Memory is selective, especially over a lifetime, but specific moments come back with astonishing clarity. I’ve interviewed two dozen women, now in their late 80s and 90s, who enlisted in the Army during World War II. Their recall of certain details is remarkable. Whether we talked in person or via Skype, we laughed our way through conversations because, ultimately, we were exploring the follies and foibles of human behavior.
Seventy years ago, as the U.S. plunged deeper into war, the Army inducted women for the first time. Despite its best efforts, the military quickly realized it had to adapt its facilities, food, clothing and culture. Janet was in the first wave of women to arrive at Fort Des Moines, an old cavalry post. She remembers Sergeant Paine, a hard-boiled career soldier, announcing at formation one day that they were out of toilet paper – women used more toilet paper than men. Sgt. Paine directed them to use only four squares of paper a day.
Gilda and Helen talked about the men’s overcoats that they were issued – they hung down to their ankles. “I think they were made of horsehair,” said Helen. “They actually rubbed the skin off the backs of our necks. They were so heavy!”
(Above) Louise marches front and center with her trumpet
Louise was the Army’s first female bugler although another girl, the prettier one (Louise remembers her name), appeared in a Life magazine photo and labeled as the first. The night Louise played Taps resulted in turmoil. Protocol dictated that the bugler, after Taps, go sleep at the nearby guard station. Except this time the bugler was a female and the guards male. The camp commander had to be awakened to resolve the issue.
Army life became routine for these soldiers, punctuated by moments seared into memory. Another woman named Sunday helped deliver a baby during the war. “It wasn’t because I wanted to. I was the only one there to do it. Only girl. We were on a train and it was all service men. This other girl was a civilian and her husband was in the Army. We were stopping in Virginia and her name was Virginia Vale—I never forgot it. She was on the train and having a baby in the ladies room. The conductor came by and said, ‘Does any one in here know anything about medics?’ I was in the medical corps, but I didn’t say anything. ‘Well, there’s a lady in the ladies room about to have a baby.’ I thought, Oh my gosh! I didn’t say anything because there was all men on this part of the train. So the conductor comes to me with a bunch of towels in his hand and says, ‘Would you mind going in there and seeing if you can do anything to help her?’”
(Above) Kitty, in France, stands right of the snowman who wears a Women’s Army Corps hat.
Some of the women I interviewed shipped out to Europe and watched bombs light up Britain’s night skies. Kitty showed me letters she’d sent home, an amazing revelation. Here’s one of them:
I haven’t done much during the past few days but watch Buzz Bombs (pilotless planes). It’s quite an experience. I thought the air raids were bad but they didn’t last all day and all night. The Buzz Bombs, having started, “ain’t” stopped yet. I got tired of running up and down the steps so I have a pallet down in the basement (2 blankets) and sleep there at night. Solid comfort.
It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true and amusing to see a Spitfire [a British single-seat fighter] chasing a bomb through the sky. It isn’t amusing when you see the bomb headed in your direction, but as long as you see it you can run like the devil for cover.
Helen went to England and worked in an espionage unit. Before sailing, she learned that sanitary supplies were unavailable in war-torn Europe. “Our bedrolls had space for the pillow so we packed the pillow part with sanitary napkins. Later we could get them at the Post Exchanges, but [the U.S. Army in Europe] weren’t expecting women.” She corresponded with American military war prisoners in Germany camps, preselected to provide encrypted information if captured. “The prisoners could actually tell us about German movements and numbers. It’s surprising what they discovered.” Helen wasn’t forthcoming with details because she signed a nondisclosure act during the war. Long ago she made the choice to take some memories to the grave.
Stationed in the South Pacific, Gerry remembered the games the flyboys played: “Our showers had no roofs on. At noon when we’d come back for lunch, and it was so hot, we’d all take a shower. The Air Force guys would run to their planes and fly low over our showers. These were the small reconnaissance planes. In the beginning we’d start running and finally one girl says, ‘What the heck! They don’t know who we are. We don’t know who they are. I need my shower.’”
(Above) Pearl, stationed at Daytona Beach with Army Band
With victory declared in Europe, troop ships returned home amid fanfare and band music. Pearl Arndt found herself aboard the returning U.S.S. Grisholm. After a few jazzy numbers, Pearl set aside her clarinet and began to dance with some of the boys while the band played on. “I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around and here’s a very burned-faced boy. So we dance just a couple of steps and I sit down to play and the [U.S.S. Grisholm] captain says to Steiner, our master sergeant who was on trombone, that was the best thing that could have happened to him.”
Each woman I spoke with insisted she did nothing special during World War II. They did what was needed to get the boys home. Yet our conversations had unexpected results. The ladies reveled in my attention and we stay in touch. Quite naturally, some have died or passed into the fog of Alzheimer’s. As for myself, I feel honored to serve as a conduit for their memories.
—Ann Marie Byrd