World War II and the WACs: Bernadine Bailey’s Youngest WAC Series

The War and the WAC: Bernadine Bailey’s Youngest WAC Series

David K. Vaughan 

The three volumes in Bernadine Bailey’s Youngest WAC series describe the adventures of Teresa Nan Thompson, or “TNT” for short, as she moves through her career in the Women’s Army Corps, starting with her enlistment in 1943 and the completion of her military service in 1945.  The series begins in a strongly patriotic vein, promoting the virtues of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), includes a bit of mystery and romance, and ends, finally, with a thought-provoking examination of the pressures on those returning from the war, the women as well as the men.

The author of the series, Bernadine Bailey, was born and raised in Mattoon, Illinois.  She graduated from Wellesley and earned her Master of Arts degree at the University of Chicago.  She wrote almost exclusively for young people and was credited with over thirty titles.  The central character of the Youngest WAC series was based on a girl Bailey had “known since childhood,” who had undergone training with the WAC at Des Moines Iowa, and who was, at the time she underwent that training, the youngest WAC in training.  Bailey made several trips to Des Moines to learn about the WAC training program and to see how the young women responded to the pressures of the training.

The WAC program initially began as the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, with Oveta Culp Hobby directing, early in 1942.  The WAAC was not then considered comparable to the regular army, hence the name “auxiliary.”  But as the United States began to be more and more involved in the war effort, and as the other services began to include women in their activities, Congress was eventually persuaded to give the WAAC equal standing with the regular army on 1 September 1943, when the name was changed to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).  When the WACs began training in 1942, it was the first time in the history of the United States that women were subjected to the rigors of an intense, physically and mentally demanding military training program, and many were interested to discover how women would fare in the program and what impact the program would have on them as individuals.  As history showed, the women fared well and were generally pleased to have had the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.  The Youngest WAC series emphasizes the good qualities of the WAC program.  It is clearly propagandistic in nature in that the books unapologetically promote the virtues of the WAC.  But the challenges and the stresses of life in the WAC during the war are not glossed over.

The first volume in the series, The Youngest WAC, describes the training experiences of Teresa Thompson as she moves through the training program at the Des Moines training center, where the WAC training was conducted.  Terry Thompson is from the heartland of America, Indianapolis, Indiana.  When she arrives at Des Moines, she makes friends with a variety of girls from across America: Jean Williams from Minneapolis, Susan Jeffery from Chicago, Hortense Williams from Boston, and Brenda Jarrett from New Orleans.  Terry’s brother, Larry is also in the Army, and eventually becomes involved in the fighting in the Pacific.  Terry’s high school sweetheart, Linder “Lin” Mason, who had been a star halfback at Indiana University, had also joined the war effort.  Terry and the rest of the girls arrive at Fort Des Moines in September of 1943, living in an area called “Boomtown,” where the recently constructed barracks for women were located.  Fort Des Moines had originally been an army cavalry post, featuring open grassy areas and a well-manicured golf course (Early 17).

The girls are quickly exposed to the fundamental aspects of military training–physical fitness, marching, military customs and courtesies, inspections, the use of gas masks, and cooking.  The girls are eager to discover the special tasks they may be assigned; these include, in addition to standard kinds of administrative tasks like typists and clerks, positions in the public relations or communications areas as well as motion picture operator and motor pool worker.  Bailey indicates the less than satisfactory situation associated with the original status of the WAACs when one of the instructors informs the girls that the WAACs do not share the same franking privilege (eliminating the need to put stamps on envelopes) as the men in uniform, because the WAACs are “not a part of the regular army” (57).  When the WAACs became the WACs in September 1943, the acronym describing the organization was changed to WAC before the second volume was published (thus explaining the difference in acronym spelling between the first and the later titles).

