During World War II it was required that all all members of the military wear their uniforms at all times. That is why the wedding photos of my parents have them in uniform. My father as an Army Private and my mother as a Navel officer. (That’s right, she was the higher rank).
My mother was able to get special permission from an Admiral to be allowed to wear a wedding dress for the short ceremony. However, as soon as that was over she had to immediately get back into uniform.
And where did they fight the war? – in New York City. That’s right, New York. My father was in medical school, and the Army drafted the entire school and assigned them to keep taking classes. Many students, including my father, had been trying to quit medical school to join the Army so that they could fight in the war. However, the top brass in the Army decided that they needed new doctors a lot more than they needed new riflemen. The Army solved this problem by simply drafting the entire medical school. His whole life, Jack Farrell felt guilty about spending the war in school, even though he had been given no choice.
My mother, Elsie White, was actually the one with the exciting wartime career. She joined the Navy and due to her aptitude with symbols and puzzles, was assigned to a a secret code breaking unit. It was in the sub-basement of a building on Church Street in New York. To even get to it, you had to go past Marine guards, down a long elevator ride to the sub-basement; through a steel door and past another set of Marines.
Once you got past security, you entered a long windowless room filled with rows of desks. There, men and women from all different backgrounds worked trying to break the numerous Japanese and German navel codes. Elise was the ranking officer, so she had the desk at the front and was in charge of the group.
In the back there was a tiny, shy woman who never spoke to anyone other than to say “good morning” and “good night.” The other people in the group thought of her like a little skittish mouse. One day Elise was sitting at the officer’s desk and the shy mouse woman came up and spoke to her in a voice so faint it was almost a whisper. “Excuse me mam. I think I just broke the Japanese code.”
It turned out that the little mouse-woman had broken a major Japanese Navel code As a result, the mouse-woman got a promotion and the entire unit received a commendation.
On the same day they got their commendation, my mother also got an official reprimand letter, for not wearing her .45 caliber automatic while on duty. Fully loaded, it weighed 10 pounds, and she kept it locked in the desk instead of wearing it. Her logic was that if the enemy got past the two sets of Marines, down the elevator and through the steel door, she was not going to be able to stop them. The Navy, of course, did not agree with this logic and the reprimand stayed in her file.
It was more that 25 years after the war before my mother was legally allowed to tell us any of these stories. That’s how secret her work had been. As children, my sisters and I still had a hard time believing her war stories. We saw a tiny 95 pound woman puttering around the house. We just could not picture her as the Officer of The Day, sitting at the front desk of the code breaking unit with a loaded .45 caliber strapped to her side.
- For another true World War II story please read The Man Who Didn’t Drive.
- Also see Meeting Eleanor Roosevelt