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Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front during World War II

Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front during World War II

4.5 4
by Emily Yellin

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Our Mothers' War is an eye-opening and moving portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society. Never before has the vast range of women's experiences during this pivotal era been brought together in one book. Now, Our Mothers' War re-creates what American women from all walks of life


Our Mothers' War is an eye-opening and moving portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society. Never before has the vast range of women's experiences during this pivotal era been brought together in one book. Now, Our Mothers' War re-creates what American women from all walks of life were doing and thinking, on the home front and abroad. These heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking accounts of the women we have known as mothers, aunts, and grandmothers reveal facets of their lives that have usually remained unmentioned and unappreciated.
Our Mothers' War gives center stage to one of WWII's most essential fighting forces: the women of America, whose extraordinary bravery, strength, and humanity shine through on every page.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Stop the presses: the greatest generation had women in it. Yellin zeroes in on primary sources -- letters, memoirs, and interviews that describe the war years as women actually experienced them. Yellin has done first-rate research and reporting."
-- The New York Times Book Review

"Educational and dishy, Our Mothers' War is a graceful portrait of the other half of the greatest generation."
-- Entertainment Weekly

"In this lively, smart, sometimes contrarian work of social history, New York Times writer Yellin explores the manifold roles of women in WW II....A superb contribution to the literature of WW II."
-- Kirkus (starred review)

Product Details

Free Press
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5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: For Carol Lynn

Unearthing Our Mothers' War Years

After my mother died in 1999, I was going through some of the things from her life that had made their way into my attic, when I came upon an old manila envelope I had never seen before, neatly labeled in my mother's handwriting, "Saipan Diary and Pictures." I knew right away it was from the time my mother spent as a Red Cross worker in the Pacific during World War II. Carefully, I extracted a number of thin, yellowing pages with typewritten entries on both sides, and about thirty pictures, in black and white. As I read my mother's words, her familiar voice resonating once again, and as I saw my mother's youthful image, the cheerful smile she wore in every picture ever taken of her glowing still, I felt like an archaeologist, unearthing a precious past. And then, under another pile of papers, inside four shoeboxes labeled "1940s," I found hundreds of letters my mother had written home to her parents in Oklahoma during World War II. My grandmother had lovingly saved every one of them. I was becoming a prospector, discovering gold.

I already knew a lot of the details of her war years. In August 1942, eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World

War II, my mother, Carol Lynn Gilmer, had married Tom Heggen, a promising writer and an editor at Reader's Digest. She had just finished her bachelor's degree in history and master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University. After he joined the Navy, my mother was one of a couple of women hired in editorial jobs at Reader's Digest in New York to replace the men, like her new husband, leaving for war. In 1945, the last year of the war, she quit her job, joined the Red Cross, and was sent to Saipan. Right around that time, Tom Heggen began sending chapters to her of a novel he was writing while serving aboard his Navy cargo ship in the Pacific. When the war ended, my mother did not go back to her editorial work right away, but instead tried unsuccessfully to devote herself to being a full-time wife. After only a few months, in spring of 1946, she and Tom Heggen were divorced. Months later, the novel he had written, Mr. Roberts, was published. It centered around the crew of a supply boat in the Pacific, like the one on which he served, and the book's dedication read, "For Carol Lynn."

It went on to become a best-seller. The stage version won the 1948 Tony Award for best play. In 1955, the film version of Mr. Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon, was nominated for best picture and won a best supporting actor Academy Award for Jack Lemmon. But in 1949, Tom Heggen was found dead, drowned in the bathtub of the New York apartment he was sharing at the time with writer Dorothy Parker's ex-husband, Alan Campbell. He had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

Mom had talked to me about the pain of that marriage and her divorce and his death. But the happy ending was always that she moved on, met and married David Yellin, my father, her true love, a few years later, gave birth to my three older brothers and me, and continued a long editorial career at Reader's Digest. I had not asked much else about her time during the war. It never came up. Like most of us, I had mostly known the war through my father's stories of serving in the Army in Burma, not my mother's story.