Terry is especially excited at the prospect of working in the motor pool, because, as she says to one of her friends, “dirt holds no terrors for me” (157-8).  Terry says that she wants to be a motor transport driver.  She begins to show promise as a truck driver and is assigned to drive a truck to the Des Moines train station, to pick up a load of new girl recruits and deliver them to the WAC base.  Driving back at night she is able to repair the truck when it refuses to start; she opens the hood and discovers that a wire has come loose from the distributor.  After Terry has passed the first few weeks in training she is allowed to go off post to a reception held in downtown Des Moines, where she encounters a lady who seems to be asking too many questions touching on security issues, and Terry attempts to gain more information about this lady, who is eventually discovered to be a spy.

In the first volume Bailey mentions the names of two women authors, Dorothy Parker and Faith Baldwin.  Parker is noted for her acerbic wit while Baldwin is noted for her romance novels.  The mention of these two very different women writers offers a bit of insight into Bailey’s own style in the series, which combines both romantic and realistic elements.

The first volume ends as the girls prepare to depart to their new assignments.  Although only two months have passed, the girls in the story display personal growth and increased confidence in their abilities to accept more challenging tasks.  Terry has learned to use less makeup and has grown increasingly comfortable wearing army clothing.  The transition from civilian to military dress is one of the most consistent topics of discussion in the first volume.  When one WAAC comments that “The man who marries a WAAC will get something pretty special,” another responds, “Yes, this training will give us one up on all competition in the field of matrimony,” and continues, “I think the girls are even better-looking after they’ve been here a few weeks. . . .  Pretty soon you’ll notice how they all stand straighter and walk more gracefully and have better complexions than when they came” (89).  These characteristics they term “Glamour, Government Issue.”

Much of the activity of the first volume is taken up with social activities including planning for and attending parties and talking about desirable male partners.  Terry and her friends dance with some sergeants but speculate about two handsome lieutenants whom they see on the post golf course.  To a modern reader this concern for social success may seem disturbing: at this point the girls seem to think that their military experience will be valuable not because it will give them a goal or purpose in life, but because it will turn them into better potential spouses than they would have been as civilians.  This tension between social acceptance and career focus continues throughout the series and is resolved only in the last volume, where it occurs rather abruptly.  Whether it is done intentionally or not, the focus on acceptable social roles often seems to be the main concern of the women characters.

The second volume in the series is titled The Youngest WAC Goes Overseas.  Terry Thompson doesn’t actually make it overseas until about two-thirds of the way through the book.  As the story begins, Terry has been assigned to the motor pool section at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.  Her first assignment is to discover ways that the motor pool fleet can use less gasoline while still covering their assigned routes.  Terry methodically attacks the problem by calculating shorter routes and by figuring out how to economize on routes.  In addition to working on motor pool efficiency she is asked to participate in a recruiting campaign in the Chicago area.  While working in the Chicago area she meets a young naval officer, Ronnie Stuart, who is clearly taken with Terry’s good looks, and he gives her his fraternity pin.  However, Terry proves so adept at promoting the value of the WACs that she is temporarily assigned to the recruiting office in Philadelphia, thus escaping from the Midwestern environment of her youth.

In Philadelphia she is drawn to the historical landmarks around the city and prevails on city officials to be allowed to use Independence Hall as a site for a swearing in ceremony for a large group of girls who will be joining the WAC.  She helps to arrange interviews with actresses Elisabeth Bergner and Ilka Chase.  She is integrally involved in planning a parade through the streets of Philadelphia and in a campaign to employ Philadelphia businesses as sponsors of WAC mothers.  Just as she is about to conclude a number of recruiting activities, she is assigned to London as a motor pool driver.

When she sails across the Atlantic with a large number of servicemen and women, she discovers that she is not a natural sailor, as seasickness causes her discomfort.  By the time the ship reaches Iceland, however, she recovers and is able to enjoy the novelty of this country situated in the north Atlantic.  By the time she reaches England she is fully acclimated to sea travel and is ready to begin her duties.  She soon discovers what it is like to be in London during the blackouts.  In London she is assigned as officer in charge of the motor pool, frequently travelling with her drivers when they are assigned to provide transportation for important individuals.  One such individual is an English intelligence officer, Cecil Drake of the English Eighth Army, who is involved in a variety of classified operations, about which Terry learns little except that they are dangerous.  She and Cecil eventually fall in love, and he brings Terry to his family estate to meet his family, an indication that Cecil is serious in his intentions.  The volume ends as Cecil declares his love for Terry and they plan to be married.

