On the Job

Dorothy Turnbull first was stationed in New Orleans, but later transferred to southern Texas to work as a recruiter.

We never had to sell the Navy openly. To me, when I’d go to a radio station and talk about what the Navy women were doing and so forth, talking about their lives before they went in service — see, you had to show their families were behind them. That they were still young ladies, even though they had this uniform on. They weren’t going to be different from their sisters were.  This kind of thing.

This photograph shows Dorothy on stage at a recruitment event in Texas. It comes from the collection of Dorothy Turnbull Stewart.


Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt

Dorothy Turnbull joined the WAVES in 1943. She headed to boot camp at Hunter College and was selected to become a recruiter. Because of her connections in New Orleans, they wanted her to be stationed there. But when she finished boot camp there weren’t any openings, so she spent another eight weeks at Hunter making sure the new boots didn’t get into trouble as part of the Shore Patrol. She also helped out with visiting dignitaries.

Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit us when I was on Shore Patrol. Well, ship service is what they called us.  And here she is getting out and I think I might have been one of these.  My claim to fame is when she was going into the building from getting out here and going down here, I held the door for her (laughs).  With my backside as I’m (laughs).  That was my claim to fame.

This photograph comes from the collection of Dorothy Turnbull Stewart.

To New York

It was in 1943 when Dorothy Turnbull headed to boot camp at Hunter College. While she was there, they tried to discover what she could do in the Navy.

They interviewed you and tested you and did all of this with us.  And marched around, and I enjoyed that. So as I would be interviewed, I realized I couldn’t say I wanted, I was – I was good in numbers, but I sure didn’t want to go to bookkeeping or storekeeping, or whatever they called it.  I couldn’t imagine myself as selling anything or that storekeeping, you see (laughs). That’s what I thought it was.  All I could do was talk and tell them about things I believed in.  So they decided that that’s all I could do, and that’s what a recruiter does.

This photograph of Dorothy’s boot class comes from the collection of Dorothy Turnbull Stewart.

Too Close for Comfort

Dorothy Turnbull’s family brought her mother back to New Orleans from Florida as it became clear she wasn’t getting well. She passed away a short while later.

When she passed away, I was ready to go back to school. So I went to Newcomb because my father was still there. My brother was off in the Navy. I didn’t — I just — my father and I were too close. I didn’t want to go out when I knew he was going to be home. And he worried about when I was out, things like this. So we decided I would go back and finish my college degree at the University of Miami, for the last part of the senior years.

This photograph of Dorothy’s father comes from the collection of Dorothy Turnbull Stewart.

A Mother’s Illness

Dorothy Turnbull attended high school in New Orleans. She was a member of a high school sorority, and then after she graduated she went to Newcomb College in New Orleans and joined a sorority there.

It was when she was in her first year of college at Newcomb, that it was announced that the United States had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. Around the same time her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

We did have rationing.  All this stuff is going on. My mother, of course, wasn’t a house keeper at the time.  She was really bed ridden.  So we had help. (Then) my father decided it might be a good idea to bring her down to Miami. A change of climate and everything.

Dorothy stayed behind in New Orleans for a year or so, and then moved to Miami to be with her father and mother.

This photograph of Dorothy’s mother comes from the Dorothy Turnbull Stewart collection.

Jean Palmer

Though Women’s History Month has ended, we’re going to continue our feature on women’s Navy firsts for the next few days.

Jean Palmer enlisted in the Navy in 1942. She would become the second woman to command the WAVES, taking over the position after Mildred McAfee stepped down in 1945.

She said of her service:

You had to be able to adapt. There were many interesting jobs, and I felt that at the end of the four year perdio the people who had the brains and the background found their way into those jobs…One of the advantages of being a woman in a service that never had women before, you never quite knew whether they would treat you like a lady or like an officer..

Palmer left the Navy in 1946. She became director of admissions at Barnard College. Palmer died in 1992.

This photograph comes from the National Archives. Palmer is third from the left.

Margaret Chase Smith

A mention of the WAVES wouldn’t be complete with a mention of Margaret Chase Smith. Smith was a Congresswoman during World War II (she would later become a Senator) and has been called by some “the mother of the WAVES.”

It’s a title she disavowed, but she was a strong supporter of women in military service, and was a part of the Congressional committee which expanded duties for WAVES, eventually allowing them to serve overseas. She said later:

I can only say to you that while I knew there was great reluctance and criticism, my feeling has always been that if women were to serve as men, they must accept the responsibilities as well as the privileges.  If they needed these women in spots other than those designated by the first law, then there must be very serious consideration given to the legislation for it. I think the women had a great deal to do. They had a great responsibility to uphold the dignity of women.

This photograph comes the National Archives.

Langston Hughes & Joining the WAVES

Frances Wills began working for the writer Langston Hughes after her graduation from Hunter College. While she was working for him, she began attending Pitt to get an M.A. in social work. She later began working in social work, placing children in adoptive homes.

