Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
Technically, she was my step-grandmother, my grandfather’s second wife. My biological grandmother, on my mother’s side, died when my own mom was still in her teens.
My step-grandmother’s given name was Florence Evelyn Doolen. After she married my grandfather in 1949, she became Florence Bassett. She lived from 1907 to 1970. I was two years old when she passed away and, hence, have no recollections of her.
Had I been old enough to know and remember her, I would, no doubt, have many, but mostly, grandmother-ly memories of her: eating sweets at her kitchen table, maybe playing checkers on the front porch.
Today, not only am I sorry not to have those memories, I’m sorry not to have known her for her own story.
Florence Doolen was born and raised in rural southern Illinois, just outside of a very small town there named Kinmundy. She was one of five children; her mother was widowed when Florence was only about seven years old. In 1942, Florence achieved the distinction of being the first woman from her home county of Marion County, Illinois, to join the WACS. Her enlistment and subsequent acceptance into the unit was reported in a local newspaper in August of ’42:
Miss Doolen made her application in July and she received notice last Sunday to appear in Chicago for her Mental and Physical examinations. There were 55 candidates and only 34 were accepted….
On Thursday afternoon at 4 o-clock, they were sworn in and inducted into the WAAC and told to return home for their orders. Miss Doolen expected to be called in two weeks and will report in Des Moines, Ia. where she will take eight weeks of training.
This article, from “The Kinmundy Express,” went on to note that Doolen would enter the WACS with the rank of private and be paid a monthly salary of $21.00.
Five months after this first reportage on Private Doolen, another area newspaper published an update, this one written by Florence herself as she documented her life in basic training. This article was published by the “Salem Republican” on January 26, 1943:
Basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, consisted of four strenuous weeks of hut, two three four; column, right march; to the right flank….
I was assigned to the Motor Corps, completed an eight week course, and was an assistant instructor until I was sent to Fort Oglethorp, Ga., with the Headquarters Company. We left Des Moines on New Year’s Day….
We were sent here to set up a WAAC training center which is to open February 1st. They are preparing to house 10,000 WAACs at this post…. Many are interested in this place because it was the battlefield on which their grandfathers fought in the Civil War days.
Fort Oglethorp is located ten miles from Chattanooga and is at the foot of the Great Smokey Mountains. In her article, Pvt. Doolen went on to recount her daily, 6am morning reveille to her 10:45pm bed-check schedule and to sing the praises of the “Southern hospitality” of the Georgian natives. She also wrote:
This business of being a WAAC is no wishy-washy affair. You see no glamour girls in the WAACS. They are hard-working women in olive-drab uniforms…. Recruits [come] from almost every walk of civilian life…. There are doctors, lawyers, policewomen, housewives….and some have no special training but each find her place, and an important place it is, too; all are assembled for the one great mission to help where and whatever we can to win this war.
Due to the poverty of her youth, Florence never traveled beyond Marion County before she joined the service. But, in joining the Army, Pvt. Doolen was able to see some of the world.
In late 1943, she and several other WACS, now assembled as a company specializing in communications, left Georgia and were sent to the busy shipping town of Newport News, VA. After that, they departed the US. Years later, my step-grandmother would report of traveling on a troopship to a destination they were not informed of. Later, it was learned to be northern Africa, specifically the nation of Algiers.
Florence would be stationed in Algiers for the next nine months. There, she and her fellow WAACS staffed the Allied Force’s largest message center working on teletypes, in code and cypher rooms, and doing editing tasks in high speed radio rooms. In July of 1944, my grandmother and the rest of her Signal Corp were transferred to Italy. In Italy, her offices were headquartered in Mussolini’s former palace.
From the time of her enlistment, my grandmother wrote letters home, usually to her mother, Mrs. Effie Robb. At first, they came from within the US but later they were postmarked Capri, Rome, and other exotic places.
In September of 1943, from Iowa, Florence noted in her letter home the extent of her military-issued wardrobe: “uniform (jacket, 3 skirts, 5 shirts), 2 neckties, gloves, 4 pr. cotton hose, 4 pair rayon…” She added as well, “We each had 3 shots—tetanus, typhoid and small pox. I don’t expect the small pox to take.”
She also wrote of things happening in the camp, “Many new buildings are being built. New girls are coming in everyday. Supposed to be 2000 here now and by Dec. they expect to be able to house 7500 women.”
