In honor of yesterday’s 76th anniversary of the creation of the Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), I thought I’d post about this 1951 WAVES recruiting comic book that I found in a file of women’s military recruiting materials at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
I’ve been interested for some time in the way that military women are portrayed in popular media, and this comic is a sterling example of gender stereotyping and misrepresentation of military women.
The comic was a giveaway published by Toby Press, a small press active from 1949 to 1955, and may have been commissioned by the US Navy. The comic’s writer, Charles Spain Verral, wrote pulp fiction, adventure and mystery, and military-themed books. His obituary doesn’t indicate any actual military service. In short, the comic was written by a civilian man. The story may not have been reviewed and approved by any WAVES then serving, even if the Navy commissioned the book.
Let’s pause for a moment here to notice that our heroine, Judy Watson, is a wasp-waisted, “all-American” blonde with painted red lips, bouncy curls, and a cheerful white smile. Not exactly representative of the American population, let alone the African American women who had been fully integrated into the WAVES three years earlier. In the frames below, Navy women are depicted as needing constant guidance and explanation from men; catty, malicious, and unprofessional; irresponsible; poor leaders; and obsessed with men.
The comic’s opening is promising. Judy wanted to go to college to be a journalist, maybe even a glamorous (!) foreign correspondent. We don’t know why this future was “denied her,” though one might infer some trouble with the family finances. But she’s able to realize her deepest yearnings for a career, security, travel, romance, and a “full life” through the WAVES.
Here’s how that happens for her.
Judy is bored in her job as a clerk at the hometown five-and-dime. On her way home one evening, she’s hailed by a man in uniform…
…who just happens to be an old school chum, named—you can’t make this stuff up!—Hank Williams. Maybe our Hank is also a singing alcoholic? And the subtitle of the comic might as well be “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” But that’s skipping ahead.
Hank gives Judy a recruiting brochure he’d planned to take to his sister. God forbid Judy would have noticed a military recruiting office or poster for herself, or would have made an effort to learn more on her own. Verral copied the brochure directly from one that was in circulation at the time. The text is legible in the comic book, and it’s identical to the text in the original “U. S. N. Career Woman” recruiting brochure.
Judy’s so entranced by the promises made in the “idiot book” that, being a dumb dame, she walks out into traffic and almost gets hit by a car. She also doesn’t notice the creepy guy at the bus stop who’s ogling and catcalling her.
Judy’s dad isn’t thrilled by the idea of his adult daughter leaving home and his control—um, I mean, his guidance and protection. That was a common attitude in the 1950s: my grandfather told my mother that she would be no daughter of his if she left his home before she was married. Because of course, women were incapable of living in the world without taking orders from either a father or a husband.
Policymakers agreed with that assessment. Men could enlist in the armed forces without parental permission at age 18 in 1951. Women had to be 21.
Ten days after she submits her application, Judy is summoned for a physical. The doctor tells her she’s in “tip-top shape,” she gives notice at the five-and-dime, and her proud parents see her off at the Greyhound bus station.
Outside the recruit depot, Judy meets dark-haired, freckled, blunt “Hilly,” and snotty, rich, bored Sheila Barrert, who arrives with her mother in a car with a chauffeur who carries her bags up to the second floor for her. Note Sheila’s reddish hair. Everybody knows that those redheaded girls are gonna cause trouble.
Um, not so much.
The young women are sworn in during a “spine-tingling” ceremony. Then Judy, for no reason apparent in the comic, is chosen to be the leader of the group going by rail to the training center. Despite being members of the US Navy who should conduct themselves accordingly, they’re still in civilian clothes and not under the supervision of a petty officer. You know that won’t end well.
Hilly calls it: Sheila—aka “Park Avenue”—is a power-hungry slut.
AND she has Mean Girl Syndrome. Of course, a little mansplaining about How Things Work In The Fleet™ is all that’s needed to set things right.
Enter our handsome hero, Corpsman Jeff King. This is where the story of Judy’s Navy journey really derails, an outcome one might have predicted when life in the WAVES suddenly stops passing the Bechdel test. God forbid that women might compete for something like boot camp honor graduate when they can compete for the attention of a man.
No matter that Sheila is, as Hilly says, a man-eater. The purse she “accidentally” drops at Jeff’s feet is no match for Judy’s turned ankle when it comes to catching a Navy corpsman’s roving eye and winning his heart. Because everyone knows sailors are only attracted to wholesome, passive, all-American girls and not trampy, come-hither women who want to exercise the least smidgen of sexual agency.
Corpsman Jeff King is forgotten quickly during boot camp, where Judy, Hilly, and Sheila effortlessly become WAVES. No sweat. No blisters from running in hard leather oxfords. The food’s “tops,” Judy writes home. And everybody’s passing celestial nav—oh, wait. I mean, everybody’s passing the mandatory makeup application class. (Yes, this was a real thing. No, that’s not in the comic book. Here, the girls are studying history, personnel administration, Navy careers and training, ships and aircraft, and the strange language of the maritime world, in which stairs are ladders and floors are decks. The comic does not mention that a toilet is a head. That’s too crass for letters home to Wally and Beav.)
