Letters by America’s first enlisted women reveal motivation, conflict of WWI service
By John Barrat
via the Smithsonian Insider web site of the Smithsonian Institution
Stationed at a U.S. Army hospital in France in 1918, nurse Lulu Wolfe looked after World War I soldiers suffering from shrapnel wounds and gas poisoning. Ethel Ash volunteered with the YMCA in Verdun and Paris, France in 1919 making donuts for American troops and operating a mobile canteen. Ruth (Woodworth) Creveling, age 18, joined the U.S. Navy and put her typing and stenography skills to work stateside from 1917-1920. Greta Wolf served as a nurse in Mesves, France.
The WWI experiences of these four women are profiled in a new National Postal Museum exhibit “In Her Words: Women’s Duty and Service in World War I,” using letters and other archived items borrowed from the collections of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, in Arlington, Va.
The women served in and alongside the American military during this European conflict that lasted more than four years.
“World War I was the first time women were allowed to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps,” National Postal Museum Curator Lynn Heidelbaugh says. “The Navy called them yeoman, and under that rating most women’s duties were clerical. Women serving as nurses in the Army and Navy were not technically enlisted,” Heidelbaugh adds. “They were in service but had no rank and were not given the same benefits or protections as enlisted men or officers.”
Wearing leather gloves, a heavy coat, and hat, a seated Greta Wolf smiles out from a 1918 photograph in the exhibit. Her attire leaves little doubt it was cold in Mesves, France where she was a nurse. Writing home by candlelight, she revealed “I have the lantern under my skirts & my feet on a hot stone. We have no heat here yet, and it gets very cold in the night. So this is my heating aparatus (sic).”
In a ward with 112 American soldiers from “all over,” Wolf confides a “real sister’s love” for the “boys…. every one tells his little tale and how they appreciate what we do for them.” Wolf lamented that few of the soldiers got any mail—their letters were sent to their company and stayed there.
For the exhibit, Heidelbaugh and co-curators Britta Granrud and Jessie Henn of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation combed through letters in the collection of the Memorial Foundation with an eye on “how these women were expressing themselves in correspondence and using the mail,” Heidelbaugh says. “This was a top criterion in selecting who to feature.”
There is a wealth of material. During WWI “the Army had well over 21,000 nurses, and the Army and Navy had numerous civilian organizations such as the YMCA provide their soldiers and sailors welfare and morale service overseas,” Heidelbaugh says.
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