Clara Leinhauser Hagarty, 91, of Westchester, was a driver in the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve during World War II. Four years after the attack of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, she was stationed in Honolulu, where she volunteered at the Naval Hospital, tending to the wounded servicemen.
“Some of them were so beat up that they couldn’t help themselves,” she said. “We would kind of help them out and they appreciated everything.”
Hagarty was one of approximately 400,000 American women who served in the military between 1942 and 1946, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed H.R. 6293 into law on May 15, 1942. The law established the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and went into effect six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which took place 73 years ago today and killed more than 2,500 Americans.
Many of the women saw the war’s carnage firsthand. Mildred Weintraub Kagan, 94, of Aventura, was a nurse in France during the Battle of the Bulge, the German counteroffensive launched on Dec. 16, 1944, through the Rhineland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France that led to one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
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Regina Ferrin, 92, of North Miami Beach, witnessed maimed servicemen shipped back to the States on ships that docked at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, the Army base near Bay Ridge. There, she helped transfer the wounded to area hospitals.
“The job I had wasn’t easy,” Ferrin recalled. “There were a lot of young kids. It took a toll on me.”
Women who served in the military during World War II, coupled with the three million women who volunteered as civilians, played a crucial role in filling key jobs and supporting the servicemen, military experts say.
“Women performed a number of different roles, not just nurses, not just typists,” said Kimberly Guise, curator at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “Most of the women who served in the auxiliary branches served on the home front in support capacities. But those jobs varied widely, so you could be repairing airplanes or typing reports. You could be a gofer or rigging parachutes.”
Here, then, are stories of three women who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II:
In a sleeveless T-shirt and cotton shorts, Clara Leinhauser Hagarty rests on a recliner near a stuffed animal (a Golden Retriever) in her Westchester home.
A stack of small black-and-white photographs sit on a folding table nearby. One is of her smiling in the driver’s seat of a Jeep, her curls cascading under her Coast Guard cap.
Hagarty joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserves on July 9, 1943. Now 91, she has difficulty remembering what it was like to drive the three-gear stick shift.
“I went in because of the war,” she said. “I thought I want to join, too, and do my part to help.”
Inspired by her family’s military service, she enlisted with the help of her mother’s signature, as she was only 17 when she signed up. She became Private Clara in the Fourth Naval District.
“We were known as SPARs then,” she said. “Semper Paratus Always Ready.”
She trained in Lake Worth, before transferring to Philadelphia, where she was assigned as a driver for officers. “I didn’t want to sit in the office and look at four bulkheads,” she said. “That’s what we called the walls.”
In January 1945, she transferred to Honolulu, the site of the Pearl Harbor attack four years earlier.
“No matter where I was stationed, I was a driver,” she said. “I loved it.”
For two years, 10 months and 17 days, Hagarty transported captains, ensigns, and other ranking and non-ranking Coast Guard officers wherever they needed to go.
During her off hours, she volunteered helping the nurses at the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor. She saw wounded soldiers “really bad off” from their service overseas.
“If I had time off I would go to the hospital and help out and do odds and ends for them,’’ she recalled. “I was just there to help the nurses.’’
In recent years, Hagarty has championed the Coast Guard. In 2009, she helped christen the U.S.C.G. Stratton, a ship honoring Capt. D.C. Stratton, former director of the SPARs.
“I’m happy. I’m glad that I joined and that I returned home safe and sound,” she said. “I feel as though I did a good job taking care of all the guys that I had to move from place to place and deliver them safely with no accidents.”
And, she added, she got to see much of the world.
“I really enjoyed all the traveling,” she said, grinning.
“BATTLE OF THE BULGE”
It took Mildred Weintraub Kagan a year to serve her country.
As a 23-year-old nurse working in New York in the early years of the war, she was repeatedly told her role was to stay in the United States. But Kagan wanted to serve as a U.S. Army nurse.
“It was the only way I could possibly help, by being in the war, when the soldiers needed help,” said Kagan, now 94, from her Aventura condo.
Her mother had been a volunteer with the Red Cross during the influenza epidemic after World War I. Her mother was OK with Kagan joining the Army, but with one son serving in Africa, she didn’t want her daughter to go overseas.
Then the telegram came to report for duty on June 30, 1944. It was three weeks after D-Day and Kagan was sent to Rhoads General Hospital in Utica, N.Y. She then went through basic training in Atlantic City, before being shipped to France.
