Women of World War II
By Stepping Up to Fill a Need, These Pioneers Blazed New Trails
By Samantha L. Quigley
Since the United States’ fight for independence, women have served. But wars were historically started and fought by men—until World War II.
The United States was ready for change in the early 1940s. The economy was picking up after the Great Depression with a jump start from the fledgling war effort.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, everyone was itching to do their part—whether on the front lines or the homefront. With the military pulling every able-bodied man available to fight overseas, the military was having a tough time keeping things running at home. Demand quickly outpaced supply and the military was forced to look for other ways to get things done.
Women raised their hands. Though they were needed and an obvious choice, they still encountered resistance, but the military’s needs outweighed its reluctance to allow women to serve.
That the military acquiesced to allowing women to serve spoke volumes about how dire the situation was. Some commanders had started out with an “over my dead body” attitude. It wasn’t long, however before they changed their tune. In fact, in postwar testimony before Congress, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said he was “violently against” women serving when the idea was first proposed. But he concluded, “Every phase of the record they compiled during the war convinced me of the error of my first reaction.”
Admiral Chester Nimitz’s opinion had been very similar to his Army counterpart. He told Congress he was skeptical when the formation of the WAVES was first being discussed.
“I was one of the doubters in the early days … and I was definitely reluctant to see this women’s program started,” he said. “However after it (WAVES) started and after I saw it work, I became a convert.”
The WACS, WAVES, Women Marines, SPARs, WASPs and the nurses not only served with honor and pride, they collected some stories along the way.
Alyce Dixon was 36 when she joined the Women’s Army Corps—originally the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps—in 1943.
Before long, she was assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion—the first all-female, all-black unit in the Army—charged with clearing the backlog of undelivered mail in Birmingham, England.
“There had been three battles and nothing had been delivered,” said Dixon. “Oh, it was piled up high!
“The general said it would take six months to clear up the mail. We cleared it up in three. We worked eight hours a day, every day—all of us—and we cleaned it up.”
But some pieces of mail were more difficult to handle than others.
“At that time, the wives and sweethearts would write every day, so we had stacks of mail to send back—deceased.”
After Birmingham, the 6888th moved on to Rouen, France, to clear up yet another backlog. Dixon said the women—nearly 900 of them—had cleared a total of 90 billion pieces of mail by the time they’d finished.
Susan Ahn Cuddy’s parents emigrated to the United States from Korea in 1902 after the Japanese occupation of their homeland. Her father, Dosan Ahn, was a prominent leader of the Independence Movement opposing the Japanese occupation and returned to Korea frequently in support of the cause. On his fifth trip he was arrested and imprisoned for his activism. He was still being held when he died in 1938, but his legacy lived on.
Three years after Dosan died, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and three of his five children answered their nation’s call. Two sons enlisted, Phil went Army and Ralph, Navy. The third child to don a military uniform was his daughter, Susan, who often worked in her father’s movement.
At 27, with a degree from San Diego State College, Susan tried to enlist in the Navy when the WAVES—Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—were formed.
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“We were always told how lucky we were to be born in a free country,” said Cuddy. “The Navy was good to me. … I never had a problem serving and that’s why I love America.”
But she was rejected for racial reasons the first time she applied to the WAVES. A second application was accepted and she became the first woman gunnery officer, which saw her training naval aviators to fire a .50-caliber gun.
She finished her service at the Naval Intelligence Office, where some of her fellow sailors were unwilling to trust her because she was Korean. Everyone that is, but her future husband, code-breaker Francis X. Cuddy, an Irishman who had a 33-year Navy career.
The couple married in Washington, because interracial marriage was still illegal in nearby Virginia, where they lived, and the surrounding states. In 1959, the Cuddys moved to Los Angeles to raise their children near Susan’s mother.
Cuddy was 100 when she passed away June 24.
The women who joined the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve served in more than 200 jobs traditionally filled by men. They were photographers, parachute riggers, cooks, control tower operators—even auto mechanics. They did these jobs for one reason, “To release a Marine to fight.” That was part of the message on the billboard Marjorie Tredway saw every day when she went to work as a secretary in 1943.
In April 1943, just two months after the Marine Corps opened to women, she jumped at the chance to show her patriotism. Of course, the Marine Corps wanted to capitalize on her existing secretarial skills. With the stubborn enthusiasm of a Marine, she told them otherwise.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I do that in civilian life,’” she said. Instead, she suggested one of her hobbies was sewing and that’s when Tredway headed for boot camp in New York.
She said there was really only one difference between her boot camp experience and that of the “fellas.”
“We did everything the fellas did. The only difference was the [drill instructor] couldn’t swear at us.”
