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World War II veteran offers insight into early women’s corps, military life

Phyllis Kurz holds a photo taken when she served in the Navy in the mid 1940s.

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By JOANNE BERGER DUMOUND | The Plain Dealer | Published: August 12, 2019

OLMSTED FALLS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — It is usually unpleasant when a friend backs out of a mutual commitment.

For Phyllis Kurz, that broken pledge made 75 years ago was, well, a blessing. It was during World War II.

“It was in 1944. I was 20 years old. They were recruiting women to replace men in jobs here so they could go overseas,” Phyllis said. “My friend asked me if I wanted to sign up with her. My dad said it would be good for me. So I went to Grand Rapids. My dad had to sign me up, we couldn’t do it ourselves. My friend backed out and I had to go alone.”

It was a decision that changed her life.

“I had a wonderful experience in the Navy. I had wonderful people in the Navy,” said the 95-year-old. “All of us were treated very well. I don’t have any horrible stories. I am extremely glad I did it.”

Phyllis, who grew up on a dairy farm in Saranac, Michigan, attended last week’s Olmsted Falls Boy Scout Troop 201 meeting as a guest speaker. Her great grandson, Eagle Scout Nathan Wickert, is the troop’s senior patrol leader and asked her to speak about her experiences in the Navy during World War II.

“I was a senior in high school when boys who were 18 decided to sign up for the draft. You had to volunteer or go into the Army. A lot of kids in my class volunteered,” she said.

After graduation Phyllis worked at a bank. That is when her friend asked about joining the Navy WAVES with her.

The Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, was created after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged the Navy to consider such a program. It was signed into law in July 1942. The women were trained in secretarial and clerical fields. According to a website, the women’s contributions were “a vital asset to winning the war as well as proving that mixed-gender forces could be successful.”

Once enlisted, Phyllis took a bus to Detroit where other “volunteers” and officers accompanied the group to Long Island, New York for basic training. They underwent physicals. Phyllis said that first day they began training – in their civilian clothes. They soon received their Navy gear - two jackets, two skirts, two shirts, one pair of shoes, one purse, a trench coat and cotton stockings. More about those “cotton” stockings later.

“We trained for six weeks in the rain or shine. It was cold. We marched everywhere – to eat and almost to bed,” she said. “There were hundreds of us in platoons.”

They were given one day liberty after graduating from training. She was among those who went to New York City on that liberty. Then they received their assignments. Early WAVES had to remain stateside, Alaska or Hawaii.

“I was assigned to Cleveland, Ohio. I was very disappointed,” she said. “You join the Navy and end up in Cleveland. It was a bit of a surprise.”

She was classified a yeoman. Her job in Cleveland was to create cover letters for jackets or folders. The jackets contained information of those who died while in the military. Phyllis and others had to check to ensure the information was proper and complete. The jackets then were sent to Washington D.C. to help begin the process for the families of the deceased to obtain available benefits.

“That was my job. It was really a depressing job,” she said. “We worked in a very large building. We had a civil service division that did the same thing. We had a quota of jackets to put out a day. They did not. We felt that was unfair.”

While in Cleveland, the WAVES stayed at the former Sterling and later, Allerton hotels. They took street cars to go to dinner, mainly at a cafeteria that was in downtown Cleveland. Phyllis said they were required to make their beds and keep their rooms “straight.” They enjoyed the activities Cleveland offered them.

“The movies were all free as were transportation, trips to Euclid Beach, ball games and hockey games. There were hundreds of service people here. Cleveland was very good to us,” she said. “I really saved money when I was in the Navy. I made $45 a month when I got out.”

WAVES received a clothing allowance. Halle Bros. on Euclid Avenue was the only store where they could buy their uniforms. It also sold nylon stockings rather than the cotton ones.

“When they received a shipment of nylon stockings, they would call us and we would go get them,” she said. “The cotton stockings were terrible.”

She met her Marine husband, Leonard, now deceased, through a friend in the Navy. Her husband trained in California and went to the South Pacific for 30 months during the war.

The WAVES were not allowed to wear civilian clothing while in the service.

“We had to wear our uniforms day and night. We were told you could not wear anything other than our uniform until we were discharged. I did wear a dress one day, though. I got married on Aug. 2. I wore a dress. I was discharged Aug. 16, 1946 as a storekeeper Second Class,” Phyllis said.

Phyllis spoke very positive of her time in the service. It was only when the audience asked questions or when her family members recalled some discussions, did the conversation take a turn.

“It was a very stressful time. I had a friend killed. He was a tail gunner in an airplane. I had a friend who was a paratrooper as was his brother. One lived, the other died. I had a lot of friends who died,” she said.

She also talked about the “heavy” bombing that occurred in England and the list of those who were killed in Europe that appeared in newspapers each day. She called D-Day “terrible” and said her husband didn’t talk much about his time overseas.

She also said letters from overseas were monitored. She had a boyfriend overseas prior to meeting her husband. She said half of his letters were “blacked out” in case the enemy intercepted any.

Every American was issued a series of ration books during the war.

“Everything was rationed. You received a ration book that contained (coupons) for sugar, butter, coffee and you only got so many pairs of shoes,” she said.

Businesses told their employees that those who entered the service would return to their jobs, but that was not the case.

“When World War II ended, you just came home and looked for a job,” she said. “That was very difficult.”

She and her husband lived in North Olmsted. Phyllis lived there for 50 years prior to moving to Florida where she now resides. She has two children, six grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren, some of whom live in Olmsted Falls.

Phyllis flew on the Honor Flight Network to Washington D.C. in 2014. It is a nonprofit group that transports military veterans, free of charge, to visit memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends. She said everyone on the flight was over 90 years old. She was the only woman, so they added the Women in Military Service for America Memorial to the tour.

The Veterans Association invited Phyllis and others in June to attend the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Cleveland. It was at League Park. They then attended a Cleveland Indians game. She occasionally meets with former WAVES, but said the group has decreased since “so many are no longer here.”

She would “absolutely” recommend women join the military, although she dislikes them being in combat. Phyllis said the Navy taught her discipline.

“You did everything at a certain time and a certain way. You did things right. That is discipline,” she said. “I think everyone should go into the service. You learn to grow up really fast in the service.”

Phyllis’ granddaughter Anne Wickert, Nathan’s mother, said her grandmother once told her she took sugar and butter sandwiches to school for lunch because that was what was available.

“We have it so different. We can go to any store. There is never a shortage,” Anne told the gathering. “But they lived through a time that there was not only shortages, but they were willing to give up so others can have them. They never complained. There was a greater good and they were willing to support it.”

The scouts will camp out at D-Day Conneaut this weekend. Phyllis’ talk helped them prepare for the weekend and better understand the conditions military saw and lived through in World War II.

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