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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matilda Butler 11.13.15 at 11:32 am

Jane:
Thanks for this story of your mother. The details made me feel like your mother was talking to me.

2 Pam Gordon 11.13.15 at 7:40 pm

Jane, I loved reading this about your mom. I didn’t know any of this about her life. What a wonderful story.

3 Katie Self 11.13.15 at 7:45 pm

One of my most wonderful memories after 52 years in the Self clan was when I first met your Mother, Aunt Helen to me. She had a twinkle in her eye that was matched only by the one in your Dad’s eye. I expect it was that twinkle that each saw in the other’s eyes when they met that also was the “spark” that was evident to all of us and that stayed with them throughout the years they had together. I knew much of this story but not her frustration with her choices as a young woman during those early war years. Special woman indeed.

4 Bonnie 11.13.15 at 9:10 pm

Reading this story of your mom and dad opened up a new way of seeing my mom, who also was a WWII bride of a pilot who became a minister. It also was a great read from a great writer! Miss you too.

5 Sarah 11.14.15 at 6:55 am

Proud my kids have this in their lineage. I’ve heard this story many times but seeing it in this form made it come to life.

6 Jim Self 11.14.15 at 9:00 am

This was great to read. I’ve heard bits and pieces over the years, and its wonderful to get so much more detail. I never knew the uniform was the deciding factor. Helen was so fashion conscious. Served her well in this case! The wedding picture of mama and daddy both in uniform is one if my all time favorites photos.
Thanks Jane for a great article!

7 Yancey 11.22.15 at 1:17 pm

Wonderful story and so romantic and informative!!

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