Rosie the Riveter and Valentine’s Day: A Trainer of Riveters Looks Back

by Matilda Butler on February 14, 2017

Post #78. Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Many of you may remember the World War II stories Bill Thomas has shared with us. We especially enjoyed those from the time he was training the women who would collectively be known as Rosie the Riveters. Recently, Bill sent me the following reminiscences that we thought you'd enjoy.

Thanks Bill. And keep on writing your life stories.
--Matilda Butler

PS Scroll down to the bottom for news about an exciting new Rosie the Riveter product -- coming soon from us.]

Valentine’s Day Reminiscences

Bill Thomas

The Fascinating Origin of Valentine’s Day

Legend has it that in the third century Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage. Valentine, a Catholic priest, disobeyed these orders and performed marriages in secret.

The Emperor had Valentine put to death on February 14.

Not sure if you believe that story? Well here’s another one. Possibly Valentine wasn’t a priest at all, but a prisoner who fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and sent her letters signed, “From your Valentine.”

Either way, Valentine’s Day holds many memories for us.

Valentine’s Day and England

We have the English to thank for many of our Valentine customs. For centuries, the English have exchanged small token gifts and cards or verses professing love on Valentine’s Day.

The red heart, the ancient symbol of love, is most often pictured on cards and other Valentine-inspired gifts.

Valentine’s Day and America

Beautiful Valentine cards became popular in 1850’s in America when Esther Howland, a Massachusetts woman, created her own with lace and expensive papers and sold them.

My “Valentine Tribute” to Women

Although I’ve written about my experiences training Rosie the Riveters before I joined the military during World War II, most of my previous “VETERANS VOICES” articles have been written about male veterans, and this being “Valentine Time” I decided to write about the WOMEN who keep life alive, from one generation to the next.

It is WOMEN who give birth to each of us. They are the MOTHERS who nurture us through our growth years, and their SPOUSES in their maturity. WOMEN have always been caregivers.

I remember the 1920’s when I was born, and the loving care from my parents, especially my MOTHER, working at two jobs, helped us survive through the “Great Depression.” One job she had was in a “chili factory” where she worked on the night shift. She was paid in cash, and many large cans of chili and beans. Our family thrived on beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There is no way that I can possibly list ALL the numerous ways WOMEN have participated in our country. WOMEN have always worked strenuously on farms and dairies in rural areas.

And millions of WOMEN came into the cities in the 1940’s to fill the men’s jobs when the men went into the military services. They also cared for their families at home, and they labored on day and night shifts in their work places.

I remember some of the thirty WOMEN I personally trained who became known as “ROSIE, the RIVETERS” while we worked at a war defense plant before I joined the Army.

Millions of WOMEN worked in many professional and business offices, retail stores, factories, etc., and they volunteered numerous hours to collect tin cans; and they gathered various types of items that would help win the war effort. WOMEN sold War Bonds to help pay for the war.

AND many WOMEN also served in the various branches of military service. Some female pilots flew airplanes from aircraft factories to land them on airfields close to combat areas.

A great number of WOMEN prepared medical supplies such as bandages; many others constructed airmen’s parachutes.

Thousands of WOMEN served as nurses and helped our wounded in “field hospitals” and actual operating rooms near combat zones. Unfortunately, many WOMEN were wounded or died while overseas.

WOMEN took the time to write and send many letters to their relatives and friends in the military services. Millions of those letters became known as “V-mail.” They were reduced in size to save storage space on cargo and troop ships.

Dozens of letters and packages were delivered to the troops at daily “Mail-Call” sessions. Untold numbers of letters and packages were never delivered if they had been on the ships that were sunk by enemy submarines. Numerous correspondence items arrived many days or weeks after they had been sent. Nevertheless, all items, including candies, cookies, etc., were greatly appreciated by the men who received them, and shared some with their buddies.

Unfortunately, some men received “Dear John” letters, informing them of romance break-ups and/or divorces. Many guys received appropriate birthday, anniversary, and/or holiday greeting cards and letters, including sincere VALENTINES; and some were humorous “spoofy” types that were more typical at the time.

Many WOMEN musically-entertained the troops, both stateside, and overseas. I especially remember one day in North Africa, after the rain had stopped, and while we sat on our helmets on a muddy hillside, and LENA HORNE sang “STORMY WEATHER” to our troops. (The lyrics in that song, such as “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, since my man and I ain’t together…” were most inappropriate for many of our comrades.

Back in civilian life again, I must thank my wife of sixty-five years. Soula has borne our three healthy, brilliant kids. She has lovingly nurtured each of us through some rough times and through many very happy years. We’re all blessed to have her love and caring.

I also extend my heart-felt THANKS to all the hundred or so WOMEN who have participated in my health recovery including the WOMEN doctors and nurses at Kaiser hospital, AND the WOMEN physical therapists at the various physical rehab centers I have been in, especially the female Registered Nurse caregiver attending to my current needs.

I still have a few letters and Valentines in a box in our garage that I haven’t looked at for over fifty years) that I received from previous girlfriends over seventy years ago. I wonder what they look like today; both, the letters and the “girls.” They all became WOMEN, and if yet alive, they’d be in their 90’s as am I.

Luckily for multi-millions of us, so many women became teachers in all grades and levels of schooling. (I don’t remember the teacher who taught me my first A,B,C’S. I do remember Miss Darling who taught English and grammar.) And I want to pay tribute to Miss Weldon who taught me how to play my violin, and allowed me to play in the school orchestra.

WOMEN, WOMEN, WOMEN!! What would the world be like without WOMEN?

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY TO ALL.

News About Exciting Rosie the Riveter Product

March, as you all know, is Women’s History Month. Each year, Kendra and I celebrate this important month in a different way. After a great deal of research, we have created an exciting new Rosie the Riveter product that will be offered in a limited edition.

I’ve promised Kendra that I won’t announce it quite yet, but I couldn’t resist letting you know that we’ll have something really special for you soon.

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“The Date Which Will Live in Infamy”

by Matilda Butler on December 7, 2016

Post #77. Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

December 7, 75 years ago.

I am currently in Hawaii and the proximity to Pearl Harbor brings the emotions of the attack into sharp reality.

–The first time I felt, truly felt the emotional connection was during a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial. As I stood and read the names of those killed, I saw the name of a father and his two sons. All died within a few minutes of each other. The sense of tragedy was always there, but that moment brought it close.

–Later, I taught a memoir writing class. As we went around the table telling of the most significant event in our lives, one woman began describing being in Honolulu on December 7, 1941. She couldn’t get through her story as tears soon flowed down her cheeks and her voice caught. Someone next to her reached into her purse for a tissue and handed it to her. Time had not diminished her emotions.

–And just two nights ago, I watched a moving special on PBS Hawaii about what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “the date which will live in infamy.” Remember Pearl Harbor included recent interviews with some of those who lived through that experience.