From boot camp, it was on to Parachute Material School, where she learned to how be a pararigger, a job she would perform until she left the Corps in 1946.
Nearly five years ago, Marjorie Tredway Flack visited the Ohio Air National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton to see how much things had changed.
“I was a rigger  years ago,” Flack said. “Things ought to have changes.”
One of the most noticeable differences was the expansion of the mission. Today, the parachute shop’s scope has expanded. Parachute riggers now work alongside to include survival equipment specialists who inspect, maintain, and repair survival equipment.
The biggest change, however, might have been the parachutes themselves. “It’s like day and night,” she said. “The parachute itself is entirely different. Ours were circles and these are rectangular.”
She noted the difference in the fabrics, too. Back then, the chutes were all silk. “These are nylon,” she said, referring to the new ones.
Some things don’t change so much, though, she discovered. She found the tools used to rig and pack parachutes then are almost unchanged from those she used.
As one of the 20,000 women who served in the Marine Corps during WWII, Flack, now in her early 90s, continues to show her patriotism by teaching children proper flag etiquette.
A graduate of The Ohio State University, Olivia Hooker was an African-American third-grade teacher in Columbus, Ohio, when she was finally accepted into the Navy. She’d applied several times, but was rejected each time because of a technicality.
“There were no people of our race in the Navy. No girls,” she said. “We had been campaigning for that privilege, but nobody joined.
“I kept watching the newspapers and I thought to campaign for certain civil rights and then not use them is very futile and somebody ought to join up if they campaign. So I thought, ‘Well, if I go and I survive maybe someone else will come.’ ”
By the time the Navy finally gave her a green light, she’d decided to join the Coast Guard instead.
“The Coast Guard recruiter was just so welcoming,” Hooker said. “She wanted to be the first one to enroll an African-American.”
That was February 1945. The SPARs, a name derived from the Coast Guard’s motto, “Semper Paratus,” or “Always Ready” in Latin, had been in existence since November 23, 1942.
Hooker headed off to boot came on March 9, 1945. One of only five African-American women to enlist as a SPAR, she said she never felt discouraged because she was black. In fact, an admiral told her to come to him if she ever had any problems.
After completing yeoman training, Hooker served in Boston in the separation center, where she stayed until she was discharged. That may have been because out of 11 Coast Guard Districts, Boston was the only one that would take an African-American for service.
While there, Hooker was responsible for typing discharge papers, but swears she was the only one left by the end.
“You had to make sure you interviewed the gentleman because they wanted all of their commendations to be … on there and all the service sites where they had been,” she said. “It’s very important to have your discharge accurate.
“I think I was the last one out because I had to type my own discharge,” she laughed. “There wasn’t anybody to type it.”
Hooker, now 100, came home and earned a master’s degree in psychological services and went on to complete her doctorate to become a school psychologist. She finally retired at 87 after last working as a professor at New York’s Fordham University.
With a century of experience to draw on, Hooker has definite opinions on military service.
“I would like to see more of us realizing that our country needs us,” she said. “I’d like to see more girls consider spending some time in the military. It’s a good idea to have people from different kinds of orientations and experiences because it’s amazing what you can do with a different point of view.
“The world would really prosper from that.”
Betty Tackaberry Blake—Tack, for short—was a member of the first graduating class of Women’s Airforce Service Pilots in 1943.
A native of Honolulu, Blake was already learning to fly when she met Amelia Earhart the day before her historic 1935 flight from Honolulu to Oakland, California. Blake was just 14 and even more inspired to become an aviatrix when Earhart offered to show her the twin-engine Beechcraft she’d pilot to California.
“She was very excited to know I was learning to fly,” Blake said. “She told me to keep going and do something exciting and show that women could fly. She had a lot of people fighting against her who didn’t think women could do it.”
That was something Blake fought as the war started and women made serious inroads into military aviation.
“We were the guinea pig class,” she said, referring to the first WASP class. “We were the experiment because they didn’t think we’d be able to do it. They watched us like hawks to see if we were going to make it.
“We started out in civilian planes. I flew the AT-6 [Texan], and twin-engine and four-engine planes toward the end. The biggest plane I checked out in was the B-17 Flying Fortress.”
Since they were the first class, they had their choice of assignments. Blake picked Long Beach, California, figuring it was closer to Honolulu, and she might get to go home. The also had their choice of teaching cadets how to fly or moving airplanes from base to base. She picked the latter.
“I wanted so badly to fly a B-17 or B-24 [Liberator] home to Honolulu because I was one of the first three gals who learned to fly in Honolulu,” she said. “I thought, ‘Boy, would I be important if I could fly a big four-engine back to my hometown.’ But they wouldn’t let us fly across the ocean.”
