World War II veteran recalls time in the WAVES
From her enlistment on June 29, 1944, until her honorable discharge on March 12, 1946, Phoebe (nee David) Derr served in the United States Naval Reserve WAVES, which stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the World War II women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve.
A lifelong resident of the Lehigh Valley, Derr has raised four children, Deborah, Kevin, Timothy and Gail and currently enjoys her role as grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of three.
However, in 1944 she was 20 years old and anxious to support the country’s war effort. She had hoped to enlist earlier, but women under the age of 21 were barred from volunteering. As soon as the age requirement dropped to 20, Derr signed up. The only child of Earl David, an army veteran who served in World War I as an ambulance driver in France, Derr honored her father by following in his footsteps.
“I was pleased to be able to do it,” Derr said.
Her initial training took place at the Naval Training Station, Hunter College, Bronx, N.Y. She then attended the Naval Training School in Samson, N.Y. Basic training ended with an aptitude test and a declaration of assignment preferences. Because women were restricted from serving on ships, they performed mainly support and office duties.
Derr requested and received a position in the postal service. She was assigned to the Fleet Post Office in San Francisco, Calif. Reaching her new post meant a long, cramped travel journey on a troop train. She would trek from coast to coast a total of four times during her enlistment.
Once in California, Derr began work sorting and redirecting mail to sailors on the numerous ships and at the various ports throughout the Pacific theater. As morale boosters, Derr and the other WAVES performing these duties were indispensable. The volume of mail they processed was monumental. To accomplish this task, they worked round-the-clock swing shifts. Derr confesses she occasionally fell asleep around dawn.
Living arrangements complicated the situation. Upon their arrival, Derr and her fellow WAVES learned there was not enough space to accommodate them in the barracks. For several weeks they slept on cots in the ballroom of a major hotel. Eventually, the women were permitted to find off base apartments and given rent allowances.
In spite of the inconveniences, Derr recalls her service experience fondly. As is often the case, comrades in arms became friends for life. Derr still corresponds with Bertie Diggs, her fellow postal worker and apartment mate.
Today women are included in all aspects of military service.
The WAVES of World War II not only contributed to the war effort, but also inadvertently revealed the usefulness of women in the military.
During Veterans Day remembrances, The Press remembers veterans who have quietly and faithfully supported those on the front lines.