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EMILY YELLIN
Emily Yellin
Author and Journalist
"Not Your Father's War Stories"
September 16 , 2004

One of the biggest challenges in doing this book was to try and make sure that I told these stories with the context of the time because it’s very easy to look back, especially when you’re looking at the role of women and look back from our perspective and think, “Oh, there were horrible things done to women or women were thought of in ways that we don’t today” so I want to just say that at the outset, that’s something I tried to do and my mother who was kind of my guide through this, she died in 1999 and her letters are what led me to this book. And I remember her telling me that in many of the opportunities that she got in her life, she was so thrilled to just have the opportunities, she didn’t compare herself to men, she just was very happy to be where she was. And I think, if I may speak for some of the women here, that was often the case. Whenever I heard about, or even at our family dinner table, when World War II was discussed, it was mainly my father’s stories.


My father stories – he served in Burma for four years in the Army and they were interesting stories. I had three brothers; so that was the conversation. And then my mother would say, “Oh, yes and I served in Sypan for the Red Cross”. And we’d say “Oh”. And then we’d say, “Pass the bread”. Often. And I don’t think any of us certainly meant to do that and I don’t even think that she was conscious of it totally, but that was something that I think happened at a lot of dinner tables in a lot of families. And when I came to do this book…
These are the letters; I brought a couple; for those of you who weren’t alive, this is what they looked like, for those of you who were, you’ll recognize. This one said, “Opened by U.S. Army Examiner” because the letters were censored and it actually says, not in my mother’s handwriting, “food request, last page”. So these are the letters and my mother possibly uniquely, because she also had a journalism degree from Northwestern and a history degree, her letters were typed-written, dated on this onionskin paper, and they were long. She was a writer so they were fascinating and finding those was eye-opening.


First of all, on a sentimental level: to be able to have a discussion in essence with my mother after she had gone. Hundreds of letters that she had written home to her parents in Oklahoma; my mother started the war at Northwestern, finishing her graduate degree in journalism, she married her first husband who’s not my father in 1942. As many women did; he was gong off to war; he was her boyfriend; they might not have married so quickly had it not been for the war. But they did and he had graduated a year before her and gone to Reader’s Digest and gotten a job as an editor. And when he joined the Navy, my mother was just finishing college; the recruiters were coming. The Reader’s Digest recruiter came to Northwestern and they hired my mother. And she literally took her husband’s job in the war and she used to say, “I was an editorial Rosie the Riveter”.


So she did that job and her husband did go overseas to the Pacific. He served on a supply boat in the Pacific and he ended up during the war, writing the book Mr. Roberts, which was made into the film with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon. And that book is dedicated to my mother and he sent chapters of it to her during the war. So I realized I had all these connections to World War II and I looked further. My mother worked at Reader’s Digest for three years I believe. And then in 1944,as she was heading towards her twenty-fifth birthday, she decided that she wasn’t doing enough. She was working, she was planning victory gardens – I have all this evidence; stories in her letters.
She was working at a USO Canteen in New York City, she was dealing with rationing, she was doing all sorts of things; she was a war-wife. She sent her husband off to war. These were all things that women did, but my mother felt a sort of restlessness and I just want to read to you two excerpts from some of the letters I found that my mother had written. My grandmother kept these letters so I felt like I was sort of given a gift. I felt like these had been kept in these attics for me to find almost; that might be silly but that’s how I felt when I found them. And what I felt too was that I was finding a new view of World War II. I had always seen it through men’s eyes which is I think how we look at war collectively; it wasn’t a conspiracy, it’s just that there’s where the stories have come from.


So this is a letter dated January 4,1945 and my mother tried to explain to her parents her decision to leave Reader’s Digest and join the Red Cross. Just a part of it she said, “Hope you can see how the Digest life is almost too perfect with the world and the sorry mess it’s in. I just have to get out and try do something active and direct when so many other people are doing so much. It’s not enough for me to say that my husband’s doing it and that’s my part in the war. I want to do something myself. Do you see what I mean?” And I’ll read what I wrote in between: My grandparents did understand and wrote back supporting her move. But in her grappling with that decision, I was learning what a huge step joining the Red Cross had been for her. In her next letter, I also recognized a younger version of the woman I remember who organized equal rights amendments rallies in the 1970s and 1980s.


