War

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.

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(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.
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Something About Men in Uniform

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.

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“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.

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“Chuck was 6 foot 4 inches, good-looking, and my favorite thing – a pilot.”

Partners in Crime

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.)

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“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.
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“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.”

Little Helen Edgar

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.

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“I got fired a lot. I gave too much ice cream to my friends.”

Spotlight on Helen Edgar Gilbert

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.

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“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.”