World War II’s volunteers are veterans too

(On this Veterans Day, I’m reprinting a post from April 25, 2008 as a reminder that there’s more to the holiday than just veterans.)

gi_jill.jpgNext month, female veterans of World War II will be given a well-deserved honor in Minnesota: a recognition that they did their part. Virginia Allen of Minneapolis would like to see volunteers officially recognized as veterans, too.

The word volunteer doesn’t begin to convey her service, which took her from helping the most seriously injured fliers at a Florida hospital to rallying morale in Burma as “G.I. Jill,” the antidote to the anti-American messages of Tokyo Rose.

When the war broke out, she told me recently, she knew she had to do something. “Anyone who was not patriotic was totally ignored and rejected by one and all,” she said. “The more involved you were, the more important you felt because you were doing something for the country.”

Allen, now 89, had graduated from William and Mary and had hoped to move to France, but the war had other ideas and she volunteered at a hospital in Florida.

“The hospital I worked in had the worst possible injured, poor flying guys I’ve ever seen. I was supposed to be a secretary. I was very bad at that. I could sort of type so they kept me there in the physical therapy department in order to be sure that I could handle what I was going to see. I worked with these guys and my job literally was to look at them, chat with them, and maybe they wouldn’t even have a face left. Maybe they were just like a stick for a leg or something. We’d talk about, ‘OK if you aren’t really working out, how are we going to dance?’ It was that type of lingo that went over and I soon became quite comfortable looking at bashed-up people, which is unusual since I’d never seen anything like that.”

Virginia worked as a civilian employee for Army Intelligence, which gave her more information about what was going on than many of her contemporaries. And when a young soldier to whom she was engaged was killed in a plane crash in Africa, she decided she wouldn’t get involved with anybody until after the war. Still, she had a sense of wanting to do more. She headed overseas.

She and her best friend joined the Red Cross, got on a special train and headed to New York and, she presumed, France. “When we woke up, we saw cornfields. We were heading west. After training at a California Marine base, she and her best friend boarded a ship, the destination of which was secret. They ended up in Calcutta. “I had seen the bashed-up GIs, thank God, because I don’t know if I would’ve been able to make it through all that happened in India,” she said.

the_club.jpgShe ended up in Agra, a desert outpost full of C-46 cargo plane repairmen where she set up a Red Cross club, broadcast as G.I. Jill, and worked to keep morale up. “I took the GIs to see the Taj Mahal, we held dances, and we went to leper colonies.”

“I was over at the hospital one night because a GI sent for me and he asked me if I would write a letter to his parents because he had a rotten cold. I sat down beside him and we talked, and he really looked terrible. The next day he died. It was the first (case of) polio among GIs. Then we had an epidemic,” she said. To keep morale up, “you simply did not advertise it. We held volleyball games, we dug a golf course out of the ground, horseshoes, anything we could think of. Nobody knew how to treat polio.”

“You don’t have time to think of your morale, you’re too busy to think about their morale. That’s the thing that saved us. If they were down we had to dream up something. We even had a program called ‘manners.’ These guys requested that over and over again. We did it as an experiment,” she said.

Her G.I. Jill radio program competed for the same audience as Tokyo Rose. Virginia said she never thought about countering her by trying to direct propaganda to Japanese soldiers. “We didn’t give a hoot what they heard. I didn’t want to be responsible for giving them any information at all. We could break down an awful lot of the stuff that she was telling us as just hogwash.”

“Did you listen to her?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Whenever I had a minute.”

“Did you see her as your competition?”

“We were coming from two different places. And she lied and I didn’t,” she said.

shopping.jpgThrough the war in China-Burma, Virginia Allen did her job, putting on shows, playing music, teaching manners, writing the last letters home for soldiers. She is one of 16 people to be put in a Library of Congress collection on the China-Burma theater of war, considered the “forgotten theater.”

She wants to be sure the volunteers in the war aren’t forgotten, too.

“We are treated like veterans in every way except we have no benefits whatsoever,” she said. “There were a number of people who needed help, who really would’ve liked to have been able to go to a veterans’ hospital for help. (They treated) us as veterans whenever it looked good, but never really recognized us completely as veterans. We went off to war. There were guys who were enlisted who (had to be ) dragged to go off… hated it. We could’ve stayed home and danced with all those people. That was the easy way out.”

“You were required to be brave. There were people who dropped out and went home,” she said. “But most of us didn’t.”