Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 92-93
National Council for the Social Studies

"What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?" An Oral History ofRhode Island WomenDuring World War II

Linda P. Wood
Oral history is a unique way to learn about past events and experiences. It is a method that probes memory, evoking feelings that may have long been dormant.
"What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?" was an oral history project which was part of an Honors English class of seventeen ninth grade students. The students interviewed 36 women about their experiences during the Second World War. The teacher and the school librarian, who is also an oral historian, wrote the grant proposal and organized the curriculum as a one semester project. It was funded by the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities. Two history professors from the University of Rhode Island helped focus the project on historically significant aspects of the women's stories. After the tape-recorded interviews were transcribed, the students wrote the women's stories from the transcriptions and presented 26 of them in the publication "What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?"

After the publication was released, two public forums were held in which both the students and the interviewees or "narrators" participated. Historians served as moderators and helped set the framework for the discussions to serve as a kind of social commentary on the remembered events. The project was commended by the American Association for State and Local History at their annual conference in 1990.

Students who listen to the voices of the narrators respond emotionally as well as intellectually. Oral history provides a duet of telling and retelling which captures the importance of history through an individual's life. The process of preparing an oral history often creates a special relationship between narrator and interviewer. The interaction can be especially dramatic when the narrator is an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, and the interviewer is a teenage girl whose assignment is to find out about women's experience in a war that began before most teenagers' parents were born.

"What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?" revealed through oral history an aspect of World War II usually ignored in social studies texts. Thirty-six women shared a part of their lives with seventeen young people. The women talked about a time of crisis and hardship that had set a direction for the rest of their lives-experiences that no one had ever before asked them about in a way that made them realize how significantly those years had affected them.

One of the women was a freshman in college when the war began. She recalled, "I think for girls and women, and perhaps boys and men, of my generation the war forced them to grow up prematurely. It made them far more serious about the bare realities of life: life, death, values. It robbed them, in a sense, of some childhood."

Several weeks after the interview, she told the teacher about another experience, one she said was too sad to tell the young interviewer: a young man she had been dating had been killed in the war. Tears came to her eyes as she said she would always see him just the way he was when she had said goodbye, clear blue eyes, young, handsome, and wearing his navy blue sweater. The woman had received a letter from her mother, and a newspaper clipping fell out: her friend's plane had been shot down several weeks before.

Thousands of young men joined the armed forces, leaving great gaps in industry, in the professions, and at home. There was tremendous demand for labor to build up the war machines necessary to fight. Women answered the call to work. For the first time, women worked in heavy manufacturing jobs, in shipyards, and in airplane hangars. Was it only patriotism and propaganda that made women find war jobs? Or was it money, independence, companionship, and pride in learning new skills that motivated them?

There were also gaps at home. Husbands, sons, boyfriends, fathers left home for places far away and dangerous. A grandmother interviewed by her granddaughter told of her personal hardship, "After my husband went into the Seabees, I went to work in a woolen mill. This was considered a service job. In other words, it was important. At the mill the government used to send out all the Purple Heart soldiers to talk to us and tell us that we couldn't take time off, and pushed all this patriotism on us. I had a young baby, and I had to leave him in a nursery. I used to have to take my son on the trolley car, bring him over to the Salvation Army day nursery and leave him there, and go back down the street and get on another trolley and get to work, and the same thing at night. If he was sick I either had to stay home with him or take him up to my sisters or maybe his grandmother. One time he had scarlet fever and the doctor put him in the hospital because I was all by myself and my husband was in the service. It would have been too much to be at home with him. This way I could come and go to work."

Many women had to struggle at home alone. One of the narrators had been a young mother with six small boys and a husband serving his country in the Pacific. "My father was an avid fisherman," she said, "and we ate a lot of fish because meat was rationed. To this day, some of the kids don't like fish. We had difficulty keeping the children in clothes. There was no hand-me-downs. They just wore them out." With no father around, one of her biggest concerns was discipline: "Just keeping track of them, making sure where they were. I took care of that pretty well, but there were times when it should have been a man's job to do these things I had to do. These boys were something else. But it was just that they needed a firm hand to bring them back into line. But I never wrote to him and told him all of these things that went on. I figured he had job enough."

Many women, perhaps out of a sense of duty, perhaps out of a yearning for adventure, joined the armed forces. One woman from a prominent Rhode Island family who had been active in the Junior League joined the WACS. Her brother had signed up and so did she: "I didn't have the gall to stay out. I wasn't married, and practically every single person I knew who was able to walk went in to try to help the country. I felt it was my job to help, too."

She became Commanding Officer of a huge military hospital. "It was a receiving and evaluation hospital for our wounded coming in from Europe," she said. "We were there during the Battle of the Bulge. We would sometimes get a thousand amputation cases on one ship. Most of the kids were 18, 19, 20 years old. It's not easy to see all those thousands of kids so injured. Then we might get a whole shipload of neuro-psychiatric cases."

