My Personal Connection to Our WWII Read-Aloud Play

By
Anna Starecheski

My paternal grandmother Irene in her WAVES uniform

After every issue of Storyworks Jr. has been sent off to the printer, Executive Editor Kara Corridan and I sit down and brainstorm for our "Can't-Miss Teaching Extras." (Unfamiliar with those? With most stories in Storyworks Jr., we offer a curated list of teaching tips, fun facts, and learning extensions. They're listed in a column on the righthand side of the story page. Check them out!)

Our May/June play is When Girls Ruled Baseball by Lauren Tarshis, which is about one of the special roles women took on during World War II: that of pro baseball players. When we were discussing Teaching Extras, Kara suggested we research other roles of women in World War II, from their work in munitions factories to women who served in the Armed Forces. "My grandmother served in World War II," I offered. And thus, this Ideabook post was born!

I invite you to read my story and perhaps share it with your students—along with your own experiences! Do you have relatives who fought in World War II? Share their stories! The people who came of age during World War II are elderly now, and all my relatives who fought have passed away. It's important to keep telling their stories, so that we can keep this history alive for kids growing up today, for whom World War II seems like ancient history. I've included some discussion questions at the end of this post so you can keep the conversation going with your students.

A recruiting poster for the WAVES

When we think about women in World War II, we often think of Rosie the Riveter, of women working in factories while the men were away. (Be sure to check out our awesome video for great info on and powerful footage of women in the workforce during the war.) But many people might not know that women were also called upon to serve in the Armed Forces. The Navy was one branch of the military that welcomed women. Well, "welcomed" may be a strong word. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was on board with bringing women into the military.

Nevertheless, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, was created in 1942. Its primary purpose was to place women in shore establishments to free up more men for sea duty. This meant that no WAVES served in combat—they ranged from doctors and engineers to administrative and clerical roles. They took jobs previously held by men, so that those men could go and fight at sea. At the height of the program, there were more than 86,000 women in the WAVES.

A photograph of my grandmother before her days in the WAVES

In 1945, my grandmother, Irene Anderson, was 21 years old. She was a quiet Swedish girl, the daughter of immigrants, living in Ridgway, Pennsylvania. When she found out that the WAVES were recruiting, she was eager to sign up. To be honest, I don't know much about my grandma's early life. She was always very mysterious and shy, and I never got the nerve to ask her all the questions I wanted to. When someone is as quiet and unforthcoming as my grandma was, you find yourself not wanting to pry too much. So I'm really not sure why a young woman who had never lived away from home would sign up to join the military. Maybe she craved adventure. Maybe she wanted to serve her country. Whatever the reason, she enlisted and was trained at Hunter College (now Lehman College) in the Bronx. 

She served from 1945-1946. She was in charge of a WAVES barracks at the Patuxent Naval Air Station in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. She handed out bedding and made sure toilet paper and cleaning supplies were in stock. Nothing fancy, but she was proud to serve. After the war ended, a young seaman named Edward Starecheski arrived at Patuxent to be discharged. His barracks was within sight of my grandmother's, and they saw each other in what I imagine was a time-stopping, super-romantic movie moment. Before long, they fell in love. They got married on the base with a military preacher and had a one-night honeymoon.

My grandma had entered the war as Irene Anderson, and would leave it as Irene Starecheski. After the war ended, the WAVES were quickly demobilized. Just as the female factory workers were shooed back into their homes, the women of the WAVES were thanked for their service and encouraged to go back to their civilian lives as wives and mothers. My grandparents moved to a tiny apartment in Philadelphia and started a quiet postwar life.

After the war, my grandparents lived in the second-floor apartment of this little house in West Philadelphia (now a taco shop). 

I wish I knew more about my grandma's experience in the WAVES. I'm proud that she was one of the brave, adventurous women who signed up to take a traditionally male role in such a brutal war. There's so much complexity, so many layers to World War II history, and it's important to remember the roles women held. From pro baseball players, to munitions factory workers, to military personnel like my grandmother.

Here are some discussion questions to raise with your students when learning about women in World War II:

  • Why do you think women were forced back into their roles as housewives after the war ended?
  • How are things different for women today? 
  • Do you have any family members who served in World War II or other wars?
  • Are there any family members who have experiences you'd like to know more about?
  • Why do you think it's important to talk to the older people in our lives and learn about their experiences?
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