Women remember WWII

By Regina Villiers.  Originally published November 8, 1995 in The Suburban Life, added November 12, 2017.

Helen Backman, while serving with the WAVES during World War II, poses with the puppies of Mabel, the mascot of Helen’s unit. Mabel was a St. Bernard. The father of the puppies was an unnamed Great Dane.

It isn’t so easy to find World War II veterans these days that are women.  I’ve been prying around, trying to come up with some for a Veteran’s Day column.  With all the attention in the media of World War II anniversaries, it just seemed to me that the women of that era should be remembered too.

Finally, I have located two Madeira women who served during World War II who, in the language of that time, volunteered to “relieve a man for duty.”

Though she didn’t go into the Women’s Army Corps until near the war’s end, Ruth Behymer had fervent hopes of being sent abroad and dreamed of exotic travel in other countries.  Instead, she was sent to exotic Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis as a dental hygienist technician.

From there, she was transferred to a hospital in Martinsburg, W. Va., where she did the same type of work in a facility that mostly did plastic surgery.

“The work was very interesting,” she said, “and I loved doing it.”

She explained that these hospitals were temporary facilities and were built to last only about five years.  “But they did good work,” she said,  “ and they were efficient.  They kept track of everything, and nothing was wasted.”

Ruth did her basic training in Des Moines, Iowa, and says that she really enjoyed Des Moines.

Ruth’s term of service came near the end of the war, and gasoline rationing soon ended.  “I had my own car,” she said “and I could travel around.”

Helen Bachman, on the other hand, did her years in the WAVES at the height of the war.

Helen was born in Canada, in Ontario, just across the river from International Falls, Minn.  Born of American parents, she was an American citizen though she lived in Canada until 1941 when she left and came to Brainerd, Minn.

The following June 1942, she enlisted in the WAVES (Women Emergency Service), a division of the U.S. Navy. She served two years and three months, coming out in 1944.

Helen did her boot camp at Hunter College in the Bronx in New York City.  From there she went to Norman, Okla., for mechanic’s training where she became an airplane machinist’s mate, a far cry from her later life’s work as a librarian.

Her primary base was Ottumwa, Iowa, where she worked as a mechanic on the line on service crafts used by officers.

Though she became a mechanic, Helen did not even know how to drive when she went into the WAVES.

“I was taught to drive by sailors,” she said, “On a big semi, a gasoline truck.”

She drove these huge trucks as a part of her duty and says she loved every minute of it.

“I also drove a pickup truck around the base,” she said, “and could go to the commissary to shop.  I could buy things that were short everywhere else.  There was a pepper shortage, but I could buy it by the pound.”

Helen remembers most of all the fun and the closeness of her unit.  “We were all one family,” she said.  “Everyone was courteous, and we looked out for each other.”

She remembers their mascot, Mabel, with particular fondness.  Mabel was a St. Bernard who, after a not-so-secret liaison with a Great Dane, became the mother of 10 puppies.  But no problem.  So many volunteer adoptive parents wanted the puppies that it was decided the only fair way to handle it would be to raffle them off.  But two of he puppies were stolen before the raffle.

Ottumwa was 300 miles west of Chicago and was the perfect stop-off point for Hollywood stars to stop to do a show.  Helen remembers seeing shows by Frankie Masters, Jan Priest and Tex Beneke, who was the toast of the country at that time.

Helen and Ruth had similar experiences and similar feelings about serving their country in wartime – Helen in the Navy and Ruth in the Army.  Both enjoyed the experience, and both are proud they did it.

But a dissenting note creeps in on the subject of how they were treated by men soldiers and sailors.

“Men soldiers resented you,” Ruth said.  “When women went anywhere in uniform, they had a hell of a time.  Sometimes, I had to go on a train on weekends, and the men would try to take up all the seats to make you stand.  And they’d say mean things to you. I’d buy a Time magazine and just bury my nose in it.”

On the other side, Helen said: “The men couldn’t have been nicer to me.  They looked out for me, like a family.”  She remembers them all fondly and insists she was never treated better.

“In fact,” she said, “it was one of the best and most positive periods of my life, and I wouldn’t give up a minute of it.”

She still belongs to and attends monthly meetings of a local group of  “Fore and Aft,” a WAVES organization that has a national headquarters.

Both Helen Backman and Ruth Behymer served their country admirably in a difficult time, when it was much harder than today to be a woman in a man’s world.  They are true veterans, worthy of being honored on this Veteran’s Day.