The Great Adventure: Laguna Woods Women in World War II
by Gloria Moldow, Ph.D. April 2009
While traveling in the middle of the night behind Russian lines, we struck a landmine. I woke up five days later, saved by having been thrown into heavy barbed wire. I learned that the driver had been killed and the other two soldiers seriously injured.
Live ammunition missed the target sock and pierced the tail of the B26 I was flying. I was lucky; not all of the pilots in my group survived
We pulled 72-hour duty before D-Day. German Messerschmitt bombed our location on the Dover cliffs. Several of my buddies in the Y service (British secret service) were killed.
While driving my ambulance in a blinding sandstorm close to the front lines near Tobruk, I mistakenly drove south instead of east. Luckily I ended up with the Free French instead of at Rommel’s German camp.[i]
These may sound like the reminiscences of WW2 veterans, members of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” that Band of Brothers. Well, they are…sort of. The difference is that these recollections represent the experiences of some female GIs, a few of the more than 250,000 women who served in the armed forces during WWII as WACs, WAVES, SPARs, WASPs and WRENs. These women are your neighbors and friends in Laguna Woods Village, a “Band of Sisters,” as it were, living amongst us.
Since 1999, as part of the Veteran’s History Project of the Library of Congress, the Laguna Woods History Center and the Video Club have interviewed hundreds of WWII veterans. Approximately seventy-five women who served in the armed forces between 1941 and 1945 were among those surveyed. Their reminiscences provide us with valuable insights into the lives and contributions of the extraordinary service women who contributed to a sea change in the role of women in the 20th century–and beyond.
Most of the female Laguna Woods veterans enlisted when they were in their early 20s.Some parents “expected” their daughters to enter the military just as they did their sons, according to Mary Pratt. For her, it was a family affair. Although her brothers and cousins joined the Navy she had to enlist in the Army nurse’s corps because the Navy rejected her because of her eyesight. Two of Helen Lang Cronck’s brothers were physicians in the service; her sister was a service nurse. All three of Mary Waltern Moncure’s brothers also joined up.
Although the government set the minimum age for women at twenty- one, one-fourth enlisted when they were even younger, if they had their parents’ consent some parents gave their willing consent to underage daughters because they were glad to be rid of them, or so their daughters thought. Beverly L. Beesmeyer’s family “pushed her out the door,” she laughingly recalled. Beesmeyer and Verona Cassone admitted they had been “tomboys” and “cutups” who were always getting into trouble.
Some younger enlistees whose parents did not approve of their intentions falsified their birth certificates or forged their parents’ signatures. Shirley Gloger Abrams was “bursting to get into the service,” she said. Although she admitted that her “parents couldn’t wait to get rid of me,” Abrams was unwilling to even wait until the legal age of twenty to enlist with their consent. A native of Cleveland, she made her way to Detroit on the day of her high school graduation. From there she bicycled into Canada to join the RAF. Abrams returned to Detroit later that day, crestfallen since the RAF was no longer accepting American recruits. On the way home, she passed a SPARs recruiting office and went in. Abrams picked up the necessary documents, falsified her birth date and forged her mother’s signature. “They didn’t even look!” she recalled, still amazed. Ten days later she was on a troop train headed to boot camp. She wasn’t the only one to take matters into her own hands. Jeanne Samelov Dworkin, a WAC who later served under MacArthur in the Pacific, also forged her birth certificate and signed up at nineteen along with her boyfriend.
Like Dworkin, a few women enlisted because of their boyfriends or husbands. Muriel Friedman Tuteur and her husband tried to enlist at the sametime. The army rejected him because of injuries he sustained when imprisoned by the Nazis as a German civilian, but she was accepted and went off to WACs basic training in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Her husband later joined the merchant marines. Penny Mercer Baker enlisted when she learned that her husband had been killed in Europe. She served with the Army of Occupation and made every attempt while in Europe to find out where he lost his life. The childhood sweetheart of Doris Rank Phillips survived Pearl Harbor, but was killed the following year in the Pacific, just before they were to be married. Following his death, she “hopped into” the Navy, she said, determined to work with the wounded in the hospital corps. Her father supported her, but her mother objected until she became reconciled to the inevitable.
