With Memorial Day, it is appropriate to discuss the work of a group of women who contributed mightily to the United States’ war effort during World War II. I’m referring to the women of the Red Cross.
For the many women who stayed on the home front and did not work in industry, the Red Cross was a way to get involved with the war. Many Red Cross volunteers also went overseas and by the end of the war, 7,000 Red Cross "girls" had served in that capacity.
More than 3.5 million women joined the Red Cross in the U. S. pulling such duties as assisting medical personnel in hospitals and boosting the morale of patients. They also rolled millions of bandages for military hospitals at home and abroad, put together food packages for POWs, and produced care packages for soldiers. They were also vital in collecting blood and plasma and shipping it to hospitals to care for the wounded.
The 7,000 volunteers who went overseas staffed 1,800 clubs near wherever the troops were stationed. Some of the Red Cross women ran "clubmobiles" which were traveling kitchens from which they made coffee, doughnuts, and any other available refreshments. These vehicles followed the men to the front on all major campaigns and as a result, 29 Red Cross women were killed while on duty overseas.
The women of the Red Cross were unique compared to their counterparts in the military branches. To be a member of the Red Cross, they had to have a college degree and be at least 25 years old. Some thought that for women with such qualifications to be serving coffee and doughnuts and organizing dances was a waste of their skills. However, it was the 1940s and to join the Red Cross meant it was an opportunity for some adventure never before available to women. The Red Cross and the USO were the only organizations sent overseas that were not under the tight regulation of military discipline.
One Red Cross girl wrote home to her mother telling of the kick the soldiers got out of the "little red and white apron you made." "Just like home," they say. In some ways, that was the main mission of the Red Cross women. They were to bring the men a little bit of home.
Gysella Simon, a Red Cross club director in England, wrote to a friend back home on May 21,1944 about the changes she saw in herself since she joined the Red Cross. She seemed to speak for most of the women who served overseas during World War II.: "At last, here in this forgotten place, I have found myself....I have lived with men preparing for combat..... and wonder why I didn’t get into this sort of work sooner.....I am doing a real worthwhile thing and it makes me glow with satisfaction. I should like to share this feeling with every American girl back home."
(Some of the information in this column was obtained from "Our Mother's War" by Emily Yellin, 2004.
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