Kendra and I have talked about all of this today. The attack on Pearl Harbor, the declaration of war, and the entire World War II changed not only those who lived through that time but also the generations who came later. Kendra and I want to thank all the men and women who helped bring that war to a successful conclusion. And although we have focused our research and writing on the daughters of the Rosie the Riveter, we want to reach out and thank everyone from the war generation for their strength and courage.

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Mama was a W.A.V.E. by Muriel Mahall

by Matilda Butler on September 7, 2016

Post #76 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: This is the last in our series of stories that focus on Rosie the Riveter. We want to extend our appreciation to the readers who have shared with us stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other family and friends. We've chosen the best of these and are publishing them to honor all Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Muriel Mahall tells us her mother's story, including how proud her entire family has been of her throughout her lifetime. We think you'll find the story as charming as we did. It will take your mind back to an earlier period. Thanks Muriel.

Have a Rosie the Riveter story to share? If so, please send an email to Matilda Butler (Matilda [at] RosiesDaughters [dot] com.) There may be more opportunities to have your story published.

Mama Was a W.A.V.E.

by Muriel Mahall

At my mother’s 90th birthday party in 2012, her cousin Ida read a letter from Calvin, a cousin unable to attend. He’d written,

“Georgia Mae was six years older than me, but always seemed to enjoy my company. When the war came, I was a young teen, and we moved to Oakland. One Saturday my family went to Richmond to visit her family. Georgia Mae was dressed in a Navy WAVES uniform. She had joined up. My mouth dropped open. Later we went for a walk and found an ice cream parlor down the street. She bought me a chocolate sundae. I was on top of the world. There I was eating ice cream and sitting next to a beautiful WAVE. Could it get any better than that?”

From a table across the room, another family member stood up.


“During the war, you couldn’t walk into any of our living rooms without seeing a photo of Georgia Mae in uniform. We were so proud of her.”






I was, too.

In her early nineties my mama, Georgia Chumley Todd, has thick, wavy white hair and is always smartly dressed. When I knocked, she opened the door to her apartment and smiled. Wearing gray slacks and a mauve and gray top with matching earrings, she said,

“Come on in. Let’s sit and visit. Let me get you a cup of tea.”

With nearly perfect military posture, she prepared tea, then walked to her favorite chair to reminisce. I wanted to know more about her World War II experiences.

“Did you go into the service because your brothers were Marines?”

“Not exactly. Shortly after the war broke out, Gene was drafted right out of high school. John and Bill were older and already married. They joined after I did.

“In 1942 I quit college and moved with my parents to Richmond. My dad went to work in the shipyards. Then I got a job with the Maritime Commission. I wanted to be a part of the war effort, but the clerical job was boring. Writing down the slow progress of ship-building didn’t feel patriotic enough. So I decided to join the WAVES, the brand new division of the Navy. That stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Service.

“I had a rough time getting in,” she said, stirring her tea to cool it.

“My weight was a little over their chart limit, but later the weight guidelines were adjusted according to body types, so I applied again. This time, I had a physical exam that showed a heart murmur. I had to drive to San Francisco to get an EKG. Turned out the heart murmur was not a problem, and I could finally be a WAVE. But then I had to go to Oakland to petition the Maritime Commission to release me from the job in the shipyards. A lot of people would’ve given up, I think.”

Mama told me that just before boot camp, her fiancé, who would become my dad, shipped out for overseas duty. He was a Navy Seabee sent to help set up a hospital at an undisclosed location. To bypass the censors, they created the “middle name game.” She was to save his letters, each addressed to her with a different middle initial – “Georgia N. Chumley,” “Georgia E. Chumley” and so on, until his secret destination, New Guinea, was revealed.

The fifth of seven children, my mama was born and raised in rural central California. At 21, she’d never been out of the state.

So it was a big adventure when in September, 1943, boot camp took her to New York City’s Hunter College. A month later, she was marching down Fifth Avenue in the Navy Day Parade. Hers was the first group of WAVES to take part in this event.

“Many tailors worked day and night to finish hundreds of uniforms. We came from the Bronx on the above-ground train, some of us in uniform for the first time. Probably a thousand of us lined up inside the Armory building.

“Such a proud day,” she said. “As we marched out into the sunlight, I smiled and my heart pounded with excitement. I can still hear the crowd cheering as the Navy band played ‘Anchors Aweigh.’

“That was our only liberty in New York City. We had time for a little sight-seeing. Two friends and I took a cab, visited the Little Church Around the Corner, and ended up in a horse-drawn carriage riding through Central Park.

“That same night Frank Sinatra came to perform for the troops.”

“Did you get goose bumps?” I asked. “Was your heart all aflutter?”

Mama laughed.

“Not really. We were excited to see him, especially when he sang ‘People Will Say We’re in Love.’ We applauded until our hands hurt. Frank Sinatra, in person. But before the concert, we had our orders: ‘No swooning.’ I wasn’t exactly the swooning type anyway,” she added.

“Then what?” I said, sipping my tea.

“From New York, I went to Bloomington for ten weeks of storekeepers’ school at Indiana University. Then, because I wanted to be near my folks, I requested duty in the 12th Naval District, San Francisco.”

Sent to Mare Island Navy Yard near Vallejo, Mama was assigned to the commissary. On her first day, the lieutenant commander asked a question that would mold her military career. “Do any of you ladies have a valid California drivers’ license?” Mama and two others, a blonde and a redhead, raised their hands.

“I don’t know why, but he picked me. From then on I was his driver, taking him to the bank in town and to do business on the base. But mostly I drove a small panel truck, running errands for the commissary and delivering groceries to mess halls and officers’ clubs. There was one special delivery of caviar and other luxury food for an officers’ mess on a cruiser docked in San Francisco Bay. I couldn’t help resenting that one. They were dining in style while thousands of G.I.s overseas were eating C-rations.”

Three of those G.I.s were her brothers: John, on Midway Island; Bill, attached to the 1st Marine Division, part of the invasion troops on Okinawa; and Gene, with the 2nd Marine Division which replaced Marines lost on Tarawa. Gene was also part of the invasion of Saipan.

“I liked working at Mare Island and felt I made a contribution to the troops and our country. Each WAVE was doing a job normally done by men, freeing up another sailor for the fight.”

I think, too, staying busy helped keep Mama from worrying about her brothers, fiancé and friends over there in combat zones.

“What do you remember about V-E Day?” I asked.

“Not really that much, but it gave us hope the war might end soon. Everyone was jubilant, but it wasn’t over yet in the Pacific.

“I remember V-J Day much better,” she went on. “It was a long three months after Germany surrendered. I was on duty in the commissary when everyone started cheering. Someone near me shouted, ‘Truman just announced it. The Japs have surrendered.’

“I was so happy I started to cry. A lot of us talked about going into San Francisco to really let loose, but I looked forward to celebrating with my parents. And they expected me home that night. I’d borrowed their car.

