REPRINTS


My Work in the WAVES: An Interview with Dorothy Gaynell (Denton) Olcott (1918-2011)
(WAVES – Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service)
By Susan Barlow, for the Manchester Historical Society, May 2003

Dorothy Olcott was born on June 4, 1918, in Caribou, Maine and died December 24, 2011 in Manchester, CT.

I graduated from Manchester High School in 1936, and from Wellesley College in 1940, with a major in French. After college, a friend and I moved to New York City, where I took a French secretarial course at the Interborough Institute, and worked at Berlitz School and at Tiffany’s. Later, I moved to Massachusetts, and took the job as secretary to the director of the Worcester Art Museum. By that time, we were knitting for the British army, because they were already in the war.

I worked there about a year and half. Everybody left for the war. The director left, the assistant director left, the treasurer left. And sitting out the war in Worcestor, with limited programs at the museum, didn’t seem very attractive. So I applied for the WAVES, entering from Boston. They accepted me.

The Application Process

I’d heard you needed a lot of math to be accepted, and I’d had no math in college. So I was scrambling around trying to study up on math. We had to pass an exam. I remember that a lot of the questions were very inappropriate for a language major. They were mostly engineering types of questions, such as: “Which is safer, this kind of bridge, or this kind of bridge?” I remember reading in my file later on something to the effect that “in spite of a very mediocre test,” we think it’s worthwhile to take a chance on her. So I was admitted, and I was a midshipman at Smith College.

My brother called us “Sixty-Day Wonders.” It was an extremely intensive two months. I have a copy of the schedule, and it shows the subjects that we studied, and so on. We were billeted in a couple of dorms at Smith College. We marched through the streets of Northhampton. Wiggins Tavern was our mess hall.

We were always singing as we marched. I don’t know how the natives appreciated it in the cold mornings. It was very cold. We were up at 6:15, I think it was, and out for breakfast. This was in December of 1943.

The WAVES were formed in 1942, and this was less than a year later. Everybody had uniforms, and all the classes and training programs organized. I don’t know how they did it. Of course they had Mildred McAfee, as head of the WAVES. She was a former president of Wellesley; in fact, she came the year I was a freshman. She always said that we were freshmen together. That went over really big with us. She attracted quite a few Wellesley girls to the WAVES.

In addition to academic classes, we had physical education and marching. It was very intensive.

Becoming Ensigns

There were 179 in this class, and we were commissioned ensigns on February 8, 1944. Fifty of us were sent off to Mt. Holyoke College. We dealt with code books, and that type of communication. And we became extremely expert typists. We were very fast. It was still wintertime, and we hopped around the byways of Mt. Holyoke in the cold.

They entertained some of the Mt. Holyoke girls in our mess, and they experienced having food slung onto metal trays as they went down the line. This was supposed to entice them to join the WAVES. They reciprocated by inviting us to dinner in one of the dorms. Waitresses served our dinner. We had after-dinner coffee in the living room, and it was quite different from what we experienced at Rockefeller Hall down the road.

It was interesting that the people who were giving us these courses had no idea, really, of what we were going to be expected to do. It was all so hush-hush. And especially in the Intelligence field. I think I’ve almost been brainwashed. I almost don’t know how much to tell you about that experience.

Off to Washington, D.C.

After two months of training at Mt. Holyoke, I was sent to Washington, in April 1944. They said we were going to the “Salt Mines,” and that they might open the doors and feed us once in a while. But it was going to be a very tough assignment. Well, we got to Washington, and for a little while, a friend of mine and I lived with a family. We got a room in someone’s house. After about two weeks, investigators arrived and asked questions about us. They came to find out if we had men visitors, that sort of thing. We had only been there two weeks, and had hardly gotten acquainted with the place.

Eventually eight of us rented a house in Bethesda, Maryland – a lovely big house; it held eight of us, each of us with a roommate. We had eight ration books when we shopped, and we had to make sure we were treating each one evenly with those ration books.

The house was very close to where we were working on Nebraska Avenue, formerly a school that the Navy took over. The eight of us worked different watches. We had day watches that went from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for three days, evening watches from 4 p.m. to 12 midnight, and night watches from 12 midnight to 8 a.m., with 24 hours off between each set.

It was thought to be the ideal to have the evening watches, instead of the day watches, because it became very warm in Washington, so we thought that sleeping during the heat of the day (and working in the cool of the night) would be not a bad deal. But unfortunately, the offices would absorb the heat of the day, and it was almost more uncomfortable during the night than it was during the day, working.

