Pictured left to right: Jo Rich, Don Kuhn, Earl Bohn and Bette Twaddell.
Photo by Susan Ketchum/Sun News
Jo Rich, 93, Bette Twaddell, 94, Earl Bohn, 92, and Jack Bialosky, 87, worked specialized jobs behind the scenes in World War II, while Don Kuhn, 72, did his service during the Vietnam War.
Rich and Twaddell were in college when they were recommended by their deans to be officers in the U.S. Navy Women’s Reserve, better known as the WAVES. Rich, who had moved around the Midwest as a child, received a letter shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt signed the legislation creating the women’s arm of the Navy on July 30, 1942. She still has the letter, in a scrapbook her father made for her during her service.
“I laughed when I read the letter. I had seen pictures of the WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) and they had boxy uniforms. I had heard they even wore khaki underwear. I said, ‘That’s not the life for me.'”
Her parents encouraged her to do it, however, so she soon found herself in New York City, taking the battery of tests to assess her physical and mental abilities.
“When I got down to New York and saw all the guys in good-looking uniforms, I said, ‘This is the place for me.’ ”
Then one night she got a phone call, telling her to report to be sworn in. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. How long will I be in? Where will I be? What will I be doing?’ He said, ‘Look lady, this is the Navy. You just be here.’ ”
‘They didn’t know what to do with us’
Another surprise came when she began basic training that September in Northhampton, Mass.
“They didn’t know what to do with us, so they gave us the same training as the men, even though we were not allowed on ships,” she said. “They taught us to abandon ship, and how to swim to get away from a burning ship. We had to learn how to go over the side, but I was sick that day.”
The WAVES wore uniforms created by Paris designer Mainbocher, and were instant media darlings. Rich’s photo made the front page of the newspaper, and Life Magazine did a spread titled, “How WAVES get their brass hats.” Life photographers came back near the end of their training to document a fire drill on a bitterly cold December night. The women shivered, wrapped in white blankets that were part of their issued gear.
“It was 10 below zero. It was so cold the cameras had frozen, so we did it again the next night,” she said.
Rich graduated in January 1943, one of the first 1,000 officers who were to lead 9,000-10,000 enlisted women. The number was based on the number of jobs the Navy thought the women could fill.
“They thought that would be the only group,” she said.
‘I got all the way to Washington, D.C.’
Twaddell also received a letter to be in that first class of officers. She was excited to join, but soon learned she would have to wait.
“I had told all my friends I was going, then I got a letter saying they had oversubscribed,” she said. “The letter said if they ever did this again, they would let me know.”
She did not have to wait long. She was called up in December, and also sent to Northhampton, first as an apprentice seaman, then as a midshipman. By then, learning to jump off a ship was not part of the training, she said. When she graduated three months later, she was an ensign, assigned to work in communications.
“I joined the Navy to see the world, and I got all the way to Washington, D.C.,” she said.
Rich was assigned to work in New York City, where the Navy took over a hotel to use as a dormitory. She took the subway to and from work daily, always wearing the designer uniform created for the women. When it rained she also wore the dark blue raincoat and havelok, a cover that went over the uniform hat to keep rain off their faces.
“One time an older lady came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, I’ve been a Roman Catholic my entire life, but I’ve never seen that habit,’ ” she said. “No matter who I sat next to, people asked, ‘How long do you think this war is going to go on?’ ”
Although working in different cities, both women worked encoding and decoding classified messages. A lot of the encrypted messages came from ships in the battle zones, using at least a half-dozen different codes.
‘I never did learn the Morse Code’
Twaddell still laughs at a memory.
“I could never pass second-class Girl Scouting because I couldn’t memorize the Morse Code,” she recalled. “But we had enlisted girls doing that. Everything we did was classified. I never did learn the Morse Code.”
The work was interesting, but the schedule was grueling. They worked in shifts, which changed daily.
“We worked 9 to 5, 5 to 1, 1 to 9, 72 off, then start all over again,” Rich said in a sing-song voice. “The worst part was eating. We would sleep until 4 in the afternoon, then try to find someplace that served breakfast. I lost a lot of weight and ended up in the Brooklyn Naval Hospital.”
After the war, she went to Connecticut with her husband, John, whom she had married after enlisting. Years later they moved to Shaker Heights, and Rich worked as a librarian at Regina High School and the Shaker Heights library. They moved to Judson 11 years ago.
After the war, Twaddell married her “country doctor” husband and lived in Philadelphia, where she worked with the Quakers.