It wasn’t until fall of 1944 that the Navy finally agreed to accept African American women in fully integrated units doing the same jobs as white women. The issue was a lack of vision on the part of the Navy: some assumed that since African American men mostly worked as cooks and janitors (i.e. non-fighting positions), African American women wouldn’t be needed to “free a man to fight.” It would take two long years of negotiations to convince the naysayers that African American women could replace white and “colored” men.

As Frances wrote in her memoirs:

In October 1944 when the Navy said it was ready for me and I said, ‘Take me,’ I was not consciously making a statement about race relations.  It was true that in the adoption agency where I was employed I was one of only two non-white social workers.  My African-American colleague and I were probably in the same numbers to total staff as we were in the population overall.  I doubt that this ratio had been planned, but since the numbers of person of color who applied to adopt children were small, we experienced minimal pressures from work demands in contrast to the rest of the staff which was obliged to handle a large volume of applications.

This photograph of Willis swearing in come from the National Archives.

“We Had a System”

As World War II was winding down in late 1945, people in the military started thinking about life after the war. Jane Fisher was in the Coast Guard boot camp to serve in the SPARs (from the Coast Guard Motto Semper Paratas, Always Ready) when the word came down that the war had ended. She ended up relieving other women who had been enlisted longer.

Jane was sent to Seattle and assigned to work in the Post Office. For her, military service was about patriotism – and flirting.

I worked in the post office.  Oh that was good deal.  I had a friend who worked in personnel.  If we saw a cute guy, (laughs) just to show you how women worked in that day and age, if we saw a cute guy, she looked up his personnel records.  If it didn’t show that he was married, then I’d check the letters to see if he got a letter from the same person all the time.  (laughs).  Oh, we had a system.

Jane met her husband-to-be while she was heading back to work after leave to visit her family in Nebraska. She noticed him when he got on the train in Idado.

 I remember peeking out.  His voice. It just sounded good.  But I was playing it pretty cool as we were going up the river.  And we had had a wreck in the middle of the night which made our train late.  And we got to the Dalles (in Oregon) and everybody was getting off the train, you know, to go to the ladies who were serving cookies and stuff.  I thought, “Well, I’m not going to get off and have him give me a bad time.”  Because he kept walking back and forth and I knew he was getting up nerve enough. So I waited and I got off.  He had got off to check uniforms.  He waited and he jumped off the train behind me.  And he informed me that SP stood for “SPAR Patrol.”  Or “SPAR Protector.”  And then he sat on down beside me and he asked me if I knew anything about fish ladders.  Now that was the craziest line I had ever heard in my life.  And I didn’t know what a fish ladder one. I had never heard of one.  He said, “Well we’re coming to this Bonneville Dam and they have a fish ladder and I’m going to point it out to you.  Because someday, I’m going to design and build fish ladders.”  He was the only guy I ever met who really knew what he wanted to do with his life.  It really impressed me.

By the time the train reached Portland, Oregon, Jane was smitten. But she was supposed to transfer to a nearby train head back up to base in Seattle.

 He said to me, “If you purposely miss that train I’ll sign your papers that we had a wreck.”  So I did.  And we spent the whole day in Portland. I went on the train that night that he was on Shore Patrol to Seattle. And he took a cab and took me to where we were staying and got it all squared away that I really wasn’t late.  Signed the all papers and stuff. And we were married three months later.

It was a whirlwind courtship – spurred along by an over-anxious mother:

We were going to get married, but we were going to get discharged and go home.  But my mother kept planning my wedding.  And one night we were in a movie and I was so upset with her and I said, “Gee you know for two cents I’d just get married right here in Seattle.”  And he reached over and gave me two pennies.  So we got married in Seattle.  We were married 28 years.

The photograph comes from the Betty Jane Fisher Collection.

Hunter College: Living Quarters

Hunter College was primarily a commuter college; there weren’t any dorms on the campus grounds. The Navy needed housing for 8,000-10,000 women at a time (plus instructors), so it turned to the Bronx neighborhood for help. Apartments surrounding the campus were commandeered by the Navy for the duration of the war.

An article in the New York Times talked about this development:

While … merchants on Kingsbridge Road, the nearest shopping center, all claimed their businesses would suffer, none complained.  Businessman Max Steubens, who ran a self-serve market, depended on the 13 apartments for most of his business, but when interviewed said, “I’m more than willing to do my share toward the war effort” (1.13.43) A few days after this, complaints arose because nearby apartments were raising rent for the occasion. The situation was investigated and The New York Times made sure to note that, “The complaints they received were logical and natural and not at all unpatriotic” (1.14.43)

This photograph comes from a postcard booklet designed for WAVES recruits to send it home to their parents, families and friends. It shows the converted apartments, where women lived 8-10 to a one bedroom unit.  It is from the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.