World War II: A woman's story
March 4, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — Few military women would deny that they face challenges their male counterparts don’t — from the mundane, such as coping with personal hygiene in the field, to the profound, such as juggling motherhood against prime promotion opportunities.
But thanks to Doris Brill Mamolen, 92, and women like her, many challenges are just a distant memory.
During World War II, Mamolen was captain in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, or WAAC (which later became the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC) — the first group of women, besides nurses, to serve in the United States military.
From 1942, when the first WAC officers were trained, to 1946, when the group was largely demobilized, more than 150,000 women served in the corps. The WACs helped win the war, and in doing so, paved the way for every woman who has since laced up a pair of combat boots and raised her right hand to swear on oath for her country.
And Doris Brill Mamolen was on the front lines.
Single and patriotic
Mamolen was born Doris Brill on Aug. 23, 1910, in Philadelphia. She graduated from the Philadelphia Normal School, a teachers college, in 1929 and spent the next eight years teaching grade school in the Philadelphia public school system.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was organized in the United States in May 1942, and the first Officers Candidate School class was formed on July 20 that year.
Mamolen followed the press reports about the new corps with great interest.
“I was single, unattached, patriotic and considered myself a capable person,” she writes in her unpublished 1980 memoirs.
She enlisted in the WAAC on Oct. 14, 1942, and was sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, where she was to train as an “auxiliary” — the WAAC version of an enlisted soldier.
“The winter of 1942 was bad and cold, and we had lots of marching and inspections and K.P. [kitchen patrol],” Brill wrote. “We had women officers by that time, with a few men still retained to assist them, and the women were tough. They were determined to prove themselves, and us, in a man’s army.”
Odd as it might seem today, feminine clothing was a major preoccupation — not only for the WAACs, but for the general public, who were watching for any signs that the women were “masculizing” themselves, Mamolen said.
The WACs took great care with their hair, makeup and garb, trying to look as “smart and neat” as possible “while still looking like women,” she said.
The WACs hated their Army issue khaki underwear and cotton, rather than nylon, stockings.
To make the situation worse, civilian women were being hired by the droves to act as secretaries on domestic military bases, and those women “spent a lot of money to dress to the nines and loved to taunt the WACs” about their drab blouses and skirts, Mamolen said.
Mamolen, who was never sent overseas despite her many requests, “never touched a gun” the entire time she was in the service. “They did take us out to the firing ranges and let us watch the men shoot.”
After basic training, Mamolen was sent to the city of Des Moines for administrative training between Dec. 4, 1942, and Jan. 29, 1943. The WAAC had taken over the three largest hotels in the city, “and I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the best one — the Savery Hotel,” she wrote.
“I had my first real chance to get to know the women who had enlisted with me,” Mamolen said. “They were indeed the cream of the crop. Almost everyone had given up an important, well-paying position to join the WAACs, and was anxious to get assigned to her job in the Army.”
Mamolen was sent back to Fort Des Moines to attend the 17th Officer Candidate Training class.
“Every week another few members of the class disappeared, having been declared ‘not officer material,’ ” she wrote.
After graduating as a second lieutenant on March 2, 1943, Mamolen was sent back to the Hotel Savery “to command the very company I had left in January.”
The company was one of the first integrated WAAC units. Mamolen’s black charges “were just delightful, wonderful, wonderful girls, so nice,” she said.
3 bases in 2 years
From the Savery, Mamolen was sent to three different bases in quick succession.
The first base was Will Rogers Field, Okla., where she was sent in July 1943 to activate the 1st WAAC Squadron/Squadron W, at the 348th Army Air Force Base.
“This vast, dusty area, 15 miles west of Oklahoma City, was the training ground for men who would be flying and maintaining the B-17s and B-24s,” Mamolen wrote. “There were also planes used for reconnaissance and photographic forays.”
There was a drop in recruitment in late 1943 caused by a smear campaign against the WAACs undertaken by many prominent columnists of the day.
John O’Donnell, whose column, “Capitol Stuff,” was carried nationwide, wrote the most damaging article, which claimed that a “super-secret War Department policy authorized the issuance of prophylactics to all WAACs before they were sent overseas.”
Although the statement was “a vicious lie,” and O’Donnell was forced to issue a retraction, “many women and their parents believed it,” Mamolen said. “I personally felt that the lower caliber of some of our later enlistees was due to this vicious article.”
On Sept. 1, 1943, WAAC became the Women’s Army Corps, officially part of the U.S. Army. Brill had the option of leaving the service, but like 75 percent of the WAACs, chose to make the transition.
On March 1944, Mamolen was promoted to the rank of captain, and in September, she was sent to Gulfport Air Base, Miss., again as commanding officer of the WACs.
From Gulfport, in May 1945, Mamolen went to her final station, at Chatham Air Base, near Savannah, Ga.
Life after the Army
Capt. Doris Brill met her husband-to-be, Morris Mamolen, at a train station in a Philadelphia suburb in May 1945. The couple had been set up on a blind date.
