Monday, March 18, 2013

Military Monday: "650 WACs Defy the Subs"

My aunt Dorothy Schwartz was one of 650 WACs in WWII who sailed aboard the RMS Aquitania from New York City on July 8, 1943, arriving at dusk a week later in Gourock, Scotland. It was a risky voyage because the ship sailed alone, without a convoy, under absolute secrecy. They never knew when a German submarine might follow or attack.

RMS Aquitania in Southampton, England
Before the trip, the WACs were held incommunicado at Camp Shanks in New Jersey (guarded by MPs) until they were taken by train to the ship. As historian of the WAC Detachment of the 9th Air Force, Auntie wrote that the WACs "enacted an Ellery Queen radio mystery drama concerning the importance of being security-minded."



Doris Fleeson's article is the cover story


Famed war correspondent Doris Fleeson sailed along with Auntie and her fellow WACs, as well as hundreds of British military personnel. Later that year, Fleeson's long article about the voyage was published in Women's Home Companion as "650 WACs Defy the Subs."

In reading Fleeson's article, I was struck by her mention of "gangplankitis," which she says is "the fear of boarding a ship that might be attacked. Men soldiers have succumbed to it. Sometimes they are hospitalized. Sometimes they are carried aboard. The Wacs entirely escaped gangplankitis."

Once the Aquitania docked and the WACs disembarked, they were met by dignitaries including US Army Captain Sherman, who told them: "You are here safely. The safety of the troops to come depends upon your discretion." Quite a solemn welcome to WACs who would help the Air Force coordinate bombing of enemy targets.

The oral history of Mary Williams Elder was another good source of info about what it was like to be aboard the Aquitania as one of the 650 WACs.

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