Meet Georgette Newton, a WWII Soldier

My Novel

One of the two, key protagonists in my novel Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel is Georgette Lillian Newton a twenty-one year old, North Carolina farm girl who leaves home to become one of only about 6,000 African American members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS).LWH book cover

 

Georgette’s future has been mapped out for her by family traditions and expectations.  She has a boyfriend, Boone, who she is expected to marry, and a family legacy she has to uphold.  But Georgette is a dreamer. She longs to move to a big city and lead a sophisticated life like the ones illustrated in all the magazines of the 1940’s: Look, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post. So, despite her parents’ (and Boone’s) objections, she joins the army after a brief stay at a teacher’s college.

In her new life, Private First Class, Georgette Newton is a personnel clerk with access to the majority of the files at the Fort Huachuca Army Base.  She is meeting new people, and has a new routine.   She feels like an independent woman for the first time in her life, and it suits her.

Maj. Charity E. Adams and Cpt. Abbie N. Campbell inspect women of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion

Maj. Charity E. Adams and Cpt. Abbie N. Campbell inspect women of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion

Georgette is adventurous, head strong, smart and has high standards for herself and those around her.  In Long Way Home, she describes her feelings with through the novel’s first-person point of view, which includes letters to home.

There are a number of interesting memoirs and other non-fiction accounts of the day-to-day lives of Negro soldiers in World War II, but Long Way Home is the first novel that uses the lives of these soldiers, far away from the battlefield, as the backdrop to a story about romance and coming of age.  Long Way Home: A World War II Novel is available as an eBook in the Kindle store.

A Bit About the History of the WAACS

The WAACS played an integral and successful role in America’s military presence during World War II, but the path to their involvement was a bumpy one.  Public opinion about female soldiers was initially negative and the original bill authorizing the WAACS failed in Congress.  It was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that American military leadership saw the wisdom of adding women as new personnel in the war effort.

The law activating the WAACS was passed in May 1942 “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation.”  A recruitment goal of 25,000 was established, but enrollment quickly eclipsed that goal and a final ceiling of 150,000 was authorized by Secretary of the War Henry L. Stimson.

The first Director of the WAACS (later shortened to WACS when the corps traded its auxiliary status for a permanent one) was Oveta Culp Hobby, a former War Department employee.  Hobby’s general idea for the WAACS was that they be trained as non-combatants to take on positions that would free a male soldier for battle.  Hobby  went on to become the first U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Oveta Culp Hobby

Colonel, Oveta Culp Hobby

Women enlistees had to be U.S. citizens, 21-45 years of age with no dependents, at least 5 feet tall weighing 100 pounds or more, and have the equivalent of a high school education.  They worked at army facilities throughout the country including the Pentagon as clerks, cryptographers, in motor pools, as mechanics, in the signal corps, in ordnance, air traffic control and in postal units.

On July 20, 1942, 440 women began officer candidate training* at Fort Des Moines (over 35,000 women applied for the training).  The four-week basic training of the first enlisted women began in August.   * Forty black women trained as officers were placed in a separate platoon.  They attended classes and ate with the white officer candidates, but base facilities were segregated. Continue reading

The Book: How it All Began


 

Long Way Home:  A World War II Novel is historical fiction and I have been at work on the project for more than five years.  The idea began in a very informal way after a series of conversations with a friend’s aunt who was a WWII veteran and one of the 150,000 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.   Her memories of life at the Ft. Huachuca Army base  provide the novel’s setting and emotional center.

My father also served in WWII as a Private First Class.  He enlisted in 1943, just shy of 18 years old and worked in the Transportation Corps.   We spoke only a few times about his army service but he recounted fondly the many places he’d seen during his service, among them: New Orleans, San Francisco and Liverpool, England.   He wasn’t one of the “stand out” black soldiers of WWII–like the Tuskegee Airmen or naval hero Dorie Miller–he was just a regular soldier.

After Ken Burns’ produced his iconic The War series (amidst allegations of omitting the contributions of Latino soldiers*) I began to imagine there were many men and women, like “aunt” Lil and my father, who never won Medals of Honor during WWII or even got to the front lines, but whose service was nevertheless honorable.

PFC Sam McGarrah (my father)

The research that was required of the storytelling was daunting and many times I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.   Ultimately, doing the research  became an exhilirating treasure hunt.

Long Way Home has romance, conflict, celebration, humor and also detail about the tenor and tone of a segregated Army experience that is a microcosm of the Negro experience in 1940’s America.

 

* Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics served in the military during WWII; and 13 Hispanic servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their WWII service.

Long Way Home is available as an eBook

updated July 2013 (original post April 2011)

First Waves of Freedom

350,000 women served in the military during World War II, of these 150,000 were members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) led by the service’s first director, Oveta Culp Hobby.

African American WAACS at Ft. DesMoines

The eligibility requirements were straightforward:  each woman must be a U.S. citizen, 21-45 years of age with no dependents, at least 5 ft. tall and weighing a minimum of 100 pounds.

The service of these women was a critical element of the U.S. war effort.   They took on jobs in the military that would free service men to be on the front lines.  Primarily they worked in clerical jobs, in medical units, in the motor pool, as radio operators, in military post offices and as  cryptographers.

The WAACS were the first of these services to allow Black service women (1942).   Forty black women who entered the first WAAC officer candidate class were placed in a separate platoon; most had attended college.

But the transition of women in the military 70 years ago was not easy or smooth.    By early 1943, the number of women joining the WAACS dropped dramatically due to a backlash of public opinion against women in the armed forces.  84% of letters received by the families of male soldiers were critical of WAACS.

Still, America’s World War II service women played an important role in the war.   Some women served in combat zones, were held as prisoners of war in the Philippines, conducted undercover operations, and sacrificed their lives.

For more information about women in the U. S. military during World War II  check out the National Women’s History Museum “Partners in Winning the War” web page at:

http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/partners/exhibitentrance.html

And the archive at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro The Betty H. Carver Women Veterans Historical Project at:

http://library.uncg.edu/dp/wv/conflict/?c=2

An excellent bibliography on the WWII service of black women in the military “We Served America Too” is available at:

http://www.howard.edu/library/moorland-spingarn/WWII.HTM

STATISTICS

    • 150,000 WAACs served during WWII; 6,520 African American WAACS
    • 35,000 women applied for WAACS officer’s training school
    • The first WAAC training center was at Ft. Desmoines training began in 1942..
    • Successful service of WAACS led to a permanent corps in 1948 with the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act; but not until the 1970s were women fully assimilated into the army
    • 100,000 women were members of the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency)
    • The Airforce also had a contingent of women service members called Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs.

Cheryl Head’s first novel, Home Front, is the story of two, black World War II soldiers (one a WAAC) serving in a segregated Army base near Tucson, Arizona.    It is a love story.