Her future mate was the owner of a very large department store in Millheim, Pa., called Nieman’s. He was 44 and a widower, with a 14-year-old daughter, Joan.
When the young WAC captain got off the train in her uniform, her date’s “eyes popped,” Doris Mamolen said. “He fell for my uniform.”
After that, “we should have bought stock in a telephone company, because he called me every single night from the day he met me,” Mamolen said.
The pair married in Nov. 25, 1945, and on Dec. 1, Mamolen requested permission to leave the WACs. She departed the service on Dec. 17, 1945.
But history moves on, and Mamolen has one piece of advice for young military women today: “Go for it,” she said. “A woman has the right to do whatever she can, if she’s able, at the highest rank she can attain.”
In her own words
The following are some excerpts from the unpublished 1980 memoirs of Doris Brill Mamolen, “Private Benjamin, This is How it Was!”
The memoirs tell the story of Mamolen’s experiences during World War II as an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, or WAAC, which later in the war became the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC. Mamolen was prompted to write her story after watching the Hollywood movie “Private Benjamin,” a comedy starring actress Goldie Hawn that portrays a spoiled young socialite’s experiences in boot camp. — Lisa Burgess
At Des Moines I, along with the other already homesick girls, was whisked to my basic training compound outside of town. This was an old cavalry post that had hastily been converted into headquarters and barracks for women. Despite the intensive use of disinfectants everything still reeked of the horses that had recently been stabled there.
Everything was so hectic then that most of my memories are of the constant lining up for clothes — everything in that stylish khaki color, including our nightgowns and underwear. After a few months we were permitted to wear “civilian” panties, to our great joy.
Pictures taken during that period show all 5’1” of me wearing a man’s size-38 overcoat, which came to my ankles. At least it kept me warm during our 6 a.m. formations. In fact, it wasn’t until I became an officer and had to buy my own tailored clothes that I owned any that really fit.
Never finish first!
One thing I learned very early was the second most important tenet in the Army — the first being “Never volunteer!” — and that was, “Never finish first.”
During our frequent assignments to K.P., we would leave our double-decked beds by 5 a.m. to trudge the snow-covered ground to the mess hall. We arrived there well before the rest to help prepare and serve the food and to clean up afterwards — washing dishes, huge pots and pans and worst of all, cleaning out the grease traps in the kitchen.
During my first K.P., I was assigned to perform a fairly easy task. When I finished earlier than the others, I reported to the female sergeant in charge, expecting to return to the barracks.
“Fine,” she said. “Now. Polish those strips of copper.”
She pointed to what seemed like miles of 1-inch copper runners that held down the walkways between the three sections of tables. Which I did — which sent me back to the barracks last — and which taught me a valuable lesson.
Integrating the WAACs
My company was the first to have both white and black WAACs living together within the city of Des Moines. The black girls were of equal abilities and a very attractive group.
Although I had to assign all the black girls to living quarters one floor and the white girls to a second floor, I tried to integrate both groups by having one day–room. It didn’t work. No one — black or white — used this room during the time I was there.
However, in one instance, I was successful in encouraging some integration. It came to my attention that at some restaurants in town, while they did not refuse the black WAACs service outright, seated them at the rear of the room and then ignored them until they walked out.
Only when I visited these places and threatened to have them declared off-limits to all the WAACs did the word get around, and this practice was stopped.
We were often accused of gaining special favors because we were women. Sometimes we did.
In one instance, orders came through stating that no longer would sheets and pillowcases be issued, because there was a shortage out there in the civilian world. This applied to all the airmen, the WACs and the transient bachelor officers. I had a serious talk with the quartermaster, warning him that if the women had to sleep on the drab, dusty ticking of the pillows and mattresses, they would have linens sent from home — and would that be good for public relations? So we were exempted.
Another time another shortage occurred, and the order was given that the daily allowance of toilet tissue was to be six sheets per person. But this time, the quartermaster reminded me that the WACs had voluntarily joined the Army, and should expect to be treated just like the men.
“True,” I agreed. “However. Major D., you mustn’t forget that we are built just a little differently.”
We got all the toilet tissue we needed.
Celebrity morale visits
Many celebrities visited our base. Most of them, men and women, visited the hospital, the N.C.O. clubs and wound up at the Officer’s Club. One exception was the visit of Olivia DeHavilland [best remembered as Melanie in “Gone With the Wind”]. She came on Christmas Day, visited the hospital and spent the rest of the day with the WACs, joining them for their Christmas dinner. It was a memorable day — and we all have pictures to prove it.
There was also another memorable visit. Suddenly, one late afternoon, a parade muster was ordered. There was a visiting dignitary and all available persons were to report to the north field (and I mean field). Each company, with their ridiculous lack of numbers, stood at attention, awaiting the appearance of the celebrity. And there, hobbling along the uneven ground, in spike heels, a full-length mink coat, accompanied by a high-ranking officer, was Arline Judge, the [mostly low-budget, B-] movie actress [famous for having married and divorced eight times], inspecting the troops. It was a sight I shall never forget.