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.
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.
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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.
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.
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
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