March is Women's History Month. In honor of our female forebears, The Filson is highlighting segments from the popular two-part series, originally presented in summer 2011 by Filson staff, entitled ‘Her’Story: Encountering Women in the Filson’s Special Collections. Stay tuned for future posts on women's history and The Filson's manuscript collections.
A series of correspondence written almost weekly between 1939 and 1944 from Margaret “Peg” Allison to her parents, Young Ewing and Margaret Tarrant Allison, illuminates a young woman’s struggles during the Second World War, leading to her enrollment in the WAVES.
Margaret Allison was born in August 1917 to Young Ewing Allison, who later became editor and president of Insurance Field (a trade journal) and Margaret Tarrant Allison, a talented performance soprano before her marriage. Peg grew up in Louisville and New York City, and attended college in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan and a junior college in Chicago. A portion of her correspondence these “college” years (1935-1939) is absent, and when the letters resume in 1939 Peg makes vague references to “class” on certain days, but also to work. She later remarks upon not having “much college” or a degree.
Her early correspondence during World War II shows Peg working at Fields Department Store in Chicago, where she is clearly frustrated and bored with her position; her letters are filled with ideas about other jobs and about all of her “boyfriends”, many of whom are in training, going into service, and being sent overseas. Peg writes, “Well I guess my nursing is out – 3 yrs is the training and no less and I don’t like to take that long. I’m going to see what else is cooking in defense work – I’m getting very restless at Fields and a defense job would help in the money end and also would be something new – I’d kinda like to get on the woman’s army if they ever really organize it, but I guess that will be never.” [12 May 1942]
Despite Peg’s doubts, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp was established, and Peg talked about joining, writing to her mother, “Tomorrow is the start of registration for WAAC. I’m going to try for it, tho’ I may not be very lucky. I think I’ll really enjoy the work for a change and I don’t think the war will last forever – and as long as I’ve been away from home it isn’t as tho’ I was leaving you. It will be a change in jobs and that’s all.” [26 May 1942] To her father, she writes, “I know mom doesn’t like the WAAC but I want to do something about this [war] and I don’t feel factory work is the answer and my bond and stamp buying isn’t too high. So I’ll try to get in and if so I’ll be glad, if not I’ll try something else – but safer. Tho’ I don’t think we’ll be sent any where out of the US, if so I’ll have joined the army to see the world….” [31 May 1942]
Peg’s letters throughout the summer of 1942 detail her failure to be accepted into the WAAC. As a substitute, she begins taking a nurses’ aide course at the Red Cross and works at the Chicago Service Men’s Center, organized by the Chicago Commission on National Defense and Major Edward Kelly, which provided housing, clothing items, food, and dancing.
In the fall, Peg applied to be a member of the WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. This group was the United States Navy’s women’s service, in which women replaced Navy men at shore stations for office work, radio, communications, and storekeeping. From the very beginning, the WAVES were an official part of the Navy, and its members held the same rank and ratings as male personnel. They also received the same pay and were subject to military discipline. “Dear Family, your dear daughter is now a “Wave” I passed everything o.k. and was sworn in this morning.” [29 September 1942] Peg left Chicago for Bloomington, Indiana for 3 months, and her letters home described her training to become a Navy Storekeeper.
Although Peg had been continually seeing various boyfriends in Chicago, one definitely stood out as her favorite, although he had been deployed overseas – Bill Nightingale. As Peg was being shipped to Corpus Christi for her WAVES station, Bill was fighting in Northern African and was wounded. He received a Purple Heart and was returned to the United States for recuperation in the Spring of 1943. He eventually reunites with Peg in Corpus Christi, and they decide to get married. “Please try and get used to the idea that lots of things in war-time have to change and getting married is one of them…he is good for me and I only hope you’ll agree later on...right now I can see your point but I’ve got mine too and it is the rightest thing I think I’ll ever do…” [7 July 1943]
Things became more difficult when Bill was sent to a hospital in central Illinois while Peg remained in Corpus Christi; her letters began to talk of little but how to get transferred to a different WAVES unit, perhaps in Louisville, or how to get out of the WAVES all together. Bill was eventually discharged from the army hospital in December 1943 and joined her again in Texas; soon after, Peg sent the following message to her mother “You’ll be the first…I am sure now – I’ve just come from the dr. and the bunny says I’m to be a mama about next Sept. 2 – and the prospect of being out of the navy has made me a new woman in only a short minute it seems.” [20 January 1944] Due to her pregnancy, Peg was able to leave the WAVES; she and Bill moved to Chicago, both obtaining employment at Fields. Peg’s letters throughout the rest of 1944 and 1945 do not mention the war, outside of her younger brother, Sonny, who was in Air Force training. In later years, Bill re-joined the army, and Peg’s post-war letters first described the difficult life of the family of a non-commissioned officer, later juxtaposed with her elevated social standing and housing when Bill became a Warrant Officer.
Margaret Allison Nightingale’s interesting letters illuminate the yearnings of a young woman during World War II who wants to do what she can to participate in the war while loved ones are training and fighting; they also show the realities of day-to-day life once Peg became one of the first women in the armed forces; above all, they illuminate her story.