“Because of the wild celebrating, especially in The City, all liberties were cancelled. But those living off base could go home. Since my parents lived nearby, I was sure it would be okay for me to go, too.

“After standing in a long line a to get my pass at the base commander’s office,” she said, “I was disappointed to hear Commander England’s response.

“‘Chumley, I’m sorry, but we’re only allowing married personnel to go home. It’s too wild out there. Don’t want anyone getting into trouble.’

“I left his office at a loss. I had to return the car. Then an idea came to me, and I was sure I wouldn’t get caught. My dad’s car was parked at the commissary, off-base. I’d go there and call the barracks to sign out for the night. I figured I’d leave from that parking lot and be home in no time.”

On her way to the car Mama ran into Ted, a young sailor who needed a ride to his sister’s in Berkeley. They stopped at her parents’ house so she could change into civvies. Ted was in his dungarees and without his cap it wouldn’t be obvious he was military, but still he slouched down in the back seat.

There was no problem getting to Richmond, but as they left for Berkeley, Mama remembered her mother saying, “You be careful now. There’s a lot of wildness out there.”

Mama put down her cup of tea and said,

“It was a crazy highway scene: horns honked, flags waved and people shouted out their car windows. But it was too early for drunk drivers. I dropped off the sailor, then returned to Richmond. Happy voices blared from the radio. Uncle Ed and Aunt Hassie dropped by to celebrate.”

Then Mama remembered,

“My mom couldn’t stop smiling even as she dabbed her eyes with her apron. She stared at the framed photos of my handsome brothers in uniform, coming home soon, unharmed.”

The next morning Mama caught an early bus back to the base. She signed in at her barracks, telling the young woman at the desk about spending the night with her parents. The girl responded,

“Oh, Chumley, Commander England called last night. He didn’t leave a message, just said to tell you he called.”

“‘Oh, no. You’ve got to be kidding.’ That bugger, I thought. Now he knows I left without permission. What will he do when he sees me?”

Knowing my mama, I felt she was probably thinking how she’d ruined her perfect record as a WAVE, and was in big trouble. I asked,

“Were you scared?”

“I sure was. I’d been AWOL. What would Mom and Dad think? I wondered if I’d end up in the brig. Luckily when I saw the commander, he didn’t say a word. But he knew.”

“And you didn’t end up in the brig,” I said.

“No, I didn’t.” She laughed.

Four months later, my parents married. Mama was honorably discharged, leaving the WAVES with good memories and a sense of pride that she had served her country.

About the Author:

Muriel writes, “Like Mama, I grew up in the Central Valley of California: Reedley, Dinuba and Kingsburg. After graduating from U.C., Davis, I became a teacher as my mother had. I’ve lived in Sonoma County for over forty years. My husband, Jack, and I raised a son and daughter. Our children are now married and I look forward to soon becoming a grandma, like Mama.

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Rosie the Riveter Trust Breaks Guinness Record

by Matilda Butler on August 19, 2016

Post #75 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

In our last post, Kendra described the Rosie the Riveter Trust’s upcoming Rosie Rally. The organization sought to regain the Guinness Record for the most Rosie’s (dressed in full costume) gathered in one place.

We’re delighted to report that with 2265 women (and a few men) gathered in Richmond, California at the site of the Rosie the Riveter Trust, the Guinness World Record now belongs to the Trust. Many thanks to everyone for their amazing turnout.

Congratulations.

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Help Rosie the Riveter Trust Break the Guinness Record

by kendra on July 19, 2016

Post #74 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

On August 13, 2016, the Rosie the Riveter Trust (RTR Trust) is once again setting its sights on the Guinness World Record for gathering the most Rosies in one place. The organization broke the record last summer. Then in the fall, the Yankee Air Museum shattered the RTR Trust record. So now Guinness bragging rights have become a friendly competition between these two great groups.

Rosie’s Daughters is wishing the Rosie the Riveter Trust and all participants the best of luck in their quest. And we encourage everyone who loves Rosie to get involved. Here’s how you can be counted:

Be Part of This Historic Gathering

This August, RTR Trust is trying to put the number out of reach by bringing together 5000 Rosies. So if you live in California or plan to be in California on August 13, plan on joining what is expected to be an amazing gathering of women wearing Rosie costumes. You’ll be a part of history and have a lot of fun in the process.

And when the gathering, counting and photo-taking is over, the RTR Trust will host a celebration party with food and music. So plan to make it a Rosie day!

Here are the rules and links you need to get involved.

First, you can follow this link to the RTR Trust signup form to register and/or volunteer to help during the event.

Time and location

  • Saturday, August 13th.
  • Rosie check-in starts at 10:00 AM.
  • Arrive before 10:30 AM to be counted by Guinness.
  • Craneway Pavillion, Ford Assembly Plant
  • 1414 Harbour Way South, Richmond, CA 94804 (Next door to the National Park Visitor Center).

Regulation Rosie Uniform
You must wear the following to be counted:

  • A red bandanna with polka dots, worn in the traditional “Rosie” style
  • Dark blue collared shirt and dark blue pants OR dark blue coveralls
  • Closed-toed black or brown shoes or boots
  • Red socks

Download the Rosie Rally Resource Guide

Put together your costume ahead of time. It’s easy. All you need are dark blue jeans and shirt (or coveralls) and brown or black shoes or boots. If you need help with the red socks and a red polka-dot bandana, the RTR Trust will have Rosie Rally Packs on hand that you can purchase. This Rosie Rally Resource Guide will help you further.

We’re waiting for the pictures, and will post results here on our blog. Good luck, Rosies! And have fun.

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Rosie the Riveter Park Ranger Robbed

by Matilda Butler on July 11, 2016

Post #73 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

NOTE: Kendra and I are reprinting an email we received from the Executive Director of the Rosie the Riveter Trust in Richmond, California.

If you don’t know about the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Center, be sure to include it the next time you visit northern California. It’s a real treat and the many activities of the Rosie the Riveter Trust are important to future generations of strong, empowered women.

And we hope that by the time you visit, NPS Ranger Betty Reid Soskin will be recovered and back on duty.

In case you don’t know about NPS Ranger Soskin, she is 94 years old and still as active, energetic, engaged, and alert as we all hope to be at that age. She bravely fought her attacker.

The Rosie the Riveter Trust is also getting ready for a Rosie Rally where they hope to break the current Guinness Record of the most Rosie the Riveters gathered in one place. We’ll provide you information and details next week. Be sure to come back then.

_______________________________

Dear Friend,

On Monday, June 27, NPS Ranger Betty Reid Soskin was robbed an assaulted in her home. The intruder even stole the special coin handed personally to Betty by President Obama at the 2015 National Tree Lighting Ceremony. We are all upset by this horrific news, but relieved to report that she is recovering well, with no major injuries.

