A recent Facebook post by Jennifer Gibbons reminded me. Too often, we overlook the War II stories of the women who stayed home. So here’s my mother’s story, for Memorial Day.
December 7, 1941: The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Roosevelt asked Congress to issue a Declaration of War. Hitler declared war on the United States. A massive mobilization began.
My parents, who had met in the 8th grade in Cleveland, were college freshmen. My mother was already struggling emotionally, because she missed my father. She had stayed in Ohio for college, but he had gone off to Harvard on a scholarship.
My mother watched, as the men in her life prepared for war. Her older brother, who had already graduated from college, enlisted in the Army with an officer’s rank. Her younger brother, who lied about his age, soon followed. She knew my father would be next. He was drafted at the end of his freshman year.
Her heart just wasn’t in her studies. She’d been a top student, but her grades dropped. She probably would have lost her scholarship, she figured. And it didn't feel right to be in college, with all the men at war.
So my mother went to work. She had been a chemistry major in college, with dreams of going to medical school. Her older brother, who had been working for General Electric in Cleveland, helped her get a job in a lab. GE was doing government contract work, so she figured she would be helping the war effort.
Little did she know.
In the lab, there was a great deal of secrecy surrounding the work. It involved working with radioactive materials, sent by the government. Weighing, measuring. Sending the materials on. It was a small piece of a larger project, she was led to understand.
My mother was working on the Manhattan Project.
My mother is very close to being a pacifist. She and my late father opposed the Vietnam War. At eighty-eight, she continues to goes on peace demonstrations.
Still, she is proud to have been a part of the Manhattan Project. Like many people, she believed the United States had no choice. At that time, it seemed essential to develop the capability for nuclear weapons.
I have known this part of the story for years. But a few months ago I learned the final, poignant, coda:
My mother didn’t want to work in that General Electic lab. She wanted to enlist in the Army.
She figured she would serve in the nursing corps. She confided this to her mother, who became alarmed and called my mother’s older brother. He was still in the States, so he flew home. He probably said it was a family emergency.
Her big brother appeared, without any advance warning. You can’t do it, he told her. You would hate the Army. No one respects those women.
The subtext was clear: Respectable girls don’t join the military.
Respectability was a hard-worn commodity for my mother and her brothers. They had grown up in a struggling Slovenian immigrant family, plagued by poverty and alcohol. Education was the ticket out.
She backed down.
My mother has regrets, she says. She wonders what might have happened if she’d enlisted. She could have come home, finished college on the G.I bill like all the men, instead of putting it off until later. Maybe she would have become a doctor.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders