What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

A Woman in a "Man's War"


Story by Andy Smith

As I walk into the house, I am immediately put at ease. She is in her early 70's, tall and lean, with a bright, lively gleam in her eyes. Her sense of humor and outgoingness are as vibrant as her personality. An assertive woman not afraid to tell it like it is, or how she feels it is, Genevieve Chasm is, and was, not easily intimidated.

I had a big mouth -- in fact, that was my downfall. I didn't care what the rank was. If I had been a man, they would have said, "Take that bum out, put him in combat, and make sure somebody shoots him the first day."

When a service was opened for women, I just felt I should join, because the men were drafted, the men were enlisting, and I was single, and I just felt it was my duty. Now, I was 25 years old, very idealistic and patriotic, so I became part of the original group of enlisted women in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. When we arrived at Fort Ogelthorpe, Georgia, in true army fashion, the barracks weren't complete. I mean, it was just chaotic.

Somehow or another we got through basic training. We had to get up very early in the morning, race around, and then we would be marched to the mess hall, and we'd just walk in the mess hall, get food on our tray, and we'd have to get out, they'd just throw us out.

Once the Mess Officer stopped and said (changes voice), " I can get ten companies through my mess hall in a half an hour." My big mouth -- that was my downfall. So afterwards when they asked for questions I said to her, "I've been hungry ever since I've been in the army because all you think about is getting the people through, in and out, but you don't think about feeding them!"

The last week before I was commissioned, we had to fill out a form, and one of the questions was: If you could have any job in the United States Army, what would it be? So I wrote, " I would like to be a mess officer because I've been hungry as long as I've been in the army."

I was put in charge of the mess hall at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Well, the mess sergeant had worked for Bird's Eye Frozen Food Company in Washington. She was obsessively clean, and that's a good trait in the kitchen. We had a Polish girl from Chicago who had worked in the meat packing house, cutting meat, so we had a good meat cutter. We had another girl, we called her Cookie, she was a baker from a very fine gourmet bakery in Denver. We had another girl who was a chef from Sun Valley, Idaho. So our mess hall, now, I must say, had a wonderful kitchen. It was rated as the second best mess in the United States Army. The second best! And that was because I love to feed people. I think I was put on this earth to feed people. In fact, I would have loved to have gone into the restaurant business. Even as a kid your age. But this was something I took great pride in and we had a wonderful mess, and during the war there wasn't the food to buy, and things were rationed and everything, so boy, to get an invitation to our mess hall was something. I'm very proud of that fact.

So I was there at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for two years. It was the only time in my life when I and all the women there suffered from discrimination. Today, I mean, women wouldn't tolerate it, but the men there, mostly career army officers, West Pointers, did everything they could to block us.

Every morning, I had to go up to headquarters and report to the adjutant. I'd stand there at attention and he would shout at me, and he would curse and swear when I'm there knocking myself out, trying to form a company, something I had never done before. As I'd stand there, the other WAC officer with me would have the tears streaming down her face -- I used to get so mad at her, and I used to get so mad at him. But I stood there and I took it until one day, one day, I took the bar off my shoulder and I threw it on his desk, and I said, "I have taken the last bit of abuse I'm going to take from you or anybody else on this post!" I said, "I'm going back to my office. I'm going to call Seventh Service Command, talk to Major Bell, and I'm going to tell her to take us out of here and send us someplace where we'll be appreciated! Because I have had nothing but... interference. I have had no help! People have been rude to us, we get obscene phone calls all the time, day and night, from people at the detachment, the company, and I have had it!"

As I stormed out of the room he said (changes voice), "Just a minute miss, just a minute miss, come back here!" He said, "You haven't been dismissed!" and I walked back into the room and said, "That's another thing! Nobody on this post will call my lieutenant -- everybody calls me miss! I'm just as much a lieutenant as any man that graduates from West Point -- you want to talk to me, you call me lieutenant!" And I walked out.

I would not have liked being that man. If she wants something, she'll get it, no matter what the circumstances are.

The day we reported to Fort Leavenworth General Truesdale walked in. He was six feet tall and so was I! We were right at eye level and he said, "So you're what the War Department sent us, huh? Well I want you to know you're not welcome on this post." I was absolutely speechless! So I looked at him, and said, "I hope that we are both on this post long enough that you regret that rude remark! Nobody insults me like that!" Well, General Truesdale did everything he could to make me look foolish and make our women look foolish.

So one day, I'm walking along in the headquarters, down the corridor, and the General comes along and he has all these aides, all these flunkies around him, and he says (changes voice), "Just a minute miss!" I said, "Yes, sir?" He says, "Don't you go to the hops on Saturday night?" I said, "Yes, sir. Every Saturday." He said, "So how come I don't see you in the receiving line?" I said, "Well, every time I speak to you, you embarrass me, so I avoid you!" He looked at me. There's all these guys lookin', you know? They didn't expect me to say something like that. So he said, "Well next Saturday I want you to go through the receiving line." I said, "I've never disobeyed an order yet. I'll be there."

