When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, everyone expected women would be recruited as nurses. Both the U.S. Army and Navy had established nursing corps beginning in 1901 and 1908 respectively.
Early in the war, it became evident that the military would need a massive amount of participation in other non-combat areas and there simply weren’t enough men to fill the jobs. Both the Army and Navy quickly set up programs for women’s participation. Exeter women served from the onset.
Seven women from Exeter served as nurses. Most had already had nursing training and were working when the war broke out. Eleanor O’Leary was working at Exeter Hospital in 1940 before she left for the Army. Ethel Simpson, a Robinson Seminary grad, left the hospital for the Navy. Ruth Philbrick, who’d been working there for over a decade, joined up at the age of 40 and served in Wales and France, earning a Bronze Star. Mary Haley had been doing private duty nursing when she joined the Army, eventually posting inGuadalcanal. Pauline Scully, a basketball star at the Robinson Seminary in 1940, was barely out of nursing training when she joined up in 1944, serving in England and France until 1947. Her classmate, Doris Kennedy, served from 1944 until 1962.
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Women without medical training were able to serve once the military opened positions. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a name later shortened to Women’s Army Corps or WAC provided a way for women to serve. Six women from Exeter joined during the war. Unlike the men who were recruited or enlisted, women tended to be older than the just-barely-out-of-their-teens GIs. Lucille Vincent and Helen Mockler were in their 20s, but Evangeline O’Brien and Lena Denoncour were both in their 30s. Anne Kopka had just turned 40. Ida Legacy’s swearing-in, at the age of 46, was so unusual it garnered a notice in the Portsmouth Herald:
“The mother of two servicemen was sworn into the Women’s army corps yesterday afternoon at WAC recruiting headquarters in city hall. The mother, Mrs. Ida Legacy of Exeter, will leave for basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, GA., sometime this month. Until her enlistment in the WAC, she was employed at the Somersworth branch of the Portsmouth Navy Yard. One of her sons is a marine stationed at Parris Island, S.C., while the other is serving with the army at Camp Gordon Johnson, Florida.”
Evangeline Philbrick, another basketball player from the Robinson Seminary class of 1940, surprised everyone by joining the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in 1943. She served 33 months in Washington D.C, achieving the rank of sergeant.
By far, the largest number of women were in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or the WAVES, US Naval Women’s Reserve. Myrtle Summerfield, although 28 when she joined, garnered the newspaper announcement “Another Exeter Girl Joins WAVES.” Two years later, she was reported as teaching occupational therapy at Ledo Beach, Long Island. Ruth Colby served from 1944 to 1946. Nancy Smith became a mail specialist, Elizabeth Wetherell worked as a physical therapist and X-ray technician. Barbara Sanborn and her younger sister Evamae, both Robinson Seminary graduates served in the Navy. Evamae served as a chief petty officer and later as clerk in the Selective Service Office during the Korean war. June Souders was a pharmacist mate third class at the Naval Air station in Brunswick, Maine, where she was a physiotherapist technician in the dispensary. She married a fellow pharmacist. Marie Jankousky, also described as an “Exeter Girl” at the age of 28, had solid secretarial skills when she joined the WAVES. She was a graduate of the Concord College for Business and had worked five years in a government position in Social Security. Helen Kujeske was only 17 when war broke out. She worked as a hospital apprentice at the Naval Receiving Station in Norfolk Virginia.
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Anne Grilk had just graduated from Smith College when she joined the WAVES. Her strong language skills took her to the Navy Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado. There she met her future husband, Samuel King. After the war, she earned an M.A. in Linguistics at the University of Hawaii and taught English as a Second Language in the public schools.
Most of the women who served were proud of their time in the military. Sometimes, however, their final record – the published obituary – fails to note any service at all. Perhaps it was time forgotten by family members who might remember her only as “Mom” or “Grandma.” Even the Exeter Historical Society had never highlighted the service of these remarkable women. We are indebted to Kevin Conklin, the son of Army nurse Pauline Scully, who wrote to us earlier this year. “I remember a framed Honor Roll in our house of those young men and women from town who served in the war. My mother knew all of the people. There were very few women. Have you ever thought of doing an Exeter Minute on the women who served when it was uncommon for women to enlist?” Thank you for the reminder.
Barbara Rimkunas is the curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member. Join online at www.exeterhistory.org.