Suddenly, sitting there on the attic floor, I was beginning to realize there were more dimensions in my mother's wartime experience than I knew. I saw that it had been a transforming time for her, a time when she first came into her own, exerted her courage and took advantage of new opportunities for herself, as a woman. In these letters and pictures, and her diary, I began to see the war through a new lens, a female perspective. It was an unfamiliar but intriguing view.

I found it in letters like the one to her parents dated January 4, 1945, in which my mother, then twenty-three, tried to explain her decision to leave Reader's Digest and join the Red Cross.

Hope you can see how the Digest life is almost too perfect, with the world in the sorry mess it's in....I just have to get out and try to do something active and direct when so many other people are doing so much. It's not enough for me to say that my husband is doing it — and that's my part in the war. I want to do something myself. Do you see what I mean?

My grandparents did understand and wrote back supporting her move. But in her grappling with that decision, I was learning what a huge step joining the Red Cross had been for her. In her next letter I also recognized a younger version of the woman I remember, who organized Equal Rights Amendment rallies in the 1970s and 1980s. The letter, dated January 8, 1945, showed prevailing attitudes about women and being a wife that my mother and many other women faced down during the war.

You see, when I decided to do this, I anticipated that lots of people would think I was doing a pretty foolish thing. I'm finding that lots of people who don't know the facts of the case think just that. Julie's husband Ken for example, who's one of these people who think that the only reason any girl joins the WACs, WAVES or Red Cross or any other such thing is just to have a wonderful time and meet lots of men. He thinks that I must be a pretty unstable sort of war wife who doesn't keep the home fires burning.

...And I expect that many other people, when I announce the decision more publicly will have the same reaction. But...I'm prepared for it. I don't expect everyone to heartily approve of what I'm doing. But now that I know that the people who really matter — my parents and Tom's parents — think I'm doing the right thing, I have the moral reinforcement that I really do need. And I'll be able to go ahead with it now with so much greater peace of mind, and really work for what I'm trying to accomplish — establish a better and broader basis of understanding between Tom and me, while at the same time doing something direct and satisfying in the war effort.

In her diary too, I saw for the first time what it must have been like for a woman in the mostly male world of war. Her good humor about it all is evident in this early excerpt from 1945, when she arrived by boat in Hawaii from Seattle, before being sent to Saipan.

April 19 (Thursday)

Tonight we went to our first dance overseas — at an on-post Red Cross club. And we got our first taste of the uneven ratio of men to women in these islands. At this point, the ratio is about 75 to 1 — not nearly as bad as it used to be when it was 250 to 1. But even so, if you don't bear it constantly in mind you begin to think you're pretty irresistible. The boys are so grateful for small favors that it hurts — just the fact that you come to their club and dance with them seems to be the finest thing in the world....Many told us it was the first time they'd danced with any girl for more than a year.

And from my mother's writings, I was understanding for the first time what ultimate sacrifices women made for the war. While women were not usually the ones killed in combat, they were the ones who bravely had to endure the news, and keep going after husbands, sons, and brothers were killed.

Wednesday, May 2

Today I was with Jean Archer when she received a letter telling of her older brother's death in Europe. We were on our way to the hospital to get our yellow fever shots. Jean had just picked up her mail at headquarters. The first letters she opened were from neighbors back home — letters of sympathy....He was more than an ordinarily favorite brother. I'd heard her speak of him so often and had read some of his letters approving of her joining Red Cross. She was very composed about it — didn't even break down and cry until she was going through the rest of her mail and found a letter from her brother himself — written only a few days before he was killed.

When I read another entry in my mother's diary from 1945, after she had arrived in Saipan, I saw the modest, initial stirrings that led to her support of the civil rights movement living in Memphis during the 1960s. Though Americans were fighting injustice abroad, segregation was encoded in the U.S. Army in 1945, just as it was encoded in the Jim Crow laws of the American South at that time. And its inextricable partner, racism, was prevalent among many Americans then too.

