COOS BAY - In 1941, Penny Dahl wanted to do her part to serve her country, but at age 17 was too young to join the Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Service. So she took a job in a machine gun factory until she turned 20, then promptly enlisted.
The WAVES was the World War II women's branch of the United States Naval Reserve. It was established in 1942 by the U.S. Congress and authorized the U.S. Navy to accept women into the Naval Reserve as commissioned officers and at the enlisted level.
The purpose of the law was to release officers and men for sea duty and replace them with women in shore establishments. At their peak strength, some 86,291 WAVES served at 900 shore stations in the U.S. Enlisted women served in jobs from administrative and clerical to parachute riggers.
Some 2.5 million women have served in military roles since America was founded.
Nearly 400,000 women took on new roles in all military branches during World War II, due to the scarcity of manpower and the urgency of protecting the nation. These women served as nurses, stenographers, dietitians, translators, pilots, mechanics, physical therapists, stenographers, cooks and technicians.
Wanted to travel
Dahl's father had served in World War I. She grew up in Dayton, Ohio surrounded by two U.S. Army air bases and when she graduated from high school in 1941, she thought about joining the Army and following in her father's footsteps, but was afraid she'd be assigned to one of the bases close by.
"I wanted to get away," she said. "I like to tell the story that I joined the Navy because I liked the blue outfits better than the khaki, but the true story is that I knew what I was doing," Dahl said. "I wanted to help the war and I wanted to travel. I'm afraid I was selfish."
Dahl attended WAVES boot camp in New York City, followed by a training school in Georgia, then was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas at a naval air station where pilots were trained. She worked as a storekeeper at a commissary warehouse where canned foods for dependents on base were stored. Seeing the devastated families on base when they lost their husbands or fathers in battle brought the war across the ocean. A German prisoner of war camp across the field from Dahl's building served as a constant reminder of why they were fighting.
Despite her sometimes unglamorous job, she and the other women on base felt they were doing their part for the war effort. And Dahl gained personally as well.
"I grew up," she said. "At 20, I was still a young girl who had never been away from her family. I also learned that I still wanted to travel."
Dahl signed up to serve in the WAVES for the duration of the war plus six months. At the end of that six months, she was asked to stay an additional six months to help transition her job back to men returning from overseas. When her duty was up in 1946, she used her G.I. Bill to go to business college back in Dayton.
She read in the newspaper that the Civil Service was recruiting people for the Pacific Rim area. With degree in hand, she applied and was accepted in 1947, and sent to Japan in 1948. Dahl was stationed at a small military base there as a secretary, handling paperwork for the Far East Air Material Command. The whole unit was moved to a different area and Dahl was then assigned as a supply chief.
During her time in Japan, she found the Japanese people friendly and welcoming, despite the recent war and Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
"You had to worry more about GI's than the Japanese," she laughed.
She and a friend wanted to see Hiroshima where the U.S. had dropped the atom bomb. At the time it was dropped, many Americans felt the action was justified. There was a build-up in the Pacific and the U.S. was planning an attack that would have cost many lives.
"The people I knew felt it had to be done, though a lot didn't feel that way and still don't," Dahl said.
Still, she wasn't prepared for the devastation she saw in Hiroshima.
"I thought how horrible it must have been for the people there. I've read a lot about it since then," Dahl said. "I still feel it was the only answer at the time."
Dahl served from April 1948 to October 1950 in the Civil Service, then was transferred to Clark Air Force Base in the Phillipines. She met her future husband, Edward, who was in the U.S. Air Force serving in Japan. Edward had served as a gunner during WWII on a B-17, flying 30 missions over Germany and France. He was now fighting in the Korean War.
When Penny left, Edward traveled to the Philippines to convince her to marry him. Several months later, they were married at an American consul's office in Tokyo.
"Edward had been injured in Korea by 'friendly fire,' and he was on crutches for our wedding," Penny recalled. "People teased me about dragging him there."
The couple had a church wedding in 1951 and staying in Japan another year. They returned to the states and Edward continued in the military, serving 30 years, from 1942 to 1972 before he retired. They have two children, Mark and Gail, who both also served in the military. Gail married Joe Addair, also a veteran, and both are Bandon residents. Gail served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years and Mark served in the U.S. Coast Guard. Mark's son Miles is a full-time helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army National Guard.
Edward, who has Alzheimer's, resides in the memory care unit at Pacific View Assisted Living Community in Bandon.
Penny said over their 30 years in the military, the family was stationed in Georgia, New York, Tennessee, Hawaii, Japan, Nevada, Alaska, New Jersey and, finally, California.
"I think it was good for them," Dahl said. "It made them more mature."
"I think it was good for me too," Dahl added. "I did get to travel. I went back to my 50th high school reunion and there were still people there who had stayed right in town and I couldn't relate to them at all."
Penny and Edward both were able to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Thinking about it still gives Penny goosebumps. She earned the American Campaign Medal and the WWII Victory Medal and has a living memorial plaque mounted on her living room wall from the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Edward's medals are proudly framed and hang in the couple's house at Inland Point Community.
Their children are also proud.
"For a woman to be essentially a pioneer in the military and then go over to occupied Japan as a single woman in the Civil Service is truly remarkable," her son Mark said.
At 93, Penny is thankful for the path she chose.
"I've enjoyed my life and I think I was fortunate," she said. "I have a lot of very good memories."