The outpouring of love and support for Betty during this time has been truly moving. Obviously, she has inspired thousands across the nation with her powerful story, brilliant insight and incredible will.

If you have not already done so, we would like to invite you to make a contribution of any size to Betty’s Fund.

All funds raised beyond immediate needs will be used, as Betty has asked, to complete a film in progress that contains vital documentary information about Betty’s life and impact. This is the legacy that she wants to continue passing on to younger generations, and a remarkable testimonial to her strength of spirit. Go to www.rosietheriveter.org to donate, and to view the first clips from this important project. You can also mail checks to Rosie the Riveter Trust, PO Box 71126, Richmond, CA 94807, ear-marked “Betty’s Fund.”

You are welcome to send cards to Betty via the Park’s Visitor Center. Betty is not, understandably, taking calls or visitors, and has expressed that she does not wish to receive flowers at this time. Address cards and letters to:

Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Center
Attn: Betty Reid Soskin
1414 Harbour Way South, Suite 3000 (Oil House)
Richmond, CA 94804

Thank you for your support during this difficult time.
Sincerely,

Marsha Mather-Thrift, Executive Director
Rosie the Riveter Trust
www.rosietheriveter.org
510-507-2276

Want to Learn More About Betty?

There have been a number of newspaper articles about Betty and this robbery. Here’s one that provides the details.

A Brief Video of Betty Soskin

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If in America, She Would Have Been a Rosie the Riveter: Her Grandmother’s Story Told by Amyah Labrèche

by Matilda Butler on May 5, 2016

Post #69 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: We're pleased to share with you some of the intriguing stories we received from readers--stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Amyah Labrèche tells us about her grandmother Laure Gonze. who lived in Nazi-occupied Belgium during the war. We think you'll agree with us that if Laure Gonze had been in America, she would have been a formidable Rosie the Riveter.]

Laure Gonze: Protecting Her Family

By Amyah Labrèche

Laure’s eyes followed the two soldiers who were walking the alley toward the castle, their guns slung across their shoulders. Since the occupation, the Germans requisitioned the Baron’s 13th century residence for their officers. A wonderful medieval castle with thick stones walls, decorated with ancient tapestries and paintings, more than antique furniture in each of the rooms and slate floors. The property was sitting at the end of the alley, in a wonderful park in the middle of Farciennes, in the Walloon’s part of Belgium. The Nazis were well lodged and the Baron, his family and employees were forced to share their house with them.

The soldiers stopped in front of her yard. She froze. They saluted her with big smiles, complimenting her on the beauty of her garden in a mismatch of French and German words, with a terrible accent that would have made Molière shiver with horror.

She nodded without a smile and they resumed their walk.

When they disappeared at the end of the narrow dirt road, Laure sighed with relief and resumed her work. It will be soon time to start supper and I still have eggs to gather. With the boschs(1) near by, she didn’t want to take a chance… they were worse than natural predators. Benjamin—her husband—and Jean-Baptiste—her son—had worked many hours to reinforce the coop with wood, bricks, stones, bars, chains and padlocks to stop the two legged uniformed foxes from coming in and stealing eggs, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. At least now, they were not able to access the coop in a moment and Benjamin would have enough time to let the dog loose and grab his bludgeon. The Germans had confiscated his gun after the last time when he shot them in the butt with a round of chevrotine(2). Seems they didn’t really appreciate the treatment. But it had created an occasion for the entire village to roar in laughter for weeks around a cold beer at the pub.

Benjamin had been lucky. The Germans could have imprisoned him in the concentration camp outside the town or worse, gunned him down. But, they didn’t want problems with the Belgians, as they were just a small garrison. Eighty five soldiers, even armed with guns, can’t survive against two thousand five hundred angry Belgian men, women, children and elders heavily armed with sticks and forks and bludgeons and—the worst—heavy steel frying pans. Hey! After all, Jules Caesar never defeated Belgians with his army, how could these Germans fight successfully with just a handful of men against such barbarian and well-armed warriors.

Benjamin and Jean-Baptiste will be hungry after a hard day working in the coal mine. My fresh vegetable soup, a thick omelette with golden fries and a pool of salad will be welcomed. She had to hurry now.

Hope they will not stop at the pub again, she thought.

Laure didn’t see the time pass as she worked hard all around the house, garden and kitchen to do her chores. From early spring to beginning of winter, her garden and the little orchard demanded a lot of work. Up to now, she had been able to keep the Germans out of it, mostly. They didn’t force her, yet, to give them all her produce like they did with some farmers around. Her days were filled with hard work and she allowed herself to rest only when the dishes was done in the evening. Then, she would sit with her men—and sometimes friends—in the living room, with a nice coffee, near the coal fireplace, to hear all the gossip from around town.

The only sound in the house was the huge grandfather clock in the living room, ticking the time away for more than one hundred and fifty years now. The soup smelled so good that she couldn’t resist getting a bowl of it. Hummm! So satisfying! Her men will be happy.

Five o’clock, the gong chanted away loudly. Laure went to unlock the front door and waited for her men on the front porch. From there, she was able to see them come down the hill from le Pont du Chat with all the other workers. Weird! Where is everybody? The street is empty. Maybe work finished a bit late today? Maybe there was an accident? She hadn’t heard an explosion so, surely not a coup de grisou(3).

Oh! Don’t tell me that Benjamin had a fight again.

Five fifteen gonged the clock. One short boing for the quarters, two short ones for the half hours and many ticks in between. Now, she was worried. She went back inside, pushed the soup pot on the warmer plate of the stove, put a few more chunks of coal in the stove’s belly and went back to the door. Still no movement on the street, just Marion’s big fat cat running after a mouse, she presumed. That cat is stupid and a glutton. He would run after his own shadow to eat it.

Laure took the key, walked out and locked the door. “I will go see what is happening,” she grumbled. Up the hill she went, her eyes fixed to the top. She was expecting to see the many heads popping out from the hump, announcing the workers coming back home. Nothing. Her heart was pounding and not just only because of her climbing the steep hill at full speed, not because she was kind of heavy set women, but because of her anxiety. Something happened, she was now sure of it, she felt it. You know, this kind of funny feeling in the middle of your tummy.

On her way up, almost at the top, Laure heard many voices talking, excited. Oh, Benjamin! Are you at the pub? She pushed the pub’s door open. One hundred and eighty eyes turned her way and then the silence dropped so thick that you could have heard the breathing of a fly. The one hundred and eighty eyes suddenly found the tips of their shoes very attractive. Nobody wanted to look at Laure.

She looked around and saw Benjamin. He too had his gaze fixed intensely to the tip of his dusty boots. She looked around but saw no traces of Jean-Baptiste.

Benjamin’s mouth felt so dry. He would have given anything for a beer at that very moment.

“Benjamin,” she said calmly with her deep, loud and firm voice. “Where is Jean-Baptiste? What is happening here?”