The letter dated January 8, 1985 showed prevailing attitudes about women and being a wife that my mother and many other women faced down during the war. This is my mother: "You see when I decided to do this: I anticipated that lots of people would think I was doing a pretty foolish thing. I’m finding that lots of people who don’t know the facts in the case think just that. Julie’s husband Ken, for example, who’s one of the people who think that the only reason any girl joins the Wax, Waves, Red Cross, or any other such thing is just to have a wonderful time and to meet lots of men. He thinks that I must be a pretty unstable sort of war-wife who doesn’t keep the home fires burning. And I expect that many other people when I announce the decision more publicly will have the same reaction. But I’m prepared for it. I don’t expect everyone to heartedly approve of what I’m doing, but now that I know that the people who matter most – my parents and Tom’s parents (that’s her husband’s parents) think I’m doing the right thing, I have the moral reinforcement that I really do need. And I’ll be able to go ahead with it now with so much greater peace of mind and really work for what I am really trying to accomplish: establish a better and broader basis of understanding between Tom and me while at the same time, doing something direct and satisfying in the war effort."


That letter for me spoke volumes. I have never understood what a courageous step it was. My mother at twenty-five volunteered to go to war and was sent to the Pacific theater not knowing when the war was going to be over, not knowing how long she was going to be there, not knowing if she would ever see her husband during that time and to understand that in the context, again, of her time was eye-opening and there is where as a journalist, my hears or something perked up and I realized that here’s a story that I think has not been brought to the fore in the way that it should be. The story has been told. There are many archives that have oral histories of many women. There are books on specific groups of women, but what I saw and hoped that I could do was as a journalist use those skills to bring this story to people in a more accessible way and so I worked really hard to use the voices of women and not get in the way of that. I don’t really like books that have block quotes and that sort of thing. But what I found was that the women and their letters, journals – I interviewed many women – the magazine and newspaper articles of the time, really told the story in a way that was immediate and so that’s what I used and I tried to weave those together. And that’s what led me beyond my own mother’s story with her as my guide. And whenever I didn’t quite know what to think, or how to go, or which way to go, I would turn back to her letters and what I had learned form there and I always found the way. What I really had to do and I hope what this book does for readers was adjust my thinking. As I said to look beyond traditional accounts of war and think war from the perspective of half of the greatest generation. And I think it’s really important to emphasize that. This book is half of the greatest generation. Women who were alive at that time who experienced this amazing turning point in our history and women, many of whom are here today, who were pioneers. So there was almost, I said it was an inadvertent revolution in America for me as I looked at this, World War II. No one set out to change women’s roles in society, but the circumstances dictated and it happened anyway. So that’s really important as we look at this and look at how we view war, it’s also interesting to note, young 18 year-old boys still have to register with the Selective Service, even today. And no women have too. No women ever are required to serve our country, for better or worse. But it’s worth thinking about that and thinking what does that say about how we view war: it’s men’s work. It’s not women’s work. But again, I tried to look at that and adjust the thinking and I think it really brings on an equally complex set of challenges for women, war does. We’re seeing that today as women are serving more and more in the military, but also women are left behind. I have tried to change my instinct to say that because I don’t think that’s really accurate. I think it’s women who are equally as involved, they aren’t allowed to do many things even today and in World War II that was also true. I think that a woman who sends her husband, her brother, her father, her son, to war is doing something. I think that it’s important too to realize that World War II was the first time that women went to work in so many fields that they hadn’t been in before. It was the first time married women outnumbered unmarried women in the workforce.


We know about Rosie the Riveter, but look behind that image. And by the way, if you’ll notice the most popular image of Rosie the Riveter, the “We can do it”, she has plucked eyebrows and mascara, and fingernail polish and lipstick. I’m not sure that that many male factory workers had that kind pressure to look good while they were working. You know, women did that - they went to the factories. They also did so many other jobs that they had never done before and I’ll get to that in a minute. But all the while, raising families, trying to care for their children without the kind of daycare or Oprah that we have today to support them. And also, they were coping with rationing and they were missing their husbands, if they had husbands, those who had husbands. Or their brothers. It’s the first war in which women were allowed in the military so when we talk about World War II and we say women didn’t serve, they did clerical work. That’s what I hear people say - “They did clerical work and they didn’t serve on the front”. That’s why the book is "Women at Home and at the Front". I’ve been many places where people said, “This is a book about the homefront”. And I’ll say, “No that’s part of the book”. We need to expand our view of how women served in the war. Women died. Women got purple hearts in World War II. And it’s really important to know that. Women had only gotten the vote twenty years before so it was the first major war where there were women in Congress and those women. And those women - Edith Norris Rogers and others, pushed through the bills that formed the women’s branches of the military. And while that was a great opportunity for many women, women who served in the Army were not allowed to pick up any guns. Women who served in the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marines were not allowed on ships. Women who served in the Air Force were not allowed to fly planes outside of American airspace during a war fought overseas.


