Boot Camp and Beyond

In the spring of 1943 Hunter College in the Bronx, N.Y. (now Lehman College), opened a WAVES training school.  Women were sent here for boot camp where they learned things like Naval history and marching.  They also took placement tests to find out which Navy jobs best suited their skills.

Homefront Heroines is experimenting with a new model of storytelling. We’re creating exhibits geotagged with the location of various locations important to the WAVES, like Hunter College, its buildings and surrounding apartments, with TagWhat –  as discussed in this previous post.  The posts will include video footage, interviews and interesting stories about the WAVES.

Irene Bendnekoff is one of the women we’re featuring:

So what does this mean? Check out the full exhibit here, or download the TagWhat app on your smartphone, head to the Bronx. The exhibit will pop up on your phone – you can see the WAVES’ story while your at a location important to the WAVES!  We love this method of storytelling and would love to know what you think.

Learn about the placement process, training facilities, and hear the stories of many of these WAVES in this Specialty Training exhibit.

Vogue’s Best Dressed Women

If you talk to one of World War II’s Navy WAVES, you are going to hear about her designer uniform.  The Navy was already known for having “sharp”-looking uniforms for men and with the creation of the WAVES, a lot of thought went into making an appealing uniform for women.  The women took great pride in the comfort, quality make and fashion of their Mainbocher-designed dress.

Fashion designer Main Bocher opened his own shop as an American in Paris in 1929.  He became a sensation in Europe and the United States, with many wealthy clients in both places including the Dutchess of Windsor.  His clothing was beyond what many WAVES could have afforded which is another reason they became prized possessions.

(Main Bocher)
(One of Mainbocher’s most famous designs made famous by Horst’s photo – “Mainbocher Corset”)

The WAVES uniforms were so trendy that in 1943 the WAVES and other women in uniform were named as Vogue’s “Best Dressed Women in the World Today.”

Check out this Exhibit on the uniform identity of the WAVES to learn more.

Does She Have What it Takes?

Not just any woman could get into the WAVES.  These ladies had to make the cut and after being accepted they went through a rigorous training process before becoming active duty members or officers. WAVES had to take a placement test, a physical fitness test, and had to submit letters of recomendation among other requirements (requirements for the WAVES).

Those who were accepted and enlisted became heroic figures in their hometowns and newspaper articles were written about their recruitment.

Some women did not graduate boot camp and were sent home.  Read about “washing out,” or failure here.

But those who did make it … went on from Hunter College, Smith College, Cedar Falls or wherever they trained to members of the U.S. Navy – a whole new realm for women of their time period. The ones who made the cut became the hinges of history.


Learn more about the training process and transition to military life by visiting the “Recruits to Boots” exhibit.

Creating the WAVES

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”  Regardless of some of the theological debates about Darwin’s theory of evolotion, it seems this particular statement has proved true, particularly in the last century.  Yet people can still be resistant to change.

Not everyone was supportive of the Navy, and other branches of government, giving women active duty positions during the war.  In a previous post Janette Alpaugh shared a story about a cold encounter with a woman who was not a fan of the WAVES.

The establishment of the WAVES did not happen overnight.  The process was pioneered by several influential women.  Read more about them and the creation of the WAVES in this exhibit.

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.” 

Recruitment Posters Through Time

If you’ve been to the movies recently, you may have noticed ads among the previews for the Marines or the Navy SEALS.  The U.S. military has always used mass media to recruit.

Starting in the Revolutionary War:

Photobucket(Courtesy of historyiscentral.org)

The Civil War:

Click Here for an article from the Atlantic on Civil War recruitment posters and more detail about the one shown above

World War I:

(Courtesy of North Carolina state archives)

And of course in World War II:


(Courtesy of University of North Texas)

Posters played a significant role in World War II, not only to recruit, but to encourage involvement and support from civilians. WAVES recruitment posters were sending specific messages to women. Many who joined the service discovered the WAVES because of their placement in papers, on billboards, etc.

