Excerpted from "A WAC's War: Reminiscences," by Betty M. Olson, Minnesota Historical Society Manuscripts Collection.
There has been another "famine" of mail and again it's been over a week since I've had any mail. Only one letter at all – this time from Penny who I gather is now in Manila. How that girl moves around.
We're on edge waiting for the end of it over here. our big map has practically no more front lines on it. Little did I dream how wonderful it would look without all those lines bulging forward – last December backward. It just doesn't seem possible it's so nearly over – I guess I'd had a feeling it would go on and on for years. Of course, it will not mean we'll be home soon, but at least that feeling of uncertainty will be gone.
I'm enclosing some pictures – they are horrible of me – I'm really not nearly that fat, but they were taken to show our new dresses. also, the sun was in my face.
The weather continues awful. It's now warmer but raining. It will be marvelous to have it both sunny and warm.
Last night we saw "Pride and Prejudice" at a civilian movie – the program is enclosed. This is the first theater I've been in that has programs for movies.
I suppose the surrender in Italy eases a lot of minds back home – Mabel and Molly and more folks whose boys have been there. Maybe they'll even get home fairly soon.
8 May 1945
"This is it" – the phrase I've heard over and over again. This time this is Victory in Europe day. No one is exactly wild, everyone has bought French papers for souvenirs, and tho' all the papers have the news, it still is not to be officially announced till this afternoon. But, still, it's over, regardless.
Nobody seems to be planning on getting drunk as they've been threatening to do on V-E Day. Everyone goes around saying they don't feel a bit different.
The Air Corps is really going to town and C-47 cargo planes, fighters, and even fortresses and other bombers are flying back and forth and buzzing the city. We're all dashing out on the balcony – it's a warm, warm day and the French windows are wide open. Everyone confesses to feeling a bit unable to concentrate.
I, actually, knew yesterday morning about it 'cause we'd seen the radio message from SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force – General Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters], but it was confidential so we'd just go around grinning like cats that swallowed canaries, and did a few hippity-hops in the privacy of the office.
Frank had come in Sunday evening so I got yesterday afternoon off, and I noticed at noon that some of the French papers had "fini de la querre," so I thought they'd jumped the gun again. Frank and I went up to the Montmarte and up to the Sacred Heart church. It was really hot out and it's quite a climb to the top, but the view from there is worth it. Then we went to Napoleon's Tomb and walked around town, I with my hat off. A jeep of MPs pulled up and called to us. I thought, "oh, oh. And me with no pass to be with an officer." But all they said to Frank was, "Tell the Sergeant to put her hat on." And then as they drove away, "One bit of news – SHAEF just announced the war is over."
Well, even after that we couldn't find anyone who'd heard. More and more French papers had headlines about it, but when I came back to eat, no one seemed to have heard. As I was going back into our hotel, the manageress was standing at the door so I called to her – "Have you heard anything?" Of course, all the while I knew it was true, but I couldn't say that, could only say what the MPs had told us. As I asked her that, an officer going by turned around, so I said, "Have you heard anything, Sir." He said, "don't call me that today!" I figured that meant something. The lady in our hotel was so excited. She said when war broke out her hotel was full of Americans – they left quickly. Now that it is over, it is full of Americans again.
Frank and I wandered through half of Paris even as far as the Montmarte. I'd never been there at night before and I'd heard so much about it. It was interesting but not as gay as I'd heard.
When we got off the metro by the Arc, then we knew it was for sure. People were milling around the Étoilé, up and down the Champs Élysées, and they were shooting off fireworks while planes dropped flares. I was really excited then and said I wasn't going to be in at any 12 o'clock. But when I asked the CQ if we couldn't stay out, she said no – bedcheck as per usual. But there were about 6 of us kind of stubborn that she had to wait about ten minutes for. There was celebration up and down our street and up on the corner by the Arc people were singing and fireworks were still going on.
As a matter of fact, they kept on all night. At three A.M. when Dorothy went on guard duty she said it was still noisy and about 5 [A.M.] I woke to hear a few "yippees" up and down the street. But on the whole, it wasn't as bad as we'd expected. But maybe that will be different tonight, but I guess, if so, I'll stay in. Frank is off for a leave on the Riviera – Cannes, no less.
Last night in a café in the Montmarte three combat GIs sat next to us. They looked at my uniform, off-duty dress, and wondered if I were an American and what service, etc. Finally, when one said, "Do you think she's an American," Frank said, "Dog-gone it, yes, she is an American." So then we started to talk. They'd just come back from around the Elbe River and they'd never seen WACs in our dresses before, and they were so sweet. They gave me the German mark and the Dutch coin I've enclosed.
