Earlier this week I posted a tribute to our veterans and told the story of our family’s soldier, Daniel Leffel, who fought for our freedom in World War II. Today I want to honor the women who helped to win that war. One of them was my aunt Florence, Danny’s wife. This is a repeat post, slightly edited.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I remember the moment I learned of Danny’s death. My mother and I were visiting my grandmother’s house where Florence was living during the war. It is one of those isolated moments that memory illuminates with a torchlight. An unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house in the middle of the day. My grandmother started to the door as Florence accompanied by two women we did not know came in.
“What’s the matter, Sissie? Are you sick?” And the awful stone-faced reply: “Danny’s dead.”
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Florence eventually remarried. She was the proud and loving mother of two little boys when she died of breast cancer at the age of 43.