In 1943, Georgia State College for Women was selected as one of four colleges for training U.S. Navy W.A.V.E.S. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the W.A.V.E.S., which stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, it was a program created by The United States Congress in 1942 — aggressively sought after by former senator Carl Vinson — to include women as military personnel for World War II. The W.A.V.E.S. were accepted into the U.S. Navy and treated equally as male personnel in many respects: They were given the same pay and same discipline, with the difference being that W.A.V.E.S. could not “serve aboard combat ships or aircraft, and initially were restricted to duty in the continental United States.” This U.S.-only duty stipulation would later change during the war when the W.A.V.E.S. were given permission to serve in specific overseas U.S. occupations. By the end of WWII, about two and a half percent of the Navy’s total power were made up of Navy W.A.V.E.S. “In some places WAVES constituted a majority of the uniformed Naval personnel.” The other sites for training chosen by the Bureau of Navy Personnel were Smith College, the University of Indiana, and the University of Wisconsin. One of the original reasons for the W.A.V.E.S.’ formation was to create a group of women Navy personnel that could relieve men from shore duty so they could assume active sea duty roles.
Over the course of two years, 15,000 women received training on GSCW’s campus in storekeeping and clerical duties for the Navy. They were also expected to perform drills and other routine military activities, and they were instructed in secretarial training. 250,000 American women wore military uniforms during World War II, and roughly 86,000 of them served in the W.A.V.E.S. During their time housed on our campus, a handful of Flannery O’Connor (a student at the time) cartoons, solely dedicated to the W.A.V.E.S., were featured in the school’s newspaper, The Colonnade. One of these illustrations depicts three students dressed in sweaters and plaid skirts. One of the girls appears to be lying on her back attempting some kind of core exercise, while another points in a scolding manner at the girl on the ground. The caption of the cartoon says, “Now why waste all your energy getting physically fit? You’ll never look like a WAVE anyhow.” The cartoons repeat in this fun, light-hearted fashion. Because the cartoons are published under Flannery O’Connor copyright, unfortunately we’re not permitted to include the drawings, but if you’ve read anything of hers, you know the cartoons have that O’Connor originality and spirit. The last group of girls to have graduated from their W.A.V.E.S. training at GSCW occurred in May of 1945.
At the beginning of October, Mikaela and I went on a hunt for a “hidden gem” within the stacks of our archive. October is recognized as Georgia Archives Month. The Society of Georgia Archivists (SGA), a volunteer organization run out of Decatur, Georgia, that includes Georgia College’s Special Collections, encourages Georgia institutions to dig up historical records in October so as to feature valuable materials housed in different repositories throughout the state, like a spotlight. Mikaela and I came across a thick, navy blue button down long-sleeve shirt, with thick black buttons lining the front, and a long navy blue skirt to pair with it, with the label W.A.V.E.S. on the file drawer. Before finding the uniform, I was not familiar with the W.A.V.E.S., but I knew from the beginning of my hidden gem search, that I wanted to find something physical, tangible — a piece of our archive we could take pictures of — rather than interpreting a written document. I thought this uniform was perfect. It then led us to a similar uniform, a short sleeve button down and mid-calf length skirt, though this one was a light, summer sky blue meant to be worn in warmer weather.
Later we found the uniforms to belong to a former “W.A.V.E.” (it was common practice to drop the final “S” when referring to one member of the W.A.V.E.S.) named Barbara Chandler. She donated her uniforms to the school, along with a scrapbook filled with pictures of her experience as part of the W.A.V.E.S. program, which includes a list of the trainees on our campus in July of 1943, as well as their ranks and their duties. Even after the war ended, Chandler remained in the U.S. Reserves, eventually attaining the position of Lieutenant Commander.
SGA asks its participants to send them a picture (if applicable) and a short write up of the gem chosen, where it is published on their Facebook page. We decided to get creative. It started with us deciding where to take the picture. We knew we wanted a plain white backdrop. Once we realized both uniforms were too small for one of our mannequins, it became a joke of “who is going to wear the uniform?” As luck would have it, Aurora came strolling in from the workroom to the back of the archive. She took one look at the uniform, which we’d maneuvered onto the smaller of the mannequins, and said, “Oh that’s so awesome! I wish I could wear a dress suit like that.”
I think all three of our heads — Holly’s, Mikaela’s, and mine — turned toward Aurora at the exact same moment with identical “evil genius idea” expressions on our faces that articulated we’d landed on the same thought.
I asked Aurora to sum up for me what it was like to put on the old-fashioned uniform and pose in pictures. “Interesting,” she said, matter of factly. “It was really cool; I could imagine how important they must have felt as actual W.A.V.E.S.”
Not only did Aurora in a W.A.V.E.S. uniform make it more personal, but it also reflects on the Georgia College community, that we were able to showcase the uniform in a more direct and personal way: It’s featured on one of our current undergraduate students working in Special Collections who was willing to volunteer. In that sense I feel that SGA had a better understanding of who we are as a university and who we are in Special Collections.
We’re especially grateful to Evan Leavitt, the Facilities Manager for the Ina Dillard Russell Library, for his excellent work photographing the uniforms, including the shots of Aurora and the two GIFs above.
Gerald, Kelly. Flannery O’Connor The Cartoons, Fantagraphics Books, 2012, Print.
“GSCW Selected As One Of Four Sites In Nation For Training Navy WAVES.” The Colonnade, 25 September 1942, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Page 1.
Hair, William Ivy, James C. Bonner, Edward B. Dawson, and Robert J. Wilson III. A Centennial History of Georgia College, University of Georgia Printing Department, 1979, Print.
“Photos of WWII Navy WAVES.” Women of World War II, http://www.womenofwwii.com/navywaves.html. Burke Enterprises. Accessed 11 November 2016.