My mother was 21 years old when she joined the WAVES. She wanted to serve her country, so she signed on for "the duration of the war plus six months."
When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Navy Women's Reserve Act into law in 1942, he not only freed up more men for active service, but also provided roles for the 350,000 women who eventually served in the military during WWII.
Eleanor Hanna enlisted in Boston, and on January 6, l944 she and a large group of fellow recruits gathered at South Station to take the train to New York and boot camp at Hunter College. Her father, who worked for the Herald Traveler, arranged for a photographer to take a picture so she and a fellow WAVE posed, smiling on top of a pile of suitcases. She may have looked like this, but a few inmates at Charlestown State Prison must have thought she looked like this, because a few days after the picture ran, she received fan mail from two prisoners asking her to become their pen pal. The WAVE she posed with mentioned she was going to try out for the Singing Platoon when they got to boot camp. This was the first Eleanor heard about that, and she decided to do the same thing.
Hunter College, affectionately referred to as "USS Hunter," trained over 80,000 enlisted women between 1943 and 1945. So smoothly did this boot camp operate that 2,000 new seamen recruits entered every two weeks. Eleanor and her fellow recruits were herded into the Fordham Armory, where a young Seaman Second Class glared at the large, nervous group and bellowed, “Now, hear this, Seamen: PIPE DOWN!” Each of the new WAVES was assigned to a platoon and Eleanor successfully auditioned for the Singing Platoon. The gal who’d mentioned it back at South Station wasn’t in the platoon, in fact she never saw her again. She must have served her purpose.
None of the platoons ever just walked, they marched, and they always marched together.
When she wasn’t rehearsing with the Singing Platoon, Mom was studying to become a Seamen Second Class. The training included Navy Ranks and Rate, Ships and Aircraft of the Fleet, Naval Traditions and Customs, Naval History, Physical Fitness. They had classes and drills in the morning and afternoon, some free time in the evening, and then studying until Taps. The only course she remembered taking was Airplane Recognition, memorable perhaps because of the lack of skill she displayed: she couldn't tell one plane from another.
"Where were the planes you were supposed to identify?" I asked her when she told me this story years later. I pictured her standing out on a rooftop in New York City, staring at the sky through binoculars.
"On a screen," she told me. "They showed us films and we had to identify which plane was which. At a minimum I should have been able to tell one of ours from one of theirs, but they all looked the same to me."
After failing Airplane Recognition, she was free to enjoy her work with the Singing Platoon, and the musical portion of basic training became the highlight of her boot school experience. She was thrilled the night Leopold Stokowski conducted the Platoon in a performance of the Star Spangled Banner at a big Red Cross dinner at the Waldorf Astoria.
After boot school Eleanor applied for further training and was accepted into Yeoman's School—the Yeoman were the office workers of the Navy. She was assigned to Iowa State Teachers' College in Cedar Falls, and traveled there by train through Canada.
“Why don’t we just head directly west,” she asked a fellow passenger as their train crossed the Canadian border. “This seems a very roundabout route to Iowa.”
"Haven’t you heard?” the woman said with a laugh. “They don’t want Hitler to realize what a formidable foe he’s up against with all these women on the march. So we’re tricking the Nazis by taking the long route.”
For two months, Eleanor learned office procedures, and she learned them as never before. After two years of typing in high school, her speed had only reached 25 wpm. In Junior College she got up to 45 wpm, but no faster; her teacher told her that some people just plateau at a certain speed and never get beyond it. But after two months at yeoman school, she was typing 75 wpm. The military's secret? They taught them to type to music.
“What did they play for you,” her sister Mary wondered. “Benny Goodman?”
It was, in fact, Strauss waltzes that did the trick.
Armed with her rank of Yeoman Third Class, she returned to Boston and was assigned to the Headquarters of the First Naval District, whose operation involved routing ships. Naval captains who took command of ships at the Charlestown Naval Yard would come in to her to find out what obstacles were in the way, since one of her duties was typing up lists of buoys found in the harbor.
Sixty years later, she could still remember one item on her list:
Flashing red buoy rendered permanently white by seagulls.
Mom sure had a way with words.
When the European war ended in May, 1945, she could have left the WAVES, but as she had signed on “for the duration and six months too, she stayed on. She was still stationed at Northern Group on V-J Day, August 15, 1945. Her friend Charlie, called her up and suggested they go out to celebrate. They walked through crowded Boston streets, filled with people rejoicing in the victory. Devout Eleanor made Charlie take a slight detour when they got near the Sheraton Boston and stopped at St. Cecelia's Church to say a prayer of thanksgiving that the war was ending. Charlie was a Communist so he waited outside.
She was honorably discharged from the WAVES in the summer of 1947, after serving 3 ½ years.