With her blue overalls, hair tied back, and power tool in hand, ‘Rosie the Riveter’ has come to personify the roles that American women played in the Second World War. Though factory work was dangerous, grueling, and vital, ‘Rosie’ offers an incomplete portrait of women at war, for they were far from only riveters…
somewhere in England
19 July 1943
You had better sit down to read this because it’s going to be a long one.
So begins a member of the US Army as they write their first letter back home after arriving in England to serve in the war. For the next few sentences, it continues as we might expect for such a letter.
First of all, I am safe, sane and happy. We had a wonderful trip, and this country is perfectly gorgeous. I’ve never seen such a place. Was in Scotland and believe me there is no other place like it.
But then, something that might take you by surprise:
We have girls from nearly every state in the Union in the Battalion…
The author of the letter was a staff sergeant in the 2nd Air Division, and her name was Mary Frances Elder.
Introducing Mary Frances Elder and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps
Elder, née Williams, was born in Lexington, North Carolina, in 1919. After finishing high school in the nearby city of Burlington, Elder went to secretarial school at Woman’s College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). She recalls that the all-female students ‘were not allowed to get in a car unless [they] had written permission from [their] parents, and then the driver or the people in the car had to come in and speak to the housemother’. She graduated from that college in 1938, and then landed a job as a secretary at a local Hosiery Mill.
Three years later, Elder was in a car with her parents. They were all driving home after having visited her older brother’s fiancée’s family. Elder never forgot what happened on that journey when her father switched on the radio. As he heard the news bulletin, ‘he ran off the road […] That was the only time I ever saw Daddy lose control of a car’, Elder recalled. It was 7 December, 1941, and Elder’s family had just learned that Japan had bombed the headquarters of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
The attack, and the subsequent entry of the United States into the Second World War, revived a congressional bill that would profoundly affect Mary Frances Elder and 150,000 other American women.
In the May prior to Pearl Harbor, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts and one of the first female members of the US Congress, proposed a bill that would form a women’s auxiliary corps in the army. Initially, the bill faced fierce opposition, and was not supported by the Department of Defense. However, after Pearl Harbor and the nation’s descent into total war, Rogers’ proposal won the backing of the Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. The bill passed, but only after it was amended so that the women enlistees would not be granted full military status. On 14 May 1942, ‘An Act to Establish the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps [WAAC]’ was signed into law by President Roosevelt.
Women had worn American military uniforms before. In the Civil War, an estimated four hundred women disguised themselves as men and fought on the battlefield — physical exams for enlistment were not so rigorous back then. The legal enlistment of women into the US military dated from the First World War. Around 11,000 women served as Navy reservists, primarily performing clerical tasks. As early as 1901, women could enroll as civilians in the Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps, just as Rogers herself did from 1917 to 1922.
The Long Journey to England — and to Acceptance
In November 1942, after reading an article about the WAAC, Mary Frances Elder took the day off work and went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to enlist. Her parents had no idea. When they found out, ‘they weren’t very happy, but they got over it, and they were very proud, very supportive and everything’, according to Elder. Her older brother had already been drafted, so that only left her parents with their ten-year old son: he later told Elder that those were difficult times for the family.
Unfortunately, many people that Elder encountered during her service were not as understanding as her parents, and did not warm to the novelty of seeing a woman in the army. Simply travelling to Daytona Beach, Florida, for her basic training in January 1943 proved difficult. The train conductor did not believe that her military ID was legitimate until he went further down the train to find an entire carriage nearly full with more women enlistees.
WAACs were often slandered as unreliable sexual deviants, unfit for military service. Once Elder completed her basic training, she was assigned to the 1st Separate Battalion. Not long after, the Battalion had a night’s layover in New Orleans to change trains. When their female Colonel told them that they were free to explore the city but had to return to their hotel at three o’clock, a male Officer overheard her and disparagingly predicted ‘She’ll never get em back here’. Elder reflected on such people’s difficulty in accepting WAACs:
I think they thought that all of us were camp followers or something like that: that’s all we were going for were the men. Which was not true. We had Ph.D.’s and everything else in there as buck privates, and eventually most of those with those qualifications ended up as officers.
Although these sexist taunts and slurs would haunt them throughout their service, their success and the demands of war meant that the WAACs were eventually incorporated into the Regular Army as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in July 1943. That same month, Mary Frances Elder and her unit were deployed to the European Theatre. They left from Port Shanks, New Jersey aboard the Aquitania, a British ship repurposed for carrying as many troops as possible.
On the transatlantic voyage, the females of the WAC were segregated from the male battalions. Elder remembers the room she shared on the ship: ‘I won’t call it a stateroom, it was a bathroom’ (her bemused interviewer interjects, ‘literally a bathroom?’) ‘but they had ripped out the fixtures. Guess where my head was’. Of course, when writing home to her family, Elder did not mention these substandard conditions nor the ship’s captain who would say ‘“Women are females, and females go to the main dining room and sit until somebody comes after them”’.
