Female vets museum lures Novato woman

Ruth Hamlin of Novato has never regretted her decision to postpone a career of serving the Jewish community by enlisting in the military.

While it was somewhat unorthodox for a young Jewish woman to pack off to war in 1942, Hamlin said there was never any question in her mind.

"I thought this was something I could do to contribute to the wartime experience."

Apparently, so did thousands of other young women who, like Hamlin, now 74, will dust off their uniforms this week to attend a four-day reunion and memorial dedication in Washington, D.C.

The Navy WAVES, Army WACS, Red Cross workers, nurses and other female veterans of war for years took a backseat to the boys who fought overseas. But the women can now rest assured that their contributions will not be forgotten.

Their stories will be preserved at the newly built museum, the Women in Military Service For America Memorial, which opens its doors for the first time during the event.

Of course, Hamlin is thrilled to be part of such an important honor. But she worries that publicity for the new memorial has not reached all the women veterans from the Spanish-American War to the Persian Gulf War.

She only heard of the event by word of mouth. As far as she knows, she's the only Jewish woman from the Bay Area to participate.

During her youth, it was not out of character for Hamlin to devote herself to causes. She had worked for Jewish philanthropies as well as the Anti-Defamation League. After the war, she converted her energies to supporting the formation of Israel.

Nonetheless, it was unusual for a Jewish woman to volunteer for military duty in 1942, Hamlin said.

"When I boarded the train for the training school in Stillwater, Oklahoma, there was not a single Jewish girl."

Further pushing the envelope, the 21-year-old had never ventured far from Boston. Her parents considered her venture a bad idea even though they had once journeyed across Europe and the Atlantic to escape the pogroms of pre-Soviet Russia. But Hamlin, after three days of travel and snapshots of America through a train window, was on her way to her own new world.

The train stopped at every dusty rail-stop and station to collect a few more female recruits, eager to join the cause. Prairie residents and townsfolk alike gathered at the stops to treat all aboard to egg, sausage and pancake breakfasts. Only hours from her mother's kosher kitchen, Hamlin passed on the sausage.

Friendships were made quickly on the train. Hamlin still laughs about antics in the sleeper car that, in hindsight, hearken back to Marilyn Monroe's performance in "Some Like It Hot."

In Oklahoma, the young naval cadet noticed a few other Jewish women at the training school, but never made their acquaintance. Otherwise, her Jewish world had slipped away like the towns from the train window.

Hamlin later was stationed in Washington, D.C. as a secretary in the radio materials department. Again, she was one of only a couple of Jews around.

The only other Jew in Hamlin's department — "Little Joe" — was younger than she by a few years. A cub reporter from a Providence newspaper, he considered her to be his military big sister, she said. Even if it was ladies' night, Little Joe would invite himself along if Hamlin was going.

She later noticed many in uniform of all military branches, stripes and ranks, however, during her first High Holy Days service at the local Jewish community center.

Though no one seemed to know the extent of the Holocaust in Europe until the war was over, there was still plenty of grief to go around. Hamlin's morale faltered most often when she thought of the young men overseas, whom she and other military women had replaced in their former duties.

Yet, even when news from Europe was the most grim, home-front spirits and camaraderie remained strong. Male supervisors "got a kick" out of suddenly having mostly women subordinates. That helped morale somewhat. Boisterous house parties and "USO-type dances" at the JCC were popular among both military and civilian circles, Hamlin said.

It was at a friend's going-away party that Hamlin would become better acquainted with her future husband. He was a nice Jewish boy from her youth who had returned home after getting wounded on the front in New Guinea.

"We grew up together and hated each other. He was gregarious and I was shy." But Hamlin had since found her confidence in the military.

"My friend's father tried to make a shidduch [match] of Irv and I." The wily dad invited the young man along when he drove Hamlin home from the party. They stopped at a greasy spoon diner for a hot dog. Hamlin spilled mustard on Irv's sleeve.

Nine weeks later they walked down the aisle together in a military-style wedding.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.