The Experience of a Nurse During WWII as Told to Patchwork by Lelia Baigis
Interviewed by Kyle Vanderpool and Alex Baigis
On July 30, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the course of naval history when he signed Public Law 689 (Navy women’s Reserve Act), creating the Women’s Reserve of the navy. By the time the war was over in 1945, approximately 8,000 officers and 76,000 enlisted WAVES (Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were on duty, with 8,000 more in training; further, there were 11,000 Navy Nurse Corps officers, 11,000 SPARS (Coast Guard) and 18,000 women Marines on duty, a total of 132,000 women serving in the Navy. In 1956, legislation was enacted that proclaimed women as a part of the regular United States Navy, making the WAVES a special and unique group.
Lelia Baigis was a WAVE in the Navy. She enlisted June 13, 1944. She was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and was involved in the Archery Division of the Recreation Department. WAVES were needed to replace the men who were fighting overseas. After seeing more than two years in the service, Baigis was discharged as a Specialist S 1st Class on Aug. 19, 1946.
PATCHWORK: What was your motivation to join the WAVES?
BAIGIS: The idea that they needed more women to take the place of the men that were spread out in Europe and Japan, and I just thought that, hey, this would be a good chance to do something.
PATCHWORK: How old were you when you joined the WAVES?
BAIGIS: I was 20.
PATCHWORK: The people who joined, were they forced to or did they volunteer?
BAIGIS: In the WAVES they were all volunteers, there was no drafting of the women.
PATCHWORK: Where were you stationed?
BAIGIS: I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, for about 24 months. The whole time, except for when we enlisted, we were sent to Hunter College; that was in New York. We were there for two months and then sent to various places, and I went to Norfolk.
PATCHWORK: How many years did you serve in the WAVES?
BAIGIS: Two, about 26 months.
PATCHWORK: Were the men a little stereotypical about women being in the service?
BAIGIS: Sometimes, you know there were even classmates and friends said, “What do you want to go into the service for?” They thought that all the women would go bad if they joined the service. It was the smartest thing I ever did. At that time it was a good thing to do.
PATCHWORK: What division were you in of the WAVES?
BAIGIS: I was in the recreation division at the naval air station in Norfolk.
PATCHWORK: What year were you discharged?
PATCHWORK: Did you meet a lot of different and new people while in the WAVES?
BAIGIS: Oh, I made a lot of good friends. And then as I say some of the stars came to the recreation department. I got to meet Red Skelton (a popular comedian of the time) and Walter Pidgeon (a film actor), people like that. I still have friends that I correspond with that are very good friends. Some of the boys that were stationed there, everybody had basketball or softball, like that. Now some of these boys went on to Bowling Green University: Matt Gotten and Bobby Green, and then other boys went in to play baseball when they got out.
PATCHWORK: Overall was this a good experience for you?
BAIGIS: Oh yes, like I say, I met a lot of wonderful people. We were doing something for the country at that time, which was my main reason; because I felt that my job was relieving someone else. Although sometimes you think, gee, you know they’re going overseas or they’re doing another job, it’s something to think about. I am glad I went in, I was never sorry.
PATCHWORK: Were there any close friends of yours who went overseas that?
BAIGIS: Boys that I was in the service with and a couple of them were killed, and several of them were killed in action. I don’t know if I can remember everyone’s name. But I remember the one was a flyer, he was in the Air Force, and he was killed when they raided Ploesti oil fields (A bombing raid on an enemy oil refinery complex in Romania). Now people of my age that knew about the war that was one of the big to-get-there places where their oil was, to slow the Germans down, to make it hard for them.
PATCHWORK: After you were discharged, did you go to college?
BAIGIS: No, I really wanted to. It was different then, because my family didn’t have the money. It was different; it wasn’t as easy to get into college as it is today, although I could have gotten a G.I. loan, a Government Issue loan. By the time I came out I just wasn’t that interested. Now I wish I had, I really wish I had gone.
PATCHWORK: What jobs did you get involved in after you got out of the service?
BAIGIS: I worked at a clothing store. I liked to buy clothes, so I thought I’d work there, get a discount.
PATCHWORK: Did you know any famous people that were involved in the WAVES or came to visit the WAVES or gave speeches to the WAVES?
BAIGIS: Now Fred Waring, that doesn’t mean anything to you, but to our group of people, he had a great orchestra and chorus. And after the war they were on TV. They came. Red Skelton put on a show and Walter Pidgeon was there. We got a lot of others; ballplayers. A lot of those ballplayers were drafted, and they were in the service, they were stationed down there.