The armed forces also attracted women who sought something other than the traditional jobs then available to women as teachers or farm, factory and office workers. To escape grueling farm work in Nebraska, Thelma Wainz first tried teaching and spent six years in a rural one-room schoolhouse. She moved to California for wider opportunities and there clerked in a dime store and as a long-distance operator. Her interaction with the armed forces personnel in that job opened her eyes to opportunities in the service.
Teteur had operated milling machines on the night shift in a Chicago steel mill, and then became a ship fitter and welder in the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver before joining the WACs. After basic training, she enrolled in parachute school in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Beesmeyer had worked for McDonnell Douglas in California. She took time off from work to take flying lessons in distant Bishop, California. With her private pilot’s license and sufficient hours under her belt to qualify, she quit her job and joined Jacqueline Cochran’s newly formed flying service. Twenty-five thousand women applied, she reported; Beesmeyer was one of one thousand who were admitted.
For some of these enlistees, the glamour of service was as compelling as any other reason. When Adalyn Bonin, a German refugee living on a kibbutz in Israel, visited Tel Aviv she saw a poster with a woman’s picture advertising the ATS (His Majesty’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) and decided to become a driver “just like the girl pictured on the billboards.” “I saw myself behind the wheel of a staff car, in some foreign country,” she wrote in her memoirs.[ii] Bonin quit her job, used all her savings for driving lessons, and, in a country where few people knew how to drive, learned how to “double clutch and handle a three-ton lorry. “ Her strategy paid off. She was the only one of several hundred recruits who could drive a truck and landed the assignment she coveted. When her lorry was delivered, a “two-ton very second-class Fordson,” Bonin wrote in her diary, “I’m overjoyed… Everyone in camp stares at me as if I were the eighth wonder of the world.” (145) Soon Bonin was posted as an ambulance driver to the Egyptian front line near Rommel’s advancing German army.
Despite the glamour of service, Bonin had a more compelling reason to engage in the war effort: She was Jewish, as were more than one-third of the women videotaped. For the few like Bonin born in Europe, the Nazi threat meant life or death. In January 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Bonin, who was then twelve years old, learned to her astonishment that she was Jewish. Her parents, wealthy assimilated Jews, considered themselves loyal Germans and ignored their heritage, although clearly, the Nazis did not. With her father soon stripped of his wealth, her mother cleaning homes, the family living in one room and their circumstances growing more hazardous daily, Bonin joined the youthful Zionist movement and emigrated alone to Israel. There she found relative safety on a kibbutz before joining the British forces. The ATS provided the opportunity to participate in the war…in the battle against the evil forces of the Third Reich,” she later wrote. All during her time in North Africa and Europe with the ATS Bonin continued to hope that her parents had survived. At the end of the war, she learned they had perished in a transport to Auschwitz.
Like Bonin, Anne Gilbert grew up in Berlin where restrictions against Jews grew tighter each day. Marlene Dietrich, one of her father’s patients, warned the highly respected surgeon to flee Germany immediately. He escaped just hours before the Gestapo raided his home at 2 A.M. Ten-year-old Gilbert and her sister fled Berlin some time later. Gilbert’s sister was on the last kinder transport to England. Gilbert finished her schooling in Sussex and entered medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland. She quit midway to join the Women’s Auxiliary of the RAF “to do her bit” and ended up in England’s secret service, where she made a vital contribution to the D-Day effort.
Betty Handler Birenbaum, born in Poland, escaped to Vienna in 1939 and from there fled to the United States. She overcame language barriers to study nursing and joined the Army. She sailed with the 20th Field Hospital to France and was assigned close to German lines where casualties poured into the blown-out building they had converted to a hospital.
