military group as something closer to the to sarcastic cut-ups of M*A*S*H than the heroic portrayal by Tom Brokaw of The Greatest Generation. Others talk about the waiting, the boredom, the crushing dullness of the day-in-day-out sameness as their wartime experience. They challenge our notion of what heroism is. And, yes, their experiences, even the minutiae, can change the course of the world.

So why is there such a resistance to tell that story?

Woman in a Man’s World

Janette experienced the good and bad of America’s reaction to women in military service. The concept of women in uniform was completely new to many Americans. They were used to seeing women participate in the military as nurses, but not taking the same jobs as men.


After more than a year and a half in the service, Janette went home to Indiana to visit friends and family.  She shares one negative encounter she had with the sister of a childhood friend:

” I go in the house, I guess. Her sister was in there. I didn’t know her sister. I had never met her sister. I was in uniform because you had to wear them all the time.  And her sister said …

‘I want you to leave!’ Just as soon as I stepped in the door.

She wanted me to leave; I couldn’t imagine what was going on.  And Teresa, this friend of mine, said to her … ‘What do you mean?’

She [the sister] said, ‘It’s because of her that my husband has to go out on a ship and any woman in uniform should not be in.’  She said, ‘It’s the worst thing that ever happened to our country.’

You see, from her point of view, that was how she thought. But I, I was astounded.  I just said, ‘Oh, no, they need everybody.’ … Then I turned around and left. There was no point in arguing or anything.  But I’ll never forget that because that was a shocker.”

Janette also had positive experiences where she was honored for her service in touching ways.  She shares about an experience she had in the bus station while returning to the base from her visit home:

“I was walking through the station and a very elderly man said, ‘Ma’am?’ And I looked at him. He said, ‘Here’s 50 cents I would like to give you.’

And I said, ‘Oh, no.  I don’t need that. I’m going back to the base.’  

He said, ‘No, I just want to give it to some service person.’

I kept saying, no, but finally I saw he was so patriotic he just wanted to give it — see, it almost makes me cry to think about it.  And I so I took it and thanked him and went on. That was his contribution. I’ll never forget that.”