November 9, 2007
Women of World War II
By Karen Mahoney
Shoes and purses are the hardest to find.
When female soldiers returned home from World War II, they continued to wear their shoes and carry their purses until they were worn clean though.
But in six years of collecting memorabilia from the second world war, Sandra and Jamie Faulkner have come across boots, gloves uniforms, posters, photos, recruiting materials, medals and thousands of other fragile reminders of battle, all of which they have used to create a mini museum in their home.
The giant movable display, organized neatly into the smallest bedroom in their Racine neighborhood is dedicated to the veterans, like their grandparents who fought, and the children Sandy says need to know about their battles.
“We are losing our war veterans each day and the stories are lost with the veterans,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of women’s oral history and I want people to know what the women went through and that our lives wouldn’t be what they are today without our women—I do believe that we would not have won the war without the help of the women.”
Sandy, a Special Education teacher at Racine’s Jerstad Agerholm Middle School and Jamie who served in the US Army in the 1980’s, recently brought part of their display to the “Honoring Women Veterans” event at the Municipal building in Rochester. Once or twice a year, the couple brings their entire collection into public view, a feat which amasses 65 feet of banquet tables and requires four and a half hours to set up.
“My husband built big racks for our display, which includes 125 hangers for the uniforms,” she said. “Usually when we bring the entire collection, it is for a fundraiser such as the one we do on ‘Reclaiming our Heritage’ in Milwaukee, each year. That one raises money for renovating Soldiers Home.”
Although Jamie was an active participant in battle reenactment and a self described history buff, the massive display, noted as the largest in the country, was inspired by a Christmas gift to Sandy one year.
“He bought me a set of reproduction woman’s army fatigues and that got me started in collecting WAC uniforms, other military uniforms and civilian stuff,” she said, adding, “The civilian women did so much, such as bond drives, fundraisings, knitting socks and making stuff for the soldiers.”
Women have been involved in all of America’s wars, but World War II proved to be a groundbreaking event, opening a host of professional opportunities that had not yet been available. At the urging of female leaders, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith and with the support of General George Marshall, Congress passed legislation creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May 1942. Two months later, the Navy followed suit with the establishment of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Soon after, the Cost Guard created the SPAR women’s reserve unit; in February 1943, the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR).
More than 350,000 women served in uniform during the war, most of them in clerical and other support capacities. In other instances, women were allowed to be instructors to male recruits in such areas as operating vehicles, firing machine guns, and training pilots.
One of the most significant initiatives during the war was the creation of the WASP, Women’s’ Airforce Service Pilots Program. According to Sandy, 25,000 women applied for the program, 1839 were accepted into the program, and 1072 actually flew the airplanes.
For two years, WASPS flew seven days a week, from sunup to sundown. They flew every kind of aircraft, from the smallest fighters to the largest bombers, ferrying the planes between factories, airbases and ports of embarkation on both coasts. WASPS also towed targets for antiaircraft training, which used live ammunition and trained male cadets to be pilots, bombardiers and navigators.
“Some of the women were shot out of the sky during the training exercises; there were 39 killed in the line of duty and one missing in action,” she said. “Those uniforms are the most expensive pieces in collecting, because they are the hardest to find as there were so few women pilots.”
Suddenly in December of 1944, the program was disbanded, its members sent home with no official recognition or thanks for the service they had rendered.
“The WASPS didn’t even get veteran status or military burials until 1977,” Sandy said. “Some of the others got it right away, but had trouble getting any medical service at the VA.”
Much of the Faulkner’s display contains nursing uniforms and equipment, as they made the most significant contribution to the war effort. Fifty-seven thousand served during the war effort on bases and ships all over the world, from northern Europe to North Africa to the South Pacific. In many cases the nurses were just behind the front lines and came under enemy fire. Two hundred died on active duty, nineteen of them from enemy fire. Sixty-seven Army and eleven Navy nurses were held for three years as prisoners of war of the Japanese following the fall of the Philippines in 1943.
While Sandy learns about women’s war efforts from reading, much of her information comes from talking with former soldiers and civilian volunteers—many of the stories move her to tears.
“I guess some of the horrors that the women saw are the hardest for me to handle and the most surprising,” she said. “I have heard stories about six nurses who were killed in the European war, Frances Sanger, who volunteered as a nurse and was killed, and flight nurses who were shot at all the time. The stories are so heart wrenching.”
When the Japanese took the Philippines during the war, 77 American women, navy and army nurses were caught on Bataan and later imprisoned by the Japanese. The book, “We band of Angels,” tells the story of 20 of the 77 women who were captured and how they managed to survive.
“These women lost all their hair and teeth due to malnutrition and by the end of their captivity, they were surviving on only 200 calories of maggot infested rice a day,” Sandy said. “At first they wouldn’t eat any of the rice, then they began taking out the maggots and by the end of the first week they were eating the maggots as a protein source.”
If it weren’t for the heroic efforts of the women in the military and civilian volunteers, Sandy believes we would not enjoy our current freedoms, and our lives would not be what they are today.
“So many things came out of the wary, such as day care, microwaves, and cell phones,” she said. “The original walkie talkie was huge and the enemy always targeted who carried them, and today’s cell phone is much smaller and safer to use. Day Care happened after women walked down the streets in Washington D.C. and said they wanted to help, but needed someone to watch their children. The USO set up baby check stations that worked like coat checks. Each mother received a number when they dropped off their children and brought the number back at the end of the day and got their children back.”
The microwave oven developed after engineers discovered that the same type of magnetron tube used in wartime radars was powerful enough to heat food rapidly. The first microwave was called a Radarange.
The Faulkners hope that by exposing their collection to the public, that more people will realize the sacrifice made by the men and women of our country to preserve our freedom.
“I hope that I would have been one of the women who volunteered, if I had been around during World War II,” Sandy said. “The women really helped—I still remember my grandmother doing her part. She had this tin of bacon grease on the back of the stove and donated it to the government for war munitions factories to use in making ammunition.”
The couple’s children Emily age nine and Kaitlin age six have grown up around the vintage war memorabilia and are a frequent addition to their living display.
“Each has a small impression that they like to do,” Sandy said. “One of our daughters pulls an old wagon to collect metal for the war effort, and the other one talks to people about the Victory garden. We all really get into it.”