So while opportunity was given, it was also almost taken away or not given with the other hand. So again it’s important to remember. And all of these women volunteered. And they were breaking into an institution that women had never been allowed in before and that was created by and for men. That’s a pioneering thing.


I am going to read to you a number of roles of people during World War II and I’ll think you’ll see where I’m going, but just note the first image that comes in your head when I say these names of things people did: saxophone player, member of Congress, undercover spy, welder, war correspondent, pilot, American Nazi tried for sedition by the U.S., radio disc jockey, lawyer at the Nuremberg Trials, German Resistance worker beheaded by Hitler, baseball player, marine. Those are all women in my book. Chances are if you’re like me, the first image might have been a man for most of these. But these are all American women during World War II. So that’s what’s been so exciting: that war shakes up the conventions of society. It challenges institutions like marriage, like the military. And inadvertently, I think it changes them because of necessity.


Let me read you just two or three excerpts. I found a book that was written by a woman called, "So Your Husband’s Going To War" and it was written for women who were sending their husband off. Her name was Edith Gorham. She’s talking about December 7, 1941. She says:
"So many wives lost their husbands that eventful Sunday. A quiet Sunday it was. Weather good: cool but lovely. There was your husband – ears glued to the radio. Suddenly he looked across at you and you at him and he was a disembodied stranger. Eyes turn on distant places. You saw his spirit go off to war that day and it was only a matter of time before his body would follow."


Women were no allowed to go to war. I just want to keep pointing that out. After further acknowledging and giving voice to the wave of grief that was almost sure to descend on war-wives, Gorham then admonished them with prevalent idea that their duty was to buck up, meet the challenges, and surprise everyone, including themselves. This is her:
"After all, you’ve never had such a chance before of proving what you could get used if you had to. You’ve been going along depending along the world. Now the world, your world, the world you and your husband have lived in together, is going to depend on you. It won’t even exist unless you don’t make it. You’re going to have to balance a budget like you’ve never balanced before. You are going to have to take care of children, if you have any, and decide the vital problem of whether to have one or not while the war is going on. You’re going to have to keep your own roof over your head or decide whether to settle under another roof, and whos’. You’re going to be lonesome. You’re going to be unhappy. And many as the time, you’re going to be mad. You’re going to have to look for kindling wood in the unlikeliest places to keep the home fires burning. You’re going to discover that spare time can be a frightening thing unless you make it something else. You’re going to be baffled by the discovery that leaves are not times of unalloyed happiness. You’re going to learn how to wait and wait and wait. Waiting for letters. Waiting for phone calls. Waiting for leaves to come. Waiting for leaves to end. Waiting for this war to be over with so you won’t have to wait anymore."


Now we talk about the waiting wife and it’s always a very dutiful image, but I think this shows there’s more to it. And obviously if you think about it, there’s anger; there’s all sorts of other things that enter into it. I know there are many “WAVES” in the audience. The WAVES were the Navy women. We were talking earlier about where the name came from. WAVES stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and the woman who came up with that name was a college professor and she said she used the word emergency thinking she said, “It would comfort the older admirals because it implies we’re only a temporary crisis and won’t be around for keeps.”


In March 1945, TIME magazine describing the training the WAVES underwent, said this and maybe some of you will recognize this, “In those six weeks they became trim and sharp. Factory made old salts who referred to walls as bulkheads, windows as ports, and floors as decks. They had observed NAVY tradition, had had a quick but thorough briefing on naval operations, naval weapons, history, and current affairs. They were also imbued with the idea that if a WAVE quit, it was the same as a battlefront casualty. I spoke to a woman in Georgia who was the only one in her family to serve; she had sisters. Her name was Ruby Meserbabour. She was one of six sisters. She had grown up in LaGrange Georgia, just south of Atlanta. And she knew it was something she wanted to do the minute she heard about the WAVES. This is what she told me, “It was choice of adventure. I didn’t have any brothers and I thought that’s something I can do, one way I can make a contribution. My sisters thought it was great but they weren’t interested. There was too much discipline and too much routine involved. I felt like it would be a challenge to step forth and do it. To see what it was all about. It gave a sense of confidence. At the time, girls didn’t just join the WAVES or go into the military, but my dad he said, "You’ll be okay.”


