What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

A Teenage Volunteer, Too Young to Join the WACS


Story by Ellie Kaufman

We had just finished dinner, and I think I was in the living room reading the paper. I heard my mother say, "Oh, dear God. They have bombed Pearl Harbor!" I said "What?" and she said "Pearl Harbor. That's Hawaii. Do you know how many troops we have over there?" and I said "No."

This conversation is one that Eileen Hughes, a petite gray-haired woman in her mid 60's, will never forget. I interviewed her in the kitchen of her Narragansett home. The atmosphere was comfortable and homey, and Mrs. Hughes seemed eager to tell her story.

Before Pearl Harbor, I didn't realize how serious the war in Europe was. I think that it was something that seemed very, very far away. We were far away from Japan and far away from Germany. It was horrible what was going on in Europe, but I don't think I realized how close it was going to hit us, until Pearl Harbor.

In 1939, I was in junior high school. Like everyone else, I worked an after school job. I think I made $10 a week and I worked every night after school. This was during the Depression and everyone was poor. There weren't as many distinctions between who makes this, and who's in here, and who's down at the bottom. We were all the same and it was very tough, but everybody pulled together and we managed.

I spent my money on different things: probably cigarettes that I shouldn't have smoked, movies, ice cream, candy bars. As we got involved in the war, I noticed that many of the movies I saw were geared towards the war, especially after Pearl Harbor. I liked the war movies because they always make it look like we were winning.

My brother quit high school to join the army. A lot of the boys did. A lot of the boys in my class didn't bother to graduate. Everybody was very patriotic and they quit school to enlist. There were very few boys left in my senior class when we graduated. Some of my friends' fathers were already in the service. My brother was just barely 18 and he was over in the Philippines by the time he was 19. We were angry to think that things had gone that far.

I myself was interested in joining the army from the time I was a very little girl. I don't know why, but I always felt that's what I wanted. At that time, when I was growing up, the women's army was the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, the WAAC. You could go in at 18 with parental signature. About the time I was entering my senior year of high school that was changed to 21. I was very angry because I really, really planned on going. I wrote to the President of the United States and said I just wanted to go and I didn't think it was fair. I thought they should let me go, but they didn't.

Instead, I did Civilian Defense. We spotted airplanes. We had to go to classes to be able to recognize them. I put in over 1,500 hours spotting planes. We had air raid drills and most of us volunteered and did messenger work. It was kind of scary. We were blacked out here. All the houses in Narragansett had to be totally blacked out on the ocean side. We had to buy these special shades for our windows and every night, as soon as it turned dark, you had to draw your shades. That was regulation and they had air raid wardens. If you didn't have your shades drawn, they would come and knock on your door and make you draw them. After Pearl Harbor, a lot of troops came in here and a lot of Navy came into Quonset.

As a young person, I went to a lot of USO dances on Saturday nights. That was volunteer and kind of fun. All of these men that were stationed around here were young boys, all away from home who couldn't always get home for the holidays. So we'd invited them home for Sunday dinner and things like that. It was fun.

I didn't want to get serious about any of them because I really wanted to go into the service. Some of my girlfriends did. They were more prone to "I'd like to get married." I was still angry because I couldn't go into the service when I had wanted to. I was very firm about it. I liked a lot of them, and I loved to dance and have fun, but I did not want to get serious.

There was much fear of bombing because of the submarines rumored to be floating around nearby. I don't think most of us realized that attack was a real possibility. We had this attitude, sometimes Americans are like this, that the Americans would take care of it. I suppose we just figured because we were the U.S. of A. nothing would happen. Fortunately, nothing did, but it could have and I think some people did fear it.

After graduating from high school, I went to work at the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point. There were many jobs up there. My mother was a school teacher, and I just walked right into once-and-a-half of what she was making. It was incredible. It was because of the war, there were good jobs for us then. It's an unfortunate thing, but the war brought prosperity.

Of course, then there was rationing. We were just beginning to get used to having a few things more when we got cut back. You couldn't get sugar, and often we'd have the tickets to get the meat, but it wasn't available. It was a hardship, but you learned to live with it. Some people found ways of getting around it, but we didn't do that. We just lived with it.

When the war in Europe ended, I was here in Narragansett, working at Quonset Point. I came home from work, and my mother said, "The President is going to make an announcement at seven tonight." I remember saying "Oh, I hope this war is over." That was the first night that my mother had been able to get some lamb chops at the store. But we got so emotional that we couldn't eat because we knew my brother would be coming home. At about 7 p.m. President Harry Truman made the announcement, and it was like everything was so still. Then all of a sudden there was this huge uproar. You could here people screaming and it was nothing but one big party. My girlfriend came running up. She was yelling, "Yahoo! Yahoo!" and I went running down. Everybody went crazy. It was sad for those who lost loved ones. One of my girlfriends was crying because her brother had been killed. Still, it was a wonderful feeling when it was over.

Eileen Hughes eventually got her wish and joined the army, serving in the Korean War.

World War II. I think that probably it gave me more opportunities to do more. It's a terrible thing to say that a war does that, but I wonder if I would ever really have left Narragansett and done what I did, which was the best thing I ever did in my life.

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Copyright 1995