We were mostly involved with the Pacific Theatre. It was Intelligence work. The unit that I worked in was made up of officers. And we occasionally trained men going out to the Pacific, for communications purposes. I recall one man named Ripple, Lt. Ripple. That was a great joke, you know, Lt. Ripple among the WAVES.

I was a Lieutenant J.G., or “Junior Grade.” Well, I became an Ensign, and then an Allnav made us Lieutenant J.G.’s after we’d been on duty a year, I think. I became a J.G., or junior grade. And we were “USNR,” U.S. Naval Reserve. In 1992 I attended the Fiftieth Anniversary WAVES reunion in Norfolk, Virginia. Women from all over the United States, and “Wrens” from England came. At the reunion, some current Navy personnel came up and thanked us for “being in the forefront,” and making it possible for women to serve fully in the Navy.

Top Secret Work

We were kind of “brainwashed” not to talk about our work. I know that times have changed, and nothing’s handled the same way as it was then, and I could probably talk freely about it, but I hesitate to talk about it. Our whole unit was remarkably successful during the War, as far as Intelligence was concerned. They told us when we left that we were breaking the Japanese code on a daily basis. And this was the type of thing they told us not to talk about when we left the service, because they didn’t want it known how successful we were.

This is a letter they sent to me:

“The United States Naval Communication Intelligence Organization has been awarded the Navy Unit Commendation for service during the period of 7 December, 1941, to the 2nd of September, 1945. [We signed up for the duration plus six months.] By virtue of your service in this unit during this period, you are hereby authorized to wear the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon transmitted herewith. This authorization has been made a part of your official record [It’s the only ribbon I got.] in the Bureau of Naval Personnel. It is directed that, because of the nature of the services by this unit, no publicity be given to your receipt of this award, by direction of the Chief of Naval Personnel.”

They didn’t even want you to talk about it then. I think it was partly due to the equipment that we were using, a coding machine, which I understand is no longer being used, and partly because they didn’t want the enemy at that time to know of our success. As far as I know, they never broke our code. I don’t know how they could without the actual machine, and all the settings that went with it.

You felt you were doing something really important, and don’t get me wrong, I was not breaking codes, I wasn’t in that end of it. We were transmitting codes, and de-coding. But in the units that actually broke codes, they never knew who was going to be successful, whether it was a ditch-digger or a college professor. But they had remarkable success. That’s all I’ve got to say on that subject. I don’t know how much of that should be printed. I feel, still, uneasy about divulging anything that went on, because they were so adamant about us not talking about it.

This is a letter I received after the war from James Forrestal:

“My Dear Lieutenant J.G. Denton,”

“I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation and active service are completed. I have done so because, without formality, but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always. You have served in the greatest Navy in the world. We have crushed two enemy states at once, receiving our surrenders only four months apart. We have brought our land-based air power within bombing range of the enemy, and set our grand armies on the beachheads of final victory. [This letter isn’t the one I thought it was.] You have performed a multitude of tasks necessary to support those military operations. No other navy at any time has done so much. For your part in these achievements, you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude. The best wishes of the Navy go with you into your future life. Good luck. – James Forrestal.”

Intense Eight-Hour Shifts

Our watches were eight hours long, with time out for lunch or dinner. I don’t think I ever worked harder in my life, or was more satisfied with what I was doing. It was, as you can guess, an awful lot of typing, because your coding machines were typewriters, you used your typewriting skills on the coding machine.

I worked pretty much with the same group of young women from 1942 to 1946. I was in the service about three years. When the War was over, while I was still on active duty, I served in a kind of Personnel Office, assisting people who were leaving the service, as to what education opportunities there were, and that sort of thing.

Challenges and Benefits of Working in Washington

One challenge had to do with your health. If you had a bad cold, for example, you reported to the Dispensary. If you did not have a fever, you went to work. And they were right, you survived, even though you felt lousy. We had 48 hours between each set of watches, and 24 hours between each unit, and then 48 hours. And so, we had time to go to New York, or back home to Manchester.

We went to Annapolis one weekend when we were Lieutenant J.G’s. And when we hit the campus, all was quiet. The students were in class. So we wandered around, looked at the statue of Tecumseh, and then all these young men – there were no women then – poured out of the classes. And here we were, officers, and of course they had to salute us. And it was interesting. Some did it cheerfully, and saluted us. And others resented it very much. You could tell that they did, forgetting that all of us had four years of college. We’d had more education than they had at that point.

