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.

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.” 

Women, War and Peace

Yes, we’re taking a line from the upcoming PBS series in today’s missive. But the announcement in the wee hours of the morning (local time) that a trio of women campaigning for peace in Africa and the Arab world had won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize made us think that this is a good topic for today.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Africa is Libera’s first elected female president (a feat we have yet to accomplish in the United States) and her choice is controversial. She’s a leader who is in the midst of a heated election campaign in her home country and who is much more admired abroad than in Liberia. Her fellow countrywoman, Leymeh GBowee, is the head of the Women for Peace movement, and was lauded for reaching across religious boundaries to unite Muslim and Christian women against the warlords who dominate Liberia. The third woman, Tawakul Karman of Yemen, is a pro-democracy demonstrator who was instrumental in the events of the Arab Spring.

So why should a blog about World War II veterans concern itself with peace prizes? Because these women, like the women we’ve talked to about their World War II experiences, were agitating for change. Some saw their wartime roles as a temporary sacrifice which would ultimately result in a shorter war, others saw joining the military as a way to prove that women could to the same work men did (and get paid the same).

Congratulations to this year’s Nobel Prize winners.

Public Domain, Copyright and Other Issues

So we’re chugging along on the film and various ancillary projects and this discussion came up with our Production Assistant today (Laura, who’s temporarily stepped aside from the wonderful work she’s been doing on the blog to work on the Homefront Heroines TagWhat project): when does something move into the public domain?

We’re considering works originally published during World War II, films and newsreels for the most part. According to copyright law, the works might be in the public domain. Then again, they might not. It all depends upon if the copyright was renewed or not. If it wasn’t, the work is in the public domain. If not, a film produced in 1944 would remain copyright protected until 2039.

We understand (and fully support) copyright protections. It keeps the creator of the work in control of how the work is distributed.  That’s a good thing. However, where it gets muddy is when a corporation uses film produced by a public entity, such as the U.S. government, and then masks its production of the film in copyright. We’re running into that issue with newsreels right now. Much of the footage is government produced – yet the copyright in some cases is held by a film studio. Or, a film produced by a studio has fallen out of copyright, but the production company who repackages the material claims they have “copyright” on the production. Not exactly. On the DVD packaging, yes. On the film itself, not so much.

Muddy areas. Frustrating areas. And all of it is complicated by the web and the publishing that occurs therein.

That being said, this photo is produced by the U.S. Navy. We’re sharing it with you because it is “owned,” as it were, by the U.S. public.

WAVE Airbrushes Photo

Navy WAVE Airbrushes Photo

at Navy Art & Animation Division

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.”


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.

(‘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.

“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

Janette Shaffer Alpaugh

Janette Alpaugh (Shaffer at the time), originally from Indiana, joined the WAVES in January 1943. She was part of the second class of WAVES to attend boot camp in Cedar Falls, Iowa. After boot camp she applied to become a Link trainer, where she learned how to instruct men who were training as pilots in flight simulation. Janette was stationed in Pensacola, Fla., as a link trainer before she went on to become a WAVES officer.

She grew up on a big farm, north of Indianapolis, where she says she was raised like a boy. While Janette’s girlfriends were helping their mothers in the kitchen, Janette and her sister were helping her father with the farm. The family only had one boy,  Janette’s younger brother, and everyone’s help was needed. Her time working on the farm, however, gave her a passion for hard work and athletics. Photobucket
“[My Father] treated us just like boys. We did farm work that any boy our age would have done.”

Sharing Her Experiences

Helen and her husband had four children together, three girls and a boy. They were married nearly 30 years when Chuck was killed in a plane crash in Mexico City in 1979. The crash was all over the news and Helen’s friends and family did their best to shelter her from all the coverage.Photobucket

Helen and Chuck, pictured above, at the last party they attended together.

Helen turned 80 years old in 2000 and moved in to a retirement community. It was too boring for her though! She couldn’t stand all the talk about blood pressure and gossip about ambulance visits.

That was when she decided to start writing a book and share all of her experiences. She started on an old typewriter until it broke down and her son bought her a computer.  With the help of her children, “Okay, Girls – Man Your Bunks!”  was published in 2006.  A copy of the book can be found here.  In the book Helen goes into greater detail about her experience in the WAVES, her struggle with alcoholism as an adult, and her family and marriage.


The Duties of a Servicewoman

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.