Legacy of WWII: It was a ‘Woman’s War Too’
Highlighting the women of the Greatest Generation and how their service changed the U.S. forever
Beverly Newak wasn’t picky.
When she finished boot camp at the end of 1943, the Navy gave her three job choices. “Just put me where you need me,” she told them.
Which is how a 20-year-old home-economics student from Fargo, N.D., wound up in Florida teaching bomber crews how to shoot machine guns.
World War II changed America in countless ways, and this was one of them. A nation that had encouraged women to think of themselves mainly as wives and mothers suddenly needed them to be something else. Dozens of something elses.
“It’s a Woman’s War Too!” the recruiting posters said.
Answering the call by the hundreds of thousands, they worked as nurses on hospital trains in Europe. They broke enemy code in top-secret offices in Washington, D.C. They built airplanes in San Diego.
Historians look back on that period now and see a great awakening, a broadening of female horizons that’s ongoing — not just in the military, which this year began easing restrictions on women in ground-combat jobs, but everywhere.
“Many times I’ve thought, my goodness, what are all these feminists complaining about?” Newak said. “We were doing things that weren’t very feminine a long time before they started complaining.”
Newak is 88 now and lives in La Mesa. She still has her uniforms from the war, still has her gunnery-school instruction manual. She still remembers how on the day her Navy class graduated, somebody with a sense of humor put this sign in front of the group: “College of Mortuary Science.”
Funny, but kind of true, too. Death was their business. Teach someone how to shoot a machine gun effectively from inside the turret of a B-17 and they have a better chance of making it home. Teach them to recognize the silhouette of enemy aircraft and they’re less likely in the heat of combat to shoot down one of their own.
If it bothered the men to be taught by women, they never said so out loud to Newak. There was some teasing — they called the instructors “nags” (short for naval aviation gunner school) — but “everybody understood how serious this was,” she said.
“They all paid really good attention to what was going on because their lives depended on it.”
Making Mom mad
Patriotism isn’t gender-specific. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, women itched to get into the fight, too. “I wanted to be somewhere, do something of value,” said Evelyn Coy.
The Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) program required enlistees to be at least 20 before signing up, and if they weren’t yet 21, they had to get their parents’ permission. Easier said than done in Coy’s case.
Her mother wouldn’t sign the slip. “She had friends who would ask her, ‘Why would you let your daughter go into the service? There’s nothing but whores in there, especially the Navy,’ ” Coy said.
As she neared 21, her mother hid her birth certificate, which she needed to enlist. So Coy went to City Hall and bought a duplicate for $3. And signed up for the WAVES on her birthday. “My mother was so mad,” she said.
She was sent to Washington, where she was a cryptologist, helping to break Japanese and German codes. They worked behind 12-foot electrified fences, had top-secret security clearances, and were prohibited from going into any office except their own.
“We couldn’t talk about what we did with anybody,” she said.
The women’s uniforms hadn’t been designed yet when she joined in August 1942. “It was a challenge, everything was so new,” she said. They had official shoes, but not uniforms, so to gain entrance to USO dances, they pointed to their feet.
“They’d go ‘Oh, yeah, she’s in the WAVES,’ ” Coy said.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, invited servicewomen to the White House every week for tea and conversation. Coy went. “It was mostly women’s subjects. Eleanor Roosevelt was a big promoter of women, one of the first to do that.”
Coy absorbed the message. After the war, she worked in city planning. Now 90 and living in Point Loma, what she remembers when she looks back on her three years in the service is “how it made me a much broader person than I was before. The things I learned, the people I was in contact with — it was something in my life I never would have expected.”
She’s proud that what she did then paved the way for later generations. “The girls of today have so many opportunities,” she said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
In April 1942, 21-year-old Esther Furst commuted from a North Park rental to her job at the Consolidated Aircraft factory. Building wings for B-24 Liberators, she took pride in her contribution to the war effort and her budding independence.
“It was exciting, to us anyway,” said Esther Furst Terwilliger, who now divides her time between Eugene, Ore., and La Mesa. “We were young.”
Consolidated, founded in 1923 by pioneer aviator Reuben H. Fleet, was hopping. The month Terwilliger started, the plant was toured by Lt. Gen. William Knudsen, the Defense Department’s production chief, and Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator.
Terwilliger didn’t notice either visitor. She was focused on her work, using an electric drill to turn out six to eight wings a day. “It really wasn’t tedious because I had to change the drills, put it in the right place,” she said. “I liked my job.”
She worked on a second floor loft, surrounded by women — Consolidated’s workforce would be 40 percent female by 1943. Down below, she could see the machinists, mostly men.
Renting in North Park with one of her sisters, and later with another sister in Mission Beach, hers wasn’t a cloistered life. She remembers seeing a lot of big bands — even Frank Sinatra, who came down to San Diego occasionally.
Not everyone saw the work she and others were doing as vital and valued. In his 1942 Easter sermon, the Catholic bishop of Seattle took aim at divorce, “worldwide godlessness” and Rosie the Riveter. With so many women taking wartime positions once reserved for men, “the purity of our womanhood is at stake,” warned Bishop Gerald Shaughnessy.
Later that month, though, Lt. Gen. Knudsen called the women at Consolidated “a godsend.” “Their work,” he added, “has been a revelation to me.”
As the decades passed and more and more American women entered the workforce, Terwilliger thought about the excitement she felt in San Diego, being part of something bigger.
“You’re doing it for your country, like the servicemen,” she said. “I’m still behind them — they are my favorite charity.”
She already wanted to be a nurse, and went into training right out of high school. Before too long she was in the Army, headed to Europe. Trauma care was her unexpected specialty.
“Usually in a hospital setting the patients you see are older,” she said. “I was worried about how I would be, seeing so many young people injured.”
After the D-Day invasion at Normandy in June 1944, she worked in hospitals in France, and her ability to sleep soundly right next to the emergency room made her eligible for special duty: the hospital train.
Railroad cars followed the troops as they fought into Belgium and Germany, picking up casualties, treating them, and then taking the most seriously wounded to ships for transport back to England and the U.S.
She saw a lot of gangrene, especially after the Battle of the Bulge, fought in the snow in the winter of 1944. Gangrene often led to amputation. “It’s an awful thing to tell a young man he’s going to lose his leg,” she said.
Tank victims — usually so heavily burned — were the worst. Their wounds caused them great pain, and often led to something that still makes O’Neil grimace: maggots.
She saw other things she’d like to forget. She was working at a hospital in Germany when Gen. George Patton was brought in with injuries from a car crash that ultimately killed him. She was jitterbugging outside a concert in Paris, waiting for Glenn Miller to show up, when an announcer interrupted the show to say the bandleader’s plane had disappeared into the English Channel.
Ask her what makes her proudest about her three years in the Army and she says, “That I didn’t fall apart.”
A couple of times she talked suicidal men out of jumping off the train. “There is a future,” she’d tell them. After the war, she worked as a psychiatric nurse. Now 89, she lives in La Jolla and still talks about the future — one she’d like to believe might one day be free of war.
“Even with all of our computers, with all of the texting and other things, we don’t communicate,” she said. “There’s still an awful lot of violence in the world, and that worries me.”
Source: UT San Diego, July 28, 2012, by Peter Rowe and John Wilkens