Like these European women, six women who had been born in the United States were Jewish. While not personally at risk, these women were no less eager to do their part to defeat the Nazis. Dworkin considered herself “rather political” and felt compelled to do something in the war effort. Her mother had family in Europe; none survived the Holocaust. Tuteur’s parents were from Romania where other members of their family had remained. Her husband Charles, a German Jewish refugee, had escaped from prison in Cologne, Germany, to Shanghai two days before Kristalnacht. Tuteur passionately “felt she had to make a contribution,” she told the interviewer.
Women enlistees had diverse initiation experiences once they arrived in boot camp. Dolores Huber recalled “a lot of marching with backpacks, bedrolls, all equipment…[and] crawling on [my] stomach under fire” with live ammunition. Baker complained that boot camp was “strenuous,” especially with the heavy loads she had to carry when on bivouac. Abrams, a SPAR, recalled with dismay the 6 A.M. obstacle course, the barbed wire, the calisthenics and the marching, marching, marching. On the other hand, Moncure thought basic was great. “I had a marvelous time,” she recalled; “I loved the physical part of it.” Brenda Boynton Ross believed that women survived the rigors of basic even better than the men, “who dropped like flies,” she said. Ninetta Chapman joined the Navy, she said, because “groveling on the ground under barbed wire” as the WACs were forced to do was not for her.
Initially, the services were unprepared for women. “Kotex machines were placed over the urinals,” Ross remembered. And women complained when they had to watch sex programs designed for men, a particular problem for many women still naive about sex. At the other extreme, some instructors “never mentioned any part of the body between the shoulder and the knees,” Ross noted.
The need to wear appropriate dress was a particular issue that women had to deal with early in the war when appropriate uniforms were unavailable. Moncure recalled wearing women’s WWI uniforms until others became available. Ross, who had helped to organize the civilian Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps, was one of the first enlistees in the WAACs (the forerunner of the WACs). At first the army issued “GI clothing” for the women—”men’s clothing” she emphasized, including male underwear! Soon thereafter women received regulation uniforms and were required to wear skirts and stockings—and girdles. Upon completion of basic training each WAAC faced an intensive interview with the male CO and was instructed by her female superior officer to wear a girdle for the meeting. Ross laughingly remembered that she refused to wear a girdle and told her buddies: “Let him find out!”
Baker filled her mess kit with dirt and heated it to press her clothes to keep up her appearance, even while she drove and repaired all kinds of vehicles, from ¾ ton to 2 ½ ton trucks and jeeps. But she drew the line on some demands. When pulled over by an MP in Germany for being “out of uniform,” she complained: “You try keeping a hat on with bobby pins while driving a jeep.” (Baker later married that MP.)Bonin, an ambulance driver in the North African heat, was elated when she finally could wear slacks. Skirts were “really impossible,” she wrote, “When one climbed up into the driver’s seat of the big Austins.” Women pilots who were required to wear skirts, stockings and high heels, even when flying B26s, had the same complaint.
Women were assigned to a wide range of tasks that were vital to the conduct of the war effort. About half remained in the United States. There, Mary Grady performed cryptanalysis in the code department for the Signal Corps. Abrams, a SPAR with the Coast Guard, tracked the movement of ships on the East Coast. Her work was so essential that when she was discharged because the FBI discovered that she was underage, her commander pulled strings to get her in the SPAR reserves so she could return to her job.
Stateside nurses worked in major armed forces hospitals throughout the country caring for the wounded when they were shipped home. Some, like Birenbaum, accompanied seriously wounded patients cross country to hospitals close to their homes. Moncure, a physical education major in college, trained eight hours a day, six days a week for three months to be a physical therapist in the WACs. Initially stationed at Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., she cared for “wards and wards of amputees.” Ross, also a physical education graduate, developed physical training and sex hygiene films for servicewomen.
