remembering margaret on memorial day

When we were preparing for my mother’s memorial service last month, we found several files full of newspaper clippings, photos and documents relating to her service in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

It was interesting to see the orders calling her to active duty, a roster of the first 59 women from Hawai’i to enlist, correspondence about awards and medals she had earned, and her certificate of Honorable Discharge. But what my brother and I probably cherished most was a short chronology she had written about her experiences.

Her simple words were an unexpected gift that made us appreciate anew her courage and resolve during uncertain times. She was living on O’ahu when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. She was willing to leave her family and friends to serve in the military at a time of rampant racism and sexism, not knowing where in the world she would be sent once she finished basic training.

In my mom’s handwriting on the back of this photo: “This is the picture we took at our company party. The lei are all paper lei we made.”

Margaret was buried with full military honors on a rainy Monday. It’s likely she was the last surviving member of the original 59. As we gathered for the ceremony, the incessant rain miraculously stopped. It was hard to believe that it was really my mother lying still in that flag draped casket, borne so solemnly by pallbearers in uniform.

Though it was sad when she died in the hospice home, it was even sadder when the guns went off and the bugler played “Taps.” It was at that moment I truly realized her life had had greater significance beyond the small world we’d shared with her on a tiny island in the Pacific. And when the General presented the folded flag to my Dad and said, “On behalf of the President of the United States and the American people . . . ” I was never so proud.

Today I’d like to share my mother’s words, which were read aloud as part of her eulogy. Her final resting place is on a green hillside at the foot of mist-covered mountains. On this day of remembrance, enjoy this bit of history.

*   *   *

Margaret (second from left) with friends and her younger sister Ella (far right).

CHRONOLOGY – WAC TRAVEL

I enlisted at age 20 (1944) and was part of the first group of WACs (Women’s Army Corps), 59 women from Hawai’i, to serve in WWII. (Prior to WWII, the WACs were known as an auxiliary unit (WAACS)).

I was a senior in high school when WWII began with the attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. Our military government took over our high school (Leilehua), for troop barracks and other military defense purposes. We were encouraged to help with the war effort due to the critical manpower shortage and furthering our education was discouraged. In fact, we were the first senior class deprived of our graduation, prom, and annual. (Fifty years later in 1992, we were invited to the Senior Class graduation to participate in their [commencement] exercises at Leilehua.)

When recruitment for the WACs was first offered in Hawai’i, I took this opportunity without hesitation. My parents, understandably, were adamantly opposed to it. At that time, ‘women in the military’ was unheard of and not considered to be a respectable thing to do. Our country was at war and the uncertainties it presented did not help the situation. Of course, after much pleading, my parents gave their consent (I needed their written consent as I was under age 21).

We, 59 of us, were temporarily housed at Fort Ruger in Honolulu for a short while prior to departing for California. (I was called to active duty on December 27, 1944).

For many of us, this was our first experience leaving the islands. Traveling was for the rich only and a luxury most of us could not afford. We were all excited when we boarded a luxury liner, converted to a military troop ship. We arrived in San Francisco, then traveled by rail through the Southern route of the U.S., via New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee. It was interesting to see the back alleys of these states and the vast countryside. I saw snow for the first time when we stopped in Amarillo, Texas.

For entertainment, many of the ladies danced the hula, sang and played the ukulele. While at Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, a group of the 442nd boys visited our post and entertained us.

While stationed in Georgia for basic training, we frequently visited the nearby city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the most shocking experiences was the segregation of blacks and whites. The city buses which we frequently used for transportation had bold signs directing blacks to the back area. Some of our Hawaiian WACs did not bother to observe these rules, and on several occasions, were scolded by the bus driver to sit in the front. Apparently, they were only looking at the color of the skin, either black or white. Many restrooms and restaurants were segregated too.

Margaret (standing) is second from left.

I think basic training was the most difficult phase of our military life. It was an intense, rigid schedule of training, consisting of marching, classroom instructions on military courtesy, discipline, rules and regulations. Generally, food was good and well prepared. I enjoyed the food and gained 20 lbs.

After basic training, we were separated from the group of 59. Some of us were given direct assignments to various parts of the country, but I was with a group of thirty who were assigned to attend administrative/clerical school at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa. During weekends we ventured out of the post and visited nearby towns. It was here that I saw my first opera, “Carmen.” It was spectacular!

At both basic training and clerical school, we were mixed with other ladies, mostly Caucasians. I don’t remember any black women, but there were American Indians and Puerto Ricans.

Margaret with her good friend Anna.