PATCHWORK: What other departments were there in the WAVES besides recreation?
BAIGIS: There were girls that worked with the planes, did secretarial work. They were in Washington where there was a lot of the secret stuff being done. Radar was just starting down there. (While showing pictures) this had a barracks of one right after the other and they had a barracks, a Quonset Hut. Now a Quonset Hut, it was a metal upside-down “U” building with windows. They were put up quickly to house people or for schooling. Radar was just starting, and they had these buildings around that were guarded because people just didn’t know about it, it was secret, they didn’t want it to be known. They just did so many things. Whatever the men did, the ladies did. Whether it was working on a plane, secretarial work, or dentist work. They worked in the towers that told the planes to come in, they took the truck drivers, just anything.
PATCHWORK: So you were housed in a barracks? How many people lived with you in your barracks?
BAIGIS: There were cubicles which had two sets of double beds. Say there would be maybe twenty-some cubicles. Then in the back were the showers and place where you washed and ironed. I don’t want to say recreation, just a little hall where you met, where you had a date or listened to the radio, or whatever. Now the big recreation place, that was an old barracks, they just stored some things in there, and my officer came down, she got them going and cleared that thing out and had a beautiful recreation hall made out of it. (Showing pictures) The music room, a big hall with the record players, with a ping-pong because we didn’t have TV then, a place where all the equipment hung for archery, golf, baseball, the basketball, softball or whatever. It was really very nice. There was a room where you could invite people for dinner, it held about 8 or 10 people. A kitchen, you could cook and ask people.
PATCHWORK: What was your rank while you were there?
BAIGIS: Specialist S First Class. A person could be a Specialist A, or a Specialist N, depending on where they were working. There are many. There were so many. This is Specialist T; she was an instructor in link trainer. Now a link trainer is where a pilot sat, they would go back and forth, up and down, and they would talk to them and it would be the beginning of their training for flying that was a link trainer. (Showing pictures)
PATCHWORK: What was the highest rank that was in the WAVES?
BAIGIS: In the WAVES we had an admiral. They had a beauty shop down there; there was everything there. Ship service, now they’re the people that cook the meals, got the meals ready. (Showing pictures) Now this is the lady that was in charge of the WAVES (in Norfolk). She was the Lieutenant, the administrator, but got promoted, I know she did. She got promoted because she was very good; she brought a lot of things. Now the Captain was in charge of the naval air station, and another Captain would be in charge of the operating base or whatever.
PATCHWORK: Was the atmosphere pretty strict while you were out there doing your job?
BAIGIS: I’m a Specialist S. Then you go Lieutenant (j.g.), Lieutenant, Commander, but anybody that was an officer you saluted. When you passed them on the street, in a building or whatever, you saluted them. You had to have your I.D., when you went out, and when you came back.
PATCHWORK: So security was pretty tight?
BAIGIS: Oh indeed, lots of security, because at that time it was during the war. All night long there were men going around in Jeeps checking the fences. A lot of men were in the security business. As I said, there is just almost anything that the men did, the ladies did. Secretarial work, there was a lot of the sailors did that, too, a lot of them worked in the machine shops, and there are pictures in here of that recreation hall. Holidays were great; you got a fantastic meal, the fact that you’re away from home
PATCHWORK: Did you have a ceremony for being discharged from the service?
BAIGIS: No, there was just a group of us; at this point so many people were leaving the service after the war, after a certain amount of time. There would be a group of half a dozen or eight, with my group I was in charge. Then (my group and I) got on a plane and went to Washington, and there was a little
PATCHWORK: Was it sad? What were your feelings when you got discharged from the WAVES?
BAIGIS: Well, you made a lot of friends, some of them were really happy; they were going home to certain jobs and things. It was mostly sad because you were with those girls two or three years; you got to know them. And as any other place there were problems here and there. With the women, just like the men, they got dishonorable discharge for different things. Some things happen with the women, just like the men, it wasn’t any different.
PATCHWORK: What was probably the highest-profile job the women had?