Other women who remained in the United States performed jobs that seemed to them less essential, such as packing parachutes, purchasing basic supplies, and performing clerical and secretarial duties. Tuteur was frustrated with her parachute packing assignment, convinced she was making “too modest a contribution.” Shirley Wolfberg Fleck, a WAVE who signed up for aviation machinist school, was sent to corpsman school for medical assisting instead. She worked as a medical secretary in the San Diego Naval Hospital and claimed all she learned in the service was how to “shoot pool and smoke a cigar.”
Beesmeyer experienced more than her share of adventure—and danger–within American borders. As a WASP, she and her fellow female pilots (seven of whom lived in Laguna Woods at one time) ferried planes between airfields, tested planes that had been damaged and repaired, delivered planes that required repair, performed check flights, towed targets for live anti-aircraft gunnery practice, flew searchlight tracking missions, and trained inexperienced male cadets. Beesmeyer was always in harm’s way when she flew a B-26 in target practice or flew a damaged plane. Once, when instructing a male student pilot “under the hood,” he “kicked the plane into a secondary spin.” Her quick action pulled it out and saved both their lives, she recalled. She flew every plane the Army had, from the old Steerman biplane to the AT6 and the B26.It was “exciting” and she loved it, she said.
“We all wanted to go overseas,” declared Pratt, an army nurse who was sent to Omaha Beach shortly after D-Day. Almost half of the Laguna Woods female inductees did get overseas, in equal numbers to the Pacific theater and to Europe. Getting there was an adventure itself. Moncure recalled the “exciting and rough” Atlantic crossing. At one point, the captain cut off the engines because the water was “full of U- boats.” The ship drifted silently for hours. Cassano endured twenty days at sea en route to Manila without benefit of escort vessels. We were never afraid, many women remarked. “With twenty women and 5000 men, how could we be frightened?” Moncure laughed.
Dworkin, a WAC who performed the same secretarial duties she might have at home, dismissed the value of her contribution. She tracked the movement of men and materiel that General MacArthur’s operations required–but from a tin shack in New Guinea, not far from danger. Molly Landau Busch, another WAC stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines, decoded messages for the signal corps. Joan Beckham Crockett, a WREN in the British Navy, was promoted from teletype operator to cypher officer, part of the “really secret service” in Ceylon. She “knew everything that was going on,” she said. Gilbert, a member of the RAF in England, did “deplotting” of German enemy aircraft as part of the Fighter Command in Newcastle. Her analyses determined when and where the British air command would send fighters. When her superiors learned that she spoke fluent German, they sent her to Dover.
At the time, the Germans were using women to relay instructions to pilots in the Luftwaffe about where and when to intercept British planes. Gilbert pretended she was one of the German operators and talked more than one disoriented German pilot into mistakenly landing on English soil. The Germans caught on, she said, but could not figure out how to stop her.
Nurses, close to the battlefront, were often in great peril. Cronck arrived in Normandy on D-Day plus ten to set up a field hospital. The encroaching fighting line forced her group to retreat. Casualties were brought in 500 a day. “It was rather rough,” she recalled; we “ran on adrenaline.” Pratt arrived at Omaha Beach not long after. Although Moncure remained in England, she experienced the horrors of battle nevertheless. Sent from Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., to England, Moncure was responsible for setting up a unit soon “overwhelmed” by casualties from the Battle of the Bulge.
Mae Hanson Ankeny, a Navy nurse, and Cassano, an Army nurse, were stationed in the Pacific. Ankeny, one of the first flight nurses in the war zone, flew with severely wounded casualties and often had to give intravenous during rough and hazardous flights. Cassano worked in a tent in Batanga, seventy miles from Manila, surrounded by barbed wire, guards—and hostile Japanese soldiers. These women appeared to have shared Cronck’s sentiment that she “never felt frightened….We just accepted it. That’s what we were there for.”
