Col. Caroline Van Mason (U.S. Army, retired) was one of the thousands of women who felt called upon to serve in World War II after the United States was attacked in Pearl Harbor. Working in Seattle, Washington, at the time, she had a close friend and former classmate who sent to one of the Japanese internment camps created after the bombing. Rejected by the U.S. Army at first due to poor eyesight, she was finally commissioned in 1944. She served as a dietician on several hospital ships carrying patients home from the European and Pacific front. In 1967, she was on hand when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation allowing women to achieve advance rank in the armed forces, and still has a commemorative pen she received at the formal tea she attended at the White House honoring the event. “I always wanted to be where the action was going to be,” she says. And she was.
Interview: January 31, 2012, Asbury Solomons, Solomons, Md.
The catalyst for joining the military was that I was working on the University of Washington campus right after I had completed my master’s degree. Pearl Harbor came. And let me tell you, working there in the residence calls, parents would call wondering whether they should bring their kids out of Seattle, Washington. It was just a real exciting time. My boss there was called up by the Red Cross, so she had to leave that weekend. I was working there in food service. It was frightening. In the first place, nobody know what they had to do with the blackout curtains; we knew we had to get the buildings so they would not be visible from the air. There was no assurance that we would not have somebody getting bombed in our direction. But I just felt like I needed to be part of this. I always wanted to be where the action was going to be.
My mother was all for it. She would have gone herself if she hadn’t been so old. My mother was a gutsy woman. She started out in World War I coming to Washington, D.C. and she was living in a rooming house on Capitol Hill. She was probably 20 at the time. She was born in Washington before it was a state. She had real feel for adventure and the associations she made with women there lasted for most of her life.
One of my good friends from my college experience was Japanese. So she came by to see me that week after Pearl Harbor. [Begins to tear up.] That was a very terrible time. She was going over to an internment camp. She had a brother who was in medical school in St. Louis. We felt so bad about Shiz; she was still in graduate school. She came by my office to say goodbye. People at the university community were as amazed as any of us that we were doing this. There are still some people who are still fighting that decision through the Civil Rights Act. What was so amazing in the end. I went into the army, and my friend went into the Navy, and Shiz, when she finally got out of the camp, went to Mt. Sinai Hospital in Philadelphia and got her accreditation. We saw each other then. That was right after the war. Betty became the Dean of women out at Oregon State, and I worked with her in aging services, and Shiz worked for the aging programs in California. So at the end, we were back together again. But that’s … a digression.
I did not enlist in the WAC. I did not want to go out and march somewhere; I wanted to do something related to my skills. I wanted to be where the action was. I ended up in Cleveland when I was finally accepted. I had been working for the Government Accounting Office, using the highest level of skill I could use – accounting, as a contract officer. It was a very short period, and I did not fancy it.
So I was commissioned as a dietician in the Army in 1944. I loved being in the army.
I was posted to Indiana for basic training. Basic training was two weeks. That was all. You learned how to salute and where to go for your paychecks. It was not anything like boot camp, although we did learn to march in formation. Then I went off to a hospital in Ft. Riley in Kansas. And that was the last place I wanted to be. Here I am a Northwest person and I was used to the mountains and the sounds and all that and here I was in what for me was farmland. I got there in September and I got out of there in January or February, maybe. I was glad I was there, though, because it was so interesting. The hospital was full of patients who were either kicked by a horse or felled by a mule or they were people with ulcers that were induced by worry.
Then I went over to Riley General, which is in Missouri and I’m still laughing about that one. At that point, people were shipping out fairly often. There was a lot of coming and going. We had a dinner one Saturday night for one of the ladies who was leaving in the next couple of weeks. The next morning, they came and knocked on my door and told me I was leaving that afternoon at 5 o’clock for Charleston, S.C., to go on a hospital ship. Although they didn’t give you all of those details. I knew I was heading to the port there. You have uniforms at the laundry, and you don’t have a lot of money. When I think about it, I think, “Gee!” But you respond to what your directives are.