After the war, what did such a woman do with the rest of her life? "My plans for the future were just to survive. I got married, and we had a baby. We just did what was in front of us. I can tell you, though, women had become much more independent because we had the experience of standing on our own two feet. We had to do it. I suppose that it was a surprise for some of the men."

A young Jewish woman at Brown University joined the WACS for a different reason: "I was the kind of person-I still am-that liked to be involved in things. As more and more news came out of Germany, you just felt you wanted to do something. Hitler's plans were to wipe out the Jews all over the world. It wasn't just wiping out the Jews, it was to take over the world. I think we were all very much worried about what was going to happen to us, and to our way of life."

A young woman in nursing school struggled to complete her training when most of the hospital staff left as a unit for the war front: "I was still 18, and I was head nurse on the night ward." She describes the changes that war brought to the hospitals. The length of time a patient stayed was cut by half. To save the nurses' time, mothers were encouraged to nurse their babies instead of give them prepared formula. Penicillin became available. Rare skin diseases began showing up, especially among the young men and women serving in the Pacific.

Convinced by the government to join the WACS after she graduated, the young nurse shipped out to the Philippines: "Our unit was actually going to set up as a front line group that was going into Japan." Instead, she disembarked in the Philippines and took over as head nurse in a psychiatric hospital for several months at the close of the war: "I had ten corpsmen. I was the only nurse. I kind of felt it was worthwhile because if we really could help these people then they might not be sick for the rest of their lives. It was sort of like treating what they called 'shell shock' in World War I, when people had been out [fighting], they got a sort of battle fatigue and they went a little off."

This woman retold her experiences in a kind of reverie, with her eyes closed most of the time. She had scrapbooks filled with clippings and photographs. She concluded, "When we came back to San Francisco there was a rainbow that encircled the bridge. The lights were coming on in the hills. I didn't expect anybody, but there were a lot of people when the ship came in, all cheering and everything. I feel that I was lucky to be involved at that time, and I was glad to participate."

Discrimination and segregation were a fact of life in the United States before and during the war. An African-American woman who graduated top of her class in business was only able to find a job operating an elevator at a department store. "When the war came," she recalls, "women went to work for the first time in factories and driving trucks. I started working in a war plant where they made precision instruments. I did so well that I could take tension in my fingers to know just how a gauge would run."

When her husband came home after the war, somebody else had taken his job. "They would give him a job, but it would have been a menial job. So he had to start all over again. That was very difficult. We had a terrible time buying a house because we were black." The banks said he couldn't get a mortgage even though he had just returned from overseas. "You weren't shown houses in the sections you wanted to buy in," she said. "They would take you over to a place that had all rundown houses."

"Another thing that the war did for us," she said, "it opened up our eyes. . . . [The war] had brought us together. When peace came, people began to separate and then you began to see racial conflicts. Should not have been. Should've been we were with you during the war when things were bad . . . now there's peace, we need to be together too. That's what we need to learn. To live together in the good times as well as the bad times."

The stories these women told represented stories that could have been told in any community, in any state, by women who had lived through a terrible time, an exciting time, a time that marked their lives forever. Oral history not only brings to life, but keeps alive, personal history. The students learned through the women's first-hand experiences what it was like to have lived at a particular time and place. The students drew from these experiences lessons of war, peace, love, hate, courage, fear, grief, and hope.

Throughout the oral history project, the students often spoke about "penetrating beneath the surface" in their interviews. They wrote about how the women revealed a side of themselves the interviewer would never have guessed was there. "There are two sides to her," wrote one student. "There is the upbeat, enthusiastic side, and the more serious side. [At times] she appeared possessed by a greater force, almost enchanted."

Another spoke of the two personalities revealed in the interview. The students were reflecting the paradox of seeing an elderly woman while listening to her story about a time when she was a young woman. The stories were so vivid that the students would actually "see" the women in uniform, or at home caring for their children, or doing hard labor in a war industry.

A student wrote, "I sigh and look at my watch. I've been interviewing her for over an hour now, and she has just finished her last sentence. Touched, I comment, thank her, and switch off the tape recorder. Sinking into a chair, I drift into thought, digesting what this woman has just shared with me about her experiences."

Linda P. Wood graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. and M.A. in English literature, and from the University of Rhode Island with a Masters in library and information science. For seventeen years, she has been a school library media specialist at South Kingstown High School, where she has codirected several oral history projects. She served as president of the New England Association for Oral History in 1986-87.
"What Did You Do in the War, Grandma?" is available for $4.00 plus postage from the Rhode Island Historical Society, 110 Benevolent St., Providence, RI 02906.