Service had its lighter side. While Baker‘s top-secret clearance as a driver and courier placed her in danger at times, it also provided her with the pleasure of driving celebrities and top brass around. She escorted Mamie Eisenhower on her visits to the base. On other occasions she drove General Eisenhower and his “friend” Kaye, along with their dog “Penny” to their “romantic hideaway.” Phyllis Goldman Benveniste, another driver with high-level clearance was assigned to celebrity Capt. Gene Tunney, a former American heavyweight champion.
All the women spoke of the lifelong friends they made and more than one emphasized that she turned down a promotion or an opportunity to go to Officer’s Training School to remain with her buddies. There was “great camaraderie,” Gilbert and others recalled, and in some locations there was a lively social life. With 50 “girls” and 500 men, there were always parties, Abrams recalled, although she had to remain on 24-hour call. Chapman, a Navy nurse who instructed corpsmen to get them ready for shipboard duty, thought the music and dancing were great for morale and “a vital part of our life.” The fraternizing had unanticipated benefits as well. Baker, Phillips, Ross, Moncure, Wainz, Ankeny and Huber all met their husbands while in the service. Ankeny married while on a layover in France; Moncure married the son of the General for whom she worked.
Some servicewomen experienced something they never had anticipated—discrimination. Abrams was shocked by the anti-Semitism rife at boot camp. At the end of the first week when members of her group overheard the lieutenant order her to go to synagogue, they realized that she was Jewish and rushed at her screaming, “There’s a Jew. There’s a Jew.” They “took my clothes off and tore at my hair,” she said. A few of her sister SPARs came to her rescue and covered her up, she recalled. It was a traumatic experience but one which changed her attitude. Abrams took her new friends with her to synagogue, although she had never been to religious services before herself, and decided that “If I was proud of what I was, people would respect me.”
Tuteur was “appalled” by discrimination toward African-Americans that she witnessed. At the boot camp near Columbus, Georgia, whites could use the swimming pool five days a week. The black WAC detachment used it the next day. The following day it was emptied and cleaned so the white women would not have to swim in water that the black WACs had “polluted.” Tuteur and five other women went into Columbus and deliberately sat in the back of the bus “to make a statement.” “What were we fighting for?” she complained.
Not surprisingly, sexism was another problem. Although the nurses were generally welcome wherever they were stationed, they still ran into occasional gibes. “It was still a man’s world, even though we carried a man’s load,” said Cronck, an Army nurse in a field hospital near the front lines. Adm. Halsey personally told Ankeny, a lieutenant in the Nurse’s Corps, to “get out of this man’s Navy and have children.” Chapman, a Lieut. Commander, complained to Eisenhower that the services awarded promotions to women much slower than to men.
No matter what job they held, women’s behavior had to be above reproach if they did not want to be identified as one of the “lesbians and prostitutes the women’s service was full of,” the male recruits warned Abrams. Busch, who joined the WACs in 1943 encountered similar rumors and prejudice. “The public hated us,” she said. The women could not go into a Charleston restaurant without a male escort.
Political opposition to women in the service, particularly in jobs considered in the male domain, reinforced sexist attitudes. The Air Force refused to admit the WASPs into their ranks and classified them as civil servants. As a result, the women received no military or veteran’s benefits and had to arrange for and pay for their off-base quarters as well as their food and transportation. Male pilots “picked on the women,” Beesmeyer said, and would turn their backs when the women entered the mess hall. When a sister WASP was killed in the line of duty, Beesmeyer recalled that she and her mates pooled their money to ship the body home for burial. Thirty-eight women did lose their lives, she reported. The courtesies the female pilots received—or failed to receive—often depended on the attitude of the Commanding Officer. Advanced bases were better, she noted, because the “guys coming back were more supportive.” Recognition of the WASPs” valorous contributions finally came in 1977 when, with the urging of Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had himself trained with the women pilots, the government granted them retroactive GI status and benefits.