The next Saturday night we came through the receiving line. When my time comes he says to me, "You think you're pretty good, don't you, Bowland?" (That was my maiden name.) And I looked at him and I said, "No, not pretty good - very good!" Well, they all just went sorta, "Aagh!" So he says, "Oh, you're so good, you're not good enough for the Command General School!" which was the top school in the Army at that time. Command General Staff School was for field grade officers, majors and above. And it's battle planning. So I said, "Well, I don't ever expect to be doing that." He said, "You're just making alibis! You don't have the brains to go!" And all these guys standing around sniggerin', sniggerin'.

So I had a very fresh mouth. And I looked around at all these grinning guys and said, "They all graduated from Command General Staff School, didn't they?" He says, "Yes." I said, "Well if they could do it, anybody could!" He said, "You're going to the next class." And I said, "Well, it would be a waste of government money to send me because I would never be in a position to do this. But the army is so good at wastin' money they might just as well waste a little on me!" I went to the next class of Command General Staff School. It's called a "suicide school" because usually in every class at least one man (gestures) blows his brains out. Well, I went, and I can tell you, I could feel the wheels goin' round in my head. And you know, they might just as well have been talking in a foreign language because it was all so new to me. But then I realized -- nobody could know it all. Each day they gave us a handout, and if we spent 24 hours a day, nobody could have read all of it, there was so much. They gave you a foot locker, and by the time they finished the class, it was piled full with reading matter. So I realized that you had to know where to look it up, you know, whatever it was. And if you knew where to look it up, you got the answer. I graduated from that school in the top quarter.

Quite an example of this woman's strength and intelligence! I was intrigued.

Now one of the things we were taught before going to Europe was that you never said "Russian" -- you said "Soviet." You never said "English" -- you said "UK, United Kingdom." Because you'd be surprised -- now I know, I served with a lot of British officers -- I'd say something about being English, they'd say, "I'm not English, "I'm (changes voice) Scottish" or "I'm from South Africa" or -- I remember one, "I'm from Kenya." So it was the Commonwealth and a lot of Australian, a lot of people for New Zealand. No they were called UK, United Kingdom.

Oh! So finally, V-E Day came, and a week after I was in Germany driving a jeep with three men. And we drove into Stuttgart. There was nothing! And nothing had been cleared up -- there were bodies. Yet it was a beautiful, beautiful spring day, the sky was blue, it was beautiful, and it was all so terrible.

So, anyway, on the fourth of August 1945, we went to Berlin and opened our main headquarters -- this was the military government now. What had been SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces was now AMG-U.S. (Allied Military Government-U.S.)

Now, I had never even thought about what the Germans were like. But I realized that they were nice people. I felt I was a patriotic American; so the Germans were patriotic Germans, you know what I'm saying? Well, we made our headquarters at E.K. Farben Industries, almost a world cartel...in Germany.

E.K. Farben Industries was later implicated for supplying gas and other materials solely for the purpose to exterminate Jews in concentration camps.

They made a lot of war materials. Well, that was such a big industrial area, they had a little railroad system not only to carry supplies but people too. A lot of the factory was damaged, but not a window on the main building was broken because part of the United States plan was that we were going to win the war. And when we got into Germany, we wanted this building as our headquarters so we didn't want it...


Smashed. Well, the Germans had taken slave laborers, women mostly or older men from Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Austria, any place you can name. They had been working as slave laborers in this big factory complex. I saw, with my own eyes -- because when I came back home, people said I was a liar when I told them of the things I saw. They had built the housing for these slave laborers -- that's what they were called -- like a dog house. Long and narrow with a pitched roof. In order to get in, you had to get on your hands and knees and crawl. And then at night, a board was dropped down. There were no windows, no nothing in there, and the people couldn't stand up in there. On one side there was a wooden shelf. And that's where the people lay down to sleep. There was no bedding provided, no sanitation -- nothing. And it gets mighty cold in Germany during the winter time. That's the way those people had to live.

I was eating dinner in the Rathskellar, the officer's mess in Berlin, and somebody came in and said, "They dropped the bomb." And they cheered. But I just sat there and said, "This is one of the worst mistakes the United States could make!" But they said, "Oh, well, this is shortening the war." And I've heard that and I've read that. But you see, we had this Manhattan Project where we were trying to find the atomic bomb. And what we wanted to do was drop it on Germany. See, the Germans had missiles. So we raced and raced to get the Atomic Bomb completed, and V-E day came. See, it's just like -- you're a young fellow and somebody gives you a sports car and they say, "Hey, you can do 125 in this car!" You'd want to see if it could do it. You'd just step on it and try to make 125. So we had the bomb and we wanted to see if it would work. And I think that was a terrible, terrible thing -- a terrible, terrible thing.

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Copyright 1995