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"Women Don't Belong on Ships!"

Natalie O'Brien Jones
one of the first women to serve in the Navy as a WAVE

December 13, 1994
Interviewer: Linda Bell

The women's branch of the Navy, the WAVES or "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service," was just one month old when Natalie O'Brien found herself being sworn in on August 31, l942. A Brooklyn-born, convent-educated new college graduate, she'd been working as a secretary for a shipbuilding firm. She had joked she wouldn't join the WACS because she didn't look good in khaki but would join if the Navy enlisted women. Like everyone in the office, she was very patriotic; but part of her motivation for joining was that $150 a month was good pay for a woman, and graduating from college in 1939 had left her in debt. The Navy wanted women with mathematics ability to train in cryptography so as to free men for sea duty, and math had been her major. Still, as she was being sworn in she thought, "My God, what am I doing?"

After training at Smith college, she reported to duty in Miami on January 20, 1943, in her new WAVE uniform, which she felt was very attractive. She was the first WAVE officer to take over from a male officer. Eventually the entire communications department was run by women, with male officers only on temporary duty waiting for assignment to ships. At that time, the women officers could not be stationed outside the continental United States and never be aboard ship. She never experienced or learned of any harassment. "Men did not use vulgar language in front of women. . . There were a few hard-core enlisted men . . . who really didn't like the WAVES; but on the whole . . . they treated us like ladies." "I can't speak for the WACS; they were overseas. . . a lot farther into the battlefield than we ever were . . . nowadays there seems to be so much friction, so much antagonism between the men and the women. The world was a totally different place in those days." She still doesn't believe women belong on board ships or even in the military academies because it makes for problems "with the birds and the bees."

She found her three and a half years in the Navy fascinating. "I loved doing the code work. It is very interesting to decipher codes. They used to tell us at training, 'Communications can not win a war, but communications can lose a war.'" She still remembers her one vital error in assigning the wrong day's code to a warning to merchant ships about a submarine. Fortunately there wasn't any submarine, but she felt guilty for having made a potentially fatal error. The young WAVE got orders to go to Hawaii in the summer of 1945. The war in Europe was over and the Japanese surrendered after the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. No new WAVES were scheduled to Hawaii, but Natalie worked the code room of the naval base in Pearl Harbor until March of 1946. She was there for V-J Day and remembers riding in a truck down Kalakaua Avenue to celebrate the end of the war. She left the Navy to work as a civilian code worker for General MacArthur in Japan. She and the other civilian women lived in a hotel. She recalls MacArthur "making an entrance" every day in his limousine. She felt he "played God" and was perfect for the emperor-worshipping Japanese because "they respect that type." "He played it to the hilt."

Surprisingly, Natalie felt little discomfort at being an American woman in Japan, and even made a visit to Hiroshima 15 months after the bombing. She said the Japanese could not have been nicer, helping her with her camera. They toured the epicenter with a Jesuit priest and saw very little had been rebuilt, except a Catholic church and a house. The people there seemed to be healthy. She did not feel any sense of responsibility as an American. She met many Americans who had expected to be part of the invasion and likely to die. "I feel like Harry Truman who they said never looked back. I never look back either."

In 1950 when she was 31, she married a Canadian she had met years earlier while stationed in Miami. He'd looked her up after the war. He became an American citizen and they raised their family, mostly in New Jersey and New York states, making many visits to Hawaii, her favorite place. She was widowed in l989 and soon after moved to Ft. Collins to be near her children.

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