Thursday, May 31

Today I went on my first clubmobile run. Taking coffee and doughnuts to the ground crews as they serviced the B-29s....We then began stopping and serving various working groups, engineers and warehouse workers, road construction gangs, etc. One interesting experience was serving Negro soldiers. I'm sure that for most of them it was the first time they'd been served by Red Cross girls. Most of them had to be invited several times before they realized we wanted to give them refreshments. One of them said, "The good Lord must have sent you, ma'am." Another group said "Well, that's the first time I ever believed it about Red Cross being at your side, yes sir." Both Jean Quirk, the other girl I was working with, and I were very glad we'd stopped. And we almost didn't because we had quite an argument with our driver (an Indian boy from Oklahoma, incidentally) before we convinced him that we wouldn't be raped or murdered on the spot if we stopped to serve Negroes.

Among her letters I also found a few that my mom's former mother-in-law, Mina Heggen, Tom's mother, had written to my grandmother. Particularly telling was one letter, written in April 1950, in which mom's former mother-in-law talked about Tom's death, his marriage to my mother, and the war. Reading it, I found not only more insight into my mother's life, but also the pain of another mother who, although belatedly, felt she somehow had lost her son to the war as well.

I remember him [Tom] calling up right after they had separated and saying how badly he felt about it all. He said it was all his fault, that he had writing on his mind always, and knew he could not make her happy. It was too bad that the war separated them all those years. I think if they could have lived together, they might have understood each other better.

Tom was so adolescent when they were first married. He knew very little about girls, and really had no responsibilities until he got in the war. The war made him rather sad, so many of his friends killed and then that long weary stretch in the Pacific. He never would tell very much about his experiences but I know he grieved about it a lot.

As I sat on the attic floor, rooting through these mementos, musty and fragile from years in the other family attics that had held them, I got a sense that my mother and grandmother had left this bounty behind, carrying it with them through their years, as a gift for me somehow, a scavenger hunt map that was to lead me on a quest back to the rare reward of knowing my mother's life during her first big adventure, in an earlier time and place, before she was my mother.

It was that quest which led to this book.

I had always visualized World War II in black and white, just like the movies and photos from it. But all of this mining through my mother's war years was giving me a more personal connection. World War II started to take on color and dimension like never before. And I began to see those four years of the war as a kind of inadvertent revolution in America, a time when, while men were not really watching, women all over this country from every walk of life learned they could accomplish things they had never been allowed or asked to try before.

As the daughter of a woman who lived through it, I wanted to know more about women in that war. And as a journalist, I wanted to open up this world of our mothers and grandmothers for others. I saw that my scavenger hunt would not really end with the story of how my mother lived through the war. In fact, that was only the beginning.

Like many women during the war, my mother had planted a Victory

Garden, volunteered at a USO canteen, and coped with rationing. And my mother had played a number of the roles that women all over the country played during that time — war bride, military wife, career woman, Red Cross girl. But what about the millions of women who worked in defense plants to produce the weapons that helped the Allies win the war? And what about the women who joined the military in noncombat positions in the Army as WACs, the Navy as WAVES, as Army pilots called WASPs, or in any of the other branches of the military that opened to women for the first time during World War II? And what about all the lesser-known stories that my writer's instinct was telling me were just waiting to be told?

Through my mother's experiences I had found a window to that larger story of what might be called "the other American soldiers" of World War II, who, like the men, displayed courage, experienced sacrifice, and endured heartbreak.

So I set out. Armed with the guidance my own mother's letters provided me, I began to, in effect, riffle through the memories stored in the attics of other women's lives from World War II. And sure enough, I found gems waiting there just like the pearls of drama I had found in my mother's story, all manner of gems — some smooth, some rough, some sparkling, some worn down — but all precious gems that have hardly ever been appraised or even displayed before.

Copyright © 2004 by Emily Yellin

Chapter One

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, and the United States officially joined the war already in progress against Japan, Germany, and Italy, the warnings to young women started coming with a fury. From parents, from the clergy, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, and even from boyfriends, they went something like this: Be wary of wartime romance. Hasty war marriages are recipes for heartache, for failure. Don't tie your fate to an uncertain future. There will be plenty of time for emotion after the war. Real love can wait.