“… Euh…” mumbled Benjamin. He looked like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “… hummmm… euh…” He couldn’t speak. Words were sticking in his throat. Fear of her or emotion because something had happened, Laure couldn’t say. She moved forward a few steps. Some men backed up few steps.

“Benjamin… talk to me!” She couldn’t stand it anymore. She felt that her nerves had climbed up to the surface of her skin; it was almost painful. She was about to explode. Finally, Benjamin found the courage to talk.

“The boschs… hummmm… the boschs came to the mine and they arrested Jean-Baptiste. They took him to the concentration camp to be interrogated. Seems they think he stole their coffee shipment last week.”

The one hundred and eighty eyes had had enough of admiring the tips of the boots and now were fixing Laure. She was unsettled, nervous, should I say flabbergasted? And then, a great rage climbed in her chest. How dare they? Arresting MY son? Bastards!

Her heavy body started to tremble in rage, her round cheeks became red, her breath heavy, her eyes even changed color. They were not green anymore but kind of a transparent glaucous tint and her hands closed in fists. She looked like a bull ready to charge.

Everybody in the pub backed up. Laure Gonze was well known in town to be quite a strong and tempered woman. Good heart but…kind of explosive at times. She was a tall and massive woman and nobody argued too long with her. Twice a week, she went on the terril(4) to gather discarded coal in huge bags she brought home on a heavy wooden cart she pulled to the house. Laure was also known to walk for days over the borders and brought—under the German’s noses—coffee, flour and sugar and sometimes other goodies for her family and friends. Selling these items brought in a bit more money, as she was also known to be, euh… a tight purse.

Laure turned her back to the crowd and went out the pub’s door. In the evening sun, she took a deep breath and started to walk toward the concentration camp, just a fifteen minute walk past the mine. In the pub, the men didn’t know what to do. Stop her? That would be a big risk for their lives so they decided to courageously follow her… from afar and see what would happen.

When Laure arrived at the camp, the armed guard tried to stop her but she pushed him away. Bewildered, he looked at her opening the camp fence and walking toward the prisoner’s barracks screaming: “Jean-Baptiste! Where are you? Jean-Baptiste. Show yourself up, little brat! How dare you disappear like that at suppertime? Do you think I only have that to do, running after you all the time? When it is not the pub it will be here now? Jean-Baptiste! Jean-Baptiste!”

A door opened. It was the office of the camp’s director. The man in a sharp uniform, straight as if he had swallowed an umbrella, was now standing on the porch.

“What do you want?” he yelled in French with a heavy accent.

“I am searching for my son, Jean-Baptiste!” she answered back.

“He is here. I arrested him! I…”

He didn’t have the time to finish his sentence. Full of rage, Laure pushed him away, entered the office, grabbed her six foot four inches son by the ear and dragged him out of the building.

“How dare you miss suppertime? How dare you make me walk all that distance? You go home now and never try that on me again. Do you understand, brat?” she screamed at him, shaking his head by pulling and pushing his poor ear and slapping him on the head with her free hand.

Not letting go of his ear and continuing to slap him, she hastily pulled Jean-Baptiste toward the camp door. The Germans were all transfixed. Enlarged round eyes, mouths opened wide, rooted to the spot, not one of them thought of moving, of stopping them from going out or even of holding up their guns.

Laure with Jean-Baptiste hunched behind her, grimacing from pain and still dragged by the ear, went out of the camp, passed the mine hump where the crowd from the pub had gathered and went down the long hill toward the house.

The crowd from the pub had to run to catch up to Laure and her son but she didn’t care, she didn’t want to stop. Her goal was to arrive at the house… quick… She was not afraid of the soldiers but she knew, she had feelings, she had some kind of an insight, a movement, a deep rumble, a strong knowing that she will need, urgently, to go to… the outhouse!

Three hours later, Laure’s tummy settled down and everybody’s stomach was full of soup and omelette and fries and salad. They were all sitting in the living room with a strong and fragrant coffee. Some friends came to visit and laughter filled the house again.

“What were you thinking to do such a thing Laure?” they asked

“I don’t know,” she answered. “But I had to do something.” On these words she got up to get the coffee pot and some cups for two friends who just came in.

Up to now, nobody understands why the Germans never stopped her or why they never came to the house to arrest her and Jean-Baptiste. They were left alone and, strange thing, the camp director – usually so stiff—started to salute my grandma every time their path crossed and it seems, I was told, that he had a glimpse of admiration in his eyes when he was looking at her.



(1) Bosch was the name given to the German soldiers during the war time.
(2) Buckshot.
(3) Firedamp explosion in coalmines.
(4) Hill near the mine where they piled the coal debris.

Amyah Labrèche is a writer and published author of two children and Middle Grade (MG) books and many articles. She’s a journalist, translator and photographer, now living in Canada on the beautiful Vancouver Island. She says, “Besides writing for children and MG, I started—at friends and family demands—to write my memoirs. This story of my grandmother, Laure Gonze, is one part of my family history that I can remember. As you see, we have a pretty colorful one. I hope you enjoy my little story, which is 100% true, by the way.”

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A Rosie Story Told by Neighbor Maureen Dunphy

by Matilda Butler on March 5, 2016

Post #72 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Readers have shared with us stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other friends and family. We've chosen the best of these are are publishing them to honor all Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Maureen Dunphy tells her neighbor's story. We invite you to read this story and think you will find it as interesting and informative as we did. Thanks Maureen.

EXTRA! EXTRA!
Technology Helps Reconstruct the Experiences of a
WWII “Weapon-of-Preparedness” Operator

By Maureen Dunphy

My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Genevieve Irwin, née Kling, was born in 1919, the same year the rotary-dial telephone was introduced, in the state where the telephone switchboard had been first employed (in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878).

On pleasant summer afternoons, from the front porch of her brick Cape Cod, Mrs. Irwin has been generous with stories of her life. The month of Mrs. Irwin’s 93rd birthday, I suggested we collaborate in writing her recollections about the job she held during World War II.

The fall day we sat down in her cheery yellow living room to begin, the sun suddenly burst out from behind storm clouds, filtering in through the wide bay window behind us, casting a spell over our trip back in time. We began by trying to construct a timeline beginning with Genevieve Kling’s birth on September 3, 1919 in Glenbrook, Connecticut and continuing to this September afternoon in Mrs. Irwin’s living room in Royal Oak, Michigan. Wanting to focus our discussion on the period framed by her high-school graduation and her wedding day, my first question was if she’d graduated from Glenbrook High School. In preparation for our interview, I had entered “Glenbrook, CT” into my search field that morning before walking over in the rain and had come across the school online.

“No, I attended Darien High School, across the Noroton River,” Mrs. Irwin replied.

Confused about why she hadn’t attended Glenbrook High School and wanting to warm us up with a simple question and answer, I switched gears, asking her what church she’d attended growing up.

“Union Memorial Church.”

