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WAC recalls Pacific theater service
by Ashley Nix
Women in the military have always been controversial. Fifty years ago, during World War II, less than 35 percent of military enlisted occupations were open to women.
This article takes a look at the experiences of Selene Weise, who served in the Signal Corps during World War II as one of the few women performing the limited jobs the military provided.
Aware of the Army's need for people in World War II, Weise wanted to contribute to the war effort. She had a civil-service job, considered important to national defense, at Camp Wallace, Texas. However, Weise wanted to join the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, created in 1942.
"The need for more persons in uniform was desperate, but that need ran right up against two strongly held views of the American people," Weise recently told a Fort Gordon, Ga., audience. "One was an intense aversion to women in uniform, and the other was an equally strong aversion to conscripting all able-bodied people for war work. Virtually all Americans were 100-percent behind the war effort after Pearl Harbor, but there were limits to what they would give up."
Weise's family disagreed with her choice, but in 1944 Camp Wallace shut down, giving Weise her opportunity to join the Women's Army Corps. (By this time, reorganization had changed the WAAC to the WAC).
Weise joined the WAC Feb. 12, 1944. Within a month she reported to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., near Chattanooga, Tenn., for basic training. She was issued wool, olive-drab uniforms, "hobby" hats and OD underwear. Since most people in the military were men, the Army knew nothing about women's clothes. For example, many WACs could not wear their hats because they were too big.
Weise enjoyed basic training except the shin splints. Because of them, she wore bandages on her ankles and calves all the time.
Toward the end of boot camp, Weise and four other WACs took the Army General Classification Test; three WACs, including Weise, qualified for cryptography training at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
"We were told we had all been cleared for 'top secret' (work), and what that meant," Weise said. "We were not to tell anyone what we were doing, nor were we even to discuss our work among ourselves outside the classroom, nor chat in the mess line or the latrine or laundry room. I must say we were all impressed."
When training ended three months later, Weise ranked second in her class of 45 students. It was then Weise realized she was the only person in her training group without a college education.
Within a short time, Weise was again in training at Fort Oglethorpe, this time preparing to go overseas. She and many others were sent to the South Pacific she on Sept. 20, 1944. There would be some 5,500 WACs in the Pacific by the end of the war, some 150 of them Signal Corps WACs. Like most other women abroad, Weise served at different posts and performed various tasks.
Weise's first overseas duty station was Hollandia, New Guinea, where she found her training came in handy. "The shipment of which I was part (left) the ship in the South Pacific by cargo net," she recalled. "We did in fact have to worry about malaria, and in some cases dodge enemy action. I for one would have hated not having had the training we did.
"When you send women into combat zones, you had better train them as well as the men," she added, tongue in cheek. "You can never assume a typewriter shields them from combat."
Base G, where she worked, was 15 miles from where the WACs were billeted. Hollandia, three degrees south of the equator in rainforest that gets some of the most rainfall in the world, offered a new experience.
"The area is volcanic, with mountains that look like little kids had drawn them," she said. "The roads had been built by our troops, and were still being built right out of the sides of the mountains. That trip to work everyday was without exception a hair-raising experience. The traffic was bumper to bumper.
"Hollandia had become a string of encampments along the coast with 85,000 troops. It was supplying the landings on Leyte (the Philippines), which had just occurred in October 1944. I have never in my life seen so much of everything. Stuff was stored in temporary warehouses or on pallets in the open. There were simply miles of 55-gallon drums of gasoline. Hollandia processed virtually everything and everybody for the Philippine campaign."
It also processed a myriad of crypto traffic. Weise logged messages in and out that were to be encrypted or decoded. She also deciphered parts of codes.
Her company in New Guinea had two sets of authority: the Signal Corps and the company officers. The Signal Corps cadre, their professional bosses, treated the WACs with respect and as professional colleagues. However, their company officers in charge of quarters, the mess hall and enforcing rules and regulations were often less than kind.
The WACs worked rotation eight-hour shifts seven days a week. Company officers wouldn't allow those working the night shifts to sleep during the day; instead, they created more work for them.
Morale was poor for Weise and her company. The women were not given deserved recognition, promotions were hard to get, and there were inadequate supplies. In spite of the intense tropical heat, the women were told to wear skirts and stockings. In general, the company officers treated the WACs badly. Despite these hardships, Weise liked her job and did it well.
"Psychologically, we thrived on the hard work," she said. "Being in the message center, where we were at the center of things, we knew pretty much what was going on and how important our work was. We would know, for example, that a big landing was about to take place. We would not know the exact date, nor the exact place, but we followed the progress of the war carefully, and so we had some pretty good educated guesses.
"For example, when we were preparing for the landing on Lingayen on Luzon Island, we knew this was the landing which would lead to the battle for Manila. The tension was palpable. The message traffic got frantic, as the job of getting troops, supplies and ships all together by a certain date drew to a close. Then one morning we looked out to sea; where yesterday there had been hundreds of ships, today there was not a one."
