Female veterans in the Northwest remember WWII - Tucson Local Media: Import

Female veterans in the Northwest remember WWII

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Posted: Friday, December 9, 2005 12:00 am

Laura Marble, Community News and Features Editor ext. 104, LMarble@ExplorerNews.com

Dec. 7, 2005 - Posters featuring Rosie the Riveter pop into many people's minds when they think about women's roles during World War II. With her sturdy overalls and flexed muscles, the fictional character encouraged many women to build fighter planes and help the war effort at home while men served in the military.

Fewer people think about the WASPS, the SPARS, the women and other enlisted women who flew the planes that Rosie was building and fought the war in other ways from inside the military.

Dec. 8 marks the 64th anniversary of America's entry into the second world war a day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and the women who served in the war will not be around forever to tell their stories.

"We lose several every year," Helen Glass said about her Desert WAVES organization for Navy women veterans in Tucson, of which she is a charter member and past president. She added that the other local women's veterans organizations are suffering the same losses.

For three years, the Veterans Administration hospital in Tucson has been collecting stories of veterans for the Library of Congress so they will not be lost.

More than a dozen women who live in the Northwest have memories of serving in the war - sometimes, they say, in places they weren't officially supposed to be. Whether they enlisted to see the world or to try to end the war sooner by freeing up a man to fight, they have stories to tell.

Helena Snyder, a Marana resident, has stories of flying to the South Pacific to fix downed planes although women Marines were not supposed to be there.

Nestled under a cozy blanket bearing the Marines emblem of an eagle, globe and anchor, the 82-year-old disabled veteran comes alive when she talks about the path that she says led her there.

Snyder, who is a member of her local American Legion and Disabled American Veterans chapters, said she joined the Marines to take her husband's place the day after he died from wounds he received in the war.

"I was in a state of shock when I enlisted, but later I was feeling a lot better because of the satisfaction that I could do something to make up for my husband being killed," she said.

Before enlisting, she had worked at a Boeing aircraft plant making an experimental version of the B29 plane, which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. So it seemed appropriate when she ended up at a training center to learn to be a mechanic for the Marines.

The idea of a female Marine caused confusion and inspired prejudice in the early 1940s, Snyder said. The women's uniforms, for example, were made of rayon, which looked attractive in office settings but melted when exposed to airplane exhaust in hangers.

When Snyder arrived at a hanger at her base in California after training, one of the male Marines, skeptical about how a woman would fit in, slipped a hook in her belt and lifted her into the air. Luckily, she was wearing a man's uniform.

"They got me 15 feet up in the air to see what I was going to do," she said.

She calmly climbed up the chain to a high rail, she said, and swore in all the languages she'd heard as a child growing up near railroad yards in Seattle. She'd learned early in life how to walk on a rail.

"It didn't bother me a bit that I was three or four stories in the air," she said.

The Marines tried to make her a typist, but she said she couldn't type, so they put her to work keeping track of the planes until one day repairs got backed up and she cornered someone in charge.

"I said, 'This is stupid. This plane has to go out tomorrow and it can't fly,'" she said.

The Marines began to value Snyder's small hands, which could do fine work without getting scratched up, and one day Snyder said she was sent to work on planes overseas. Planes were breaking down in the South Pacific, and submarines were sinking many of the ones that were transported back to the United States for repairs. Snyder was sent to help repair them on location, she said.

"It was an honor, yes, but it was so secret that you still can't find (reference to servicewomen in history)," she said. "We didn't feel like we were being honored."

Snyder was discharged because an allergy to aluminum made her hands seriously infected. To this day, they have no sensitivity to pain.

Esther Hughes, a Foothills resident for several years who last year moved to an apartment for seniors near St. Joseph's Hospital, didn't make it to the South Pacific during her service in the Women's Army Corps, but her story includes a brush with history.

Hughes, 85, was working as a beautician in North Dakota when she decided to enlist in 1943. A friend had mentioned a beauty salon near Des Moines, in her home state, that needed employees. It was near a military base, and she thought enlisting was her key to a job there.

"I thought, 'Maybe they'll take me,'" she said. "I thought it was military, but it was civilian."

Because of Hughes' familiarity with driving, acquired from years growing up on a farm, the Women's Army Corps selected her to attend motor transportation school. She enjoyed the training and decided she wanted to be an ambulance driver in the war.

Instead, she received orders to board a train all alone that took her to a lonely train station southwest of Salt Lake City. A military car waiting at the station transported her to a base for the division of the military titled Chemical Warfare System.

She was to be the base's beautician, it turned out, but before long moved into the position of dispatcher, keeping track of military vehicles.

"Because of my motor pool training and because I was a little perturbed, I asked for a transfer," she said, explaining the move.

One day at the base, Hughes discovered top officers from overseas in her mess hall. They stayed for several days and made small talk, but didn't elaborate on any of it, she said.

Hughes' base was on the southeastern slopes of salt flats, and Windover Air Force Base was on the western side of the salt flats. That's the spot where the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima first took to the air.

"They said, 'I'm here from the South Pacific, but I can't let my family know I'm here,'" she said. "It was in preparation for bombing in Japan - Hiroshima, I'm guessing."

Northwest resident Helen Glass, 83, met Eleanor Roosevelt while serving in the Navy's branch for women: Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, or WAVES. She also met Tex Benecke, of Glenn Miller Band fame. Growing up in small-town New Jersey, that was enough excitement for her, as was meeting friends from all over the country.

"I wanted to be a woman of the world," she said.

Through the Navy's diagnostic tests, she discovered a gift for mechanics, and she repaired oil pumps on a base in Florida getting them ready so planes could fly.

Glass served in the war from 1943 to 1945 as an aviation machinist and has spent all her years since honoring veterans. She has logged 8,000 hours of volunteer service at Veterans Affairs hospitals, and she was an officer in the American Legion for 62 years.

She also estimates that she has written 500 poems about the service. One of them is excerpted at a World War II women's memorial in New Mexico: "She didn't take the place of a man, you see, she made her own place in history."

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