Apparently, not everyone listened. Because despite the naysaying, 1.8 million couples married in 1942, a huge increase from the year before. One bride of a young draftee described her reasons in the June 1942 Good Housekeeping.

"He may come back a cripple....The separation will break you up....You can't tell how you'll change or how he'll change." Maybe. But I married my soldier anyway.

...The deciding factor was the realization that this topsy-turvy world might not right itself for years. Perhaps my reasoning is perverse. But it seems to me that the world's chaos and uncertainty are reasons for marriage, not for postponement.

When the writer's boyfriend, Danny, got his draft card during Christmas vacation, he would not consider getting married. Like many men at the time, he didn't feel it was fair to her. But he changed his mind when the couple visited a friend, Irita, the wife of an Air Corps lieutenant.

"If you love a man," Irita said, "you are involved in his destiny whether you are married or not. Everyone, in peace or war, runs a risk when he falls in love. A husband or wife may be killed crossing a street. If you want to protect yourself emotionally, the to do is not to fall in love at all."

It was too late to stop that. The couple had already fallen in love. And Irita's words finally swayed Danny to consider marriage. As they discussed it in earnest, their concerns echoed those of most couples on the brink of war marriages. They talked about how Danny may come back wounded, or missing a leg or an arm. She assured him she would love him anyway. They talked, as best they could, about the possibility he might not come back at all. They agreed to delay children until after the war. And they decided she would finish college and then find a job to help build a financial foundation for their postwar life. A young wife working had not been the norm before the war, but as the writer said, "This was no time to bother with peacetime conventions about the husband's being the breadwinner."

Finally, they set about convincing their parents. Warnings and concerns about the dangers of wartime marriages surfaced again. But after many talks and many tears, their parents warmed to the idea. As the writer said, "Danny and I are making the best of a difficult situation. In war, love is a luxury.

It comes at a high price....This brand of marriage, I guess, takes steady nerves." They were married New Year's Day 1942. She was nineteen and he was twenty-two. They believed the sacrifices they were making were worth it.

Both Danny and I feel that the democratic way of life is deeply a part of us. We want to defend it with all we have, with all our heart and soul. We're young, we've got a future to fight for, we wouldn't want to raise those babies we're going to have in a country that wasn't worth fighting for.

War Brides

And so it was for younger women all across the country, as young men joined up or were drafted, and left home. A book published in 1943 called Marriage Is a Serious Business was meant to sober up couples caught in a fleeting wartime romance, as its cautionary title suggests. The author, the Reverend Dr. Randolph Ray, was rector of the Little Church Around the Corner at Madison

Avenue and 23rd Street in New York City, a popular marriage spot. According to the church's history, 2,900 weddings took place during 1943 alone, most performed by Reverend Ray. In fact, just about every Saturday, a line of young couples would form in the nineteenth-century church's idyllic, ivy-covered courtyard, waiting for their turn to say their vows, quickly, and without much fanfare or family present, and often just before the groom was to be shipped off to war. Not wanting to condone easy wedlock, Reverend Ray spoke clearly in the book of the pressures he saw facing wartime marriages, and especially war brides.

Reverend Ray opposed war marriages because he felt they lacked the essentials of enduring marriage. Instead of time for adjustment, he said, there is separation. Instead of shared experience, each partner is having new and often overwhelming experiences alone. Thereby, a gulf is created instead of a bond. And he singled out women as the ones who had the greater responsibility and duty to shoulder the majority of the emotional burdens in any marriage, adding that in wartime a woman's obligation grew more acute and intense.

The problems of marriage are preponderantly the problems of women. Now, in time of war, the future seems to depend on what the women do today. Everything depends on that. The future is based on women's preparation for it.

Yet, no amount of preparation could have braced many newlywed couples, both the women and the men, for the challenging terrain they were to travel during the four years of war.

Genevieve Eppens grew up on her parents' farm in Nebraska and was seventeen years old when she married her sweetheart, Glen, on February 19, 1942. He was twenty-one. As she said, they were "very much in love and just wanted to be together." But looking back, she saw they had no idea how painful fulfilling that simple wish would be.

