From Pearl Harbor to Pensacola, Washington (state) to Washington (DC), and everywhere in between, as the war came to a close in August of 1945, celebrations erupted. The WAVES joined sailors, soldiers and civilians in toasting the end of hostilities and anticipating a return to “normal.”
WAVES working on bases remember having a sense that something was up in the days leading up to V-J Day. And life on the bases would change in a seeming blink of the eye.
No More Flights
I was there when the war ended. And the instant, the instant they got communication the war was over they did not have any more pilots go out. It was that dangerous. I’ll never forget that, because we went down to report for duty. They said, “There are no pilots going out. There will be no more pilots going out.”
– Janette Shaffer Alpaugh, World War II NavyWAVE
I was in Cape May, New Jersey. They called us all out and lined us up in front of our barracks and announced V-J Day.
– Mildred Bean Reese, World War II Navy WAVE
The End of the War
I stood up in the window on the hill at radar school with Captain, captains, and generals and Commander Pitts. We watched the news come in. We knew it was coming. And when the bells began to ring and the whistles started blowing, the big tears started rolling down everybody’s eyes because we knew it was the end of the war.
– Virginia Gillmore, World War II Navy WAVE
“Good Clean Fun”
We couldn’t wait to get downtown Washington [D.C.] where everybody was celebrating. Now, I don’t remember seeing drinking. I’m sure there was plenty of it. But we were just going around high fiving people or hugging people or whatever. One fellow would grab you and you were dancing around in a circle. It was just good clean fun is what it was.
– Liane Rose Galvin, World War II Navy WAVE
As the reality sank in that war was over, military men and women began some long-anticipated celebrations.
The director’s mother was based at Treasure Island in San Francisco during the war. Her father was an Army Air Corps pilot also stationed in the city. On V-J day the two went out to celebrate and, like many service people, ended up having drinks at one of the city’s bars. Photographer Joe Rosenthal was there – and he was handing out copies of his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph Flag Raising at Iwo Jima to veterans. Mary and James Ryan kept their copy and passed it down to their children.
We were out on the streets and that’s all I can tell you (laughs). It was a snake dance and everything out on the streets and everybody yelling and carrying on.
– Mickey Griffin Kalinauskas, World War II Navy WAVE
When the war ended I was, the night they were all celebrating downtown, I had duty in the barracks [laughs]. I didn’t get to go out that night. I had duty in the barracks. That I remember. I had duty in the barracks.
– Ramona Ransom Wheeler, World War II WAVE
The V-J Day celebrations in San Francisco, and on Market Street in specific, actually turned violent. A riot erupted that was the deadliest in the city’s history.
That day that the war ended, why Market Street (in San Francisco) was just jammed. You couldn’t even move. This one guy reached over, picked up and took my hat off. I said, ‘”Hey! Give me that hat back!’: He said, “Why? You’re not going to need it.” Well, I did need it. I had to work points out to get released. Some of the girls got released right away. I had to work until March 20th, 1946.”
– Helen Baldwin Ruecker, World War II Navy WAVE
WAVES and SPARs officially enlisted for the duration of the war, plus six months. But for some women, decommissioning would take weeks and often months longer than that official timeline.
When women enlisted to serve in the WAVES and SPARs, they signed up for the duration of the war plus six months. The reality was that some women left military service just days after V-J Day (September 2, 1945). The women tell of a Navy-instituted point system in order to get out of the service. Points were accrued based on how long one had served, one’s age and if one was married or not.
Married women, like my mother, who had been in the service for a while, were decommissioned almost immediately. But others stayed in much longer. Jane Ashcraft Fisher, who was still in boot camp on V-J Day, ended up serving eleven months after the end of the war. She says they were initially going to send her class home without ever completing boot camp. They were allowed to stay in order to help with the decommissioning process.
At a Crossroads
At the end of the war, women found themselves at a crossroads. Some wanted to continue service in the WAVES, which while not an “official” option could be done by women through delaying their decommissioning requests. Still others describe being ready to move on to the next stage of their lives. Many had married during the war and were eager to return home and begin families.
A small portion of women stayed in the military. About 1,800 women extended their active duty past July 30, 1946, the “official” end-date for WAVES. Eventually, these women either entered the reserve or joined the military outright when the Navy decided to allow women into the service in mid-1948.
The G.I. Bill
A number of women mentioned wanting to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and attend college. The Bill provided veterans with a college education and military women qualified. Not all were able to do that; some went to school for only a few months while others didn’t attend at all.
But for a portion of the women, college was a desired and attainable goal, due to the provisions of the G.I. Bill, a benefit often mentioned in WAVES recruitment and decommissioning literature. One woman, Eileen Horner Blakeley, would end up “double dipping”: she attended college on the G.I. Bill and also was enlisted in the Naval Reserve, increasing her benefits.
The G.I. Bill had other provisions. Another common one used was the low-interest financing for housing purchases.
Back to the “Real” World
These images are from brochures provided to Navy WAVES upon decommissioning. Since the women have been dressed exclusively in uniforms for the war years, it was assumed they would need assistance with fashion as they left the military.
But the women talk about using their fashion savvy in the post-military years. While they couldn’t wear a uniform as a uniform, they could refashion the blue suit and searsucker dress into civilian clothes. A common target? The uniform coat. It was well made and quite warm – a switch of the buttons and it was ready for civilian wear.