The severe working and living conditions took their toll. For example, everyday the women rode 30 miles in an open truck, down a dusty road to work; then repeated the trip "home." Eventually, Weise, as well as others, developed health problems. She began to suffer allergies and was sent to general hospital. At the hospital, Weise constantly heard the ambulances' sirens and saw the wounded being brought in to be treated. After only two days, she checked herself out of the hospital.
Despite the conditions, there were light moments. One of the more interesting things Weise remembered about Hollandia was the time an Irish setter wandered into their camp. The WACs took care of the animal and, later, a mate who gave birth to a large litter of puppies.
Their camp also had a washing machine, something Weise found fascinating. The machine was modern and was the most efficient one she had ever seen.
She also remembered fondly the time the USO visited and performed the musical "Oklahoma." The soldiers sat and watched it in a pouring rain with only their ponchos to protect them. Weise enjoyed the musical so much she saw it several more times after she returned to the United States.
From New Guinea, Weise went to Manila. Her orders were to report to the quartermaster, but former comrades managed to get her back into the Signal Corps because the corps had priority over the quartermaster.
Manila gave Weise a first-hand view of the war. For example, the mess hall she ate in, once a Japanese torture chamber, still showed signs of its past use. Some rooms in her building had bloodstains despite repeated scrubbings. Each time Weise went to eat, she could not help but think about what had happened there.
Manila carried many other scars of the Japanese occupation. The Japanese had destroyed the beautiful buildings of pre-war Manila with demolition crews.
"The enemy had defended the city street by street, house by house, and so when the first WACs got there, the enemy dead were in every building and in the streets," Weise said. "The Pasig River runs right through he city; we held the north side of it, but the Japanese still held the south side, and the city water supply, Ipo Dam. Every so often they would lob shells at us."
The WACs' quarters also carried terrible reminders of the horrors of war. Occasionally, bits and pieces of human flesh appeared in the running water and toilets of the WACs' bathrooms; the Filipinos, cleaning up Manila after the Japanese occupation, were clogging the sewers with the corpses of their captors. The Army solved the WACs' problems by sealing off their bathrooms and constructing new latrines outside their building.
For Weise, the big differences between Hollandia and Manila were her working and living conditions. She no longer had to edit; rather, she worked on the new cryptographic machine, the Enigma. About the time she arrived, her new duty station received new equipment, enabling her to work faster and more efficiently. However, sleeping in the daytime was still tough with the heat and the noise.
After she had been overseas nearly two years, the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered. "When the final surrender was announced one hot night, we heard shouts and cheering from the signal center," Weise recalled. "Jean Ann (Thompson, her friend) and I pulled on pants over our pajamas and made a dash for the center, where we were told what had just come in over the teletype.
"The rest of Manila got the news almost as soon as we did, and we began to hear the ships in Manila Bay sounding their whistles. Guns began going off, followed by all the church bells in Manila tolling, led by the great bells of San Sebastian Cathedral. I began to shiver, and we all wept. We had been at war for almost four years, the British for six, and the Chinese for eight.
"In the letter I wrote my mother that day, I said that, as painful as the surrender was for the Japanese, it still must have been a relief."
During Weise's Army service, she received many awards and citations. These included the Southwest Pacific Theater medal, the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, the Asian Pacific Theater Medal, New Guinea battle stars, the Philippine Liberation Medal, a victory medal and good-conduct medal. When the war ended and WACs were quickly sent back to the United States, a point system determined who would go home first. Weise had accumulated 40 points by the end of the hostilities in the Pacific, not enough to be considered for immediate rotation. However, with the points she received for her battle stars, her total was enough to get her home before Christmas.
Weise vividly recalls the details of the euphoric landing in San Francisco Thanksgiving Day 1945. Hardly anybody had slept.
"We WACs were right up at the prow as we steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge just as the sun came up," she said. "As we came into the harbor, all the ships in port saluted us with their whistles, we had a ferry boat with a band play us into dock, and the fireboats lifted sprays of water. When we docked, we WACs, along with the American prisoners of war we had picked up in Yokohama, were debarked first. As the WACs came down the gangplank, the GIs still on the ship cheered. What a homecoming! The dock was simply a sea of families, and we got kissed and hugged as we got off. It didn't matter a bit they were not our parents; if we weren't their kids, we were somebody's."
After 22 months of active military service, Weise received her honorable discharge Dec. 6, 1945. In January 1946, she started college at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and carried a double major in political science and economics. She used her GI bill to go to school, but with such a short Army service her entitlements didn't last long.
Out of school, but not yet graduated, Weise moved to New York and worked for a number of years. At first she couldn't find a job because most places refused to hire women veterans. It was considered bad if veterans even discussed the war.
With money she saved, Weise returned to Washington University and completed her bachelor's degree in 1968. Between moving and raising a family, she was in and out of school. By 1975, Weise had completed her work on her master's in communications and doctorate in humanities from Syracuse University, N.Y., eventually becoming director of New York's state university system's equal opportunity office.
Today Weise, 73, lives in Keeling, Va.
Ms. Nix, a history major at Augusta College, served a summer internship in the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon command historian's office.
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