I got the box of clothes the other day – in exactly a month. We love the caramel corn – I'm saving the peanuts – haven't opened them. Golly, yesterday some packages came in that were all burned and had been wet – what messes. I'm glad that didn't happen to mine. I don't know if this letter makes sense or not what with parades of people going up the street we dash out to see, or a plane skinning the roof, or the pile of stuff on the desk in front of me. I'd better close and write later.
The indefatigable French – three nights and two days of celebrating and I think they are still going strong. I'm exhausted from just standing on the balcony watching or one walk down the Champs Élysées.
It seems it's strictly a French celebration with the exception, perhaps, of the air Corps – I'm sure every plane in the 9th Air Force must by this time have buzzed the Champs Élysées. Honestly, yesterday it was terrific – not only the little fighters but the bombers came down so close we could almost see the crew. We could see them coming up from behind the Arc, hope over it and buzz down the Champs. We all were afraid that one would crash, but as someone said, those boys by this time surely know how to handle their planes.
Tuesday all day long the streets were simply packed – it took half an hour to go a normal ten minutes' distance. We stood out on the balcony practically all day and watched jeeps with almost fifty people piled on try to get through.
The Americans didn't feel much like celebrating. the one good thing is that there is no more dying on this front, but there's still another war and lots of work right here.
Dorothy and I went out in the evening with some of the fellows from her office, but in spite of the fact there was no bedcheck I was in at eleven o'clock. it was almost at the risk of life and limb that one walked up the Champs Élysées. There were rockets and flares being shot off up at the Arc, which was all lighted up. All the street lights were on the Champs and movies were lit for the first time and shop windows lighted. I had a much nicer time just sitting on our balcony watching the mobs and the fireworks.
All day yesterday, too, the mobs kept going up and down the street, and last night since the mobs weren't quite as bad as the night before we walked more to see Paris – the "city of Light." Many of the side streets which have been so dark and gloomy, including the Rue de Rivoli – which is now named after President Roosevelt – were all lighted up and we hardly recognized them. The Place de la Concorde was breathtaking. Coming down the Champs Élysées this is the way the Concorde looked: straight ahead and way down behind the trees of the Tuilleries and the Louvre, spotlights formed a V in the sky above the Concorde. In the middle of the Obelisk was a shaft of light. to the right and left of the obelisk, fountains were going that looked like miniature waterfalls. Way to the right across the River the Chambre of Deputies was in light. To the left the two big columned buildings that are so beat up looking from last August's fighting were white with light, and between them, down Rue Royale, the church of the Madelaine was in light. But the most gorgeous sight of all was the Opera. It was white with light, and every alcove and crevice in the front had red lights inside, so it looked like a lovely picture in white marble and red velvet.
After fighting the mobs, I was so tired that in spite of no bedcheck I was in bed at twelve o'clock. I hope Paris is done with celebrating now.
On the 8th I got your letter of April 29 telling about the false rumor of V-E Day in the States. We've all got the feeling over here that the States took it much more quietly, we hope and will really wait to celebrate on V-J Day, which is what we're all going to do. The best part of it here, tho' I didn't go 'cause I didn't know about it – was a program at the Trocadero where Gen. Lee spoke and they heard President Truman speak. The kids said it was all almost like church services.
I got a letter from Mrs. Malmo the other day. Gee, I hope I do get a chance to get a picture like she wants. She certainly sounds broken-hearted.
I guess it's thinking about those boys that kept us all from getting very excited. For the French and English it's a great relief. The English needn't ever worry about bombs again. And even I, who've only just heard the air alerts several times, find it nice to think you'll never hear that awful siren at night and climb out of bed sort of shaky. Of course, it'd been long since anyone worried about it, but it was good to hear the sirens go off at 3 p.m. Tuesday – about 8 in the morning for you – in a last all-clear.
People keep saying "you've seen it, you'll always remember V-E Day in Paris." To be sure, it's been an experience, but the day I'm waiting for is the day it's all over. That will really be a day and maybe I can celebrate that "somewhere in the States."
We're still not just sure about censorship and all yet, but I feel it's quite safe to tell you now that I came over on the Queen Mary. Quite a boat and quite a trip.
[Editor's Note: In 1965 Betty Magnuson Olson wrote of her war experiences in her memoir, "A WAC's War: Reminiscences," a copy of which is held in the Minnesota Historical Society's Manuscripts collection. Following is an excerpt from her memoir, recalling the countdown to coming home.]
