MARCH 2009 – NO. 31
Dispatches from the Women's Army Corps based on conversations with Elma Decker
Pearl Harbor was just something. How dare they? After the war broke out I went to Binghamton, New York — 43 miles away — because I had the day off. I'm walking past the post office and on the signs Uncle Sam was saying, "I Want You." The first time that I saw the recruiters, I called home. I told my father but my mother got on the phone: "You get yourself home here, blah, blah, blah. You're not going. Your father told me and I told Uncle Charlie." My uncle did write me. I thought the world of him because he was a sailor and making a career out of it. He was about ten, 12 years older and he wrote me the filthiest letter: "I thought you were a nice girl, Elma. You're going to be nothing but a whore for the men." I wrote back and I tried to tell him, no. "There are people like that, but I'm not going to be one of them. I'm not going in there to find a man." He never answered me. He turned completely against me.
I weighed not quite a hundred pounds when I enlisted and they warned me, "If you don't make a hundred by the time your first physical is due — one month — you will be out." A couple of men said, "Do you know what you gotta do? The day of your physical, you go to the PX and you load up on bananas and ice cream — all you can eat." I did that and went to be weighed — 101 – then went out and vomited. I was five foot three. They nicknamed me Little Bit. Wherever I went, that was my name, Little Bit.
They put us on the train. Course everything had to be blacked out and the curtains drawn. One morning the conductors came through with a list and started reading off names. "The next train stop, you get off. There'll be trucks to meet you." I got my stuff all picked up and we got off in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That was my first taste of Army life.
About 25 of us got off the train. We were milling around, saying good-bye. All of a sudden, this voice booms: "Attention!" What the hell is that? They were yelling at us. After a while we got settled down in line and they said, "Single line. Follow us. Hop up in the truck and sit." OK. They took us to Fort Oglethorpe, outside of Chattanooga. The truck stopped and they hollered, "Disembark! Get down! Quietly — no talking! No talking!" So, what's a bunch of country hicks know?
We followed them into a mammoth hall. This guy stuck a tray at me and said, "This is the chow line. You go through and they'll put your food on the tray." So I did. Flap. This great big dish of scrambled eggs and spinach, all mixed together. Two pieces of burnt toast, a cup of coffee. I sat down and thought, I can't eat this. I'll just throw it away. So I scraped some of the burn off the toast and I didn't like coffee — it was bitter and very, very hot. I couldn't eat anything. So I got up, picked my tray up, and no more than started scraping into the can and this great, big man grabbed it.
"WAC!" he said. "You go back and you sit down and you eat all of that. You take anything from the mess hall line, you eat it."
"But I can't eat it. I didn't want it."
"Then you put your tray over to one side when you're going through the mess line. You don't hold it out front." OK. Well. What am I going to do? I took it back to the table and I ate it. It took a long time but I ate it. Oh, I was so sick. I got up and vomited all over everything.
"OK," this lady said. "I am Captain So-and-So. You're on KP. You got your first gig."
"Now you're going to have to clean the mess hall."
"Clean? All right. I can mop the floor."
"It's more than mopping a floor — and it's not a mop." A man took me back and gave me a big bucket of lye water and a big cake of GI soap and a scrub brush. We had nothing but wooden benches and wooden floors and I had to scrub those benches, the floors, on my hands and knees. You didn't have a mop. But I learned. When I went in that mess hall again I didn't put my tray out for hardly anything. After a few times, I realized that if you got on KP in the officer's mess, you had it made. They had fried eggs, baked potatoes, pancakes. When you finished you were allowed to have a meal so I would fix it that I had KP in the officer's mess.
In those first days we learned what we had to do. I was on the lower bunk in the barracks because my bunkmate didn't want it. I think 35 women lived on one floor and we had two floors. Of course, we shared the showers in the bathroom. We didn't have closets but we had a footlocker with our name in front of our beds. Everything had to be in that footlocker. We hung our shirt, skirt and fatigues on a bare rod on the wall.
I had to go down to the Quartermaster for my uniform. Skippy went with me. I've never smoked. I just never took it up, but they gave you cigarettes. You got your uniform and cigarettes. I pushed them back. The young guy behind the counter said, "They're yours. They cost nothing." I said, "But I don't smoke." He said, "You will." I said, "No, I don't think so." As I say, I never did. Skippy says, "I'll take the cigarettes." She ended up with my cigarettes and anybody else's she could get. Skippy had been smoking since she was about five years of age.
I loved the olive drab uniform and the shoes. I wish I had the shoes now. Well, I couldn't wear them now because after my second stroke, my left foot got deformed. I froze my feet in service, too. The VA says they can't do anything about it. On a very cold day we were out by the ocean on Fishers Island, Connecticut, working for the post engineers. My truck's heater went out and I went into the office but they said I couldn't come in — I should stay in my truck.
"But the heater's gone. Can I go back to the motor pool and get something to fix it?"
I sat on my feet but they froze. I was in the hospital for about two weeks with that. When I came home, I didn't go to the doctor's. So I lost all my benefits. If I had gone to the doctor, I would get a bigger pension.
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