Our Website features an exhibit all about recruitment posters. See quotes from women interviewed and learn more about wartime propaganda.

Va-va-va-Vargas

The World War II-era pin-up art is quite amazing. It’s no surprise that scholars like Walt Reed have dubbed the era “the golden age” of the pin-up.  Think about it: pin-ups were everywhere, from magazines like Esquire to the noses of planes to even personal snapshots (check out our friend Maria Elena Buzek’s fascinating book Pin-Up Grrls for a discussion of that phenomena). The director’s mother – the WAVE who inspired this project – had a collection of drawings she did during the war era of women in pin-up guise. They were everywhere.

This is a recruitment poster for the WAVES and SPARs done by pin-up artist George Petty. Petty was the “establishment” when it came to pin-ups – he pretty much created the famous Esquire pin-up centerfolds. But when he left the magazine in 1940, his role was taken over by an young upstart, Antonio Vargas.  His pin-ups (dubbed “Varga Girls”) made the Petty pin-ups look tame by comparison: buxom, long legs, tiny waists – to contemporary eyes a combination of Barbie doll and Playboy centerfold.

This image came from a calendar Esquire ran during the war – which featured a WAVE-to-be. The poem alongside her reads:

I’m going to join the Navy WAVES and help the war to halt, and also show my Navy beau that I am worth my “Salt!”

Vargas also did the SPARs recruitment poster, below.

The Post-a-Day Challenge

WordPress, the web platform we’re using to create our blog, has issued a “post-a-day” challenge. It’s a way for those who have a blog to flex their writing muscles for National Novel Writing Month in November, where writers around the globe each attempt to write their 50,000 word novel in a one month time period. FYI, that would mean writ between 1600 and 1700 words a day.  A lot.

We’re not sure that this project will become a 50,000 word novel. After all, that would be in addition to the film, website and smartphone elements we’ve already created (or are creating). So we’re using this challenge as an incentive to keep up short daily posts while we’re working on the more complex elements of the film.

We’re thinking our “post-a-day” will initially include artifacts from archives which we really enjoy.

Today’s artifacts are two about the WAVES recruits. Both images came from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and was part of a larger collection they have of Navy photographs. There are (conservatively) tens of thousands of World War II-era Navy photographs in the archive, and in May of 2010 the Homefront Heroines producer and director spent several days there digitizing images for the documentary.

In the image above, WAVES recruits are taking the oath of office with Lt. Stewart (at left in the image). in April of 1944.

In this photo from February of 1943, women who have volunteered to be WAVES and SPARs (the WAVES’ Coast Guard counterparts) are getting ready to board a special subway train in New York which will take them to commissioning ceremonies at the WAVES boot camp, Hunter College. They’re part of a group of 418 women who first took part in a mass swearing in at City Hall in lower Manhattan, and then headed up to Hunter as the first class of boots at the new training center.

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.

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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.”

Tomboy

Janette finished a bachelor’s degree at Purdue University. She minored in physical education, which was her passion and got her major in home economics. Through her four years in school she spent most of her free time in the gymnasium as a member of the athletic association.

When she graduated she got a job teaching home economics and coordinating 4H in an high school in northern Indiana, but she didn’t stay there for long. Pearl Harbor was struck and the very next day Janette signed up for the WAVES.

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(‘Coach Janette’ pictured above on the bottom row, left.)

Her love for sports started when she was a child. Her father was an avid sports fan and would play catch with Janette and her sister after he came in from working in the fields at night.

After officer training, Janette was sent back to Pensacola as an athletic officer. She and another WAVE set up an athletic program so that the women could pick and choose athletic activities each day in order to fulfill their physical fitness requirements. She even arranged for the WAVES to have athletic clothes that they could use, since their uniform set didn’t include anything suitable for playing sports.
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“If a man could check out shorts or get shorts, see, for the activity, so could the women. See that was the first time I’d come up with equality.” – Janette Alpaugh