What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

It Was Everybody's War

Dr. William Metz

"I felt I was doing something for my country, even though it wasn't really going across or helping any individual, but by me being there I felt I was doing something...we were all working towards the same goal...hoping that the war would be over soon."

Ida Barrington thus expressed the sentiment of many of the women interviewed in this oral history study of American women in World War II. A graduate of South Kingstown High School, she had been working as a secretary at Rhode Island State College when the United States entered the war. With the young man she was to marry in 1944 already in the Coast Artillery, drafted under Selective Service a year before Pearl Harbor, she quickly responded to the need for workers at the CB (Construction Battalion) base at Davisville. There she supervised 25 to 30 other young women in the shipping department, preparing and duplicating inventories of all the items that would be needed on individual ships as they sailed to different parts of the world with different missions to perform. Tight secrecy prevailed, as the nature of the supplies and equipment carried would give a good indication of the destination and purpose of the voyage.

As her fiancee (husband after 1944) was moved from one post to another in the United States, she followed the course of the war most intensely. Much of her pay was used to help him come home weekends when he wasn't on duty, for often, long railroad trips were involved. Her ration coupons for food and other items contributed to the welfare of her family, so that sacrifice at home, particularly after her marriage when she was able to buy at the commissary as a serviceman's wife, was not severe. The tension of war was always present in her life, however, for there was the continuing possibility that her husband would be shipped overseas into active combat. As it was, the war ended just as that possibility was turning into reality. No wonder, then, that when VJ Day came, she was "thrilled to death."

Rita Conners Lepper told quite a different story of her involvement in the war. "Politically, I was an isolationist." She had relatives in World War I, and felt that the nations of Europe "should solve their own problems. Then, when we were attacked, that was an entirely different situation, and I ceased to be an isolationist." Most of the young men she knew volunteered immediately, and as a first junior high school art teacher she turned to the Rhode Island School of Design for a course in map making and applied to the WAVES. Accepted, she was sent to Smith College for training and came out as a code officer, assigned to the Boston headquarters of the First Naval District.

Sending and receiving messages in code covering all aspects of the Navy's involvement, "we never read a newspaper; we knew more about what was going on; we didn't need to read a newspaper." Tight security prevailed, "We were really well-trained to keep our mouths shut. That's the best way to put it."

War brought together men and women from all parts of the nation. "The people who were with me came from all over...I've never met so many bright, interesting people...from all backgrounds...it was a very exciting time." But it was a tense and sad time as well. She did not see an uncle in the service again until after the war, her brother was a Navy flier, and her husband-to-be was "in it from the beginning, Africa, Sicily, Normandy, the whole bit." And one friend, a tail-gunner in the Air Force, was killed.

Looking back at World War II, Rita Lepper says that "it made us much more appreciative of what democracy is all about and the freedom we have...I'm eternally grateful for democracy." And her personal happy ending was that she and her fianc‚, safely home from Europe, were married at the close of war.

Lucy Rennick experienced the war from a different perspective. At the time of Pearl Harbor she and her fianc‚ were teaching in Cranstons' Bain Junior High School. Shortly thereafter they were married and bought a new home, but Selective Service soon dramatically altered their plans. He was drafted, and Lucy returned to the family farm east of the bay.

For the four years of the war, "four years of our life together," Lucy continued to teach, but had to use a complex pattern of bus travel to go back and forth. On the farm she helped with the dairying and truck gardening as three of her four brothers went into the army. And there was always a great deal of cooking and canning to be done.

At school, with classes often of 40 to 50 pupils due to a shortage of teachers, she spent much of her time helping residents of the city fill out applications for ration stamps. At various churches she assisted in providing refreshments and entertainment for the servicemen temporarily in the area. And, of course, she knitted sweaters, scarves, socks, and other items for servicemen.

During the school vacations, Lucy often went to be with her husband. Thus she visited Williamsburg and Yorktown, Virginia. When she was at Fort Benning, she stayed at Converse, Georgia, and when he was in Pueblo, Colorado, she stayed in Broadmoor. By VJ Day her husband had been discharged and they were on the Kingston campus of Rhode Island State College. "It was announced that the Pacific theater had given up. Everybody was so gleeful. We picked up seven or eight people, drove all the way to Providence to enjoy the hilarity of the people celebrating the end of the war. It was a great relief, release of the tension that people had endured for so long."

Eleanor Smith of Wyoming had a different story to tell. Her husband was a garage mechanic faced with the problem of keeping aging cars operational, as no new cars were available for civilian purchase after 1942. Since he was chairman of the Civil Defense organization in Richmond, numerous telephone calls and letters had to be answered -- and Mrs. Smith handled them.

Rationing had a real impact on the Smith family. Their favorite entertainment had been going to the movies in Wakefield, but gasoline rationing ended that for the duration of the war. Rationing of foods made her garden, and canning, and jelly making all the more important. Tin cans were dutifully crushed and saved for the scrap drives. And since their spending was curtailed by war-time conditions, they "religiously saved and bought war bonds, as the government requested." Her husband was "very sensitive to the war itself...he had to get a flagpole to put up at our new house, and he went into one of the swamps around here and he got our flagpole."

Patriotism was very important to the Smiths. "I think a great many people went to work in the defense plants, not for just the money, but they went initially because we had to defend ourselves. We had to clear the world of this terrible phenomenon that was occurring....the world had to be rid of this scourge."

Different as their personal stories are, the interviews with these women and the many others who shared their World War II experiences with the students in their oral history project all emphasized a number of common themes. The war years, nearly a half a century later, still stand out clearly in their memories, years of excitement, of patriotic endeavor, of sacrifice, of little change despite the new tensions and controls that pressed upon them. For others, the pattern of life was dramatically altered by the direct involvement in military life and travel to far places. And despite the universally expressed hatred of war, of their belief that war generally brings no good, all saw World War II as necessary to rid the world of the scourges of Nazism and Japanese imperialism, to protect American democracy and the freedoms it guarantees to all.

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Copyright 1995