Josette Dermody Wingo. Mother Was a Gunner's Mate: World War II in the Waves. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994. vii + 234 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55750-960-4.
Reviewed by Matthew J. Flynn (Ohio University)
Published on H-Minerva (October, 2001)
A recounting of one woman's experience in World War II is a welcomed book in that it reinforces a time-honored rule that is easy to forget: men and women, more often than not, are the same.
Josette Dermody Wingo's autobiography drives this point home on many levels and in several ways. Like millions of women serving in America's armed forces, she replaced men assigned "safe" jobs at home so they could then move-on to occupy a fighting position. Knowing this duty up front, she believed with conviction the placard that greeted her at the induction center for the US Navy: "Through These Doors Pass the Most Essential Women in the World." After completing a difficult boot camp and adjusting to life away from home, she fulfilled this credo as an instructor of small caliber antiaircraft artillery, a job that brought her from the east coast to the west and into the lives of many different people and, in some respects, into contact with the center of America's war effort in the Pacific.
Wingo tells a story of patriotism, a women who felt compelled to serve her country in a time of crisis. This belief pulled her away from family and left her homesick, often lonely, and wrestling with much that defined service life in 1940s America. She disdained exercise, but excelled in drill. She asked why the war must be fought, but was determined to see it through. And she welcomeed a sampling of a life she would never have encountered in "normal" times, but clung to her love of small-town middle America.
Larger issues such as racism, sexuality, and the new age of atomic warfare, lurk within these paradoxes and each receives moderate treatment. The Germans appear to her more understandable, and therefore more sympathetic, than did the Japanese (p. 124). Still, this is not a race war but the good war. Promiscuity and sexual experimentation confronted a young women admittedly sheltered but not afraid to see some of the less talked about reality of life. No matter, she discovered only the harmlessness of the former and the anomaly, and therefore scarcity, of the latter. The bomb has the terrific affect of suddenly ending the war and also her service in the military. This turn of events, however, only underscored for her the troubling arrival of the atomic age, something she felt more than she understood.
The newness of the times has its advantages, and a short epilogue summarizes her life after the war as one of attending college on the GI bill, embarking on a successful teaching career, and enjoying a happy and long marriage. The war made the rest of her life possible, as it did for so many Americans.
This applied to men and women alike, with obvious degrees of advancement for each sex. But Wingo's account breaks down this barrier because her experience is every person's experience. Fear, loneliness, confusion as well as patriotism, honor and pride, cross gender lines in this book as they must have during the war.
And herein lies Wingo's greatest service to women's history. The significance of our accounting for and remembering women in this world war stems from the fact that this task reminds us that difference is not always the signifier of importance. Tracking similarity can be just as valuable.
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Matthew J. Flynn. Review of Wingo, Josette Dermody, Mother Was a Gunner's Mate: World War II in the Waves.
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