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Our Women Veterans (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 11, 2008

American women first wore the uniforms of the United States military during World War II, when they were organized into the WACs (Women’s Army Corps), the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), the SPARs (a contraction of the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus, “always ready”), and the Women Marines. National WAC director Oveta Culp Hobby spoke in Salt Lake in 1943, proclaiming that “This is a new age; it calls for new ways of expressing our love for our country; it makes different demands upon us.”

American women responded by joining the auxiliary corps and providing services that freed able-bodied men for combat duty. Within the first year, the WACs alone had filled enough positions to create four full combat divisions. One manual noted that some assignments were routine and others glamorous, “but whatever the job is, every WAC knows that a paper not properly routed today may mean insufficient supplies to our fighting men tomorrow.”

Some duties were challenging and, for most women, novel opportunities. In addition to the inevitable clerical assignments, women learned to repair and operate heavy equipment and studied photography and chemistry. WASPs ferried aircraft to fields around the country and towed the targets used for practice by novice gunners. In the Chemical Warfare Service at Dugway, enlisted women “are working side by side with college professors in laboratories … They are out on the testing field, with walkie-talkies, cameras, surveying instruments. Some use meteorology instruments and others take data on dispersion,” stated a 1944 report.

They also fought the rumor mills that seemed determined to destroy women’s military service before it was fairly underway: Some Americans blamed the women for taking jobs that would have kept their sons safely in the United States. German propaganda pretended that America’s servicewomen were merely uniformed prostitutes.

But patriotic young women enlisted throughout Utah. Some came from the Navajo reservation. Bernice Taylor (who neglected to list her first name on registration papers, foiling the Army’s insistence that recruits always use their first names) came from Salt Lake’s Arapaho Avenue. Michiyo Mukai left her father’s Ogden restaurant to put on her uniform.

Mukai was not Utah’s only Japanese American servicewoman. Joining her were Kay Keiko Nishiguchi of Garland, Priscilla Yasuda of Provo, and Ellen Fuchida, whose mother told her when she entered the service at Fort Douglas, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do, go do it and do the best you can.”

Ruth Christensen enlisted from Providence, expecting to spend the war stateside. Instead, she spent Christmas 1943 in New Guinea. In 1944, she was transferred to Manila – a hazardous post in which to use her business training. Japanese troops still in the Philippines bombed her building, and snipers made it impossible for her to go outside.

Alberta Hunt Nicholson, an Oregon native but a graduate of the University of Utah, traded her music education for pilot’s wings with the WASPs. One of her more hazardous assignments was taking repaired aircraft for test flights to be sure they were safe for use by male cadets. Nicholson returned to music following the war but kept her pilot’s license current, and in 2001 was inducted into the Utah Aviation Hall of Fame.

Priscilla Maltby Mayden made her mark on Utah after the war. Following training as a librarian, she entered the WACs in 1944 and served in the hospital library at Santa Ana, California. She moved to Utah in 1952 – “I wanted to go someplace I could ski,” she said – then went back to Columbia for a Master’s degree in library science, and served as director of the University’s Eccles Health Sciences Library, 1966-1984.

Times change, and so have the military assignments entrusted to Utah’s women. We honor the uniformed service rendered by Utah’s women today, as well as the service of female veterans who opened the door.

photos: My mother, a WAAC/WAC of World War II.



7 Comments »

  1. Lovely pictures. What an amazing new opportunity for women including your mother. I wonder how most of these women stood returning to civilian life and homemaking after all that excitement and usefulness to society.

    Comment by Researcher — November 11, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  2. I know it broadened my mother’s horizons. Before her service, she worked in local, deadend jobs — partly, I suppose, because of her youth and because of the Depression, but also because it didn’t occur to her to do otherwise. After her service, there was no stopping her. Off to the big city for her, work where she wanted as long as she wanted, then free to choose something else on a whim, no looking back.

    Then in her mid-30s, she gave all that up to raise a family. With her it was always all or nothing, and I don’t think she could have done both at the same time. She chose us.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 11, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  3. Ardis,

    This brings to mind a story I heard Woody Deem,former DA of Ventura County and brilliant and demanding professor at J. Reuben Clark Law School tell regarding the manner in which he met his wife, Norrie, who served in the Marines during World War II.

    At the outset of the war, Woody decided to join the service, but wondered which branch to enlist in. He saw a red-headed woman on a Marine recruiting poster and was very impressed with her beauty and her and idealistic soulful expression as she gazed at the sky. This poster somehow played a role in his decision to join the Marines. (I don’t know if he expected his drill sargeant to resemble the woman on the poster or if he merely anticipated that this move would to lead to a good story or what. At any rate, one could say the poster worked, as far as the Marines were concerned.)

    After Woody had been given the usual working over provided at government expense by Marine basic training, Woody was stationed near Washington, DC. There, while crossing the street at a stoplight, he noticed that the soldier driving a military truck stopped at the light was the very woman in the recruiting poster. He pointed at her and shouted, “You, your the reason I’m wearing this suit!” Somehow things moved from that point to an acquaintance and Norrie and Woody were married and adopted eight children.

    It appeared to us who shared the privilege of enjoying his criminal law classes, that the basic training he had received in the Marines served as his model for law school, and now, as I think about it, we, also,were blessed by Norrie’s war service and her loveliness in that poster.

    Comment by S. Taylor — November 11, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  4. There were also nurses from Utah in the WAC, and probably elsewhere. And they put on the uniform before WWII. Mom put on a uniform after graduating from Dee in about ’38; it was a way out of Utah. Her service was more extensive than she’d planned – experiencing the Blitz, then Normandy about June 8, 1944, keeping just behind the front for the next year or so.

    Comment by micah — November 11, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

  5. Awesome, Ardis…especially to honor and feature pictures of you mother as well.

    (I linked to this at Seguallah.)

    Comment by m&m — November 11, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  6. Loved the pictures of your mother.

    Comment by Maurine — November 11, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

  7. Great addition Ardis. Often I think we forget the role women played in wars prior to their “active” roles they play these days. Often it is surprising for those us unfamiliar to learn just how involved they really were.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Jon W. — November 11, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

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