But now the war was over and everyone wanted to go home. It was delightful to feel the groundswell of feeling wafting from the States to "get the boys home," even though responsible officers in Europe were said to feel this was not such a good idea. General Ross grimly determined that as quickly as possible U.S. personnel in the ETO would be home, in spite of the fact that the task of getting them over there had taken all these war years, and in spite of the fact that most of his own office personnel wanted to go home, too!
A "point" system based on length of time in service, age, job description, number of dependents, etc. was established. Every edition of Stars and Stripes was eagerly devoured for news of points necessary to "make a shipment." At first secretaries were "frozen," but eventually my orders came through. I would leave Frankfurt late in October for England where I would once again board the Queen Mary.
It wasn't going to be hard to leave Frankfurt – Germany would be bleak and cold this winter. And although officially now transferred to the WAC Detachment here and no longer a part of the 29th Traffic Regulating Group in Paris, that was where my loyalties lay. It would have been so very much harder to leave Paris and the friends there. The few people I did know in Frankfurt were good friends, and we all knew that somehow, someday we'd all see each other again, so these goodbyes were not so difficult.
Physical examinations and shots were taken, and we parted with our off-duty dresses. Long since we had turned in those field uniforms, so home-going luggage was light, consisting only of duffle bag of GI clothing and our musette bags with personal belongings. There was no need now for tents or helmets or gas masks, long since, too, given up. Slacks and battle jackets would be our traveling uniform.
Everything and anything on wheels was being pressed into use to get troops to the European ports of embarkation, and a first look at the German troop cars in which we were to travel was not reassuring. Like all European railroad cars they had the long outside corridor with small compartments, but the seats were simply bare boards. There was no room for anyone to lie down, and sanitary facilities were primitive. however, we were going home, and the journey from Frankfurt to Le Havre was not to take long.
As the highest ranking non-com on the rail car to which I was assigned I was automatically in charge of that car on the trip from Frankfurt to Camp Phillip Morris, the staging area near Le Havre. A red-headed WAC Air Corps captain was train commander. At our first meeting mutual antagonism sparked between us.
The journey started well. We went slowly through beautiful autumn-clad forests of Germany. "Sentimental Journey" was sung over and over, and we dreamed of that first glimpse of home and family. There was no noticeable regret in our goodbyes to Germany.
But there were very many unexplained stops along the way, and it began to look as though we wouldn't reach Camp Phillip Morris as quickly as we'd thought. NCOs in charge of the cars were kept running at a merry pace back and forth between the cars and the Train Commander's quarters on what seemed to us quite trivial matters.
Occasionally while the train was stopped we were allowed off for a few moments of exercise along the tracks. The Captain insisted that roll call be taken each time we got back on the train. I thought this pretty silly and said so: who would miss the train taking one home? But she said two of the girls on my car were problems, and I must take roll after each stop. I had no intention of doing so and simply told the two girls I couldn't care less if they got back on the car or they decided to stay, quite unofficially, in Europe.
There weren't enough rations on the train for the extended journey this was becoming, and everyone began to be very hungry. We did have a good meal at one stop in France in a mess hall quite some distance from the railroad station, to which we marched militarily. After eating, though, we were allowed to drift back by twos and threes to the train. This time I did take roll and discovered two girls, my "problems," were missing. At about the time I was thinking of conceding defeat and reporting their absence a jeep full of GIs and the two WACs barreled up to the train. There they were. They'd met a cousin at the mess hall, they insisted! Skeptically I wondered if I were going to have to take roll every time we set foot off the train. but they assured me earnestly that I'd been good to them, they would be good from now on, and they kept their word.
No one ever got much sleep at night. We dozed sitting and squirming on the wooden planks which served as seats. At one point during one day I crawled up into the luggage rack over the corridor of the compartment and managed to stretch out and snatch some sleep. I awoke to hear myself being paged to report to the Captain "on the double." Friends insisted they weren't going to disturb me, but since I had heard, I could only crawl down and report once again to the Captain.
At Thionville, France, we pulled up to the siding next to a mess hall for another welcome hot meal. Then we returned to the train where we waited and waited, for hours on end. Some girls were beginning to be ill, and I went forward to ask the Train Commander for permission to leave the train for exercise. She was sitting alone in her compartment, gazing out the window, and told me we'd "lost our engine." Incredibly, it did seem the engine had just gone off without the cars.
I knew everyone remaining in our office was very busy, but when I remembered seeing a telephone in the mess hall I asked permission to call TC headquarters in Frankfurt. She said listlessly she didn't care what I did.