BAIGIS: One of the women I went in the service with, she was stationed in Washington, and she did secret work. A lot of them did, and they didn’t talk about it. Nobody knew. I didn’t know until she was out of the service that she did that. She did secretarial work, as far as I knew, that’s all she did. But that was her job; there were lots of people. Many years after, some of these stories came out, about things that had happened, and things that they had to do. You didn’t know about it. It wasn’t too long ago that I read about someone that had the type of job that nobody knew. Many stories don’t come out, and those boys that came back from overseas, from Japan and from Germany that were prisoners, and they had some horrible stories to tell. I mean a lot of them didn’t talk about it. My girlfriend’s husband, why, she didn’t even know he got a medal! I think it was the distinguished Medal of Honor, and he never said anything to anybody. Some of those boys went through some, well in any war, I don’t care if it was the Vietnam War, any war is, as they say, war is Hell and it is, you’re away from your family, you’re in some place you thought you’d never be, where people did things differently. I'd say it was an education for them as well. But it wasn’t always nice.
PATCHWORK: Did you receive any awards?
BAIGIS: Oh, I got a medal when I was discharged and another little medal that we all got for having been in the service. Then there was a little, what they call, the little pin with wings on it that showed that you were discharged, that you were flying away from the service. I got a pin for being discharged and the pin for the Second World War. The boys that were overseas, they got pins for being in Germany or the Purple Heart, anybody that was wounded pertaining to the war got a Purple Heart. Then of course these boys that did really great things. But the women, they weren’t that involved in that much, nobody got anything special, we all had about the same.
PATCHWORK: But you had a major impact on helping out with the service, right? Like if the women didn’t volunteer do you think it would have put a dent in the services, what they were doing?
BAIGIS: No, I think as the fact that they were there was to take someone’s place, they didn’t push somebody out of a job. Unless somebody went, say, maybe one of the boys that worked where they tested motors and things, he was promoted and he went over here, then a WAVE would take his job. But nobody was ever pushed out of a job because of the WAVES coming in. They filled jobs as they were being emptied, you know, to go to another spot or to go overseas or whatever.
PATCHWORK: Were any of your parents or relatives involved in the military?
BAIGIS: Oh, cousins. I had cousins that were in the service. My sister was going to nursing school and the she became involved. Just before they graduated, they sent them, they were a part of the service, but not actually, they hadn’t had all their training. But she was stationed, she went to Atlantic City and what happened is those big hotels down in Atlantic City, and different places ó I’m just saying Atlantic City because it’s only closer to me ó California, all over the place they made hospitals out of them for the returning soldiers and sailors and marines. They sent them to the hotels to be taken care of, and there were many of them coming back, and many of them wounded.
PATCHWORK: Was it sort of a scare when Pearl Harbor got bombed?
BAIGIS: I'll never forget it. We were having Sunday dinner, and the radio was on, my father always listened to the news, he said, "Everybody be quiet for a minute,” and then they were talking about it, and that was about the closest that it came to, from a far, from foreign” And yes, it was scary for a long time. And as a matter-of-fact, during my graduation we had a blackout. Now that means all the lights were out, and in the school itself they were dimmed, you know, dark curtains, people had dark curtains then. That was it. You didn’t move, there wasn’t a car moving, there were no lights. And if you showed a light, you were arrested. I mean we took that very seriously because it could have very easily have come to us. As a matter of fact, you’ve probably read where a couple of the Japanese submarines were right off shore. So it was very possible, and yes in everybody we had rationing. Now you had tickets, you only got so much butter, so much meat, so much gas, so much of some clothing, so the people that stayed home did a little suffering, too, nothing like them of course, but you didn’t go out and buy yourself a pound of butter. The rationing was there for everybody, the whole United States. My reason (for joining the WAVES) was as I said, because I felt that, O.K., this is my chance, I’m not going to college, I’m just working here, I’m going to go in the service.
PATCHWORK: Did they say, "thank you" or shake your hand?
BAIGIS: No, now, when they had that veterans thing at the school, last year, and Debbie, Alex’s mom, talked me into going, and I’m glad that I did go because I met some men that I knew, a couple of the men, and the others, and they said, Oh, you were in the WAVES, well that’s nice, where were you stationed?” Yes, now more than, let’s say, than back then because they were young, they were coming home to their families, to their girlfriends, getting married, getting other jobs, and as I said people didn’t talk, especially the boys that were overseas, they didn’t talk. They just wanted to get back to normal, but now the older people, that was nice they had that last year, it was very nice, and I’m glad that Id gone down to it, too, because I felt Ö yeah, yeah, I was there for a reason.
PATCHWORK: Back to the divisions of the WAVES, so there was like recreation, communication, and mechanics?
BAIGIS: Um hmmm. As you said, almost every department that was in the Navy, there was a WAVE there.
PATCHWORK: Any special moment you remember when you were there?
