As a continuation of March as Women’s History Month today I’m featuring Marceil Saalfrank Harris. During World War II, Marceil enlisted as a member of the WAVES, which is an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It was the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve during World War II.
Of the 16 million people who were members of the military during World War II, only 350,000 were women. They were often criticized for volunteering to serve – usually by family members. That was considered a ‘man’s war’ and women didn’t belong.
The fact was, women were needed as more and more men were shipped overseas. Women filled roles in every branch – Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines and Army Air Corps. They were brave, patriotic and adventurous!
This is an excerpt of Marceil’s story from my book, We Gave Our Best: American WWII Veterans Tell Their Stories (Book 3, WWII Legacies series).
Thanks to every veteran reading this! We appreciate your service!
When Marceil Saalfrank graduated from Central High School in Ft Wayne, Indiana in 1941, she hoped to attend college to be a nurse. But Saalfrank had no funds. “The Depression was just ending and people didn’t have money for extras like college,” she said.
That changed when the US declared war with Japan and Germany after the Axis Powers attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Saalfrank enlisted in the Navy as a WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). “I thought the military could pay for my schooling to be a nurse,” she said.
After completing basic training in New York City, Saalfrank was assigned as a Specialist 2nd Class in Washington DC in a women’s barracks located at the corner of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues. A brochure referred to it as ‘The largest WAVES quarters in America.’ The barracks had three floors, two of which served as bedrooms with three or four bunks in each. The third floor was a recreation hall, while the laundry area was in the basement.
Each woman was issued her uniforms and assigned a locker. “We were expected to keep everything neat and locked up,” she said. With no need to purchase food or clothing or room and board, Saalfrank spent little and sent much of her paychecks home to her family.
Inside Saalfrank’s barracks office she was assigned various tasks, including sorting mail, caring for women who became ill and helping those who received bad news. “I was like a house mother,” she said.
Several women who lived in Saalfrank’s barracks worked in departments that were confidential or top secret. “We could not ask them what they did or we could be in trouble with the military,” she said.
On weekends, WAVES could attend church of their choice on base. Off-base, members of congregations invited them to homes for a hot Sunday lunch. Some women participated in sports like archery and bowling, attended USO dances with soldiers and war orientation lectures. Avocational classes were offered in French, Spanish and photography. Saalfrank developed friendships with WAVES from Kentucky and Tennessee. “We always found something to do,” she said.
One Christmas the WAVES planned a party for a nearby orphanage. “The girls decorated our barracks so when the children arrived, it was a nice day for them,” she said.
Saalfrank began studying for promotion to Specialist 1st Class but had not completed the course by August 1945 when the Japanese military surrendered and the war was over. She stayed for several months at her station, long enough to see many of the WAVES in her building be discharged and go home. She kept in contact with a few WAVES friends throughout much of her life.
Upon returning home in August 1946, Saalfrank worked at General Electric in Fort Wayne. A friend introduced her to Melvin ‘Bud’ Harris from Poneto, Indiana, a veteran who had served in the Army in Europe. They married in 1947 and became parents to six children.
During the war, a girlfriend from the military coined a nickname of Saalfrank’s name — ‘Sally’. Years later, perhaps reminiscing about her former life as a WAVES, Marceil Saalfrank Harris named her hairstyle business ‘Sally’s Beauty Shop’.
During this troubled time, our military is still working to defend us from enemy forces. Please pray for them and show your support for what they do!