GIs in the mess hall clustered around the phone helping me make connections and, I think, rather awed at the fact that a mere WAC sergeant was going to call their Commanding General's office. Berta answered the phone, and I told her our woes. The General was in Paris, but she promised she'd get someone on it right away and asked for details. I told her there were four or five cars of WACs. one of the GIs nudged me and said there were some GIs in the end cars, too. This I hadn't known, but I passed the information on.
In no time at all an engine puffed up to the front of the cars, and w were on our way. Then I received another order to report to the Captain.
She curtly informed me that someone on the train had made a telephone call. I said, of course – she'd told me she didn't care what I did. She sputtered she hadn't thought I really would, but admitted the engine's arrival was the result of my call. Then she accused me of having the colored GIs in the last car left behind.
Dumbfounded, and so angry that three years of military discipline dropped away, I fairly shouted at her. I hadn't even known there were GIs on the train until my phone call, and this was the first moment I knew what color they happened to be. It went on and one, and at last I spun on my heel and walked out with the parting retort that at least I'd done something instead of sitting gazing out the window. Well, I thought, that's that – it will be kind of ironic to be court-martialed on my way home after 35 months of well-disciplined service. to my great surprise I heard nothing from the lady again all the way to Le Havre, although troubles were far from over.
In Paris where we had to change trains, there was a strike of baggage men, so we called for volunteers and moved our luggage from train to train ourselves. All day we sat in the train in the railroad station, allowed off only to go to the station washrooms. We who'd lived there so long pleaded in vain to be allowed to go see our friends. Fortunately a hospital train which had left Frankfurt much later than we had drew up beside us. Through open windows we could get the latest news of the outside world.
Things were improved in the evening, however, when we left for Le Havre. The first class railroad cars had upholstered cushions, fine washrooms, and ran smoothly as though on rubber tires. We felt like singing again. Standing in the corridor or relaxing in the soft seats we watched the passing moonlit landscape.
Camp Phillip Morris was a tent city now deep in mud from recent storms. "Streets" of board planks kept one's feet somewhat out of the muck. Again I was supposed to take charge of my tent, but I rebelled – someone else could fight the good fight, I warily groaned. Rosy, declaring she didn't blame me one bit, volunteered to take my place. Now I could enjoy the stay at Camp Phillip Morris in spite of mud and wind and rain.
Departure was postponed for several days because Atlantic storms had delayed the arrival of the Queen Mary in England. Life was informal and unmilitary. We used mess kits again, and we never did get all the mud off our shoes. German prisoners of war cleaned the area and kept our stoves burning. I confessed to a certain pleasure in telling a German soldier just how I wanted my breakfast eggs fixed. They were impassive, and if it hurt their pride to fry eggs for American women they hid it successfully.
Again there was a Channel crossing, and again it was rough. We heard chicken was to be served for Sunday dinner, but I couldn't have cared less. I did manage to attend church services on deck, then headed swiftly for a bunk where I spent the rest of the day.
At Tidworth, near Southampton, we were back in barracks. This was a delightful spot in which to be delayed. There were long hikes (not marches!) in crisp autumn weather across the beautiful downs. There were twelve-hour passes to London, but first a call went out for a volunteer to do office work. There was no response. Lining us up beside our bunks the lieutenant went down the aisle asking one by one whether we could type. I was the first stenographer questioned, and I had to report to the office.
My friends were kind enough to wait for me. Fortunately, the office duties proved to be light and quickly finished, and we made a dash for the railway station to catch a London bound train. It was a most interesting ride, standing in the crowded corridors, chatting with English commuters, and watching southern England flash by. Luckily we were given free transportation: our French currency had been collected and American money would not be distributed until we boarded the ship; we were penniless in London!
I remembered an American dollar bill I'd been keeping in my billfold as a touch of home. Surely that would be of some use, we thought, and decided to go to TC offices for advice. There we found a sympathetic sergeant who exchanged my dollar bill for English currency at black market rates. While four of us couldn't really "do" London, at least we could eat!
Not long after our return to camp we boarded the Queen Mary. Our trip home would be very different from the voyage eastward. We were free to come and go in all parts of the ship. Again I was detailed to the office so my free time was limited, but even this was fun, being sort of "in" on ship's activities. And I did manage to make the hike around the deck once or twice a day, almost tripping over groups of GIs sitting on deck playing poker or sprawled out sleeping.