I’d brought my laptop with me and turned it on now. Once online, I found a lovely old photograph of her church and read her the history of the church, which was built in 1885 as “the primary institutional and architectural landmark of the community.” Enthralled, she gazed at the familiar church there before her, a building she’d not seen for many years. In fact, seeing her church on my laptop screen was the first time Mrs. Irwin had ever directly experienced using a computer. Over 70 years ago, Genevieve Kling was one of the telephone company’s switchboard operators during World War II, a job that has since been replaced by computers.

Together we searched for “Glenbrook High School.” Given that both South and North Glenbrook Highs are located in Chicago suburbs, it’s no wonder she hadn’t attended Glenbrook High School!

When had she graduated from Darien High School? Mrs. Irwin couldn’t recall, but she did know she hadn’t graduated ahead or behind her class. As most students graduated at 16 or 17, and she has a September birthday, she most likely graduated in 1937. We were able to confirm this online in the list of Darien High School alumni.

Trying to establish the other “bookend” date, her wedding day, I asked her when she’d married Jerry. As Mrs. Irwin couldn’t remember, we put his full name, “Gerald C. Irwin,” in the search field and discovered he was born on October 15, 1918 and had died on June 25, 1996. But we couldn’t locate their wedding date. I asked if she had a wedding photograph available. “On the stairs,” she said. These are stairs she no longer climbs as she now stays on the first floor.

I brought the sepia-tinted photograph to her in her armchair, behind her walker and facing the TV where the local news provided an undercurrent of the present to our reconstruction of the past. I considered the strikingly beautiful young woman posed with the handsome young man wearing an Air Force uniform.

“Well, you don’t look 30 yet here, but you’re certainly not a teenager either.”

“I was 23,” Mrs. Irwin stated firmly. The photograph had apparently made this piece of the past come back into focus. “When I was coming back from visiting a girlfriend on vacation, I met Jerry on the train. After three or four dates, we got engaged when we were out to lunch. Can you imagine doing that? But they, the servicemen, were all going overseas. I was very lucky; Jerry was a good man.”

Next, we used Google Earth to see Darien High up close. Mrs. Irwin gazed at the bird’s-eye view of her high school. Here was a woman who, as a switchboard operator from—as close as we were able to figure—1939 to 1942, had one of the very few jobs in technology available to women in the first half of the 20th century. Today, she was being escorted around her earlier life in Connecticut from her living room in Michigan, courtesy of the technology she was experiencing for the first time.

Mrs. Irwin couldn’t recall the name of the telephone company she worked for, but I remembered she’d mentioned it in the past, so before our next meeting, I entered: “Telephone company, Washington D.C., 1940” and hit “Search.” AT&T was known then as “American Telephone and Telegraph Company,” but that didn’t ring a bell for her. However, AT&T’s D.C. subsidiary “Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company” did.

How did Genevieve end up in DC, having been raised on an “out-in-the-country” five-acre estate in Glenbrook? Her father’s sister, childless Aunt Mary Brown’s high-school graduation gift to Genevieve was a train ticket to Chicago to visit her. Teenaged “Jen” ended up attending Gregg Business School there, learning shorthand and typing. She wanted to be a court reporter, but Chicago was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and there were no jobs available.

Returning to Glenbrook, Jen found a temporary job at the Glenbrook Public Library until Marge Ahl, who lived up the street, got her a job at the Southern New England Telephone Company in Stamford. There, at 19, she was one of the many switchboard operators who helped mitigate the disasters spawned by the Great Hurricane of September 1938.

In 1939, Western Electric identified the telephone as a “weapon of preparedness” with respect to the war, and that year, twenty-year-old Genevieve’s supervisor transferred Jen to Washington D.C, where more switchboard operators were needed for the war effort.

Arriving alone in DC by train, Mrs. Irwin said she was “scared to death,” but she was struck by how “big, beautiful, and very clean” the city appeared. “Everything looked white, all the big buildings.”

She stayed with former classmate Marge Ketchum and her family until she found a room to rent. Marge and Jen went sightseeing together. Jen’s favorite sight was the Lincoln Memorial. “I had the strangest feeling looking at Lincoln. There he was sitting in his chair way up there. He was all alone, no one around him. A gorgeous statue. I never could forget it.”

When she started talking about her tenure at Chesapeake and Potomac, I realized that Mrs. Irwin was having trouble seeing my laptop screen. We cleaned her glasses, and I lugged my 20-inch flat-screen monitor over to set up on her kitchen table. We spent the afternoon researching. We marveled to learn that switchboards had first been operated by teenage boys, until the boys proved too “unruly and rude.” Nine months after George Willard Croy became the world’s first telephone operator, Emma Nutt became the first female switchboard operator in 1878.

Sixty years later, Genevieve Kling was hired as a switchboard operator and then transferred to the heart of the war effort. “I was thrilled to have a job. I was an operator. I liked everything about it. I liked the way they treated me. I liked the girls I worked with. I liked the hours: seven to three. I’d have the whole afternoon to myself. There was lots to do. I made good friends.”

Online, in the National Museum of American History’s Science Service Historical Image Collection–which represents twentieth-century scientific research consisting of images and original captions—we found a 1932 photograph of a long-distance switchboard, “manned” by a dozen female switchboard operators with several supervisors, also women, standing behind the line of operators, “keep(ing) close watch as the calls (were) handled.” The photo had been published in The Smithsonian under the caption: “’The bombers are coming!’ Switchboard operators are front-line defense troops, without moving from their chairs.”

Mrs. Irwin recalled, “We were sitting in tall chairs . . . It was a big room where the switchboards were. The room was buzzing. We wore headphones to hear the customers.” The operators wore casual dresses with high heels to work and stockings that “lasted forever.” “ . . . A shift supervisor stood behind all of us girls to answer questions. When a call came in—it would be a long distance or collect call–a light in front of me flashed, and I’d answer, ‘May I help you?’”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Irwin had the occasion to be re-introduced to technology—of the hospital variety–yesterday. Here’s hoping, come spring, she’s back on her porch with her memories.

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A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Her Daughter Sherrey Meyer

by Matilda Butler on January 5, 2016

Post #71 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: We are publishing a series of stories that focus on Rosie the Riveter. Readers have shared with us stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other friends and family. We are publishing these to honor all Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Sherrey Meyer shares the story of her mother when she worked at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft -- one of the well-known facilities where many a Rosie the Riveter learned and successfully carried out her new craft. We invite you to read this story and think you will find it as fascinating as we did. Thanks Sherrey.

RED-HEADED ROSIE

By Sherrey Meyer

The year is likely 1943. The place is Nashville, TN. A single mother in her early 30s raising a young son alone needs a better job. In reality, she needs a better wage.

An ad appears in the Nashville newspaper. It was placed by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft. With all the men and boys off fighting the war, Vultee was seeking women to do their jobs.

