Role of Women

My Aunt Florence—A Young Woman in Wartime

Recently I was looking through my Aunt Florence’s photo album. My mother’s much younger sister, Florence, was like a big sister to me.

One of the first photos in her album is of her high school glee club taken in 1935 when they presented an operetta called “Maid in Japan.” The girls are dressed in kimonos, most of them carrying fans or parasols. The boys who played the part of Japanese appear to be somewhat confused about what a male counterpart of the girls might wear. But they seem to have settled on  tent hats  worn at a rakish angle, and a few Fu Manchu moustaches.

The greatest generation when they were just kids
Lansing (Kansas) High School Glee Club, “Maid in Japan,” December 19, 1935. These are members of the greatest generation when they were still  kids.

When the picture was taken in 1935, Florence (center of photo in white kimono) was 16 years old, as I assume the others were—more or less.  Six years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they were  21-22 years old. They would give up  a good chunk of their young lives—perhaps even  life itself— in a war involving an enemy they had so recently found interesting and charming . If  you  tried to incorporate this bit of irony in a work of fiction, you’d probably be criticized for trying too hard. Because of their determination, bravery and sacrifice in defense of the nation, history has come to call them “the greatest generation.”

Unless they were exempt for medical reasons, every one of the boys in the picture was probably drafted.  More than 11 million  able bodied men between the ages of 18-45  were conscripted into military service in the World War II draft.

Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter
Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter

And the women did their part. There were, of course, female branches of the armed forces: the WACS, the WAVES, and the SPARS, and then there were the WASPS, over a thousand civilian women aviators who already had pilot licenses and were recruited to fly non-combat missions freeing male pilots for combat.

Women on the home front  stepped forward to do the jobs that men would traditionally be hired to do. They worked in shifts  around the clock,welding, “manning” assembly lines, manufacturing the weapons of war. Rosie the Riveter was the iconic image representing these women.

Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.
Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.

But there was another army of women whose skills were essential to the war effort and who are not often acknowledged because their jobs did not challenge gender expectations.  They were the typists and stenographers who were recruited by the thousands to produce the incredible amount of paperwork necessary for the prosecution of the war. Florence was one of these. She worked at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army majors came to learn to be Colonels and Generals. She and her compatriots  could take rapid dictation in shorthand, type a gazillion words a minute on clunky manual typewriters, while making multiple copies with carbon paper. That was the way Florence  helped win the war.

Command and General Staff College
Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1944
Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944
Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944

One day in April of 1945, Florence was at work when she received a telegram with the news that her husband, Lt. Danny Leffel, had died in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds received three days earlier on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Five months later, the war ended with the surrender of Japan.

7 thoughts on “My Aunt Florence—A Young Woman in Wartime

  1. I just love this post. I love the pictures. See the coke on her desk? And the flowers? I think that is ink for a fountain pen and a blotter. Oh, my. How times have changed. I looked up Maid In Japan and you can still buy a copy of it and they also have it at a few libraries. I found a couple of announcements about it in newspapers from the 1930s. Seems it was a popular piece for High Schools. I think it was similar to The Mikado.

    Were we made of sterner stuff back then? Everyone worked so hard and sacrificed so much! I am so grateful that my generation and my son’s generation have not been tested in this way, but I fear that if we were, we would not rise to the challenges as this great generation did. Perhaps I am wrong.

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  2. Your internet skills are obviously better than mine! I couldn’t find it. Where can I buy it? I should put a copy with her photo album.
    As for the bigger question: it is a very humbling one. The challenges, if they come, will surely be of an entirely different nature. And let’s pray that we can rise to them.

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  3. Thank you Mary for bringing such interesting and thought-provoking stories to light. There is quite a bit of literature around these days about “the stuff” that this generation brings to bear for our future…yet I don’t think the “dig in and participate
    characteristic” is a dominant one. I do think that every generation has many things it can be proud of and as well as the regrets, and I thank you for bringing to light the qualities that may inspire our next generation.

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    1. You’re quite right, I think. Each generation of young people is admirable in some way. If we forget that, we’re cranky curmudgeons for sure.
      And each generation is different in some way. Florence’s generation was called upon to be very brave and to sacrifice a lot. . .which they did. We can all be thankful that they rose to the challenge.

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  4. Wow, I cannot believe I found this after 50 plus years. Florence is my mother. She passed away when I was 10 years old. I have very little information about her early life and had long ago given up on searching. Something occurred to me that her husband was named Daniel Leffel. After running a quick search and finding this site I finally leaned his story. I also enjoyed seeing pictures of my mother that I have never seen before. I’m so glad you made this information available.

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