White Christmas

We’ve been humming Bing Crosby’s White Christmas a lot lately – likely because there’s no risk of not having Christmas snow this year in Colorado. The song first premiered on an NBC radio show in 1941 and was initially released on an album for the film Holiday Inn, about a pair of song and dance men who create a country inn that featured holiday-themed performances.

By October of  1942, White Christmas was released as a single and it quickly shot to the top of the “Your Hit Parade” radio charts. The song perfectly captured the mood of the time. In it, the singer pines for the perfect Christmas:

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know

Where tree tops glisten, and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow…

Those first classes of WAVES were in training during the Christmas of 1942. Helen Gilbert was training to be a radio coder at the University of Wisconsin in Madison:

I remember Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Every time it went on we were just sobbing. It was crazy…The first Christmas in Wisconsin, it was very sad. We were all homesick. We were just a bunch of young girls who wanted to go home.

White Christmas would later be the inspiration for the film of the same name – featuring former Army buddies (and Broadway stars) who head up to Vermont in the years after the war to help their beloved General’s struggling Vermont inn.

White Christmas is the biggest selling single of all time.


Three thousand miles of widely varied terrain – from mountains to deserts, swamps to farmland. Another three thousand miles or so across the Pacific Ocean. That’s the distance that separates Pearl Harbor from Washington, DC.

WACs operate a teletype machine during World War II.

While today communication across the world is nearly instantaneous, in 1941 there were some challenges. Starting with the time difference. When the attack began in Pearl Harbor at 8am local time, it was 1pm on the east coast – it ended close to 3pm. And forget the immediacy of the internet: news was spread by telephone, morse code or telegraph machines, which transmitted news stories via a cable. In this case, a cable stretched for miles underneath the Pacific Ocean.

The initial reports about the attack spread on December 7th, through breaking news updates on local radio stations (remember these were the days before television). And the next day, December 8th, President Franklin Roosevelt announced that the United States was at war.

What We’re Thankful For, Part Two: Trailblazers

Yesterday we talked about global things we’re thankful for, via President Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms. Today, it’s time for a more personal note.

From Mary M. Ryan. She is somewhere in the sea of women at Hunter College.

As you know, my mother was a WAVE during World War II – and it was her story which inspired this project. And the WAVES were truly trailblazers during the war. This blog is called “Hinges of History” to recognize that contribution. The WAVES were the first women admitted into the service at the same rank and pay as men. And it wasn’t just the service – women during that era generally were paid less than men, under the rationale that they didn’t need the money as much because men were supporting families and women were “only” supporting themselves. So for the Navy to pay women the same amount for the same work was pretty groundbreaking.

WAVE Pay Scale Recruitment Poster, U.S. Navy

But the WAVES weren’t the only ones forging new territory during the war. Inside of the military, the Army WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, later Women’s Army Corps) were the first women other than nurses to travel overseas in troops with men.

WACs in Formation, U.S. Army

The WASP (Women’s Air Service Pilots) were the first women to regularly fly planes, mostly ferrying planes in the continental United States from one side of the country to another. They weren’t “in” the service, but had the same risks as male pilots: 38 WASPs died while flying for their country.

WASPs on a Plane's Wing, International Women's Air and Space Museum

Of course, there were also the Women Marines (about 20,000 during World War II) and the SPARs (Coast Guard women, about 12,000 served; their name comes from the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus, Always Ready). And we can’t ignore the contributions of the “Rosie the Riveters,” millions of women who entered the workforce during the war to take jobs on assembly lines and in other formerly-male jobs. Before World War II about 12 million women were in the workforce. By the end of the war, that number had swelled to 18 million, a full third of the workforce, and three million of those were “Rosies.”

A "Rosie" working as a Electrician, National Archives.

While historians are divided about the lasting contributions of these women, those who served in both civilian and military jobs believed their work mattered. They were the “hinge”: without their contributions the world wouldn’t have changed in the same way. Without them, our world would be a different place.