The single mother is Nelle Roper Whitehead, my future mama. Her son, Gene, is almost nine. I’m not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, so the story I share with you is based on what I was told by Mama and other family members, plus what I’ve read in local Nashville and Tennessee archives, as well as Vultee archives. I wish I had a photograph of Mama at this time but nothing found in her effects pointed to this particular stage in her life. Sharing her story as one of the women who came to be called “Rosie the Riveter” is a joy for me.

* * *

My Mother in Early 1940

My Mother in Early 1940

Mama was divorced and raising Gene on her own. She had worked many jobs, a variety of jobs, which paid very little. Mama’s education had been shortened in childhood to help care for younger siblings. Her ability to get top paying work was diminished not only by her educational deficiencies but also the impact of poor eyesight and almost complete hearing loss in one ear. The Great Depression had not helped matters any.

In 1943, Mama and Gene were living with her sister and her husband, their two daughters, and my mom’s mother in East Nashville. Family stories indicate that times were hard and living conditions cramped, but it saved on rent and Mom did what she had to do to stretch her income.

Her excitement on seeing Consolidated Vultee’s ad was likely over the top. Mama was excitable anyway, but I can imagine her elation at the idea of learning a new skill while making a higher wage. However, when telling the story, she always indicated how worried she was she wouldn’t qualify. But one thing I know, Mama was a determined woman with a strength and work ethic that served her well for most of her life.

Mama was blessed with beautiful green eyes, which sparkled when she was excited and happy and flashed with strength and determination when she wanted to make things work for her and her own. Add to those green eyes a head of thick, naturally wavy hair the color of fall leaves turning reddish brown. If she had the money, Mama could have been quite the dresser with her petite and curvaceous figure, but even without high fashion on her side, Mama was always dressed immaculately in whatever she wore.

Everything pressed, shoes shined, not a missing button, no threads to be trimmed. And she probably arrived for her interview at Vultee looking quite the woman with obtaining a job on her mind.

Qualify she did and sometime in 1943 she went to work for Consolidated Vultee, a plant making parts for P38 Lockheed Lightning fighters and later the Vengeance dive bombers. I can see her steady and strong steps as she leaves to head to work, and I can imagine she had a twinkle in her green eyes as she thought of her success. I try to imagine Mama in trousers at that time, but I can certainly see all her glorious red hair tucked under her bandana. On that first day, Mama was moving with pride.

Mama was assigned to “buck rivets.” She never denied that she had no idea what this meant until her first day at work. Imagine her surprise when she arrived for duty that first shift and learned what “bucking rivets” really meant! Magazine and newspaper articles have indicated, and I have no way of knowing, that bucking rivets was much harder work than riveting. I can’t imagine either being easy work. Mama described bucking rivets as hard and noisy. Her job was to hold a block or something very hard and heavy against the end of the rivet being installed on the plane or plane part. So as the riveter used a drill to install a rivet, Mama worked against the opposite end of the rivet to ensure it “mushroomed” and covered the opposite end of the opening the rivet should fill.

Mama would laugh as she told stories of her days as a rivet bucker. A few of her quips I remember are:

“If I’d had music going, I could have created some new dance craze while bucking those rivets.” [Mama’s favorite pastime was dancing.]

“There were times I felt like my arms would fall off, or maybe my teeth would fall out my body would be shaking so hard.”

“Some days I’d leave work and my body felt as if it was shaking all the way home and into the night.”

“My teeth chattered as if it were below freezing in that plant.”

“It was dirty work and I felt smudged all the time, but the pay was better than I’d known in awhile.”

“God was good and provided what we needed, but I felt bad for the men and boys fighting the war. I prayed a lot during the work day for their safety.” [Mama’s faith was strong and never faltered.]

As children, we could only imagine what all these and many more descriptive phrases meant, but one thing for sure. Mama was proud to have been one of Vultee’s Rosie the Riveters.

Mama was more fortunate than some of the other women as the men began returning from the war. Vultee turned to appliances as they began to phase out the war contract work. Mama’s work record was good, and she was offered a job spraying the interiors of ovens with speckled enamel. She did this for several years until she moved on to a job in the printing industry. That is where she met my dad, and that’s an entirely different story.

* * *

I’m proud of Mama’s Rosie legacy, and I’m thankful to her for passing along her sense of patriotism, faith, and strong work ethic. I only wish there were more documented materials about her life during that time.

The photo shared above was found at WWII Letters (http://wwiiletters.blogspot.com). The photo is attributed as follows:
Working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber, Vultee [Aircraft Inc.], Nashville, Tennessee. From the Library of Congress WWII Color Photographs collection. Photographer: Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Collection 12002-41

Sherrey Meyer is a retired legal secretary who grew tired of drafting and revising pleadings and legal documents.  She had always dreamed of writing something else, anything else!  Once she retired she couldn’t stay away from the computer, and so she began to write. 

Among her ongoing and completed projects:

–A memoir of her “life with mama,” an intriguing Southern tale of matriarchal power and control displayed in verbal and emotional abuse.
–A contribution to Loving for Crumbs: An Anthology of Moving On by Jonna Ivin.  In August 2012 the anthology was released in ebook format and paperback on Amazon.  
–Two award-winning contributions to the anthology Seasons of Our Lives (Autumn) (Winter) edited by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett. A 2014 Amazon Kindle publication.
–An award-winning story in the anthology Tales of Our Lives edited by Matilda Butler. A 2016 Amazon Kindle publication.

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WWII, a W.A.V.E., and Love: A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Jane Self

by Matilda Butler on November 5, 2015

Post #70 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: This is the next in our series of intriguing stories we received from readers--stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Jane Self reveals the fascinating story of how her mother became a W.A.V.E. Jane interviewed her mother a number of times in order to learn about her history. We think you'll enjoy this story as much as we did.

Service that Counts

By Jane Self

By the summer of 1942, 22-year-old Helen Huckabee was restless. The country was at war and most of the men she knew had gone off to serve their country. Life on the dairy farm in Brookfield, VT, suddenly felt stifling.

Nine years earlier, her parents had moved the family across the country from Oregon to take over running the farm. The new owner, her mother’s brother, had asked her father to take over because he spent most of his time on the road evangelizing with his wife. He had bought the farm as an investment. But not only did he not have time for farming, he didn’t know anything about it and wasn’t interested in changing that.

After graduating from high school in 1938, Helen had gone as far in college as her hard-earned scholarships allowed, earning a two-year teaching certificate from the University of Vermont. The first year of teaching was rewarding, but by then the country had entered World War II.

She felt stuck up there in the wilds of Vermont. Three of her four brothers had already joined the military. The oldest, Don, was a chaplain with the Navy, Harlow was working with the judge advocate general Army staff and Hubert, two years her junior, was in the Navy. The youngest brother, Bob, was only 15 and still in high school. Her only sister, Bonnie, was already busy raising a young family.