Later, now overseas, she wrote of Capri, “The Isle is small and can be covered in two days exactly. Any place where there is a beautiful sunset, and one can look around and see nothing but the sea and mountains is enough for me, but Capri is even more than that.”
Of Rome, she wrote: “Rome is a beautiful city….The outstanding places we visited were St. Peter’s Church, which is the largest in the world, [and] the Coliseum. The Coliseum is even larger than I ever dreamed of. The walls stand 165 ft. high. It seated (in its day) 80,000.”
Throughout much of her time in the armed services, my grandmother kept a log. Her handwritten notes in dark black ink on thin and fragile pieces of blue paper record her travels and experiences:
Oct 27, 1943 at Newport News, Va, we boarded “Empress of Scotland,” a British ship and crew… Oct. 28th the ship sailed loaded with 5000 passengers. About twelve or fifteen girls to every state room as well as barracks bags and our bunks were built so we could not sit on them, only lie down. …terribly seasick and continued to be seasick for four days…Every PM, at 2o’clock, we practice “abandon ship drill”…. Our ship was unaccompanied—NO CONVOY—and altho it was “the fastest” of any ship we had a feeling of fear as we plowed thru the black waters of the Atlantic. We had only certain hours to be [allowed] on deck….At 4 oclock on the sixth day the alarm sounded to abandon ship and we knew it must be the real thing. All port holes were closed and those on duty [were] told to remain at their station…. Everything was silent[,] everyone jumped into their lifebelts … There I stood at my post…kept thinking I mustn’t lose my head. In a few minutes the all clear signal was given and you can imagine how relieved we were. After it was over I got weak in the knees. From that time on we were escorted by planes ….
In a later entry she wrote:
Arrived in Casa…4 day train ride to Algiers—crowded, dirty and ate cold C rations. Traded with Arabs for oranges…. Women wear bracelets on their ankles….Food. Little to eat. Small birds, some fish, grasshoppers. No grocery stores.
Of her travel to and arrival in Italy, the Private noted:
Arrived Naples July 1, at 10A.M. Walked aways to RR station. Saw destruction of bldgs. On train from 11AM to 5, about an hour’s ride to Caserta…got in truck and came to apt. “Villa.”… Italian woman grabbed scraps out of my mess kit and ate if fast as if she was starving then ran to garbage can and picked out garbage – mostly bread & put in basket….
Italy. City dirty and people filthy. Took bath & saturated clothes with kerosene to rid ourselves of fleas.
Other pages of my grandmother’s notebook, contain notes and codes related to her communications work, including a side by side chart of the American vs. British ESL alphabet: D as in “dog” for America; D as in “Don” for Great Britain, etc.
Amongst her many clerical duties, due to my grandmother knowing how to drive, and her time in the Iowa motor pool, she often had the task of driving around sergeants and generals.
In August of 1945, my grandmother was honorably discharged from the United States Army. She received her discharge orders in Italy and flew from there to Casablanca. After spending two nights in Casablanca, she boarded an aircraft and flew for 26 hours before arriving in New York City.
Back stateside, she resettled again in southern Illinois where, in a newspaper article on her return, the paper noted she was looking forward to “loafing” a bit and getting reacquainted with friends. For her service to her country, Florence Doolen earned the right to wear the European-African Campaign Ribbon with one star, the WAAC Ribbon, the Good Conduct Medal and the Meritorious Service Award.
Florence married my grandfather (a widower since 1946) in May of 1949. The newspaper notice on the union mentioned that the bride had attended Brown’s Business College in Centralia (Illinois), served as a WAC for three years, and was currently employed by the Tri-County Electric Office located in Salem, Illinois. Florence’s marriage brought with it two stepdaughters, one of whom would become my mother.
Florence and my grandfather would be married until Florence’s death in April of 1970.
In 1999, 29 years after her death, in Kinmundy, Illinois’s one and only park, a large marble memorial was placed and dedicated. It reads, “Lest We Forget – Kinmundy Area Veterans” and bears all the names of the local citizens who served. There are only three women’s names engraved on the monument. One is the name of my step-grandmother, the first WAC from Marion Country, Illinois, Florence Doolen Bassett.
How I wish I could have known her.
NOTE: I would like to thank my aunt, Evelyn Ford, and my cousin, Dolores Ford Mobley, for their invaluable assistance with this article.