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Praise for a Worthy Pioneer

Medals: Jean Garr is honored for her role in two battles--one against cancer, the other as a WAVE in WWII.

September 30, 2002|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While keeping bedside vigil after his mother's third cancer surgery last spring, Bill Garr just kept thinking to himself: "This woman deserves a medal."

Turns out 80-year-old Jean Claire Garr deserved two medals and a pin.

Surrounded by a circle of family and friends, standing proud before Navy Lt. Darriel Groen, Garr received the three military honors she never collected after World War II: The Victory Medal, a medal for Distinguished Service in the American Campaign and an Honorable Service lapel pin.

"On behalf of the U.S. Navy, it is my honor to award these honors to Yeoman 1st Class Jean Garr," Groen announced as Garr teared up and her husband of 58 years said, "She's one tough cookie, isn't she?"

The medals that were pinned to Garr on Saturday night at a celebration in Sierra Madre were given to every World War II serviceman with an honorable discharge.

But Garr was no serviceman. She was member of a small but bold corps of women who responded to emergency legislation in 1942 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, allowing women to enlist in the Navy.

Known as the WAVES, short for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, Garr was one of about 86,000 women who held an array of jobs in the States, mainly clerical positions, but some worked as control tower operators, postal clerks, mechanics, draftsmen and intelligence analysts. They filled posts normally held by sailors who were needed overseas.

"I was just one of the girls who went to work at a desk so that a man could be freed up to fight," Garr said, recalling her three years of service as a secretary to a Navy captain and a commander based at Treasure Island in San Francisco.

Even today, she is surprised that her son and daughter would be interested enough in her service record to find her discharge papers in the family safe deposit box and contact Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) to help collect her medals.

Medals were something "you just didn't think about" after the war, she said, adding that she never bothered to collect hers. Her children's only piece of memorabilia has been an 8-by-10 grainy reprint of Garr's smiling military photograph, a black-and-white portrait of a 22-year-old woman in a blue uniform jacket, light brown hair pinned back, a thick cascade of chin-length curls in the back.

"I just thought it would be a good opportunity to learn and travel," she said. "We all knew that something had to be done, and this is what I did."

Garr's is a story that is common among this group of World War II women, who six decades later Naval historians and others call the pioneers for enlisted women today.

"Those women of World War II, they just don't feel that what they did was any big deal," said Barb Turner, president of the National WAVES organization. She estimates there are 10,000 World War II WAVES still alive, and her organization is working to collect their oral histories.

"They have no idea that what they did back then paved the way for all who followed," said Turner, who served in the Navy from 1975 to 1996.

It was the WAVES' work at 900 Navy installations in the United States that gave women their first entry into military work apart from nursing.

Garr recalled boarding a train alone for a Naval training school in Milledgeville, Ga., where the Navy had set up a yeoman school at the former Georgia State College for Women. "We could take one suitcase, but that's all we needed. They gave us our uniforms and everything else," she said.

She remembers the women's version of boot camp: up at predawn hours, perfectly made beds, and uniform and dormitory inspections. She learned to march, salute and how to address higher-ups.

Then she was off to Hunter College in New York for more training. "They taught us all about ships, the port, the starboard. We had to know all about the Navy and all their terminology for our work."

She remembers the last name of the commander she worked for, but can't remember how to spell it. But she can tell you how to properly align carbon paper so that it doesn't slip in the typewriter.

At its peak, the World War II WAVES made up 55% of the Navy staff in Washington, D.C., 75% of personnel at the Navy's Washington communication center and handled 80% of the service's mail, said Capt. John Pruitt, commanding officer of the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla., during a recent speech at a WAVES convention.

"Joining the Navy was a very socially daring thing for a woman to do at the time, even as a WAVE," said Jack Green, historian and curator at the Naval Historical Center.

It was the sight of Jean Smith in her perfect Navy blue uniform stepping off the train in San Fransico that caught the eye of Bill Garr.

"She was a very strong-willed girl. Period," said Bill Garr, who worked at a San Francisco-area shipyard during the war. "We didn't want to wait," he said. They married in three months.

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