We sometimes felt almost as though we were enjoying it too much. We liked that house in Bethesda very much. We found bicycles in the basement, and could ride out into the country, which was not very far. It became built up considerably after the War, when I went back to see the place. But you could ride out into the country. I remember one day, we passed a group of young men, sitting beside the road, and you know, since they were young fellows, you’d expect some whistles, and so on. And they didn’t. Nothing happened. And we learned afterward, that this was a group of prisoners of war, who were working in orchards out there in the country, and that’s why they were so quiet. Probably didn’t dare…

They were probably German or Italian. It was very interesting, that, after, I heard, we must have treated our prisoners of war pretty well, because after the War, I heard quite a few liked it so well over here that they applied for citizenship.

We had a nice little household, but changes occurred and we did break up the household. Some were transferred to air bases, and other places. I had a couple of roommates from California, and they desperately wanted to get back to California, and they were afraid that other people would like it so well out there, that there wouldn’t be room for them after the war when they went home. But they stayed in Washington for the duration. We had to get an apartment, finally, towards the end of our stay.

Washington was never prepared for winter. They had no equipment for coping with snow and ice. The winter conditions on the sidewalks were dreadful. They had a wonderful transportation system. The trolleys were excellent.

We moved to an apartment fairly near where we worked. I think it was in Georgetown. We didn’t live there very long. It was very close to the end of our service. Couldn’t have found a finer place to be, there’s no doubt about it. The people that we saw! We went to a seafood restaurant one evening, and General Stilwell came in with a party. He was in the China-Burma Theater. Does the name Vinegar Joe Stilwell mean anything to you? That was his nickname in those days. He and his party were sitting fairly close to us. Of course, we were all agog. We were you dressed in uniform – we were always in uniform. It wasn’t until after the War that people could go into the cities in civilian clothes. But we were in uniform, yes. We wanted to get a look at him. So we took turns, turning around and looking. Pretty soon he caught on to what was going on. But we weren’t introduced.

I remember Eisenhower coming home. I went out to, gosh, I don’t know if it was the National Airport, or what airport he came in on, but we wanted desperately to see him, and we did. There was an enormous crowd out there when he arrived.

Of course we were there during Roosevelt’s funeral – the caisson and the empty saddle. It was extremely moving.

I remember our whole watch went down to donate blood one day. I don’t know whether this is absolutely true, but I think it is. I got an infection from the needle in my right arm, and the lymph nodes swelled. I went to the Dispensary, and they said, “You have to go to the hospital. You’re going to need an operation.” I was terrified. I found myself in the Bethesda Naval Hospital for treatments. I didn’t have an operation, but I was there for weeks. In those days, you had to be ready to go right back to work when you left the hospital. There was no interim recovery period. So it was a long haul for me. I remember being on the same floor as Admiral Cluverius. He had been president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Having recently been in Worcester, I thought it would be nice to make his acquaintance. He would walk the corridors as though he were on board ship, and I was too shy, both of us in our night clothes. How do you approach an admiral in your night clothes? And he in his night clothes? I was too shy to make contact.

I had heat treatments, and radiation I think, and I guess I was kind of lucky, it could have been cancerous in those lymph nodes in the arm. It was a long siege in the hospital.

Perception of Women in the Military

For every WAVE taking a man’s place, a man had to go off to fight the war. And we were not sent abroad during the war. They thought it would be too much, to set up places where women could wash their clothes, and that sort of thing.

I never felt uncomfortable in the least. I think we were all pretty well treated. It was perhaps the enlisted personnel…I remember being in New York, and walking down the street, and a group of enlisted men approached. They saluted. I returned the salute, and when they got past, there were some comments like, “Didn’t she do that nice?” and that sort of thing. You just had to ignore it.

Once when a group of us were boarding a bus to get to our home in Bethesda, a group of men sort of harassed us a bit. I remember my roommate whirling around and saying, “Police yourself.” And they did. It took them quite by surprise.

I remember one incident when we had to share a taxi – in those days in Washington, you usually had to share taxis. I was in a taxi headed downtown, with a woman and a man, who was nursing a bottle of Four Roses, a bottle of whiskey. We dropped the man off, he dropped the bottle of whiskey, and we passed him looking down, as it drained into the gutter. It was fairly choice whiskey, I guess. This woman in the taxi said to me, “You know, we’ll be so glad when you people leave.” I was taken aback. It didn’t occur to me to say, “No happier than we will be, because the War will be over.” But she said it in rather a nasty way. Your uniform didn’t always protect you, but it protected you in many instances.

