Local WAC Recorded Memories Of WWII
Every Memorial Day, we reflect on the men and women of this great country of ours that gave the ultimate sacrifice. They were friends, family, neighbors, high school sweethearts, and those we just did not know, but they fought to keep us safe in the United States.
There is a Web site, “http://www.usmemorialday.”>www.usmemorialday. org, that tells of how it was originally called “Decoration Day.” It also states we should visit the cemeteries of our fallen heroes, fly U.S. flags at half-staff that day until noon, and fly the POW/MIA flag as well. And, at 3 p.m, we should pause and think about the true meaning of the day and for taps to be played at the end of it.
While we are now accustomed to both men and women in our military, a few might still remember the somewhat extraordinary “women’s army” of the World War II.
It started with Eleanor Roosevelt’s support of an idea from Oveta Hobby for volunteers to help stateside. It was originally called the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC.
Edith Wells, who recently past away and was buried in April at the Northview Cemetery in New Martinsville, was a part of this. She was a cousin to lifelong resident Joseph Wells of Fairview Drive.
Edith signed up with the WAAC when she turned 21, the age required at that time to eliminate a parent’s right to retrieve their daughters from training. She, like others at the time, wanted to help their country when it went to war.
In her memoirs, Wells described how women were taught to march, exercise, take a rifle apart and put it back together, shoot it, and much more. On graduation day, she was promoted to corporal and given her orders for England.
Shortly before leaving, the WAAC learned they could become officially part of the American military called the Woman’s Army Corps. Edith told of how many woman had no desire to go oversees or be fully committed to the military and did not take the oath. Those that stayed believed the WAC was vital to our country’s success.
Edith figured there were about 3,000 passengers, with the WAC and the G.Is, and their equipment loaded on the Queen Mary ship, which was stripped of all her finery for the war. They left New York late at night and began their six-day journey. Edith was aware by the fourth night they were traveling in a zig zag pattern because German U-boats were looking for them.
She told of being in England in her combat fatigues and experiencing the bombardment of German airplanes that came over the city almost every day looking for targets. While there, she had roof duty, which consisted of putting out flames on the buildings’ roofs. She saw the British military woman operating the anti-aircraft guns firing at the diving planes. She witnessed Hilter’s bombs that were propelled by a rocket and had a delayed reaction to explode after landing.
Edith learned a new WAC company had recently arrived from the States and she volunteered to be one of their non-commissioned officers.
They became the first WAC group to enter France. They were needed in communications for the front line connection. It was here that General Eisenhower told them get a will done with their paperwork before leaving.
On June 6, 1944, the invasion began, D-Day, and she wrote of thousands of human beings that died that day in France. It was almost a month before the inland area was safe for the first WAC’s to arrive. They were issued rations, weapons, and other combat gear. They rode in a British landing vessel for the channel crossing. She was shocked at the debris and battered ships and noted it looked like a huge wrecking yard. She noticed the beach where she was walking on was still stained a dark brown from all of the blood shed on D-Day.
The WAC’s loaded all of their gear on one available vehicle and then they marched to Sainte Mere Eglise where they were assigned to an area outside the town in a bombed-out chateau. Their communication office was set up in the basement to disguise it from air attacks.
Several GI’s helped them set up 30 tents. Edith mentioned of how one tent was the outhouse and everyone tried to avoid this trek at night because of undiscovered German mines and other hazards. Bathing consisted of a daily ration of water in their helmets to wash their faces and clothing. Edith mentioned it was three months before the Army boys had time to build them a shower tent out of a radiator hose and a water bag held in a tree.
Edith mentioned in her memoirs how they received news from their communication link. An alert was put out that a nightly low-flying German plane was trying to locate them. She mentioned how enemy soldiers had been breaking through the front lines and then they would put on a dead U.S. soldier’s uniform and penetrate into restricted areas. They would then report back on Allied locations for night bombings.
