During World War II, some 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces, both at home and abroad. Records show that by the time war was over, more than 2 million women had worked in war industries. Some volunteered as nurses or members of home defense units, while others enlisted as full-time members of the military. In the latest installment of our weeklong series, two women of "The Greatest Generation" from upstate New York speak with WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas about the roles they played during the war.
The Second World War involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale. 1940's Americans were consumed by Nationalism, determined to resist Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Ruth Leeson originally wanted to be a nurse, but her mother forbid it. She was in the first graduating class of Columbia High School in June 1941. The Albany-born Leeson took a job working with her uncle at a flight school in Troy.
"The president of RPI came over one day and said, as the time goes down for the war, he said, 'I'd like to put an instrument program in here.' "
Her uncle called technology pioneer inventor Ed Link, and became discouraged when he found he couldn't afford to purchase one of Link's teaching units. "So I just looked at him and I said 'I'll get it for you, Bob.' I didn't know hat a Link was, I didn't know anything about it, what it did, or anything else."
Leeson's curiosity helped her find a way. She joined the Marines in 1943, determined to get to know the Link inside-out, studying at Link instructor school in Atlanta. "The pilots knew how to fly by instruments, but in order to get their flight pay they had to be reviewed every four months because they'd get off on their own ways of doing things."
Leeson became an aerial navigation instructor, well-versed in the use of the Link Simulator, a key pilot training aide, which taught fliers the art and science of celestial navigation. More than 500,000 American pilots were trained on the Link.
Now 94, Leeson, who retired from VA hospital after fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming a nurse, remembers her commandant wouldn't allow the women in her unit to travel overseas, something that never stopped her from giving her all to helping out the war effort. She says the schooling she received and the friends she made changed her life, forever and for better.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, the British homefront was a stark contrast to Leeson's experience here.
96-year-old Cecily Geraghty was 21 when she signed up to serve a five-year stint in the Royal Air Force in Great Britain. She assisted in providing care to RAF pilots. "I was with the bomber command. I was there for the pilots going in and out for battle." She was shuffled to several bases or points of operation, ultimately ending up at a base called Sealand. "It was the next town to Chester, and I was there for most of the time then. Our mission was to take care of the pilots. We had to work all different shifts. Be with them when they came back from battle or going out. And many a pilot never came back, and that was sad to see, you know? There was one pilot, his wife had a baby, and he went to the bar and got drunk. Nobody saw him go to the airfield. He took a plane up, and never came back. I always remember that."
Geraghty witnessed many of the sorrows of war both away and when she went home one day on leave only to find her neighborhood had been bombed by the Germans. Soldiers escorted her past barricades. "When I was going down that road to get to my house, I was tripping over dead bodies."
Walking past bomb craters and the smoldering ruins of buildings, she was astonished to find that her family home was one of the few still standing. "All our windows were blown out, but we had a Morrison shelter in the dining room, which we slept, my family of five girls and my mother and father slept in that Morrison shelter. There was eight people that could lie down in it."
The Morrison shelter was almost as common as an ironing board in English households. It was an indoor cage that was designed to protect the occupants from masonry and debris if the home was hit by a bomb.
Geraghty recalls how British civilians, her friends and neighbors, suffered. "I came from the town of Burtonhead, and there was Liverpool... it was just shattered. There was so many places in England, that they'll never forget that war, and I hope to God that it never breaks out here. Because they really don't know what we went through."
While stationed at Sealand, Geraghty met her future husband Michael, an Irishman who emigrated to England as a teenager. He had received papers to reunite with family who had settled in America. Geraghty joined him a year later by working as a nanny with a family who paid her passage to the states. She and Michael eventually put down roots in upstate New York.
Leeson also married and returned to the area. Her memories of wartime are still strong, and she’s appreciative of the life and times she experienced. "During a war, it's a 50-50 proposition. If it wasn't for the homefront... they get 50 percent of the hundred, we get the other 50. Because they are our supporters and our suppliers. The whole nine yards. So I thank the homefront."
Leeson continues to serve her community, giving 100 percent through volunteer work at the VA hospital in Albany.