Most of the female veterans who participated in the History Project received more timely recognition. All seventy-five of the women who responded to the questionnaire had at least one medal or commendation; most several, especially those who participated in the European or Pacific theater. In addition to those ribbons and medals, Baker was awarded the American Defense Service Medal and the WW II Victory medal. Helen E. Brown, a medical and surgical flight nurse who was later chief of nursing services, received the Army Commander Medal with the Oak Leaf Cluster and the Legion of Merit. Cronck received two Bronze Stars. Busch was awarded the Bronze Battle Star as well as the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon and the Philippines Liberation Ribbon. In the British service, Bonin received three battle stars, including one for her participation in the Battle of El Alemain; Gilbert received a special medal from the Queen.
Despite the dangers, indignities, boredom, discomfort and discrimination these marvelous Laguna Woods veterans experienced, they recalled their service as a “great adventure,” in the words of more than one interviewee, one they would not have missed. We “never could have had this experience,” Moncure said. Wentz echoed her sentiments. “I reveled in the excitement and danger,” she said, “In the midst” of the El Alemain battle, Bonin “felt part of a major effort” and found it “fantastic and energizing.” Despite difficulties she confronted, Beesmeyer would not have traded the experience. “I felt privileged” to fly those planes, she said.
Once the war was over, most were eager to leave the armed forces and get on with their lives. The vast majority married and settled in to a busy domesticity. During the fifties, in a period of suburban “togetherness” and stay-at-home Moms, a few of the married women bucked this trend and went to college or worked outside the home. Ankeny went to school to get a medical degree, but dropped out when she became pregnant. Ross ran a clinic in Paris with several doctors and ultimately taught at a university. Dworkin used the GI Bill to work toward an advanced degree. Teteur, with a sociology degree from the University of Chicago, became a caseworker for Cooke County, Ill. Baker volunteered at the VA hospital.
Some of the women interviewed never did marry. Of these, a few became career service personnel. Brown retired in 1967 as a Lt. Commander, chief of the nursing service. Chapman also retired as a Lt. Commander, the highest rank by law that women could attain. Sgt. Nettie Smith retired as a photographer from the army. Others attempted to build on their service experience in the civilian world. Bonin, who never completed high school, discovered how much she enjoyed teaching when she taught German for the Army of Occupation. She eventually completed a doctorate degree and taught at a local college until retirement. Beesmeyer, unable to get a job as a pilot after the war, found work checking out pilots at small airports and later ferried light planes from factories to their destinations until she started her own successful business.
Whatever these women did in the sixty years following the end of WW II, they recalled their service years with a fresh immediacy as the greatest adventure of their lives. They were role models when few existed for the women born just after the war. These “baby boomers,” who later fueled the women’s movement were able to explore wider horizons because of the energy, competence, and enthusiasm of this “band of sisters” who preceded them. In paving the way for future generations, the women who served in WWII perhaps made the greatest contribution of all.
[i] remarks were paraphrased from the statements of Penny Mercer Baker, Beverly Beesmeyer, Anne Weston Gilbert, and Madelyn Bonin, respectively.
They represented all the services, with the largest number having served in the Navy as WAVEs and nurses, others had been in the WAACs (later the WACs) and the Army Nurse Corps, the Coast Guard SPARs and the WASPs, attached to the Air Force. Female veterans had also served in the British armed forces. Twenty-four women who filled out questionnaires agreed to longer videotaped interviews.
Although all the women who responded to the questionnaires ere then living in California, some 40 percent of them came from the mid- and far- West and another 25 percent from the New York tri-state area and New England . Ten percent were born outside the U.S.
[ii] Bonin, Adalyn. Allegiances. Santa Barbara, Fithian Press, 1993.
Dr. Gloria Moldow, an AAUW Fellowship recipient, earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in American Studies. There she taught one of the first women’s history courses in the country and was Asst. Coordinator of the Women’s Studies Program.
She retired as Dean of the Columba School of Iona College in New Rochelle, New York.
Her book, Women Doctors in Gilded Age Washington: Race, Gender and Professionalization, was nominated for the Herbert G. Gutman American Social History Prize. [Compiled by Denise D. Welch for AAUW]