The boots have time for fun, too, including amateur dramatics. Of course Judy was picked over Sheila to be the leading lady. I like to think that the photo of the girls acting out the kiss was a coded recruiting message for young lesbians—tomboyish Hilly shows no interest in catching a feller, and that’s her in the role of leading man, opposite Judy—but I seriously doubt that the writer had that much subversive creative imagination. Though there was the Hank Williams reference….Anyway, pay attention to the photo. It’s Chekhov’s gun on the mantel.
Corpsman Jeff shows up, and when Sheila tries to get him alone for a tour of the base—probably with a detailed examination of supply closets in mind, that man-eating slut—he offers to show all the girls around. Because they can’t figure out where the Exchange and the commissary are all by their little lonesomes.
And he invites Judy to dance with him at the E Club on Saturday night when the boots get late liberty.
Hilly can’t wait for that next pulsing episode of WAVES battling WAVES. Nope, nothing alternative to see there. Move right along.
Here’s what happens at the first dance when you’re in gender-segregated boot camp. You know this won’t end well.
Except that Corpsman Jeff is such a damned decent guy that he keeps his hands to himself. Despite the romantic moonlight and some enticing background shrubbery, he leaves plenty of room for the Holy Ghost between himself and Judy. Judging by his gesture, it looks like he’s mansplaining How Things Work in the Fleet™ again.
Hey, look! Red-headed Sheila is spying on them. And she’s green-eyed with malicious envy. I bet she’s hatching an evil scheme to turn Judy into Cinderella in dungarees.
She gets her chance when Jeff invites Judy to meet him for a movie and refreshments—no adult beverages, not with squeaky-clean Jeff!—at the E club on the last Saturday before boot camp graduation. Judy just needs to pass a locker inspection. Uh-oh. Sheila has gone all devil-red…
(Be sure you mansplain what just happened here to your readers, especially if they’re young women who are such sweet innocent little things that they might not get it.)
Jeff’s so sensitive and understanding. Sheila was all over him that night while Judy was confined to quarters, but it’s Judy he writes to after she goes away to A School for journalism. Suddenly, though, his letters stop. What could possibly be wrong? Hilly has the answer, and writes to Judy that Jeff and Sheila are stationed on the same base and are “thick as thieves.” Judy immerses herself in her studies, and gets orders to the “big base” on the West Coast.
Suddenly, Sheila turns up in Long Beach! She’s a photographer’s mate, assigned to public affairs with Judy. And The Lieutenant™ sends them out together on a special assignment to cover a defense official’s inspection of the base and harbor. It looks to me like Sheila’s just doing her job here, but somehow Judy interprets this as her being “up to her old stuff, trying to grab the spotlight.”
Why would anyone with any sense want to inspect a gunnery target? What human interest angle? Why does The Lieutenant think Judy won’t know what to report on—oh, right. She doesn’t have a dick, which is where journalistic instincts reside.
And there goes Sheila again, showing off and demanding attention from The Lieutenant. It’s not like it’s the job of a photographer’s mate to get good shots of the visitor and the naval installation, after all.
On San Clemente Island, twenty minutes before shelling is due to start:
This frame proves that Charles Spain Verral was never in the Navy. And that no one qualified as OOD In Port—hell, no one who ever read The Bluejacket’s Manual—reviewed this comic book prior to publication. The Lieutenant got in the boat before the enlisted sailors.
Verral also didn’t know, or omitted for the sake of amping up tension, that the gig would’ve been fitted with marine VHF radio, a technology which had been around for nearly a decade at that point. And that shelling wouldn’t have started before the gig returned to the cruiser with the DV.
But…but…where’s Seaman Barrert?
Wow. This surface warfare officer sure is a blue falcon. Or maybe he just doesn’t like dames messing around on his ship, even if they’ve been ordered to be there.
I bet Sheila had a problem climbing around the rocks in those shoes. For that matter, how did she and Judy get in and out of the gig? Were they climbing rope ladders down the side of the cruiser, suspended over the pitching, heaving Pacific in those heels? (They could at least have worn the ugly oxfords instead.)
No naval officer in the history of the Navy has ever spoken these words to a seaman.
At the hospital, Sheila is so grateful to Judy for saving her life that she makes a terrible confession. Remember that photo? Sheila found the perfect use for her taxpayer-funded Navy training. (I’ve heard that she also went on to NJP for making naked butt-shots on the headquarters Xerox and selling them to Marines ten years later. And hey, doesn’t old Hilly make a handsome man?)
Sheila feels that she has to make amends before she can “really belong to the WAVES.” She writes a confession to Corpsman Jeff King. Somehow, without having taken an advancement exam, both Sheila and Judy then become petty officers, shake hands, and go around together singing a WAVES song like they’re in summer camp, while “real” sailors laugh at them.
For more authentic firsthand accounts of life in the WAVES before 1975, check out the following books:
Making Waves: A Woman in This Man’s Navy by LouAnne Johnson
Mother Was a Gunner’s Mate: World War II in the WAVES by Josette Dermoody Wingo
Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence by Joy Bright Hancock.