During WWII nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform, both at home and abroad. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson spoke with two women, both now in their 90s, who shared memories of serving their country in the 1940s.
Ruth Carpenter is flipping through a scrapbook full of photos of her and her husband during their time in the service. Each entry is decorated with patriotic stickers and quotes; it’s a family keepsake made by one of her granddaughters. The back part of the book is her husband's Army life, she explains; the front, hers.
Ruth enlisted in the Army in early 1945. She was 22. For a year, she was stationed in West Virginia, her home state, at a hotel that had been turned into an Army hospital for injured American prisoners of war returning from overseas.
"The hotel's name was The Greenbriar Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. It was a big hotel that had catered to famous people," Ruth remembers. For a time during the war, "it was called Ashford General Hospital. It was where they brought back prisoners of war to. So that's what mostly we did was help the nurses take care of the prisoners of war that were brought back.”
Ruth says she had always been interested in being a nurse, but life got in the way. Her rank was a T5 technician.
“We had khaki issued dresses that we wore. And we had khaki long stockings and low-heeled shoes. Our main job was to assist the nurses--taking temperatures and doing all of that stuff the nurses didn’t have time to do," she says. “It was interesting, but it was also kind of sad, you know, because in the hospital, these guys, something was wrong with them. It was mentally or physically...handicapped. It was happy to see them coming home but it was always kind of sad to see the condition they were in.”
Delores Dick lives in a retirement facility in Wichita. She can’t hear as well as she used to, but her memories of serving in the Women’s Army Corps, more commonly known as WAC, are fine.
“I think it was 1944 when I enlisted. I was in about three years, and I was in the medical corps," she says. "I thought I was being patriotic. We were proud because we did not kill anybody, unless it was an accident, but we tried to save lives.”
Delores was 20 when she joined the Army as a T5 technician, also working with the injured who were coming back to the States. But first, she had to go through basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, near the Tennessee border in Georgia.
“It's about three months, and they teach you how to salute and how to march. You had a good home, and you left and you left and you left-right-left," she says. "Well, there was one gal in our group that could not start on her left foot. I don't know what her trouble was. But she always started on her right foot and that meant that her head was always going and they finally turned her loose.”
After completing basic training, Delores was sent to the Los Angeles area, where, she says, her time spent learning to march was not put to good use.
“They walked the feet off of us," she says. "I'm telling you, we did a million miles but it wasn't to the ‘hup-two-three-four'; it was just walking. We bathed [patients], we shaved them, we changed the beds, we checked their vital signs."
Both Ruth Carpenter, who served in West Virginia, and Delores Dick, who was stationed near Los Angeles, say that though enlisted women were still considered to be in a man’s world during WWII, neither of them remember being treated as if they were out of place.
“Honest to goodness, I don’t think of anything that struck me as being terribly hard or unfair. You had to pay attention to what you were told to do," Ruth says. “There were a lot of men in the service that didn’t think the women should be in there. I wouldn’t say they weren’t equal to them but [men] didn’t think [women] could do the work that the men could do. So it was a little different.”
Their opinions on war and women in war zones are very similar.
“In case you’re wondering, I’m a pacifist these days," Delores says. "Wars don’t seem to ever end, and as soon as we get out of one we land in the middle of another one. So what to do about that?”
And despite her own service in the Army, Ruth says she doesn't think women should be in the military.
"I think the men should be the protectors," she says. "It’s alright, I suppose, for a woman to do office work and things like that, but I can’t see a woman over in Afghanistan and Iran, places like that. It bothers me that the men are there, much less the women.”
Nevertheless, both Ruth and Delores are proud of their time in the military and know they are of the few remaining to represent a group of women who didn’t have to serve but chose to enlist anyway. Delores, who’s 91 and lives in an assisted living home, says she's the only veteran in her whole facility.
“Now isn’t that something!" she says. "A lot of guys are at the age that they should be Vietnam veterans, but I haven’t run into anybody, and I think I’m the oldest person here."
Ruth says people are often surprised when she tells them she’s a veteran--but she’s not shy about it.
“I kind of like people to know that we were doing something, you know? That the women were doing something. That they could help," she says. "And that was the general idea: helping out.”
By 1945, there were more than 100,000 women in the Women’s Army Corps. Its members, known as WACs, worked in more than 200 non-combatant jobs stateside.
Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.
To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at email@example.com.