First post-WWII WAVES take the oath of office, U.S. Navy.

Our friends at the National Women’s History Museum seem to be on the same wavelength this week. They put together a fabulous video series about women who blazed a trail for those who followed – and those who are dedicated to keeping those histories alive. Part One is embedded below (see Part Two and Part Three on their YouTube channel).

Thank you, this Thanksgiving eve, to the National Women’s History Museum and everyone else who is honoring the trailblazers in women’s history! And, of course, thank you to the trailblazers!

What We’re Thankful For, Part I – The Four Freedoms

In January of 1941, months before the United States would become officially involved in World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt gave one of his radio addresses.

Roosevelt was an innovator in using mass media to help bring his message to the public. His speech about the banking crises in 1933 was the first time a President had used the power of the radio to speak directly to the American public (in this case to attempt to stop the bank runs which nearly destroyed the nation’s economic system in 1933).  That speech would lay the groundwork for the Fireside Chats, 31 radio addresses on a variety of topics, ranging from the New Deal to the War in Europe.

The Four Freedoms speech wasn’t one of those Fireside Chats. It was the official State of the Union Address for 1941. But it nonetheless illustrates Roosevelt’s skill at using the public airwaves to speak to the American public:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb. To that new order we oppose the greater conception—the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.

Roosevelt included two Constitutionally-mandated freedoms (Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Worship) in his speech, and then added two freedoms which he said should be a part of the social contract we have with our fellow Americans. Freedom from Want means that Americans shouldn’t go hungry or be without basic human needs (food, shelter, etc.) – and that a modern society had a responsibility to provide for those in need.  Freedom from Fear means that we should live in a country where we don’t have to worry about our safety. Roosevelt went on to say that these weren’t just American values, but should be values available to everyone in the world.

The Four Freedoms would later be illustrated by Norman Rockwell in a series of drawings for the Saturday Evening Post.

The Four Freedoms wasn’t a Thanksgiving speech, but nonetheless we’re thankful this time of year for Roosevelt and his identification of the Four Freedoms.


Seventy years ago today, America wasn’t officially involved in World War II.  In less than a month, the country would be. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would thrust the United States into the war and transform the country.

This is a photograph of my (Homefront Heroines Director Kathleen Ryan) mother, Mary Marovich Ryan. It was taken after she enlisted in the WAVES. She came from a large family and grew up on the south side of Chicago. They didn’t have much – it was the Depression and there were a lot of mouths to feed.

But as the war enlisted all of her brothers – except for her younger brother who was too young to join up – enlisted in the military. They joined the Army and the Coast Guard. Two of her brothers joined together. By the time my mother enlisted, every member of her family was in the service, except for that younger brother and a sister who was married with a young child (her younger brother would serve during the Korean War). I love her quote in the article below about wanting a six star pin so she can honor her brothers.

Those of you who have been following the Homefront Heroines project know that my mother didn’t talk much about her military service. I knew that enlisted in mid-1943. She went to New York for boot camp, and then traveled across country on a train to head to her specialty training at a Naval Hospital in California as a pharmacist’s mate. A pharmacist’s mate helped out in various  medical capacities; my mother actually worked in the pharmacy. She was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco where she met my father, a pilot in the Army Air Forces. She was decommissioned shortly after V-J Day, and she and my father eventually settled about an hour north of New York City in a town along the Hudson River.

But she kept things. Like these photographs (including the one above of a celebration at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco with a group of friends) and the articles about her service. Or a book discussing the properties of various prescription drugs. Or gloves. Dozens of pairs of white cotton gloves, which were part of the formal WAVES uniform. And before she died, she asked that she be buried with military honors, commemorated by a headstone listing her dates of service.

On this Veteran’s Day, we salute all of those who offered their service to our country, including those Homefront Heroines who blazed a trail for women in the future – in the military, of course, but also in the civilian workplace.

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.

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.”