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This December will mark the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the U.S.’s involvement in WW II. Because of this and other recent WWII anniversaries, and thanks in no small part to movies like Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and this year’s Pearl Harbor, a whole new generation is learning about WW II. The part that American women played in the war, both in the military and on the home front, has often been overshadowed by the stories of men.
Many are familiar with the image of "Rosie the Riveter", the symbol of women taking over jobs for men during the war. Women at the time were encouraged to take leave of their "traditional" roles and enter the work force to help the war effort. Munition factories and other industries were staffed by women. Many young, Midwestern women left home for the first time to go work in factories elsewhere, for example, California, or Detroit. Women also took over other traditionally male jobs, such as busdriver or civil service worker.
In contrast, for most of the war Germany staffed their munitions plants with POW’s, taking an official stance that women should stay at home to bear children. Germany discovered too late that the high morale of women factory workers would have been more effective than the motivation of POW’s. Historians maintain that Japan, too, only began utilizing women in the war effort when their country’s situation was desperate, and their fate irreversible.
For many American women, it was their first taste of being wage earners and of being valued in the marketplace. Despite arguably successful efforts to convince women to relinquish this newfound independence once the war was over, the seeds had been planted, and memories of their wartime service would leave women forever changed.
Ask someone what they remember about WWII, and you’re likely to hear "rationing." To free up resources for the war effort, families and individuals were issued ration stamps for such items as gasoline, sugar, and meat.
As a rural school teacher during the war, Catherine Sorom of Rushford, who taught at Meyer School in rural Rushford, acquired lasting memories of ration stamps. It was her job to distribute stamps in the area. Each time there were new ration stamps issued, Sorom would first put in a full day teaching grades 1-8, then distribute and tally ration stamps at the school from 4:00 – 10:00 p.m.
"We didn’t have electricity in the school," she recalled. "We worked by lantern light."
Sorom had a checklist of families in the area and wasn’t allowed to leave until all families were accounted for. Families would come to the school either before or after chores, and Sorom doesn’t remember ever having a "no show." She also never heard any complaints about the rationing.
"It was almost a party time," she said. "People would get their stamps and then sit and visit with all the others."
Sorom was boarding with an Erickson family. When the Ericksons would come in for their stamps, they’d bring Sorom supper.
"It’s a nice memory," she said of distributing the stamps. "I was happy to do it."
Mildred Miller of Greenleafton was a farm wife and mother during the war. She remembers the rationing very well, though she doesn’t believe that having the government require people to be "frugal" really made much difference in the lives of farm families, who already made a lifestyle of being "frugal."
"We already had our gardens, our own milk, things like that," Miller said. She often suspected that rationing was much harder on city folks.
Miller also remembers people being very supportive of the war effort and happy to do their parts for a common cause.
"You just took it for granted that you had to do it," she said about the rationing.
Helen Novlan of Rushford was a teenager in Eveleth, Minnesota, for most of the war. She remembers that farmers had different rules for rationing gasoline, since they needed it for farm operations.
"You were lucky if you had a farm boy for a boyfriend," she said. "He would always have gas for the car."
After graduating, Novlan went to live with her sister and her sister’s two children in Detroit. Her sister’s husband was in the service. Novlan remembers taking the bus to work in Detroit. The bus route went right through the Ford plant, which had recently changed from manufacturing supplies for the war, back to a car plant.
"I remember seeing the first car to come off the line after the war," she recalled. "A 1946 Ford."
Women in the Military
World War II was also a watershed event for women in the military, with all branches creating women’s auxiliary units. Great Britain had women serving in the military for about two years before the U.S. did. Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were impressed with what the British had done, and supported women recruits for the U.S. It is surprising to read that in all, over 350,000 American women served in uniform during the war.
Women generally went through the same military training as men, yet their experience was naturally different. Historian D’Ann Campbell writes that women didn’t join for rank and hierarchy: “...young women recruits were seen saluting airline pilots, postmen, and almost any other person in uniform and bars. Much to the amazement of the drill instructors, women volunteers loved to drill. Drilling was often used as punishment for men, but women found that drilling gave them a sense of belonging to something exciting and patriotic.”
Lucille Hovey of Harmony remembers fondly her years in the U.S. Navy as a WAVE. Hovey, living in Ridgeway, Iowa, at the time, enlisted when she was twenty-one years old. She dreamed of seeing the world, and saw the military as a unique opportunity to do just that.
Hovey’s daughter, Pam Mensink of Preston, said that Hovey’s father had some reservations about sending his daughter away to Washington, D.C. But, as Hovey said, "I was old enough to be my own boss."
Doing mostly clerical work, Hovey achieved the rank of Yeoman, 2nd class.
Mensink recalled a story that her mother told her about the opportunity to serve in Hawaii. Hovey wanted to go, and a number of her friends were going. Hawaii sounded wonderfully exotic to someone from Ridgeway.
But Hovey’s father didn’t want her to go. "And she valued his approval," Mensink said. Hovey watched her friends go to Hawaii without her. Shortly thereafter was the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Hovey couldn’t help feeling somewhat grateful she’d listened to her father.
Tom Brokaw calls the WWII generation of Americans "The Greatest Generation." Half that generation is female, and history shows that women, with their unique skills for collaboration and working for a common good, made significant contributions to the war effort and the eventual Ally victory. In fact, what stands out about that time for Helen Novlan is the way people from all segments of society pulled together, each doing a part for the common good, something she doesn’t believe could happen today in our climate of individualism and consumerism
"I’m really glad to have lived through that time," said Helen Novlan, because Americans proved themselves capable of sacrifice, and learned to get by with fewer material goods on the homefront.
"We had to ‘do without’ so many things," said Novlan. "And it didn’t hurt a soul."