We used the same smoking deck we'd used the year before, but it was not warm and pleasant now in November as it had been in August. But we could also stand at the rail on any of the other decks, and looking back from the stern of the ship over the frothy wake towards Europe was a thrill. But standing at the bow watching the sun set in the west toward home made tears come close.
Every morning there was a boat drill, when all passengers were lined up on all decks (actually to facilitate the cleaning of the ship). One stormy day after standing on deck watching the ocean move up and down, even the bantering of the Aussies standing directly behind us couldn't keep me from dashing to my stateroom, which haven I reached just in time. That evening, 'twas said, not many people showed up in the mess hall for supper.
Now we ate in the huge dining room on "A" deck where a lighted map on the wall showed our progress. The food was so good now, with even home-like baked bread, that GIs actually competed for KP.
Then one evening the big map showed us very close to New York and an announcement informed us we'd arrive very early in the morning. There wasn't much sleep that night, and it was still very early when I dressed and ran up on deck. already the rails were lined three deep, but some tall GIs made room for me to get close to the rail. There, almost directly in front of me, glowing green in the pre-dawn darkness, stood the Statue of Liberty.
Gaily lighted little tugs bustled busily around the big ship, loud speakers playing – of course – "Sentimental Journey." A fire boat went by shooting streams of water high into the air. People on the dock were waving and calling and cheering, but there was a silence aboard the ship. One GI said softly he could almost see home from right there.
Then we were ordered below to make ready for disembarkation. While we waited for the group of soldiers ahead of us to go down the gangway we giggled at the sight of wriggling duffle bags. Apparently all the dogs had not been put in the kennels as ordered!
The Red Cross passed out doughnuts and milk as we left the gangplank. Milk was strange after all this time, but it certainly tasted delicious. Then we went directly on to a ferry boat, crossed the river and boarded waiting trucks for a return to Camp Shanks.
We were almost immediately given freedom to make a dash for telephone booths and that important call home. My call went through quickly, and my mother very calmly answered. She said she knew I was coming – she'd seen it in the newspaper the day before! Public Relations on board the Queen had really been on the ball!
That night there was steak and all the trimmings, and all the milk we could drink. I did have to admit now that steak beat my favorite b.l.t. [bacon, lettuce, and tomato] sandwiches. We could visit the PX, take wonderful hot showers, and have our hair washed and set. Next day we boarded those huge American railroad cars which would take us to our various discharge centers. The cars looked so big, how did one make that step up! Then we remembered the little stools that were always there.
We were assigned specific quarters in the Pullmans, but we were free to come and go from car to car. How beautiful was that trip up the Hudson Valley as far as Albany. I didn't want darkness to fall and shut out the sight of our beautiful country. During the night sometime the train turned toward the west. After stops at Chicago and St. Louis we were back full circle at Fort Des Moines.
Several days of processing followed, sort of a reversal of one's first days in the Army. All items in duffle bags had to be turned in, even our beloved slacks. WACs from the ETO wailed that General Eisenhower himself had promised we could keep them. They were a sort of badge of our service in the ETO. But Fort Des Moines officials said the Commander of the Army in Europe had nothing to say about things here, and duffle bags were emptied leaving each WAC only one complete uniform and choice of utility or overcoat. Some of us who had packed slacks in musette bags containing personal items which did not have to be brought to the clothing warehouse were able to keep this favorite item of clothing. We felt smug, but said nothing.
And so one received that precious discharge paper, sewed a "ruptured duck" on one's blouse, and left one's service days behind to cope with problems of civilian life. From Des Moines to Minneapolis I had company of other girls, but I was the only ex-WAC to board the overnight "milk train" to Duluth.
I was really too tired and too excited about returning home for any deep reflections. But – had I given as much as I had received: the warmth of friendships, excitement, adventure, the feeling of being of service? My being there hadn't made the war end one day or one hour or one minute sooner. My presence had not given strength or comfort to anyone needing it. I was only one little cog in a vast machine. And yet, with this machine we had won a war.
There were many returning GIs on the train. To one I talked far into the morning hours, because who felt the need of sleep! He'd been captured on Bataan, survived the death march, was a prisoner of Japan during the war and was only just out of the hospital returning home on sick leave. They'd had little news all during the war. He said there had only been rumors even when President Roosevelt had died, and until he'd arrived in Honolulu and there saw WAVEs on duty he hadn't known American women were in service. This GI said it had given all the ex-prisoners a war feeling to know that American women had taken an active part in the war. This, to me, more than made up for rumors and sneers and innuendos we'd been subjected to at times at home.
Time has proved Colonel K.'s prediction to be right. Happy events have lingered in memory; unpleasant moments have been forgotten.