In Their Words: Blazing the trail
Eager to serve, vet joins WAVES early
Monday, September 1, 2014 at 1:46 pm
Citrus County Chronicle
Florence McCann served her country in the U.S. Navy WAVES during World War II. The Inverness resident stays active in a number of veterans’ organizations, both local and national.
Like so many Americans, Florence McCann couldn’t wait. So she lied.
McCann was 18 and, after graduating from South Hills High School and receiving a vocational school diploma outside of Pittsburgh, she wanted to get involved in the war effort. The year was 1943 and McCann had her sights set on becoming part of the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a newly formed division of the U.S. Navy.
“They started the WAVES in ’42,” McCann said. “I wanted to get away from where I was, which was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was an orphan from the time I was 11.”
McCann was raised by her stepmother, a contentious relationship she wanted to end. “To join the WAVES, you had to be 20 with parent or guardian consent, 21 without,” she said. “So I found a baptismal certificate and changed my birth date.”
Her reason for joining: “I saw the ad for ‘Join the Navy’. It wasn’t to see the world because we weren’t allowed out of the country.
“But I just needed to get away from here and do something with my life. It was just let me see what I can do to help,” she said. “We needed people to take over jobs so the men can go and fight. I thought, OK, I’ll do that if I can.”
McCann would go through a similar type of training that men endured, including boot camp at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York City.
“From boot camp I went to Oklahoma A&M, which is now Oklahoma State,” McCann said, with the idea to learn to “do office work the Navy way.”
Now 90 and living in Inverness, McCann would spend nearly three years in the WAVES, serving her entire enlistment in Washington, D.C. As well as her various office duties, she was often called upon to join her fellow WAVES for inspection drills, marching for such dignitaries as Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I was in the Bureau of Ships Research Development Office,” she said. “I did have to take dictation. My commander would come and say ‘I want a letter written to so-and-so, saying such-and-such. I would type it up and give it to him for his signature.’”
It wasn’t until 1942 that the U.S. military had evolved at least somewhat to involve women in their ranks, with the creation of both the WAVES and the WACs (Women’s Army Corps, originally known as the WAACs, or Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps). By the end of World War II, nearly 90,000 women volunteered for duty with the WAVES and another 150,000 would serve with the WACs.
Both units served with distinction and capably fulfilled their duties, which included “take over jobs so men can go and fight.” Indeed, Gen. Douglas MacArthur referred to the WACs as “my best soldiers,” adding that they worked harder, complained less and were more disciplined than men.
The WAVES were officially disbanded in 1948, when they were absorbed into the regular Navy. The WACs would stick around until 1978, when women finally became a part of the Army.
Still, being in any branch of the military service as a woman in the 1940s had its stereotypes.
“When people hear I was in the service, they automatically say, ‘Nurse?’” McCann said. “The only nursing I ever did (in the WAVES) was after the service.”
Although recognizing the necessity of allowing women into the service, the Navy in the early stages of World War II was not yet equipped to handle the situation.
“They (housed) us at the Navy Receiving Station in Anacostia,” she said. “This was a row of barracks that went off a main hallway. We were in the last one down, the rest were all guys. There was no covering on the windows, it was one big room and there were bunk beds.
“The only thing they did (for privacy) was, dumb, on the last male building they put Bon Ami on the inside of the windows to cover them up.”
Trying to cloud the vision in the men’s barracks next door by using a household cleanser was not a viable solution, particularly since that temporary covering could easily be removed with a fingernail. The problem was resolved when the Navy took over portions of hotels throughout D.C., with McCann and many of her fellow WAVES bunking at one of those. She would also be housed for a time at American University.
“We had an officer in charge, we had a curfew,” she said. “We had everything you had in the regular Navy excepting if it was a room for one, there were two people in it. That’s the way they doubled up and everything.”
There was also a lack of adequate office space at the start of the war.
“We were bused in at night,” she said. “Where people worked during the day, we would work at night.”
The Navy Department had buildings set up next to the Washington Monument; McCann would walk past the White House every day on the way to work.
She met husband Bob when he was on leave from his aircraft carrier, the Block Island, in January 1944.
McCann would later have six sons and a daughter, and she remains active in several veterans associations, including the American Legion and the Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS). In October 2013, McCann would take a trip back to D.C. on the Honor Flight.
“To see the people who came out to honor us, it was really awesome,” she said.
It was an honor that was well earned. As McCann said, the work she and the rest of the WAVES did was imperative.
“It was necessary,” she said.