My life in the military was a memorable experience that I have never regretted. I was exposed to a new life and learned how to live with large groups of women of all different ethnicities and from all walks of life. We were housed in large open barracks with community type latrines. The spirit of camaraderie and the respect for each other was ever present. We hardly experienced any adverse incidents, fights or disagreements. Basically we had a nice core of women in the service.

My first assignment after completion of clerical school was at Camp Stoneman, California. Camp Stoneman was a large overseas troop staging post where military troops were assigned to and from the Pacific Area. I worked in Military Personnel processing troop movement special orders. When the war ended with Japan (September 1945), I remember participating in a victory march in San Francisco. We were all so happy!

After the war ended, it took awhile before being discharged from the military service. I returned to Hawai’i for a short while and worked at the Hickam Air Traffic Terminal. Then I was transferred to Travis AFB, CA, and was assigned to the newly opened air traffic terminal. I returned to Hawai’i in June 1946, and was discharged from the service on June 27, 1946.

 ~ Margaret Yang Kim

——————————————

Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

62 thoughts on “remembering margaret on memorial day

  1. I am so sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing this beautiful, moving post. I can tell your mother was an amazing woman. And I have feeling that her strength and honor and astute way of looking at the world live on in you.

    Like

    1. She was always organized and kept good files.:) She also did some great genealogical research so we’d have some knowledge of our family history.

      Like

  2. How fortunate, that your mother left behind for you another chapter of her story. In her words, I see her beauty and yours. I see her courageousness, passed on to you–and oh, that wide-eyed sense of wonderment!

    Honoring your mother today, and all those who’ve been called to service. And sending big hugs to you, Jama, as Memorial Day presents to you an ever deepening significance. XOXO

    Like

    1. Her words are indeed a precious, unexpected gift. She always considered her time in the WAC as the highlight of her life. Yes, Memorial Day has new significance, as does Mother’s Day . . .

      Like

  3. Thank you for sharing your mother’s story and her words today, Jama. I enjoyed reading her views on traveling for the first time, her experience observing segregation, and the positives and challenges of her service to her country.

    Like

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading about her experiences, Laura. When you grow up on a small island with a diverse population, segregation is even more shocking.

      I hadn’t considered before that there was also much resistance and negativity from males in the Army, who felt that allowing women to serve would somehow degrade their status. But as she said, there was a critical manpower shortage — they were desperate, so began to recruit more women, and in many cases, found that they were more flexible and cooperative.

      Like

  4. Jama, your mother lives on with her words. What a gift to have this from her, thanks for sharing it with us. This post really honors her.

    Like

    1. She does live on in these words. She was always so busy, I’m surprised she found the time, but of course we’re so glad she did.

      Like

  5. The service of the women in WW II needs to be remembered, and I’m glad you decided to share your mother’s words with us today. Thank you.

    Like

  6. There really are no words to describe how incredibly beautiful this is Jama. My mother left surprises for us too. They are mothers until their final breath…and beyond.

    Like

    1. I’m so happy to hear your mom left surprises for you and your siblings too, Margie. You’re so right — mothers will always be mothers well beyond their mortal lives.

      Like

  7. I am so sorry for the loss of your mother. It is never easy. Thank you for sharing her story with us. It was beautiful.

    Like

  8. Thank you for this moving story. That lack of hesitation to enlist, despite her parent’s (understandable!) resistance, took my breath away. Margaret was so courageous as well as beautiful in every aspect of the word. She left her history in good hands.

    Like

    1. She also mentioned elsewhere that she was among the youngest of the 59. I’m inspired that she felt strongly enough about enlisting to persist despite her parents’ wishes.

      Like

  9. Jama, what a wonderful post. Your mother was a pioneer and an adventurous woman in a time when a lot of women were not that brave. I have read a number of WAC memoirs and am glad to add this bit to my information on what it was like. Thanks for a wonderful and enlightening post.

    Like

    1. It was an interesting time for sure — these days we see women joining the Army all the time and it doesn’t seem odd at all. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Like

  10. What a treasure to have your mother’s words about her WWII experience, and to see that time through her eyes! So many veterans of the “greatest generation” did not want to share their memories (or maybe that was a male thing? I wish I had pushed my dad to record memories of his time in the service, but he never spoke of it on his own.)
    Thanks for sharing your mother with all of us on Memorial Day.

    Like

    1. Yes, the greatest generation tended to be silent. I think it natural not to want to relive the painful parts especially by talking about them. Hats off to your Dad for his service!

      Like

  11. Your pride comes through in every word. What a wonderful tribute to read on this Memorial Day. Thanks for your bravery.