One moonlit August night Edith was doing night security checks of tents and equipment. She made out in the distance someone approaching. She yelled out, “Halt, who goes there?” and a man answered, giving an American name, but she noticed an accent. She then asked who won the Yankee and Dodger’s ball game. At this time she heard the safety latch on his gun unlock. All she had on her was her bayonet, which she kept sharp and in her hip holster. She pulled it out, lunged at him, and stabbed his thigh. He dropped his handgun and cried out while bending to grasp his leg. She then quickly withdrew the bayonet and hit him over his head with the handle, he crumpled to the ground and moaned.
After hearing the commotion outside their tents, people came and assisted her and took the German for first aid and arrested him. She later learned that France and England were so full of German prisoners that he was sent to the United States. Edith went on to explain she really didn’t want to kill him, just not be killed herself.
Again orders came in for them to leave their camp and relocate to Paris. During this time another WAC company joined them and some of these ladies were specialists in taking dictation as court reporters.
Edith, as a technical sergeant, had a total of 300 women and equipment to transport to Paris. She was offered the rank of first sergeant, but she declined, noting she did not want to make a career in the Army.
She described how they loaded their equipment into big convoy trucks and she was in the lead vehicle, a Cherbourg Jeep. It would take 10 hours to reach Paris. During their last rest stop she checked all truck headlights for blackouts because they would arrive at dusk.
During their journey there, people from villages, where the retreating German army had left, ran out to them crying and telling them they had shot all the French men, including infants and grandfathers. Animals were slaughtered and buildings were burned, leaving nothing for the farming folks or the advancing Allied troops. They had signs up forever cursing Germany and they needed help, but she stated the convoy had to keep moving toward Paris.
Edith got everyone secured in Paris. Later that night she noticed a Nazi flag was still flying at the top of the Eiffel tower. At 5:30 a.m. the next day she noticed it was still there and knew the soldiers were too busy in action to get it down, so she walked up the steps, lowered the flag, and stuffed into her jacket.
During her time off she went and saw the remains of the arboretum structure that the Germans had used to imprison Jewish French citizens. They had locked them inside, set the building on fire, and shot anyone who tried to escape through the windows.
As the war’s last days intensified in Berlin, they heard of concentration camps opening as the guards left their post. A small group of WAC court reporters were called to record in the greatest detail the events concerning the liberations of these prisoners. Edith escorted this group as their sergeant. They traveled in Jeeps to different locations.
She described that no one was prepared for what they saw, nor could they adequately describe what they felt that first day. She went on describing that the newsreels, print media, and verbal reporting were inept in all of their efforts. Another human being had to be there to understand.
She saw what she called human skeletons barely alive just standing in disbelief. When they first offered food and water to them, they would choke from no longer having normal reflexes and die right in front of them. After that, only broth was offered. She tried to explain they were free to go, but most could barely walk a distance. And they had no family, home, clothes, or money. She explained she could not hold back the tears for them.
Later that same month her reporter group entered another camp with General Eisenhower and his staff. They found clothes and shoes at one building where Nazi guards rushed even more prisoners through the gas chambers when the Allies entered Germany. She explained that she, Eisenhower, and his aids were sickened by all of this and went off to vomit in the bushes behind the compound so that the survivors could not see this.
Edith said the stenographers gathered only the facts that could be used during the war crime trials.
When the Germans surrendered in Berlin, all of France and Europe broke out in celebration. It was called V.E. Day and Edith said the streets were filled with cheering and singing.
Thanks to the G.I bill, Edith completed her studies at the University of Missouri and became a professor of education. She believed the reason American became so productive after the war was because the returning GIs did use the the Bill to educate themselves. She went on to explain that they had first hand experience of what it was like to protect our precious freedoms and not just read about it in the textbooks.
Because of Edith and many others, American will hopefully always remember the experiences of history. Memorial Day is about those memories that must be kept alive.