Mama was a W.A.V.E. by Muriel Mahall
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.”
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?”
“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.