Elizabeth ("B.J.") Hughs Gersey: Duluth's First WAVE
The opportunities offered by the branches of military service to women during the war were not lost on Elizabeth (B.J.) Hughes Gersey, who became the first woman from Duluth to join the Navy W.A.V.E.S. (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1942. She shared her experiences in service with the Minnesota's Greatest Generation Share Your Story web project, excerpted below.
In mid-1942, having made the acquaintance of the Duluth, Minn., Navy Recruiter, I learned that women radio operators would be recruited in September 1942. To prepare myself ahead of that date, I enrolled in a men's Morse code training class and found that I really enjoyed learning code. I was Duluth's first WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and wrote a column while in the Navy for the Duluth Herald newspaper, which the Navy felt encouraged other women to enlist.
Enlisting in September 1942, our group of potential radio operators was sent directly to the Navy Radio Training School at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There was no basic training facility for this pioneer group of WAVES. We marched to classes in our civvies and high heels until tailors from Marshal Field's in Chicago came to Madison, measured each of us individually and sent our well-fitting uniforms to us in late October. We felt very special the first day we marched to code class in our new uniforms!
After three months of intensive training, 55 of us were assigned to active duty at Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida, (Later referred to as Jax). We left Madison as qualified radiomen in 28-degree-below-zero weather in our wool blue uniforms and found the 80-degree temperature in Jax to be almost overwhelming. Upon arriving there, we were housed in one of their two-story BOQ [Bachelor Officer Quarters] buildings with four women to a room and two sets of bunk beds. We had a pool behind our quarters and were happy when what had been men's gang showers were remodeled into individual shower stalls for us women. We were not allowed to walk to the base area where German POWs were housed behind tall metal fences so I never had the opportunity to see that aspect of WW II history.
Serving as an air traffic controller for four months, I witnessed many plane mishaps as young men were training to become Navy pilots. During those months, I was trained by Traffic Controller Stuart Shank, whom I replaced when he was shipped out to Italy. It was a special privilege for me to get to know the man my enlistment allowed me to replace, as that was a major point in recruiting Navy women.
One of the most memorable events in my Navy life was being contacted by the then Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, and being told that I was being granted a special 10-day leave to christen the Navy ship Passaconaway, which was a Navy net tender used in the waters around Japan toward the end of the war. It was a great experience to stand atop that high platform and swing the ribbon-wrapped bottle of champagne and loudly say, "I christen thee Passaconaway!" I will never forget that thrill.
One disturbing memory involved my duty in the tower. An Army transport plane was on the flight line, going to Miami. It was usual for the pilot to ask if anyone wanted to fly to Miami, and there were always some Navy personnel there in Operations Office waiting for a "free hop" on their day(s) off. There were seven Navy nurses waiting for a hop, but the pilot could accommodate only six. So, one of the nurses had to stay behind and was on the flight line, undoubtedly very unhappy that she couldn't accompany her friends. As I cleared the transport for take-off, the plane began to rise and was about to circle the tower when it suddenly burst into flames. The plane and all personnel plunged into the ground, killing all on board. The nurse watching the plane leave must still be having nightmares about how close she came to getting killed. As Watch Supervisor, I will never forget that, either.
As with most other servicewomen, I imagine, we had the opportunity to see and often meet celebrities. We were entertained by USO shows, including Bob Hope and his men and women movie stars. Because Radio Central was housed in the tower building, many of us saw famous people come and go as they landed and entered the Operations building.
Many sailors on active duty at Jax had been musicians in famous bands of the 1930s and 1940s, and we had Saturday night dances at the Mainside auditorium. Those musicians had come from bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnett, and Bob Crosby. We really missed those talented men as they began to ship out to war, one after another.
After V-J Day in August 1945, our women began to be discharged. I was discharged as a First Class Petty Officer (Radioman). We returned to civilian life and found it to be far less exciting than our Navy life. Many of us married and began to raise our families, which brought us all the excitement that we could handle!
How fortunate I am to have served in the Navy during WWII! I was able to release another radioman for overseas' duty, and my memories are filled with friendships of those service days. What more could I ask for?
Gersey, Elizabeth (B.J.) Hughes, Navy Biography of Elizabeth (B.J.) Hughes Gersey. Minnesota Historical Society: Share Your Story, 2006.