THE RARE BREED |
Recognizing Area Veterans Of World War II
Joan Holmes Crews recalls
life and times as WAVE
Christmas at San Diego in 1944
Joan Holmes Crews, daughter of Burrel P. and Frances Anders Holmes, was born in Palacios on Jan. 8, 1923. She graduated from Palacios High School with the Class of 1940. In that same year, she met her future husband, Darius J. Crews, who was stationed at Camp Hulen.
After Darius was shipped out to the South Pacific, Joan moved to Corpus Christi, where she was employed at the Naval Air Station until 1942. She then moved to Austin and enrolled in a business school. Following is what happened after that, in her own words:
In 1943 I was attending Mayfair Taylor Secretarial School in Austin. It was rather boring and I suppose I was looking for adventure. One day I decided to go join the Lady Marines. Since the Marines were a part of the Navy, they had a joint recruiting office.
To this day I haven't figured out what happened, but I ended up being sworn into the Navy. Now, I was a "WAVE!"
In May 1943, I received my orders to report to boot camp in New York City. I, who had never been out of the state of Texas, boarded the train and set out to see the world. I had no idea what lay ahead of me in boot camp.
The Navy had commandeered Hunter College, located in the Bronx, and many of the multi-story apartment buildings surrounding the campus. I, along with seven other girls, was assigned to an apartment on the seventh floor of our building. There was no furniture, just bunks and a locker for each girl.
We were not allowed to smoke in the our apartment. The smoking room was on the fourth floor. However, there was very little time for smoking. We were allowed to use the elevator to carry our luggage up the day we arrived. That was the last time I saw the elevator. From then on, it was "climb those seven flights of stairs!"
Everyday was filled with orientation classes, swimming classes, learning to march. It went on forever. The streets of the campus were all one-way, so if you had a class next door you might have to "fall-in" and march four blocks to get back around the building next door. It was all planned to teach us discipline and how to march. I felt honored when I was picked to be the "right guide" for my platoon.
Here, I must tell about our uniforms. We were issued navy blue cotton gabardine uniforms and cotton stockings. When we marched, those cotton skirts clung to the cotton stockings and walked right up our legs. About every 10 steps, in unison we had to bend down and pull our skirts down. What a sight!
After a full day of activity we usually went back to our "barracks" to freshen up for evening chow. Climbing those seven flights of stairs was not easy, but when you looked around and no one else was dropping out, you just kept going. One day, as we were freshening up for the evening chow, the fire bell rang. We had to grab a blanket, run down all those stairs, up a hill to the next block and muster for roll call. Following the drill, we had to go back down the hill, up those seven flights of stairs to return the blankets, then back down the stairs, muster for roll call, then march to the mess hall for evening chow!
I did some pretty dumb things, such as rolling up my hair every night, even though I had a swim class first period every morning. Another thing I did: when I was going north on the train, a black person sat down beside me, so I got up and moved. Just ignorance. I had grown up in a small Texas town where there were no black people and I had heard whites did not associate with blacks.
In work uniform at San Diego in 1944
Another awakening occurred one day when I returned to the barracks and several of my friends were crying. I asked what was wrong and was told that six of our girls had been kicked out and already sent home because they were lesbians. I didn't even know what they were talking about.
One day when I was walking my guard post, a handsome young Annapolis cadet came by, so I snapped to attention and saluted him. He was so surprised he stopped to chat. That was strictly against the rules for a guard to talk to anyone. I was lucky no one saw me.
Anyway, it turned out the young man was home on leave, lived nearby, and he invited me to his home for dinner with his family. I don't remember how I managed to get a pass, but I did. It was a very interesting evening. His father and sister (there was no mother) had never been out of New York and they seemed quite intrigued at meeting someone from Texas. They thought we all rode in covered wagons, wore boots and carried guns.
Eventually, boot camp came to an end and we were to go to various schools. I had asked to go to Link Trainer school, but unfortunately my mechanical ability scored higher than my teaching ability. I was sent to aviation metalsmith school in Norman, Okla.
On a hot July day we boarded a coal-fired train in New York, headed for Norman. This was before air-conditioning, so all the windows were open. The seats were straight back hardwood with no cushions and no recliners. We slept sitting straight up and soon learned to lean over and brush away the cinders before opening our eyes.
Because we were women and considered non-essential to the war effort, every time we met a troop train heading east, we had to pull off the track to a siding and wait for them to pass. Because there were lots of troop trains, we spent many hot hours just sitting on a sidetrack. It took us five days to go from New York to Oklahoma City. During that time I have absolutely no recollection of eating. I have no idea whether we had a dining car or ate box lunches.
Eventually, we arrived in Oklahoma City at about 2 a.m. No one was there to meet us to take us to the Naval Air Station near Norman. There was an inviting little park across the street from the train station and since we were all exhausted, we went over and collapsed on the grass while awaiting our transportation. By the next day we all became aware that the pretty little park was infested with chiggers, and we were too.
Transportation did arrive and we got to Norman between 3-4 a.m., and were assigned our barracks. Upon entering, someone turned on a light. Immediately we heard a loud command, "Blow out that light," so we all went to bed in the dark. At 5 a.m., we were routed out to go the mess hall for KP duty.
Normally, each group of new students were assigned KP duty for two weeks, then they started to school and another group came to relieve them. Unfortunately for us, they had decided to close the school in Memphis, Tenn., and transfer those WAVES over to Norman. The rule was that once you started to school you could not go on KP. Well, all the girls coming from Memphis had started to school; therefore our group was stuck on KP for three months.
Shortly before our three months were up, I got a sore throat and was sent to the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Never being one to loaf around, I started helping on the ward. Whenever the doctors came each morning for their "rounds" I was always making beds, mopping or some such chore, so they didn't know I was a patient. Twenty-one days went by before I finally asked when I could leave. Of course, I was released immediately.
When I reported to school I was told they were closing metalsmith school to WAVES and the last group was already nine weeks into the course. Since I had had some experience working at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, I told them I already knew what they had covered. They gave me tests, which I passed with flying colors, so I joined the class of six girls and 91 men.
I graduated with third highest honors in the class and the highest grade in the course ever made by a WAVE. I had completed the 21-week course in 11 weeks. The Palacios Beacon ran my picture and information about my accomplishment.
I was then assigned to the assembly and repair department at the Naval Air Station on North Island, San Diego, Calif. I was put in a shop where I was the only girl working with 54 men. Our mission was to repair the fighter planes brought in on the carriers from the battles in the Pacific.
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The word spread quickly throughout our shop. I could not comprehend anything of that magnitude; therefore, I did not believe it. I was sure it was propaganda. Not until three days later, on August 9, when the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, did I realize the war was essentially over. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new life for me.
After the war ended, my fiance soon returned from Europe and we were married on October 15, 1945. I then applied for my discharge. The Navy policy was that if you were married and your husband had just come back from overseas, you were granted an immediate discharge. I fit those criteria.
My husband was career Army, so I spent the next 28 years moving from place to place with the Army. My husband of 47 years died in July, 1992.
Today, I live in Austin. I have three children, Darius J. Crews and Janet Pyle, both of Austin, and Gina Sheftall, who lives in San Antonio. There are four grandsons, Travis, Tyler and Todd Crews, and Jason Pyle.
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