Born and raised in Salisbury Center, New York, 93-year-old Beatrice Fairchild Brown grew up during the Great Depression. Fortunately, her family lived in a small town where they owned a grocery store and were well off. Brown recalls always having enough to eat but being very cautious with spending. Her family was also very aware of the more hungry families and frequently donated food to the poor.
Brown spent her days working at her family’s store and going to school. She eventually graduated college with a bachelor’s degree and went on to teach high school for a year. She then began to work in a business office for a telephone company in New York. It was there that a friend was able to convince her to join the WAVES in World War II. Despite her general memories of the country’s concern over Hitler, Brown ultimately enlisted in the navy as a WAVE due to her friend’s influence and the WAVES’ “good-looking uniforms.” Her family was very pleased because the opportunity sounded exotic. The WAVES program had just started, so very few people, including her, understood what it entailed.
Her initial service and training began in 1939 at Smith College for a six-week course. She lived in the dormitories with other women in the navy and ate delicious food at the North Hampton Inn. The training was a “basic start to being in the navy,” and she altogether had a nice experience. During her training, she learned the infamous march of the military. Groups of twenty to thirty women marched everywhere and every day, and it was difficult at times. However, having been away at college, Brown was able to cope with the experience of exercising her independence in a foreign location. After her basic training, she received three weeks leave during which she got married in Oklahoma. She was then sent to Radcliffe for supply corps training due to her mathematical skills.
Immediately following her supply corps training, she was sent to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to begin her first and only assignment. There were two hundred people in this assignment, many of them being civilians. The general morale of the unit was high because the civilians and the WAVES treated each other with respect. Brown described her experience to be similar to working in an office. “Like working in an office, you had a job, and you did it. That was all the motivation you needed.” She worked six days a week in a small department checking on contracts.
While she worked in the supply corps at the base, she did not live there. She rented a room in Portsmouth and had to find her own means of transportation to get across the river into Maine then back across the bridge onto the island where the Portsmouth navy was. As for food and entertainment, it was almost like living in civilian life. “Food was what we wanted to buy, and the officer’s club had very good breakfast meals.” However, there were many shortages at the base, but the supply corps’ job was to obtain more supplies. During her free time away from the base, she was able to go skiing and dine in downtown Portsmouth. She was also able to contact her family as she wished through phone calls and train rides home.
Being a woman in the war, she and her fellow personnel were treated “right but sternly.” They “supposedly” had the same training as men and trained as well as men. She was also treated well on the base, aside from some exclusion and resentment from the men and more experienced workers. Altogether, though, she did not feel personally discriminated by or inferior to men for she was respected and received the same pay. Also, her efforts were taken seriously.
Brown served for two and a half years at Portsmouth checking contracts and “doing as well as the average person could have done.” The highest rank she received was lieutenant junior grade due to the amount of time she served. She did not receive any injuries during the service, and her supportive husband made the experience smoother and painless.
In the year of 1945, due to a number error, Brown was released several weeks early. She described her arrival home as a pleasant experience and felt welcomed by all. She was delighted to be reunited with her husband, too. Because her husband was still serving in the United States Air Force, she spent the years following her service being transferred to different bases with him such as Florida and Texas. During the process, she learned how to be a housekeeper and raised three children. After over twenty years of service, her husband retired, and they settled down with their family in California.
Brown now resides in a retirement home in Greenbrae, California with her husband. A satisfied woman who has lived a long, fruitful life, Brown looks back on her service as an experience that made her “older and wiser.” She believes that the WAVES performed valuable jobs. “We were doing the men’s jobs so they could go overseas…. Women can handle what men were doing and could do a good job of it.”
Out of all of her war experiences, Brown especially enjoyed making lifelong friends, keeping up with the current events firsthand, and making a difference. She also remembers some of the challenges she overcame that made her stronger. At the time of her service, she was unaccustomed to the New York big city life and doing things she’d never done before. Marching was also a major challenge, but looking back, she is able to laugh about it. She recalls one funny incident when she, being a petite woman, asked the taller ladies who were setting the pace if they could slow down. The supervisor responded, “No, but you can walk faster.” Brown laughed, claiming, “This was a little bit how the navy was.” For the most part, however, she considers her service to be easy in comparison to others.
When asked what she believes one should remember about World War II, Brown replied that it was a sad time in many ways, but it facilitated travel and eased racial issues. She also advocates America’s involvement in both World War II and future wars. Brown sympathizes with those who are drafted but considers serving in the war a fine, worthwhile experience.
Interviewed by Gabriella Aversa and Kathryn Khalvati on June 24, 2011