    Like

  12. How wonderful that you found this, Jama, and all the clippings. What an adventure these young women took on! I’m sorry for the sadness, but know that you are proud of your mother, and will remember so many good things about her. My mother never left her home until she had to join my father, first in California, then New Mexico, etc. She wasn’t in the service, but did so many brave things that she just had to do. Your mother seems so brave. I can’t imagine doing that, just jumping in to serve. Special treasures you shared today! Thank you!

    Like

    1. I do think the previous generation were very brave in ways we can’t fathom today. War, the Great Depression, so many things. Many, like our mothers, were practical, no-nonsense types who just, as you say, did what needed to be done, period.

      Like

  13. I had no idea your mom had been a WAC, and that she had received a military burial. My belated thanks to her for her service, and thanks to YOU for sharing her story. A perfect tribute for today.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Sheila. Every so often, she did like to remind us not to take for granted the freedoms and privileges we were enjoying thanks to the sacrifices others had made.:)

      Like

  14. Thanks for sharing your Mother’s life in the forces, Jama. It must have seemed so incredibly exciting at the time. All that travel.

    Like

    1. Yes, it was very exciting for them. She often said that if she hadn’t joined the WAC, she probably would never have seen those parts of the country. Good and bad, an eye-opener in many ways.

      Like

  15. Thank you, Jama. What a wonderful memory to have of your mom’s life and a great tribute to her. I remember my mom talking about how much she wanted to be in the WAC but she wasn’t 18 until the war was over. She did get her pilot’s license at 15 and become a drill sergeant in the Civil Air Patrol, all in hopes of ferrying planes across the Atlantic to “our boys.” She did work in a factory that made parts of airplanes, at least, as a teenager so she felt like she was doing something. Thanks for this!

    Like

    1. That’s so interesting, Kathy — had no idea your Mom was a pilot. That’s so cool. Inspiring to hear about young people doing something to help the war effort.:)

      Like

  16. Jama, I read your mother’s words eagerly as a learner trying to determine what it was really like for your young woman to enlist during war time. It is opportune that I found your blog on Memorial Day because I have been thinking a great deal about WW II time period and our fallen heroes and even wrote a tribute post & poem to honor the soldiers who fought so bravely for our country (http://beyondliteracylink.blogspot.com/2014/05/connecting-with-all-americans-through_24.html). May your mother’s words and memories live in your heart forever. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

    1. Enjoyed reading your post and learning more about the origins of Memorial Day. It was originally meant to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but seems now to have been extended to also honoring all those who have served. I know that when I was growing up in Hawai’i, Memorial Day was also about remembering our lost loved ones whether they had military connections or not. We often visited our grandparents’ grave sites.

      Like

  17. I’m impressed that your mom was able to talk her parents into letting her go. That seems like a pretty hard sell! Loved the photos and teared up when I read about her service…
    My grandfather served in WWII in the Air Force and I think he and your mom had some similar feelings, even though their backgrounds were very different (he was an orphan from a rural area).

    Like

    1. Yes, I imagine most everyone felt they wanted to help the war effort in some way no matter where they lived or what their backgrounds were.

      Now I wish I could ask my mother what she finally said to convince her parents.

      Like

  18. Snazzy curls and jazzy lipstick. Style and class – and a determination and backbone that belied all of that beauty. What a heritage you have, Jama-j. Your Mama was a real, true Lady.

    Thank you so much for sharing your family with us. And, I am so grateful for her service – even the lesser service of showing those who doubted that Hawai’i is part of America and, lest we forget, that a Korean American girl is still an American girl.

    Like

    1. YES! Thanks for that observation. The original 59 were a diverse group — many Japanese women too. I wonder what their stories were like!

      Like

  19. Thank you, Jama. I loved reading our mother’s account of her service – what a time she lived through! I cannot even begin to imagine the courage it must have taken to sign up and do one’s duty in a time of such suspicion and prejudice. Remarkable.

    Like

    1. She lived the rest of her life with that sense of “duty” and discipline — a tireless worker whom others in her family often counted on.

      Like

  20. Thank you for sharing, Jama. This was such a lovely post and tribute to your mom and for those who served for their country. Any time we can reflect back on our mother’s life and influences is golden.

    Like

  21. I probably can’t say anything that others haven’t already said, but thank you for sharing this – it was a lovely dedication to your mom, and how interesting and wonderful for us to get to read her actual words.

    Like

  22. I loved this memorial to your mother. How nice that you have her words and the photos. When I finished reading her words, I wanted to hear more. She drew me into her story. Thanks for sharing this, Jama.

    Like

Comments are closed.