Mary Mitchell Saylor started contributing to America’s war effort as a 6-year-old Kansas farm girl. The United States had entered World War I, and she learned how to knit little squares to be used as gun cleaners. It was the beginning of a life shaped by war and service.
In her 20s, she worked as a teacher in one-room schoolhouses in Howard County, Md., until the United States entered World War II. A few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law allowing women to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve — the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES.
Saylor moved to Washington and signed up.
“Both of my brothers and my friends had all joined the military, so I figured I’d go along with them,” said Saylor, now 104 and living at Sunrise at Fair Oaks, an assisted-living facility in Fairfax County, Va., that on Wednesday will host a celebration for her and its 15 other veterans.
Saylor sat in a recliner in her suite, surrounded by memorabilia and citations — including a certificate of appreciation from Roosevelt, whose wife, Eleanor, once invited her for tea. A black-and-white photograph shows a smiling woman in uniform with dark curls and a dimple in her cheek who spent the war coding and decoding messages.
Saylor speaks slowly now and has trouble with her sight and hearing. But she clearly remembers how, in the shadows of that larger war, a smaller one was being waged.
Although her mother supported her decision, not everyone thought women should be allowed to enlist, she recalled. “Some thought it was the wrong thing to do.”
Some women had served in the Navy during World War I, but all except the nurses had disappeared from the Navy after the war ended. Bringing them back was a struggle. Congress had passed a law saying they weren’t fit for service, physically, mentally or psychologically, said Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.
“But the president was insistent on it, and the president’s wife was insistent on it — and she also had a part in insisting that black women had a part,” she said.
About 27,000 women enlisted in the WAVES in the first year, and at least 81,000 by the end of the war. Although they did not engage in combat, they went through boot camp and worked as parachute riggers, aircraft mechanics, drivers, hospital aides and administrative assistants, in addition to deciphering codes.
Even so, many men resented their presence, particularly those who had to leave desk jobs and go to battle, Vaught said. GIs spread rumors that the WAVES were there to perform sexual services for officers.
For years afterward, a hint of scandal swirled around the WAVES. “Women spent years of their lives never admitting even to their husbands that they’d ever been in the service,” Vaught said
Nevertheless, the program was a success, and it opened the door for future female enlistees.
“If they had failed then everyone would have remembered that, and every time the subject was raised people would have said, ‘Oh well, we tried that but it didn’t work,’ ” Vaught said. “But as it was, they did in many cases much better than the men had done in the same jobs.”
Women also served in the military’s other branches during the war, and in 1948 the government decided to keep them in the peacetime service.
“Today’s men and women in the Navy, to a great extent, are standing on the shoulders of what these pioneer women did,” said Regina Akers, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Code-breakers like Saylor were particularly prized, Akers said. “Those ladies don’t get enough credit,” she said. “The critical, critical work they did saved a lot of lives. . . . We talk a lot about STEM today and getting women involved in that kind of thing. These women were doing that before STEM was popular.”
As a member of the first class of WAVES, Saylor was proud to do her part. “I was taking the place of a man who could fight,” she said. She met President Roosevelt and the vice president, who she said looked “like any other businessmen.”
A college graduate, she was eligible for officer training and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. She was posted in cities along the East Coast, where she recruited female officers before being released after 12 years of active duty. She later took a position with the Navy Civil Service, where she met her husband, a Navy commander, and settled in Fairfax City, Va.
She retired in 1966 — before two-thirds of today’s Americans were born — and pursued hobbies such as golfing, traveling, cooking and genealogy, which she describes as “a form of history, except it traces people.” In a thick folder, she has documents that track her own people in America back to the 1600s.
“Tracing my family back to the Revolution isn’t so hard because my father remembered stories and incidents,” she said.
Fighting always seemed to be a part of that history, and Saylor has certain opinions about that.
“This country seems to have been involved in a war since it’s been established. They had the French and Indian affair. How would you feel if somebody moved in on you and took over your land and possessions? We’ve had wars ever since.”
Saylor has outlived three younger siblings, and her husband died in 2006. A stepson and two nieces live in the area and visit regularly. “Each year we have a party for her and she says, ‘I’ll see you next year,’ ” said her niece Carol Mitchell Phillips of Mt. Airy, Md.
Other visitors come too, including several who were her students at Annapolis Rock Elementary School in 1937. For her 100th birthday, they presented her with a poem recalling how she taught seven grades in a one-room schoolhouse heated by a pot-bellied coal stove.
She swept the pine floors
She made the good soup
She cleaned after kids
Who made messy goop
Sad was the day when she went away
She was off to join the Navy
And after surviving Annapolis Rock
I’m sure it seemed all gravy
The school was later remodeled as a private home.
In nearly a century since she knitted those gun wipes, Saylor has witnessed radical advancements for women in the military. Last year, for the first time, a woman achieved the rank of four-star admiral and became second-in-command of the Navy.
“Yeah, they can do almost any job now,” Saylor said with a faraway smile.
Yet some things haven’t changed. For any woman thinking of enlisting, she offered some advice.
“If they wanted to do it, I’d say, ‘Go ahead. But be prepared to take orders.’ ”