June 25, 2014 - At 95-years-old, Catherine Dusenbury can still wear the WAVES uniform—a WWII Victory medal and American Campaign medal pinned on the left side of the navy blue, long sleeve, wool jacket. The Navy anchor adorns her Garrison cap.
Seventy years has passed since Dusenbury first donned the navy blue and sailed into a unique episode of American history.
By the summer of 1943—as WWII raged in Europe and the South Pacific—Dusenbury, along with about 27,000 American women, served in the WAVES program.
Dusenbury, a Waterford resident with family in Brandon Township, was one of the first WAVES to enlist in WWII, spearheading a new era of women's active duty in the Navy. According to Naval history, while WWI counterparts served only as nurses and secretaries, the WW II-era women took up far more responsibilities. Secretarial and clerical jobs still made up a large part of WAVES positions, but thousands of WAVES personnel performed other jobs such as aviation mechanics, photographers, control tower operators, and intelligence personnel.
Born May 28, 1919 in Detriot to Walter and Elva Heaphy, Catherine was the oldest of two sisters.
"Mom was a telegrapher and worked for Fisher Body in Detroit where they built airplanes for WWI," she said. "Dad was in the Army and had come to Detroit to inspect the airplanes built at the plant. That's how they met. Mom actually knew the Fisher brothers."
The family moved around the metro Detroit area.
"We were a family of the Great Depression—Dad lost his job at one point, it was tough in Detroit when I grew up," she said. "There were only 10 boys that graduated with us in 1938 from St. Fredrick's school in Pontiac. They all left for work in the factories to help support the family."
After high school Dusenbury was employed as a buyer for Waites Department Store in Pontiac.
"I was a buyer for notions, a variety of small objects or accessories, buttons and stationary," she said. "I had plans on traveling to Chicago and New York for Waites."
In June 1940, France fell to Germany. The next year the U.S. started to build the military up at home as war in Europe began.
"The men were gone to war and my (women) friends were going into the factories at that time," she said. "They were recruiting the women at the WAC (Women's Army Corps) and Marines (Marine Corps Women's Reserve). So I went to the recruiting office in Detroit. I was eligible for service."
Dusenbury's family home was located on White Lake.
"I loved the water and love to swim," she laughed. "So I joined the WAVES and was sworn to duty in April 1943."
According to Naval history, women returned to general Navy service in early August 1942, when Mildred McAfee was sworn in as a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander, the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Navy history and the first director of the WAVES, or "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service." Key in the title was the use of the word "emergency." The term suggested that when the effort to bring females back into service was in the planning stages, U.S. Navy brass thought female service would halt when the emergency, or WWII, was over. The reason, historians conclude, was due to political resistance from some who were not supportive of women in the Navy.
"We could not go outside the United States, nor could we get on a ship, even though we were in the Navy," she said. "That changed later. Maybe I could have gone to Hawaii at some point. Anyway, I was in the WAVES. Mom and Dad asked me if realized what I was in for in the Navy. But, I considered this my college. I could not afford to go—the Depression had been hard on everyone."
In May 1943, Dusenbury boarded an eastbound train on a Sunday night and arrived in the Bronx, New York on Monday morning.
"A Navy officer met us at the train station and took us to Hunter College," she said. "The WAVES were so new to the military that we had no uniforms and marched for about three weeks in our own clothes. We spent our time getting physical exams and learning about the Navy."
During WWII, Hunter College leased the Bronx campus buildings to the United States Navy who used the facilities to train 95,000 women volunteers for military service.
In the summer of 1943 Dusenbury's WAVES were moved to Milledgeville, Ga.
Georgia State College for Women was selected as one of four training locations for U.S. Navy WAVES. According to Naval history, for two years 15,000 women received training on campus in storekeeping and clerical duties for the Navy.
"The WAVES took over the college," she said. "We had school from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. each day. We learned the basics for merchandising, aviation and about navy supplies. We learned all Navy traditions including tying knots. We had wool uniforms and had to wear them each day in June, July and August in Georgia. No connections with home—only letters once in a while."
In September 1943 Dusenbury flew home to Detroit.
"That was the first time I was ever in an airplane," she said. "I remember we had to pull the window blinds down in the airplane when we flew over Dayton, Ohio due to the munitions plants in the town building bombs and ammunition there during World War II."
Dusenbury was home for 10 days and then traveled by train and arrived at the Naval Training Center in San Diego in September 1943.
"I was a half a day late getting to the base," she laughed. "It seemed to be a long ways from the train station to the training center. The mood was very serious in San Diego. They were worried there. They were very busy typing the sailors papers to ship out— everyone had three sets (of papers). You typed them, checked them and handed them over. At first the office was full of Navy men typing. After we got there they sent the men to sea—to war— and replaced them with us WAVES. They wanted all those men—an endless number it seemed— on the ships out in the Pacific."
After about 14 months Dusenbury was transferred from typing orders to payroll.
"A Marine would come into the office with a big pile of cash. We went out and paid the boys $17 per month," she said. "They only got $50 per month and many sent the rest of the money back home and had insurance to pay. They were on duty for three months and had one leave during that time. We paid them in cash."
"Those boys would look straight ahead when we paid them—there was no talking with them. That was the beginning of the war to them—they shipped out right after that. We'd call the name off, the money was counted—they signed their name. It seemed like so many of those boys did not have middle names. That was my only connection with the Navy men. I did get to know some of the trainers. We'd go out to the USO shows and dance."
Dusenbury served a total of 33 months in the Navy WAVES. She left the service as a Third Class Petty Officer. The war ended in the Pacific in August 1945 and she returned home in 1946 where she continued her occupation as a buyer for Waites Department Store.
"I went into the WAVES to serve my country," she said. "That was what you did— it was time to defend your country. Those of us who signed up were very loyal young ladies and we did our job."
"The first Saturday night after I came home the phone rang and it was a classmate named Lawrence Dusenbury. My Dad answered the phone and the young man asked, 'Did the battleship come in yet?'" she laughed. "It seemed Lawrence wanted to come over with some other classmates and have some beers. I told him no. I had to leave for New York on business."
When she returned a week later the two dated and married two years later in 1948. Catherine and Lawrence were married for 43 years. Lawrence died in 1991. The couple had one daughter, Dot, who today, along with husband Mike LaLone and sons Kevin, Chris, Alex and Matt, own Mike LaLone Well Service, located in Brandon Township.