I finally went onto the Algonquin, and that was a hospital ship that had been converted from a cruise ship that had gone from New Orleans to Cuba. So it was not really designed to be crossing the Atlantic. They were using all kinds of things. They would have used row boats, I suppose, it they’d had to. But I was not afraid. Our ship was lighted up like a Christmas tree. And we were in a big convoy. Anybody who had bombed a small hospital ship would have been crazy. I went on that ship and we went into the Mediterranean. This was in 1945. The war was winding down. They triaged patients so that we didn’t bring any man back that was not going to make it. These were long trips. One of the worst injuries I remember from the ship I served on bringing patients back from Europe were the burns. If they had been caught in a tank that caught on fire. We saw a lot of burns from that because there were lots of tanks then. When we picked up patients at Naples, Anzio had just been over with not very long.
I went from the Algonquin to the Chateau Thierry and then we went around through Panama. And at point, we passed the Missouri coming back from Japan. We got out over to Manila and they were not ready for us or for anybody else because there were no piers there. They had all been wiped out. We were out in the harbor for about two weeks. We would go ashore, though. We would wave and wave and wave and somebody would come out with a boat and take us into shore. I went to the War Crimes Tribunals for the Japanese and that was a very interesting time. We would get a ride in and we would stay for several hours. My roommates were so good looking that we always had a ride!
I remember that there was a Japanese lady there, or a Philippino I guess it was. They had examined her very closely because they knew that the Phillipinos coming to this trial would be madder than hell so they had picked out of her hair this mirror that had very sharp edges.
We finally got a pier and we got patients loaded on and our trip was the first time that they had ever gone through the islands. I knew that the area was so mined that they had not used that route for years. I wasn’t worried about that, though. I was worried more about the black market than mines. There was so much money to be made selling butter and beer and eggs and so forth. When your job is feeding people, you had to be sure that your supplies weren’t getting dispersed to someone else. I’d rather not talk about it. When I came on the ship in Charleston, the commander and the captain told me the reason they got a dietician on there was they knew they were having problems with black market and they wanted me to be able to help them locate the perpetrators. Well, they needed a detective or someone with more sophistication than me.
We did several tours through Manila. After the war, I came back through Los Angeles and I got orders to leave that afternoon to go to Seattle to board a ship for Yokohama, Japan. This was probably 1946. By then we were taking out families instead of going out without anybody on the ship. We had women and children who were going to join their husbands and they had made arrangements to join their husbands who were stationed there. That was an interesting time. The children were mostly babies. That was a mercy. But when we got to Japan there were some women who were rejected by their husbands. They knew they were coming; they had had to sign for them to come. But in the meantime they had found a Japanese girl. It was a very distressing business. I would be standing there on the rail looking over the side and watching these people come in. It was distressing to think about what they must have gone through to get there and then to be greeted like, “Don’t come off. We don’t want you.”
When I entered the army, the highest rank a woman could be was a major. That was the whole world at the time. You’re too young to remember this, but there was a lot of sexism out there. There were lots of things you couldn’t do. The time I felt it the most was when I was a major at Stuttgart [Germany] and one of the men got promoted. We had about the same rank and I knew he didn’t have the education that I had. I knew he didn’t have the … well. That was the first time that legislation meant me. [Refers to the 1967 legislation signed by President Johnson opening advance rank to women in the military.] Because I had always loved what I did. Traveling around. The whole women’s movement was behind this law by then because they knew if they could get through the army it would be much harder to deny us anywhere else.
And the reason I was invited to the ceremonial signing of that bill was the silliest reason. It was because I was wearing the right uniform that day. I was working at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and I was wearing my Class A uniform. If you were wearing a white uniform, you would stand out in the pictures, so you were not invited.
I had never been to the White House where I had tea in the Blue Room. And that was pretty special I can tell you. I wasn’t nervous about it because I was in good company. There were lots of us there. We were in the same room as President Johnson for a couple of hours, but we didn’t talk to him! We said, “How do you do?” We shook his hand and he said, “Congratulations.” And we got our coffee and tea, and then we talked to each other. He mingled, but just a lot of platitudes. It was an elegant tea. I remember that! It was very impressive to me. The décor of the room and the ability to move around in it was very nice. Those military women who got to this rank, they had a certain amount of couth. They’d been to enough formal military functions that they know what fork to use if they have to