Women Who Won WWII At Home

BOOK 'EM: The Past Is Never Dead
During World War II, American GIs in the states, in the Pacific and in Europe all tuned in to radio's "Reveille with Beverly" for their wake-up call.

The voice that came from the program was unusual for a disc jockey, because it was a woman's.

"I just loved being in front of the microphone," says Jean Ruth, who was known as "Beverly" to millions of soldiers who listened to her radio program decades ago. "I knew from the first moment to the last, I was the luckiest girl in the world."

While Beverly was not a perfect rhyme with reveille, it was close enough. And it was Jean Ruth's voice that helped America's far-flung forces feel a little closer to home. Ruth told The Early Show's Harry Smith, in a report for CBS News Sunday Morning, she never had to write a word for the show. She'd just read the soldiers' letters.

Ruth read from one of the letters:

"I'm just one of the many B-17 pilots here in England. And if anyone puts us back on home soil, you do. So when you find time, please play 'Cabin in the Sky.'"

The letters, Ruth says, were sensational. Some were humorous and others were about love.

The former disk jockey notes, "I always put the letters from the hospital on the top of the stack."

Beverly was a part of World War II's "Greatest Generation," but she was also one of the war's legions of unsung heroes -- the women.

"The women stepped up," says author Emily Yellin. "Whatever they were asked to do, whatever they were invited to do, whatever they were allowed to do, they did. And I called it an inadvertent revolution. I don't think any of these women set out to change the world. But they did it."

Yellin has written "Our Mothers' War." It tells of the struggles and the successes of the millions of women during World War II, who didn't just keep the home fires burning, but they changed the course of the nation they had been left to tend.

"I didn't set out to prove that this was the seeds of the women's liberation movement or anything," says Yellin. "I always thought, you know, that women went to work and then they went back home and we had the 1950s and everything was idyllic … And that is, on the surface, what happened. But it's so clear to me now that the seeds were planted."

Riveters, the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, now have daughters who are lawyers, doctors, journalists and authors like Yellin. The writer's mother, Carol Lynn, became an editor at Reader's Digest during the war.

Yellin says her mother described herself as an editorial Rosie the Riveter, because she wouldn't have gotten the job if men had not gone off to war.

In early 1945, Carol Lynn set off on her greatest adventure -- she joined the Red Cross and soon was sent to Saipan. But her daughter grew up never hearing much about it.

"At our family dinner table, we talked about my father being in Burma," remembers Yellin. "And that was our talk about World War II. And they were great stories. And, then my mother would kind of add a sentence or two, 'And oh yes, I was in Saipan.'"

Carol Lynn Yellin died of cancer in 1999, at the age of 79. About a year later, Emily Yellin was rummaging through the attic when she discovered dozens of time-stained letters. Most of them typed on onionskin paper and still folded neatly in their original airmail envelopes.

"I started reading and it opened up this world," says Yellin. "It was my mother at an earlier time. It was my mother before I knew her, before she was my mother. And, she was a young woman in her early 20s … I had realized what courage it took to do what she did. What a great leap it was for a young woman from Oklahoma to make a decision to go to war.

"That was a new light on my mother. I just always knew her as a courageous strong woman. But this was her first step and it really showed me the roots of everything I knew about her."

Guided by her mother's words, Yellin embarked on a journey to learn more about other women's mothers.

The author says she was surprised by the unanimity among the women -- no matter what their political or economic background. The women, Yellin says, wanted to serve their country.

"People weren't concerned with getting credit," says Yellin. "They were concerned with getting things done and winning the war and whatever it took."

And the war also provided women with opportunities that didn't exist for them before.

Yellin explains, "The plants were producing war machinery at just the time the men were being called away to the draft. So, they needed personnel. And they looked around and realized, 'Well, maybe women can do it.'"

The same equal opportunity attitude applied to the military. When the call went out that the military was in need, Lillian Goodman was one of the hundreds of thousands of women who responded.

"I was just thrilled with the idea of being able to do something for our country," says Goodman. "I guess I was too dumb to be scared."

As a young woman, Goodman fell in love with flying. When the government sponsored a pilot training program, she won the one scholarship open to females. Then, in 1943, she trained with the Army Air Corp.

Goodman notes with a laugh, "When we graduated, we had the equivalent of a professional license with instrument training and night flying. I don't say we were very good at any of these, but we had passed the test."

She became a WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilots), who were civilians and not sent overseas. Most of the time, they ferried planes to and from factories and bases around the country.

"We had to find our way from one place to another," remembers Goodman.

And to do that, they had to look for landmarks on the ground to guide their course. It was "contact flying" – where every American town had a water tower with its name painted on it to help the women navigate their planes.

In three years, WASP managed to fly 60 million miles and ferried more than 12,000 planes -- some in disrepair. That alone was dangerous work. They also provided target practice for the men.

"Somewhere along the line, I was transferred from the ferry command to the training command," says Goodman. " I was stationed in Las Vegas. And there we were co-piloting B-26 bombers, which had a very bad reputation. They were called the "Widow Makers" because they were difficult to fly and difficult to land."

The women flew the planes that pulled the targets for the men learning to shoot from a B-17.

Some men resented women coming into the workforce. Harassment was not uncommon, but it was rarely reported. Sometimes the resentment could have been deadly. In WASP, for example, some women had suspicious accidents. It's uncertain how many involved foul play, because most incidents were not investigated -- for fear that the WASP program would be disbanded.

"In my own class, there were two girls and an instructor that went up in a twin-engine plane. And they crashed and were all killed," recollects Goodman. "They never found out why."

The WASPs were not officially part of any branch of the military, so when a woman died, she was not given a military funeral.

Still the wasps continued their work until it was unceremoniously disbanded in 1944.

Goodman says the abrupt ending of WASP was tremendously sad.

"It's like training to be a doctor and you're about to graduate and they said, 'We have too many doctors and we can't use you anymore.' Not only that, you had to hitch a ride with an Army plane to get back to your home."

She never flew an airplane again. She went back home and a few years later, got married and had a family. Goodman says she has no regrets. She also doesn't harbor hard feelings about her flying days, because she said it was a pleasure.

Emily Yellin says most of the women of Goodman's generation have that kind of spirit. They are upbeat when others might feel defeated.

Yellin explains, "I remembered my own mother -- her attitude was always so optimistic and so positive. And I started to recognize my own mother in all these other women that I spoke to or read about . That positive attitude was their armor. That was how they handled this. That was how they met the world."

Looking back on her wartime radio days, Jean Ruth says her job as Beverly was all about diverting her audience from the horrors of war for a few hours every day.

"I didn't want to express sympathy," says Ruth. "So we were happy and had a lot of fun …
The jobs that women did. I think every part of it was absolutely essential."