I remember one evening, leaving the evening watch, and the Shore Patrol gave us a ride home. This was not usual, but they just happened to be there and offered us a ride. But on the way, we had to stop in various restaurants, while they dashed in and did their checks, before they brought us home.

But, by and large, we were accepted, and well treated.

Barriers for Women Breaking Down

Women were needed outside the military, too, and because they were so needed, they took responsible jobs. We were caught up in our military lives. Of course, every now and then, we would realize that life also went on at home during this period. We were sort of isolated, you might say, and we didn’t always realize what was happening in Manchester, Connecticut. Once, we heard about the Charter Oak Bridge collapse in Hartford, and the circus fire. There was a watch officer, Oscar Anderson, from the Hartford area, and we used to commiserate over some of these terrible things that were happening back home. I suppose they were in the paper and on radio.

I do remember going down to Emporia, Virginia, to the wedding of a friend of mine, when I was still in uniform, and boarding a bus in Washington, and a black girl sat in the front seat. She got up immediately when I hove into view, and went to the back of the bus. I was kind of shocked. I was just taken aback, because the bus was quite crowded. I was certainly grateful for the seat itself, but it startled me just the same.

Uniforms

Clothing prices were very different in those days. I still have this bill from Filene’s in Boston: Two suits of uniforms, $50 – two, beautifully tailored suits – the skirt and the jacket. The blouses cost $14 for four. The raincoat cost $35. Two ties for a dollar and a half. Four hose, $3.20. Alterations cost $4.35. Gloves, $4. Leather handbag, $8. Raincoat alteration, $1.25. Three blouses, $10.50. Two blouses, $7. I had a lot of blouses, apparently. The blouses were washable, and the suits needed to be dry-cleaned.

I found a pay slip recently. One year, $1,900. That was about $900 more than I was making as a civilian at Tiffany’s or at the Worcester Art Museum. Times were different, believe me!

I also found this songbook. When I mentioned that we sang as we marched along, I was trying to think what songs we sang. “I Need a Guy To Tie My Tie” is in the songbook, and “Anchors Aweigh,” and “Don’t Make My Girl a Sailor.” “This is the Navy.” “Yankee Doodle Dandy’s Daughter.”

“I Need a Guy To Tie My Tie: I don’t need a man to give me sympathy. Why I needed him before is a mystery, but there are things I can’t do alone, no matter how I try. High and dry, I need a guy to tie my tie.” And then it winds up with, “Some day this will end, and I’ll be back with you, and every morning we’ll find this little lady that’s standing by to comply, I’ll be the guy to tie your tie.”

Finishing Navy Service

I was maid-of-honor for a classmate of mine in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her father was an industrial engineer…like the Frank Gilbreth in “Cheaper by the Dozen.” He gave me a letter of recommendation to Marion Bill, an efficiency expert, at the Aetna Life Insurance Company in Hartford. I was most anxious to get a job when I left the service. Of course, I was entitled to go back to Worcester, and pick up my job there, but my parents were eager for me to come home. I worked at the Aetna for 34 years.

Roger Olcott and I married in 1972. His first wife, Janet, died in 1969. We weren’t in any hurry. I think I was 54 at the time, and Roger was 58, which was a little unusual, from my standpoint anyway, a first marriage at 54. We had a very small wedding at Center Congregational Church, with just the immediate family. Then we had a nice reception at the Faculty Club at Wellesley. Harvard boys in red coats served drinks, and we had a nice luncheon. A very fine affair. Roger died in December 2002.

The Wellesley College motto is “Non ministrari, sed ministrare,” which means, not to be ministered unto, but to minister. You can look at that at many levels. We all hope to lead useful lives. As one becomes older, however, the tables are turned.



To read more about Manchester veterans...

• Click Veterans Memorials to access a page in our "Places to Visit" section, describing memorials put up in honor of Manchester's veterans.

• Click Harry Maidment to read an interview by Susan Barlow with Harry Maidment, who served in the Army in the artillery during World War II.

• Click Vet Haven to read an interview by Susan Barlow with Ted Cummings, who served with the Marines in World War II and who lived in the Vet Haven housing development after he came home from the war.