Tales from the Greatest Generation
Almost two years ago, when I was 92, I got a call from someone who said she was researching a book on women who had served in the code-breaking branches of the military during World War II. Having enlisted in the Navy as a member of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1942, I was one of them.
Not that I was very high up in the pecking order. I was only 20 at the time and had been living at home when my younger brother enlisted and I decided I would go, too. I had been working as a secretary and attending Brooklyn College at night when the war broke out. My father was against my decision, but my mother, a feminist before her time, supported me. I had to stuff myself with bananas and other fattening foods to make the weight requirement and, because I wasn’t quite 5’ 1,” I had to stretch at the physical, but the doctor didn’t seem to notice. They needed everyone they could get, I guess.
I had grown up in Queens and Long Island, the oldest of five. My brother was next and then a younger sister and two more sisters—twins. They were still little when I went. I had been like a second mother to them, a kind of in-house au pair for my mother who was always busy with various organizations. But I was also kind of shy so my mother must have thought it would be good for me as well as the country. And my siblings were becoming old enough to look after themselves.
I did my boot camp training at Hunter College, which the Navy had taken over, and then I was sent to Cedar Falls, Iowa. I got my final assignment to communications in Washington, D.C. with a Specialist Q Second Class rating (equivalent to a staff sergeant in the Army) and served there for the rest of my time in the Navy. All us girls lived together in barracks right across from our headquarters, closely guarded by military police, probably because of the classified nature of our work. We became very close, and long after the war ended, we continued to write one another in a round-robin chain letter (it was before email!), and to get together for reunions in different parts of the country.
I met my first husband, Harry, in those days, too. He was in the Army Air Corps, stationed out west where he had been injured in a jeep accident. In a body cast for six months, he never got sent overseas. Lucky for me. He was deployed stateside as a radar operator and, because he had family in Washington and a younger brother stationed there, he would come east to visit. I’d met his brother at a USO dance and dated him casually but when he was going overseas he introduced me to Harry and asked him to look after me while he was gone. Harry did—and we ended up getting married. I’m not sure his kid brother ever really forgave him!
I was discharged shortly after getting married, following Harry from base to base. But I still remember the day we broke the Japanese code in Washington. The feeling in the air among us was electric. Suddenly we knew where the Japanese ships were. The rest, as they say, is history.
After the war, Harry and I returned to civilian life, but it was hard. He tried his hand at different things. We lived for a time at Fort Jay, a military base on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, working for a colonel and later in a ground floor tenement apartment on the Lower East Side near the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. We moved to Queens after our second child was born and lived there for eight years before relocating to Rockaway to raise our family.
We used to come home in the evenings and rush to the ocean for a swim on warm summer nights, one of the amenities of living so close to the beach. In the early 1960s our home became base for far flung family members coming to New York to visit the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park. I got involved with various local organizations. Until age finally slowed me down in the last couple of years, I was president of the Queens County chapter of AMIT, a Jewish charitable organization. With five grandchildren and eight great grandchildren (and a ninth on the way), I feel like I have accomplished so much. But nothing seems quite so vivid or intense to me now as my years as a WAVE.
It all came rushing back when I got that first call about the book on women in World War II. The author visited my home several times and we had some long conversations. Although my job then had been pretty mundane—I was part of a clerical team coding bits of information in various ways until the patterns could be discovered, the kind of stuff they do with computers today—it was a weighty time in my life. We were a tight-knit group. In the evenings, we had dances and the company of young men before they went off to fight. I was part of a select group chosen to model our uniforms in a local fashion show and, of course, I met and married a young soldier who used to sweep into Washington, with a pass or without, to follow me around like a puppy dog until I said yes! I remember the time we were so wrapped up in each other that we didn’t notice an officer we passed, forgetting to salute. The MPs noticed though and promptly arrested Harry, who was in town without a pass (for a change), and sent him back to his base.
So much came flooding back as I sat with the writer, talking and showing her my old photographs. Just a few weeks ago, she called again to say her book is now with the publisher, awaiting release in October, just weeks before Veterans Day. I’m not supposed to say too much about it because the publisher has it under wraps, but I can’t help feeling eager to see what she’s made of the experiences that shaped so many of our lives back then. The small part we played in that war is American history now and it feels good to know that.