BAIGIS: The day that President Roosevelt died, of course we all, you know, that was a shock to everybody. Then as it came VJ day, VE day, when the war was over, in England, you know, they were big celebration times, everybody was really happy with that. And they were probably the most important things that you remember, those times. And of course the atomic bomb, that was something for all of us to think about, to think about how the world could have ended.
PATCHWORK: Did you ever feel bad for some of those civilians who were killed by the atomic bomb, your enemy, what were your feelings about the atomic bomb?
BAIGIS: How did I feel about the bomb? At the time that it happened, I thought we were trying to end the war, men were being killed, and hey, it was part of, it happened, it had to happen, something had to happen to stop it. I feel sorry for those people, but at that time you had to realize that people were mad. Mad at the Germans, mad at the Japanese. And they’re saying, look what they did to us and still those ships down there at Pearl Harbor, under the water, and those bodies of those boys, you know, they all, how many thousand men are underneath there? Well, there wasn’t that much pity. The bomb itself I think, and what happened to the people, the effects on the people after the bomb is what I thought, that upset me terribly and at that time. The fact that they had dropped the bomb, we didn’t know exactly what it was going to do. We knew that they dropped this bomb and then you start learning about how that was a big secret. After they dropped the bomb, they, nobody knew anything about it. If you ever watched any of those movies that, about these men that were going to drop the bomb, were kept very, they couldn’t see their families or anything. They were just kept to themselves, nobody knew, they didn’t know in the beginning actually what they were going to do, and a lot of them were very upset after they dropped it and knew what happened.
PATCHWORK: Was it a relief to see that the war was over?
BAIGIS: Oh indeed, oh yeah, thank goodness that was done; they had their chance to give up. President Truman was asking them, please give up, but they didn’t, they weren’t going to, so he did it. A lot of people were against the fact that he did it, but I would say the majority were happy that he did it. Really that, I’m thinking about back then you know when it happened. I think what happened to the people was horrible but, there was no other way, it had to be stopped one way or the other. Well the Japanese people are from way back, you know they, and they’re not going to give up, or commit hara-kiri or whatever.
PATCHWORK: Were the Germans that came over during the war, were sort of frowned upon?
BAIGIS: Well during the war, even in the United States, you know, they had the German, they had the Germans over here that had their own group of people. There was sabotage in the United States. What ship was it down in New York Harbor? There was a fire and it burned. They didn’t know if it was an accident or if it really was, and some of these defense plans fell in machines, so there were a lot of things that happened. But the German Bund, they used to call them, I remember seeing it on the news, and these guys were really for Hitler. What they should have done was gotten them and shipped them over to Hitler, but we didn’t do things like that.
PATCHWORK: Did a lot of people have a lot of hate towards them?
BAIGIS: Yes, people in a neighborhood, say like this. Now in a family that was born from a family that came over, they were a little bit different. But the people that just came over, they were shunned, a lot of them, because they didn’t know if they were going to be sabotaging anything. But they weren’t what happened to because the Japanese had that, what they always call the sneak attack, when they bombed Pearl Harbor. They took the Japanese people and put them in old army barracks. They had to leave their homes, their businesses, more in California out that way, because that’s where most of them were.
PATCHWORK: Do you think that was just a smart thing for them to do, I mean a good precaution?
BAIGIS: It’s hard to say, because there probably were a lot of them just like a lot of the German people that were sending things overseas with you know, radio. Now all those people, the German Bund people, they should have all been in jail. Those people! Not just the guys next door that, some German he goes to work every day and comes home. But these guys were marching and they were really radicals.
PATCHWORK: You mean they would actually march right downtown?
BAIGIS: Oh, they had uniforms and everything and they had big meetings and everything. They, I feel, because they were really for Hitler, put them the heck in jail, because a lot of innocent Japanese people went to jail.
PATCHWORK: You said the Germans were called the Bund, what were they called?
BAIGIS: The German Bund, that was what they would call the meeting places. That’s, I didn’t know what it meant, but it was meeting, you know, a group of people getting together. But anything like that of war, there’s always some people, innocent people that have to suffer because of what the other people, you know, what the other people did. A lot of innocent Japanese people went to jail.
PATCHWORK: You said the Germans were called the Bund, what were they called?
BAIGIS: The German Bund, that was what they would call the meeting places. That’s, I didn’t know what it meant, but it was meeting, you know, a group of people getting together. But anything like that of war, there’s always some people, innocent people that have to suffer because of what the other people, you know, what the other people did.