Blake ferried about 35 aircraft models, in addition to the AT-6 and others she flew in during training. But she enjoyed piloting one airplane more than the others.
“The P-51 [Mustang] was definitely my favorite,” she said. “Whenever one goes overhead, and there are still a few of them flying around, I hear that sound and instantly know it’s a P-51. It was reliable. I liked the engine, and I just felt safer in it than anything else.”
There had been plans to let women fly as co-pilots on overseas flights, but the war ended before the policy could be implemented. Because of that, she didn’t qualify to fly other models.
“They didn’t need us anymore. It was just, ‘Goodbye, girls. Thanks,’ ” she said in an Air Force interview earlier this year.
Blake was the last known living member of the first graduating WASP class. She was 91 when she died April 9.
Army Nurse Corps
World War II Army nurses, like Ellan and Dorothy Levitsky, joined a lineage started in World War I.
In 1944, the Levitsky sisters were licensed nurses working in Philadelphia hospitals when one of them got a wild idea.
Ellan was going to join the Army Nurse Corps. She isn’t too sure why. She just knew she had to go.
Of course, Dorothy couldn’t let her sister go off to war all by herself. So she joined, too, but only if they could stay together. The Army made that happen from beginning to end.
On April 14, 1944, they reported to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland for the required basic training for nurses. By the time they left, they’d completed training and tests, earned commissions as 2nd Lieutenants and managed to earn a “goodbye and don’t come back” from their sergeant in charge.
Neither thought they were particularly suited for certain athletic activities and had declined to participate, angering the sergeant.
Participating wasn’t optional when they received orders to serve with the 164th General Hospital. They boarded the RMS Scythia for a trans-Atlantic crossing on September 12, arriving at Cherbourg, France, 13 days later. They wouldn’t arrive in Bolleville—where the hospital would be established—for nearly two weeks.
There were plenty of disturbing scenes as they patched up wounded soldiers, but there were some lighter—if not dangerous—moments, too.
With only cots to sleep on and just one blanket, the French winter was frigid. There was a small stove in the center of the shared tent, but it didn’t always stay lit. Ellan’s answer was to soak a paper towel in gin and light it in the stove. It worked, but maybe a little too well. She burned the tent down—twice.
No one was hurt, but when the Army threatened no replacement tent if there was a third fire, the girls bunking with Ellan, including her sister, took away her “fire-lighting privileges.”
By June 1945, the sisters were in Arles, France, learning about tropical diseases and thinking they might be headed for the Pacific.
But like many at that time, they were spared their worst fears when Japan surrendered later that summer.
Both married after getting out of the Army. Ellan Levitsky Orkin settled in Milford, Delaware, with her husband. Dorothy Levitsky Sinner and her husband traveled extensively.
When the sisters’ husbands had passed, they began annual trips to Normandy for the D-Day anniversaries. They decided 2014 would be their last trip and they practically had to revive their doctor when they told him they planned on going.
“After 70 years, it’s history. It’s like closure,” Dorothy told The Milford (Delaware) Chronicle. “Every year when we go over, the last thing we do is go to Omaha Beach Cemetery [Normandy American Cemetery]. If you ever have a chance to go anyplace out of the country, go there.”
“You stand at the steps. You look, you see the English Channel and all you see is crosses and Stars of Davids and you think, ‘God, take care of them,’” said Ellan. “Then … we salute, cry and then we leave.”
Navy Nurse Corps
On March 4, 1945, a Naval Air Transportation Service plane took off carrying blood, medical supplies and the first flight nurse ever to set foot on an active Pacific battlefield.
Ensign Jane Kendeigh was just 22 when her plane broke through the clouds of volcanic dust and smoke to land on Iwo Jima. She and her fellow flight nurses evacuated nearly 2,400 wounded Marines and sailors between March 6 and 21.
When she was later asked how men reacted to seeing a woman on the battlefield she had a quick-witted response. “The same as other places—they whistled.”
After completing her work on Iwo Jima, she was sent stateside to participate in a war bond drive. But she asked to go back to the Pacific. Her request was granted and she landed on Okinawa on April 7, 1945, just six days after the invasion. After the war, Kendeigh and her husband, Navy Lieutenant Robert Cheverton, had three daughters. She passed away in 1987.
Though medals may have been appropriate for Kendeigh and her fellow nurses, she required nothing as formal as a medal. “Our rewards are wan smiles, a slow nod of appreciation, a gesture, a word—accolades far greater, more heartwarming than any medal.”
Today’s military women still face obstacles, but the path they’re on was cut by their groundbreaking predecessors. These brave women of the 1940s blazed a trail that has led to expanded roles and new opportunities for women who serve.
—Samantha L. Quigley is editor in chief of On Patrol magazine. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.
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