And that was also really hard for a lot of men, to send their daughters to war? That was a challenge that they never had to face really. Women had been in war before but it was often in less official position or clandestinely. I spoke to women who had been interned in the Japanese internment camps and that’s a really fascinating chapter. One of the women I spoke to talked about what it meant, and how they had been brought up, and how they faced the challenge. Her name was Akiko Mabuchi Toba. She said, “Our generation was raised never to call attention to ourselves, to work twice as hard as others, and above all, never bring shame to the family. We had a strict upbringing. And women, in particular, were never to cause any waves in society. I think it was because our parents were having enough trouble at the time making their way in America and showing their loyalty. They didn’t want us to make it any harder. So when the war brought out, the only thing we felt we could do was go behind that barbed wire to prove we were loyal. I lost three years of my life. And my parents lost everything they had built up over the years. But I sure hope we proved it”.


As I went further into this subject, I found some little known fascinating stories and that was also an eye-opening experience. I looked at women who had been married to scientists, physicists and were asked to move to this secret place in the mountains. They couldn’t tell their families where it was. When they had children, their children’s birth certificate had a P.O. Box on it, not a place and they lived for two, two and a half, three years some of them and weren’t able to discuss with their husbands what they were doing. And some of them found out what they had been supporting only when Hiroshima was bombed. And that was a really fascinating thing.


I had also found women who had been in something called the Mother’s Movement, which was a right wing movement of women who had been isolationists and then when the war started, they didn’t get behind the war. They still objected to it. And two of them were tried for sedition; they weren’t convicted, but they were tried. This is a quotation for one of the more vocal women in this group of women. Her name was Alice Waters. She lobbied in Congress against the war as a part of the Mother’s Movement. Many of these women had no children by the way. In 1945 she stole envelopes from Congressmen who received free postage to send mail to their constituents and she thought to send out letters and leaflets from the National Blue Star Mother’s of America, which was a fake kind of made up name and the blue star was for those who had people serving. And one such envelope went by mistake to a Jewish mother in Philadelphia, who’s son, a soldier, had lost his leg in the war. And the leaflet inside read “How long are we going to permit our men be slain to save the Jewish empires all over the world. Did you know that certain Jews are being trained to be the army of occupation with all the prostrated nations under their control? Is that what your boy was fighting for?”


I’ll end where I began, with my own mother. If I wanted to talk to her about what her experience was and how she looked back on it, I couldn’t. But I found an audio of a speech she gave in 1971 in Memphis to a church group. I say a church group in Memphis - it was something called the Unitarian Fellowship and these were the people who broke away from the Unitarian church because it was too conservative. So you can kind of get the point of view there, She stared the speech, which she called "The Humanization of Emily: Some Thoughts on my Daughter and Women’s Liberation". And apparently I was in the audience during this speech, I don’t remember, but hearing her voice, and I ended up transcribing it myself, was very moving. This is how she started her speech that day. She said, “I think perhaps this speech should be re-titled Some thoughts while defrosting the freezer, and taking care my daughter who had a cold, and getting my boys off to a baseball game, and keeping the house quiet so my husband could work, and making minestrone for dinner on the hibachi on the back terrace because the kitchen was cluttered with everything defrosting from the freezer. This is what I was busy doing during the time I had planned to make careful notes on what I was going to say to you this morning.”


And then she went into talk about women’s work. And she said, “The history of women is much like the history of black people in this country: it has never been recorded. All of our history has been written by men, for men, and about men. And women were simply the auxiliaries - the ladies auxiliary. The only kind of history that we had of the part women had in building of this country and the world for that matter, is family history.” And she’s talking about the stories passed down from generation to generation by women. And she went on to tell about my great-great grandmother on the Kansas prairie and her husband was away; he was a lawyer on the circuit and she had two children and her farmhouse. Her nearest neighbor was a mile away and there was a prairie fire. And she set a crossfire and saved her children and her home. It says, “It’s not written in history books anywhere, but part of building the West was women staying home and building crossfires to save their homes and children. We read about men defending their homes from Indians. We read a great deal about the building of the West being man’s work, but was it?”


The way she ended the speech is the way I will end my talk. My mother, the former Red Cross girl, she said, “I was driving the carpool, as I often do. That is one part of woman’s work I would not give up. And in the backseat, Emily and some of her friends were chattering. And I was thinking of the grocery list as I do between other tasks, but suddenly I heard some very interesting talk going on. This was several weeks ago. I heard them say ‘daughter of a first aid kit, daughter of a first aid kit’. And I said Emily, what’s that? And Emily said ‘Well, we play the Land of Opposites at school and there is this boy who keeps saying ‘son of a gun, son of a gun’ so we say ‘daughter of a first aid kit’”. And my mother ended by saying, “Well I thought, here is the descendant of all the women in my family. The ongoing continuum. Here is this young female person. Maybe she will get the chance. Maybe she will know a day when the ‘daughter of a first aid kit’ will be as valued in our society and our culture as the ‘son of a gun’.

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