“I had to do something,” Helen said one afternoon many years later during an interview with her daughter. “It didn’t occur to me yet that I could join the military, too. But I knew I wanted to contribute to the war effort and teaching school didn’t seem very patriotic at the time.”

As soon as school was out for the summer, she went to Harford, CT, for a job at an airplane factory. Her duties required sorting, counting and packaging screws.

“I made twice the money there that I had teaching school, but I was bored to tears,” she said. Although a sign in the background at the factory, “Every Minute Counts,” encouraged workers to manage their time efficiently, she found that she was still faster than anyone else without even trying.

“That upset the apple cart,” she said. “The others wanted me to slow down so they wouldn’t have to work so fast. But any 10-year-old child could have done what I was doing.”

When fall arrived, she left the factory, frustrated. She knew it was an important job that had to be done, but the tedium was too draining on her. She reluctantly returned to her teaching job in Vermont. But her restlessness continued. She had to do something. She had to find a fit.

While she had been packaging screws that summer, progress was happening in Washington that would open doors for her and thousands of other young women across the country. President Roosevelt signed new legislation in July establishing the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as the WAVES. In August 1942, Mildred McAfee was commissioned to command the organization, becoming the first woman officer in naval history.

A recruitment brochure for the newly established WAVES caught Helen’s attention. “It’s a proud moment when you first step out in brand new Navy blues! The trim uniform was especially designed by the famous stylist Mainbocher to flatter every figure and to make you look – and feel – your best!”

The wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Josephine Forrestal, who had been a fashion editor for Vogue before her marriage, had asked Mainbocher, a leading Parisian designer, to create the stylish uniform. And Helen loved it. Until then, she had been considering joining the WACS, the also newly established women’s branch of the Army. But the uniform determined her choice and she signed up in the late spring 1943 for the WAVES. By then, nearly 27,000 women had preceded her.

As soon as school was out, she left for three weeks of basic training in New York, where a training center for women recruits had been set up in the facilities of Hunter College in the Bronx.

“And wouldn’t you know it, that was the hottest summer ever in New York. A massive heat wave had hit the city,” she said.

“Women were held to the same standards as the men and it was hard on the women. Most of us had never experienced such rigorous physical activity,” she said. She stayed on the seventh floor of one of Hunter’s dormitories. Because the recruits were not allowed to use the elevators, they had to climb the seven flights of stairs at the end of each grueling day to get to their beds.

Every day, they would go out in full dress summer uniforms – cotton skirt, long-sleeve cotton jacket and cotton stockings with lace-up shoes – to march down the streets of New York City, despite the sweltering heat. The Marine sergeants who trained the women seemed to resent their jobs and were especially tough on them.

“A lot of the women gave up and dropped out,” Helen said. “But I wasn’t about to do that.” Even when she felt nauseated from the salt tablets they were given – without water – she was determined to survive boot camp. And she did.

Because of her teaching background, Helen was tapped as a link trainer operator and sent to Atlanta. For 10 weeks, she and other former schoolteachers learned the intricacies of “blind flying” at the Link Instrument Training Instructors School. The Navy then assigned the link trainers to airfields in Texas or Florida to teach cadets and aviators how to use instrument panels to fly their airplanes.

She requested Corpus Christi as her first duty station because she was born in Wichita Falls and her father still had family in Texas. Instead, she was sent to Pensacola and assigned to Whiting Field, the newest and most ambitious of the entire Pensacola training center. Although disappointed in not going to Corpus Christi, she soon discovered Whiting Field had a lot to offer. For one thing, there were about 10 men for every woman in the area, not a bad ratio from her perspective.

The flight simulator Helen worked with was basically a small wooden airplane mounted on four air-filled bags, controlled by the operator. During link training, she put a hood set up like the cockpit of an airplane with all its instruments over the cadets. Then she sat at a desk beside them and operated the signals to simulate storms, other airplanes nearby, dives and various things that can happen when flying. The cadets would have to control the plane by the instruments rather than by sight. If the training aviators were on a dive, they’d get the feeling they really were going down.

If the student was doing well, the instructor would often complicate matters by mechanically causing a crosswind or create rough air that the pilot had to cope with. Many a cadet would emerge from one of these experiences woozy and weeping in frustration.

Helen loved challenging the guys, particularly those who had a cocky attitude or snickered at the idea of learning anything so macho from a mere woman.

Then David Self, a Leighton, AL, native, showed up in late October for training and life changed. One of his fellow cadets who had arrived at Whiting Field a few days earlier had warned David about this beautiful, sexy link trainer. But David had just laughed at the guy who was always trying to set him up with women. Then he met Helen at a Halloween party on the base and the next day, he requested to be assigned to her link. His buddy had been right for once.

As they got to know each other over the three weeks before David had to report to another field, they discovered they had similar backgrounds and were heading in the same direction with their lives. Both had come from large families with very little money growing up. Both were teachers convinced that public education was the future of America and both came from strong Methodist roots with many preachers in their lineage.

After he was stationed at the nearby field and despite the prohibition of officers fraternizing with non-officers, they still found time to see each other almost every day. They would meet in downtown Pensacola for a movie or just to walk around and talk.

For Christmas, David took Helen on a bus trip to meet his parents in Springville, AL, about 20 miles north of Birmingham. When she saw how devoted and attentive he was to his own mother, she knew that was a telling sign about how he would treat a wife.

David finally convinced Helen that he meant it when he said he wanted to marry her, even though he had made that statement right after their first training experience. She had laughed at him then but after meeting his family, finally decided it was real. She was already very much in love with him, and gave up the notion that it was a temporary fling for him.

David’s father, the Rev. James T. Self, performed their wedding late in the evening of March 15, 1944. He only had four days leave before having to report back for more flight training in Fort Lauderdale. They boarded a bus from Springville to Birmingham a little before midnight after the ceremony. They spent the next three days honeymooning and planning their future.

By late April, Helen realized she was pregnant, which was part of their plan.

“At that time, they automatically gave you a medical discharge when you got pregnant,” Helen said. “And getting out of the Navy was the only way I could be wherever David was once he finished his flight training.”

Although her life had taken a surprise turn from what she expected when she first joined the WAVES, she had no regrets.

“I was glad I was able to serve what little time I did,” she said. “Hopefully, it made a difference for those young cadets I trained.”

For the rest of her life, Helen expressed pride at the opportunity she had to serve her country when it needed her most. And she loved to tell the story of how she met her husband and taught him how to fly when the going got rough.

She died of congestive heart failure at the age of 77 in 1998, twelve years after David died from a massive heart attack in 1986. They had four children and eight grandchildren.

Jane Self, a freelance writer and retired features editor, wrote this story about her mother. After her father died in 1986, she interviewed her mother about their lives with each other every time the family was together for any occasion. Some stories , particularly the one about how her parents met, came up during nearly every interview. The more her mother told the story, the more vivid the details became as she reached deeper into her memories.

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