The third volume of the series, The Youngest WAC Comes Home, begins in mysterious fashion, as Terry is on board a ship returning from England to America.  Initially it is not clear why she is doing so when the previous volume closed as she was active in her job as a motor pool officer and about to be married.  Gradually, however, we learn that Terry had been transferred to Paris after the Allies had liberated the city.  On a courier trip back to London, she suffers two tragic setbacks: one is that she learns that her fiance, Cecil Drake, has been killed in action, and the second is that she is wounded by a flying bomb explosion in the city shortly after she learns of the death of her fiance.  After a brief recovery period, she is returned to America even as the war continues.  When she arrives in America, she expects to be released from the WACs as a result of her injuries.  On board the ship to America she befriends an American officer to whom she tells her story and who tells her that there undoubtedly will be useful work she can do in America.

When she returns to Indianapolis, she finds readjustment to life in American as a civilian difficult.  She discovers that she has grown proud of her association with the WAC and believes that she was doing valuable service while she wore the uniform.  She is initially unable to find personal fulfillment as a civilian.  She moves to Chicago and works in a department store where her creativity and success as a saleslady bring on a jealous reaction from her coworkers and supervisor.  Terry also struggles to deal with her feelings about two of her previous boy friends, Linder Mason, her high school sweetheart, and Lieutenant Ronnie Stuart, the young naval officer she had met in Chicago.  She discovers that the war has changed all the men she has known as much as, if not more than, it has changed her, and she senses a profound sense of displacement in all of them.  As the volume draws towards its conclusion, she appears to be trapped between two decisions, neither of which is appealing: to become a promoter for a certain line of cosmetics sold in the store where she has been working, or to marry her high school sweetheart, Linder Mason, who returned from the war blinded.  In a surprising decision, Terry decides that she will not marry her high school sweetheart, and she further decides to leave her employment in a department store.  Instead, she decides to become a social worker.

This ending, while not a complete surprise, given the interests and activities in which Terry has been involved, is at once unlikely and yet entirely appropriate.  Throughout the series, and especially in the third volume, the main character is exposed to constant conflicts between personal fulfillment and social expectation.  Her future as a civilian is defined in traditional ways:  work in traditional kinds of jobs (as a department store saleslady), and don’t be too good at it; and marry some deserving young man and become the faithful wife.  But her military training and her experiences in the war have changed her perspective.  She is unwilling to go back to what she would have been if the war and the WAC experiences hadn’t intervened.  Her experience as a WAC has complicated her life in ways that she cannot yet fully understand and have changed her outlook on life permanently.

The books in the Youngest WAC series reflect the tensions that young women must have felt between the traditional roles of women and their search for personal professional development.  In the first two volumes, Bailey seems to be writing in support of traditional values and roles.  But in the final volume she champions personal fulfillment in pursuit of professional goals.  Thus a series that began as a straightforward promotional effort on behalf of the WAC becomes, within three short volumes, a complex study of the ways in which the military experience of WWII  changed the lives and outlooks of a number of women, women who used to be girls before they joined the WAC.  Even though Bernadine Bailey didn’t experience those changes herself, through direct involvement with the WAC, the young woman who was her model must have provided more insight into human experiences affected by the war than Bailey initially expected to find.

 

Bibliography

The Youngest WAC (WAAC).  Julian Messner, 1943.

The Youngest WAC Overseas.  Julian Messner, 1944.

The Youngest WAC Comes Home.  Julian Messner, 1946.

Earley, Charity Adams.  One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC.  Texas A&M Press, 1989.