World War II was a massive undertaking, a war fought on many fronts across half the world. Even with the draft, the government needed more soldiers. So every branch of the American military launched women’s units to aid in the effort.
In the Navy, there were WAVES. In the Coast Guard: SPARS. Tens of thousands of women signed up to be WACs, members of the Women’s Army Corps. Julie LaGrone was one of them.
The 95-year-old brought a trove of yellowed papers and old photographs when we met at the Stayton retirement community in Fort Worth where she lives today.
Among her documents, an old Life magazine from May 1943. In it is a two-page spread about a play she starred in back when she was Julie Smart. It was written to sell war bonds. She performed alongside other men and women stationed at Camp Grant outside of Chicago -- people who were professionals before they enlisted. She’d only ever played bit roles in school plays, until she was cast as the main love interest.
“I got frightened every time I had to go out on the stage,” she recalls. “Oh gosh. Just to speak lines was bad enough. But to sing?”
“But once I had said a word or two, I was OK," she says.
The play turned out to be a hit, and they sold a ton of bonds. Stage performance was just a hobby, though. Her job was to order food for the entire base, a skill she learned from a male soldier.
“Now, I had never ordered food for a family of four, much less thousands of people. But it went very well,” she says. “In time, he was transferred and I got his job, which is the total real purpose of the WAC. They were to free men for active duty.”
The 150,000 women who joined the WAC during the war were mechanics and office workers, radio operators and base administrators. Despite the upheaval of war, gender norms are slow-changing things, and some people didn’t like the idea of women doing “men’s” work.
Patriotic pamphlets and newsreels from the time pointed out that enlisted women were plenty ladylike, and tried to dispel rumors of sexual impropriety.
“Some people felt that way about it. That women weren’t supposed to work on cars," LaGrone says. “Now if you were a nurse, I think that they felt differently. That was something all right for a woman to do.”
LaGrone, an Alabama native, says she never experienced that backlash herself. The hardest thing she went though was basic training. That was in Des Moines in 1942.
“It was cold wintertime,” she says. “We marched a lot on the ice. In fact there were several instances where girls fell down and broke their legs, that kind of thing.”
LaGrone went to officer school, became postmaster for a base in Colorado and was a WAC drill sergeant in Georgia – the one job she didn’t particularly care for.
“It’s nice to see a man every once in a while,” she says.
Her final job she was commanding officer for a traveling exhibit designed to boost morale of civilian workers in defense plants.
“It was dull, boring work for them and they often times quit,” she says. “And of course we were suffering as a result of that.”
LaGrone’s superior called the show the circus, and it traveled like one: Big tents showing off German and Japanese hardware the boys abroad were up against. She was in Knoxville, Tennessee, when the war ended.
“Relief, really,” is what she felt. No big swell of emotion, but relief. Then she started looking forward to civilian life.
It wasn’t long before she was honorably discharged. She went to college, got married and became Julie LaGrone, and raised three kids. Seven decades later, she can still rattle off her final rank and station.
Looking back, she says she couldn’t help but be part of the war effort.
“And I’m glad that I did because it gave me the opportunity to learn so much and so many things that I had never done, never thought about at all,” she says.
KERA profiled women who were Women's Air Service Pilots during World War II. They were the first women in the U.S. trained to fly military aircraft.