“We won the war, now I was ready for peace,” she said. Now widowed, she moved to Judson to be closer to her son in Chagrin Falls.
Straight to Army Air Corps from college
Bohn, Bialosky and Kuhn all helped support aviation efforts, although in different ways and in different wars.
Bohn graduated from Rocky River High School, then went on to study biology at Baldwin-Wallace College. He was close to graduating in 1942 when he signed up for the Enlisted Reserve Corps, which allowed him to finish college – but just barely.
Before the graduation ceremony, he was called up to the Army Air Corps. He signed up as a surgical technician, but after basic training changed his mind. He still wanted something in the science field, so he was sent to Weather School, then to a mobile weather squadron based in Europe.
A sergeant with the 9th Air Force, he was in England before June 6, 1944, helping to determine if the troops would be able to land at the beaches in France with the P47, a single-seater fighter bomber that usually carried a 500-pound bomb under each wing, along with an extra fuel tank. For D-Day, the planes carried four bombs, Bohn said.
“The weather was so bad, and we had to report it,” he said, then joked, “I told Eisenhower to hold off for a day.”
Two weeks later he joined the fighter squadron after the Allies had established an airfield near Carentan, France. His job was to determine if the weather was safe for flying, including mixing chemicals to make hydrogen for weather balloons, then send the coded forecast.
“You follow the front line and as the infantry moves, you move,” he said. “The German line was just down the road.”
Every day they heard “constant shelling” from the front. Every night, what was left of the German air force would strafe the airfields. Fallout from the battles would drop from the sky.
“My buddy and I dug a hole and put our cots in the hole, then we put mesh over the tent to keep off the hot steel,” he said.
The rest of 1944 he spent moving with that line all along the French coast, culminating with the Battle of the Bulge in Ardennes. He has a box full of ribbons, including a weather patch, and a diary he kept during the war showing where he went. He was in Eibelstadt, Germany, in May 1945, when the war in Europe ended.
“They were going to send us to Japan, but they dropped the bombs and we didn’t have to go,” he said.
After the war, he and his late wife, Millie, went to Michigan for awhile, then went back to Rocky River, where he taught science for 30 years. He moved to Judson seven years ago with his second wife, Beth.
‘The best thing that ever happened to me’
Bialosky, a Cleveland Heights native, was only 17 when he enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He was so young he was sent to Yale University to study architecture. Two years later, now a lieutenant junior grade, he was sent to Bremerton, Wash., He spent 1945-46 as the R Division officer on the newly commissioned USS Mindoro.
“My job was to repair the ship. I spend most of my waking hours putting a teakwood deck back on,” he said. “Every time a Marine pilot landed on it, we had to repair it. We worked mostly at night.”
He learned carpentry, welding and other skills which he put to use later in his career. After the war, he returned to Yale on the GI Bill to finish his degree, then came back to Ohio to start his own architecture firm in Shaker Heights, where he still works every day. He moved to Judson Park a few months ago.
He calls his Navy experience “the best thing that ever happened to me,” and said he even liked the food.
“I would not have gone to Yale, and I got out of being called back for Vietnam,” Bialosky said.
Vietnam much different from World War II
Kuhn listens to the stories of the World War II and Korean War veterans at Judson, and knows his experience is different in one major way.
“Everyone who came home from World War II was honored. That was not so after Vietnam,” he said.
Kuhn grew up in Avon and was taking college classes in the evenings when the Army drafted him in 1965. He knew he did not want to be in the Army.
“Shortly after I got my letter there was a knock on the door. It was a Navy recruiter,” he said.
He was assigned to Squadron VP 40 out of Coronado, Calif., then sent to the Philippines, where he did shore patrol on the base at Subic Bay.
“I did not see any combat in the war, but I saw a lot of fistfights,” he said. “I got a call one night that there was an enormous man who was on something, destroying a bar. It took half a dozen of us to control him. I punched him in the stomach.”
Afterward, he realized he had broken his finger and could not write letters home. His mother called the Navy and asked why his letters had stopped.
Next he was sent as a helicopter technician to a squadron attached to the USS Hornet at NAS Imperial Beach, near San Diego.
“We worked in a shop in the bowels of the Hornet, to keep them flying,” he said. “I almost made a career of this. I was about to sign my name, but I decided not to.”
Instead of re-enlisting in 1969, he went back to John Carroll University on the GI Bill, earning an accounting degree. He worked for Cleveland Clinic and lived in Cleveland Heights, until he and his wife moved to Judson last year.
“I had a lot of good training. I still fold my clothes the Navy way, and I still shine my shoes,” he said.