After the Atlantic crossing, the Aquitania docked in Stowe, Scotland. ‘Everybody in this little town in Scotland was up there to greet us – not necessarily to greet us, to look at us.’ Elder and her comrades found the Scottish landscape to be just as much of a spectacle as they themselves were to the local population, as she wrote in a letter to her family:
We have girls from nearly every state in the Union in the Battalion and all of them agreed that there was no place in the U.S. to beat the hills of Scotland. They are as green as green can be, all different shades, and each little field is outlined in hedge. It looks like a patch-work quilt, embroidered on the edges of each piece. […] As we rode through the country, all we could do is look.
Though her imagination may have lingered in enchanting Scotland, Elder herself journeyed onward with her platoon to, what she was warned was, ‘“the second most bombed place in England”’. Instead of expressing fear, though, Elder recalls how ‘like a bunch of idiots, we cheered’. When the platoon finally reached its destination, Elder seemed unimpressed, perhaps missing the Scottish hills. ‘Flat as a flounder […] there wasn’t a hill in sight’; the Women’s Army Corps had landed in Norfolk.
Service in East Anglia
Initially, Elder and her platoon were stationed at a former RAF billet at Old Catton. They were a ‘communications group’ trained to operate telephones, radios, and perform other secretarial tasks. Elder started out as the company clerk, but: ‘all I was doing was typing, which was alright, but I wanted to do a little bit more than that’. So, when the chief of staff’s secretary returned to the US for Officer Candidate Training, Elder assumed the vacant role and became the secretary for Colonel Westover at Old Catton.
He was the nicest fellow to work for. But we didn’t have any regular hours. I mean, we were supposed to be there at eight o’clock in the morning, but you went home when your work was through. And if they had a bombing raid and the boys came in late, you stayed until it was over.
Shortly after becoming a staff sergeant and while still working for Colonel Westover, Elder and her platoon moved to Ketteringham Hall. Of her time there, Elder most fondly reminisces about: handling a call from the Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart (who was then serving as a pilot in Norfolk); scolding a wing commander General who she had misidentified as a lower-ranking lieutenant for rummaging through the mail (the General did not wear his emblems of rank and so hastily forgave Elder for her embarrassing breach of hierarchical military etiquette); and playing for the 2nd Air Division WAC basketball team as they won the 8th Air Force Championship in 1945.
Despite their evident contributions to the war effort and seeming assimilation into military life, the WACs never fully escaped the unequal treatment of their gender. In Ketteringham, the women would shower in poorly built stalls. According to Elder, there was ‘a little old British fellow, a little old tiny type fellow who cleaned up, maintenance. And one day I was taking a shower […] I looked out the crack in the wall […] and there he was. He’d done it any number of times, but I guess maybe I just wasn’t thrilled with the idea’. Fortunately, Elder was able to address the situation with a well-aimed toss of a helmet-full of bitingly cold water. So much for the prejudiced smearing of the WACs as the ones who would be responsible for such misconduct.
Victory in Europe, but a story ongoing
In 1945 after victory in Europe, Mary Frances Elder returned to the U.S. and enrolled in Officer Candidacy Training. She was assigned to the Air Intelligence Division at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. as a second-lieutenant. Elder continued to be involved with the 2nd Air Division, serving as one of the vice-presidents of the 2nd Air Division Association –- the group that funded the memorial library in Norwich. She passed away in May 1999, barely three months after she gave the extensive oral history interview that made this retelling of her story possible.
The contention surrounding women in the US military has far outlasted the world war in which Mary Frances Elder, 150,000 of her WAC counterparts, and a further 200,000 American women (mostly nurses and reservists for the Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard) all served. It took until January 2013 for the Department of Defense to announce a reversal of its longstanding policy that had barred women from direct-combat roles. In 2015, women constituted 15.5% of the total Active Duty force but only 6.5% of the highest ranking military positions (Brigadier General and up) according to a government demographics report.
But breaking down these historic social barriers requires more than policy changes in the present. It also means reflecting on the stories of those like Mary Frances Elder, and through them to revise our shared memories of the past — yes, to remember ‘Rosie’ as the familiar riveter in blue factory overalls, but also to imagine her anew in a khaki military uniform, perhaps working at an Air Force base somewhere in East Anglia.
To read the full transcript of Mary Frances Elder’s oral history interview, see Catalogue Ref. MC 376/414, USF 16/1
For the letters of Mary Frances Elder, see Catalogue Ref. MC 371/807, USF 16/1
Thank you to 2nd Air Division Memorial Library Scholar Don Allen for providing the further information on Valeria F. Brinnigan.