Both of us were so young and naive, how could we have imagined that we would soon lose all control of our lives?

...How could we have known the next three-and-a-half years would seem like a nightmare, that I would become a mother and be traveling thousands of miles alone with a little baby just to see my husband...?

The war had begun December 7, 1941, but I really hadn't comprehended how it could affect us. I thought wars were something you studied about in history books. World War I had been fought long before I was even born. So, we had five wonderful months, and then we had to grow up real fast....

As the war intensified, my daily trips to the mailbox became a real worry to us. We knew one day his draft notice would be delivered and in the latter part of July it arrived. We had often seen the poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and the caption "I Want You," and we knew he meant it....

The week before he had to report, we moved our things to the farm [her parents' home] where I expected to stay for the duration. I was two months' pregnant and needed my parents to help me.

...We didn't dare think about the future. Our main concern was for him to be accepted in the Coast Guard or Navy....Glen thought he would rather be on a ship than end up in some dirty foxhole.

Glen was accepted into the Coast Guard and had one last evening with his wife and her family before he had to report for duty in Omaha at eight the next morning.

There was so little anyone could say, and finally the folks went back to finish whatever they were doing, and we slowly headed for our bedroom to be alone.

I don't remember if I slept that night or not. We were up early and all sat down to one of Mother's big farm-style breakfasts of home-made sausage, hot biscuits with gravy, and fresh eggs. When [his ride] arrived, Glen kissed my baby sister Wanda, Dad and Mom, and then my younger brother Willis, who burst into tears and stomped from the house muttering, "Those damn Japs!" Glen hugged me close, we kissed each other and both said, "I love you," and he was gone.

I stood at the door with my mother and father, watching the car disappear over the hill. I had been raised around people who didn't show their emotions. I was a seventeen-year-old girl, two months' pregnant, and had just felt the collapse of my world, but I didn't know how to react. Finally, I burst into a torrent of tears and ran into my parents' bedroom, threw myself across the bed, and sobbed for hours.

...The days passed slowly, one by one....I received long letters from Glen every day, repeating over and over how much he missed me, how much he loved me, and how he wished he could feel our baby kick and move inside me. I wrote him every day and walked to and from the mailbox about a mile, with his little dog beside me....I read and reread his letters as Butch and I walked back to the house. Neither of us had much news to write, but we poured out our hearts to each other, longing for the day when we could be together again.

Copyright © 2004 by Emily Yellin

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Stop the presses: the greatest generation had women in it. Yellin zeroes in on primary sources — letters, memoirs, and interviews that describe the war years as women actually experienced them. Yellin has done first-rate research and reporting."

The New York Times Book Review

"Educational and dishy, Our Mothers' War is a graceful portrait of the other half of the greatest generation."

Entertainment Weekly

"In this lively, smart, sometimes contrarian work of social history, New York Times writer Yellin explores the manifold roles of women in WW II....A superb contribution to the literature of WW II."


Meet the Author

Emily Yellin is the author of Our Mothers’ War, and was a longtime contributor to the New York Times. She has also written for Time, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Smithsonian Magazine, and other publications. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin—Madison with a degree in English literature and received a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
emilywilliams81 More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I'm a huge fan of WWII stories, especially those that detail the role of women at home and abroad during the war. I just finished another great story about one of the first women to be a part of working on the team that inventoried the assets of the Bank of Japan just after the war ended. It's told through her letters home to her family. Letters Home is a great look at a part of the post war effort that's not often chronicled. I hope you'll check it out.
Sigly More than 1 year ago
Ms. Yellin left no rock un-turned in writing this book. I am a (modern day) veteran of the Air Force and WWII junkie and so naturally I was attracted to this subject matter. I did not realize how little I knew about women's roles before, during, and after WWII. I was suprised at how much this book inspired me and increased my sense of pride in being a woman and a veteran. This book definately helped me feel at one with, and to better understand, the women who paved the way for me to become a military member and a career woman.
Ms. Yellin hit on every topic regarding woman during WWII and she brought to light their struggles, their achievements, and their successes. I truly loved this book.
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