“I’ll never forget when we climbed down those rope ladders into boats,’’ she said. “There were 15 to 25 people in a boat. We walked through water.”
Her first stop: a field hospital in Soissons in northern France, where she lived in a Quonset metal hut, keeping warm by a potbelly stove and using her helmet to wash.
“When we were formed as a hospital group, my colonel spoke to the men and women together. He said, ‘I want you to treat these women as you would your sisters.’ He was very respectful of women,” she said.
After Soissons, she was transferred to the 178th General Hospital in Reims, France, where she was a charge nurse and tended to the wounded servicemen of the Battle of the Bulge. With the battle being one of the bloodiest — nearly 90,000 U.S. soldiers killed, wounded or captured and 100,000 Germans killed, wounded or captured — the hospital staff was kept busy. Kagan cared not only for the Americans, but tended to Russian soldiers and German POWS, she said.
“It was my duty to make sure I visited those patients every day. We had to make sure that all the patients were cared for so that if our boys were wounded and captured they would get the same treatment,” she said.
After her discharge in 1946, she got married, moved to South Florida and became the first Head Start nurse with the Dade County Public Health Department to implement programs for children in lower-income neighborhoods.
She will be awarded the French Ministry’s rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor on Dec. 16, said her son Russell Kagan. She also has the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Kagan has a few photos from her war service; she points to herself from a pile of pictures in her lap. Her son said she is very proud and has told him to “make sure that the flag is on my casket.”
“We were basically doing what we had to do,” Kagan said. “I’m very patriotic. This country means a lot to me.”
“NEW YORK, NEW YORK”
Regina Ferrin, 92, has never forgotten her mother’s voice protesting her decision to join the Women’s Army Corps.
It was 1944 in Brooklyn and she had a reputation as a New York City party girl.
Ferrin did not want to go to college and refused to follow her father’s 11 p.m. curfew. She joined the Army instead; she was 20.
“My father bought me a beautiful suitcase, helped me pack, took me to the station,” Ferrin said. “He said, ‘Call me every Friday. If I don’t get a phone call the flag goes out the window.’”
She left her two sisters and dancing in the city for basic training in Oglethorpe, Ga., where she saw segregated streets, buses and water fountains. The discrimination shocked her.
Ferrin then went to Des Moines, Iowa, to learn how to work with injured soldiers.
“We learned to be strong and smile with an upper lip,” she said. “You have to have guts to look at the wounded.”
Her final destination: Fort Hamilton, back in Brooklyn. She was assigned to help relocate wounded servicemen, transferring them to ambulances to take them to local hospitals. Her duties included checking that each arriving soldier had his name on the reassignment list. Then she sent them on their way.
“When it’s on the list, you check them off and you know which ambulance they go in,” Ferrin said.
For two years, she watched enormous ships roll into the port with hundreds of soldiers. Some came back with missing limbs, while others were blind or burned.
Nearly every day the ships lined up like cruise liners. Military police from Fort Hamilton would carry the boys off the boat on cots. She went in groups from stretcher to stretcher on the pier, documenting their arrival and their duffel bag of belongings.
Sometimes, she said, the women in her unit would be offered jewelry in exchange for phone call to their loved ones.
“I never knew until they told me,” Ferrin said. “Half of the stuff in there, and I didn’t believe it, they had stuff that the Germans got from the Jews like candlesticks. The girls come over and said, ‘Hey Reggie, the guy offered me a beautiful ring.’—”
Ferrin swore she never took the stolen goods, but she did make calls to worried parents.
“I would say, ‘Where do you live? I’ll call your mother. I’ll tell her you’re here,’’ she said.
She remembered that her commanding officers were strict with the no-call rule. The mentality on the pier was: “Do your job and don’t ask questions.”
But her curious nature and desire to help the soldiers got the best of her. Over time, the pressure to keep quiet day after day eventually tipped her over the edge.
“Some of them were depressed and didn’t look good. It bothered me,” she said. “When you see something like that then you realize this is a war.”
She had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. By 1946, she was discharged with disability.
“I just couldn’t anymore,” she said. “I’m only sorry that I should have been strong enough to do more, but it got to me, seeing all those boys wounded. It was heartbreaking.”
More than seven decades have passed and the experience still troubles her, but she doesn’t regret her decision to enlist.
“I would do it over again,” Ferrin said. “It felt good in my heart that I was helping.”