Josephine Downey: "Paradise!"
Servicemen and women from Minnesota who suddenly found themselves on islands in the Pacific had to adjust not only to a different culture and cruder living conditions, but to the tropical climate. Josephine Downey, a cryptographer with the Women's Army Corps, recorded her first impressions upon her arrival in 1944 at an undisclosed destination in the Pacific Theater of Operations in letters sent home to her family in St. Paul.
c/o PM San Francisco
Paradise! Literature always glamorized the Islands of the South Pacific. Imagine: palm trees with coconuts, the brilliant blue waves dashing onto a beach only a stone's throw from the barracks; brand new barracks with showers and wash tubs, electric lights, ironing facilities, mosquitoes practically eliminated – that, dear parents, is the rugged life I fell heir to. When I think how you probably have fussed and worried about how little Jo was going to survive the hardships and miseries of the tropics, I feel embarrassed to be living in such luxury. It reminds me of a glorified summer camp – a la Lake Geneva. Oh, of course, we'll still have reveille ("they say" with a band) bed check, and we eat out of our mess kits, but after all it still is the army. First meal was good, tho no doubt certain items of diet may be scarce or non-existent.
We came ashore in duck boats – amazing contraptions that putt-putt over the water, reach the beach and roll right down the road. We waved and squealed at the G.I.'s who were all lined up to see us come ashore. There have been some WACs before but there never are as many WACs as men so they seem to be glad to see us.
We have no idea where next; this is just the first stop I imagine. For so long (since April 21) I have never known my overseas fate, and it's a great relief to finally know even if I'm somewhat amazed. In a way I'm sorry it's not France, but then I've been to France and I've never been here. On the boat we heard such lurid rumors about what to expect on arrival that I sigh with great relief to realize that it was all exaggerated. After all, as I started to say a page ago, literature has always made the South Seas enchanting, exotic, maybe lackadaisical, so why should I have thought only of the diseases and head hunters, etc. We are definitely in friendly territory – no raids here for ever so long, so I can't imagine what there is to worry about.
First person I saw on arriving was Lt. Courson, my C.O. from basic. At Oglethorpe I always intended to look her up, but we never were free long enough to go to other end of camp. So I hadn't heard she had left. She remembered me – even my name – said we had a good deal, one of the best set-ups for WACs in whole Pacific area.
I feel either like a queen of the past who slept under a canopy or a bird in a cage. I'm writing this sitting on my army cot under a mosquito netting. For the moment it is rather intriguing, a sense of being alone for once, but we'll be mighty sick of the nets some day.
So good nite all of you. Be sure I'm contented and thrilled to be here. All my pals love it; it's only the gripers who don't like anything who are unhappy tonight.
All my love,
P.S. Mail here for me on arrival, which got there first, V-mail or air mail?
Josephine continued to share observations of her surroundings and life in camp in the South Pacific in her letters home. As the war neared its end, she could be more free with information about her location. Following is a letter written from New Guinea.
APO 503; WAC Cos. Det.
c/o P.M., San Francisco
Sept. 16, 1944
Dear Faraway Family,
How I pity you all back home. No ocean waves in front yard, no free laundry service (wet walk, but even so!), no beautiful tropical sun sets with silhouettes of palms again the brilliant sky; no atabrine to give you that lovely golden glow; no worry about what to do next because someone always tells you in a very specific language; no fresh eggs for breakfast unless you prepare them yourselves; and, of course, no little Joey to keep things hopping on the home front. Yes, I think you'd like it here. Mother might miss a few of the "modern conveniences," but we do have running water and even shower baths (now and then when water supply isn't low). If I ever "crack" over here it will be from the dust and sand that we are continually chewing and breathing, but I thrive on dirt better than most people, so even that can't dampen my enthusiasm.
At last I have a job and I love it. Can't tell you about it except that it's the thing I wanted so badly and I like it as well as I had imagined I would. Until barracks are built near our office I commute via truck. That's where the dust comes in. Jessie works up here so we are feeling bad about our eventual separation. In fact the gang is about split in two.
Miracle: I'm not asking for anything in this letter. Our needs are few, but certain items asked for will make it easier to get along in comfort and to keep myself occupied. One trouble here is that there's no escape from the army. Anywhere else we could take off to town and "get away from it all." Here there may be native villages, but we WACs are super sufficiently guarded within a barbed wire area. We commuters do get out but not on our own.
One day worked on a mess detail, rode out for rations (stop me if I told this before). At the bakery met a boy from Minnesota who comes from around Deer River. He used to stay at Roberta's house (Barb Young's niece). Met another fellow from Owatonna who has a summer place in Cass County. We Minnesotaites usually discuss the lake country with nostalgic feeling.
Time for daily swim. How I do enjoy it. Pretty hot when not near ocean breeze. We really "sweat it out."
A Pacific Ocean's worth of love to you all.
Downey, Josephine, Josephine Downey Papers, 1929-1947. Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection.