Navy Pride: One of Nation’s First WAVES Looks Back on Her Groundbreaking Role

By Amy Nilson September 15, 2012 12:00

At age 91, Mary Daggett Kessel smiles when she thinks back on the days she made history.

On her face, you can clearly read a mix of emotions as she recalls a remarkable time in her life, when she and a handful of other adventurous young women signed on to become the U.S. Navy’s very first contingent of WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

Kessel spent three years training Navy pilots in instrument flying and navigation during World War II, an experience she looks back on with pride, gratitude and great satisfaction.

She had just turned 21 when she enlisted. The United States had entered World War II 10 months earlier, and she was working the graveyard shift at a San Diego aircraft plant. She put college and a teaching career on hold after Pearl Harbor, as the factory job let her be at least a small part of the war effort.

But Kessel wanted more, so when the Navy called for women to enlist, she didn’t wait a minute.

“I just wanted activity, that was my nature,” she recalls. “The factory job was boring. I wanted to find my niche and help.”

December 1942

She joined just 75 women from around the nation who traveled by train in December, 1942, to the Navy’s first female boot camp on the Iowa State Teachers College campus in Cedar Falls. They would break ground for some 84,000 WAVES who would follow in the next three years.  

Until then, women had only served in the military as nurses (the Navy had fewer than 400), but the nation’s war effort was expanding exponentially. In 1940, according to official records, U.S. Navy manpower numbered just 383,000. By 1945, 3.4 million were serving. The buildup was in high gear by 1942.

As the recruiting posters announced, every woman who joined the armed services would free a man for combat. By the end of World War II, 350,000 women were serving in all branches of the military.

The younger daughter of a ranching family, Kessel grew up in Chama, a northern New Mexico town of 600 perched 7,800 feet high in the Rockies. Sent to boarding school “because we were always snowed in,” Kessel graduated from high school, studied education at San Diego State University, then at age 20 spent a year teaching at a one-room, grades 1-8 school in Chama.

She had become independent quickly.

Her brother, Wyn, joined the Army after the Pearl Harbor attack and was a stateside flight instructor throughout the war. Her older sister, Johnna, an accountant, was not tempted to enlist. But Mary’s parents, Charles and Golda Daggett, were not surprised when their youngest volunteered.

“I had already gone to San Diego to work at the aviation factory after my year of teaching,” she says. “They knew I was ready for a challenge.”

Kessel chose the Navy for her mother’s sake. “She didn’t want me to go overseas into combat zones,” Kessel recalls, adding that the Navy sent its WAVES no farther than Hawaii.

So the Navy it was, and it proved to be a perfect fit.

Kessel and the rest of the inaugural recruits arrived in Iowa with little idea what to expect.

“They told us just to bring a few clothes,” Kessel recalls. “We didn’t even have boots, our uniforms hadn’t arrived and it was December.”

In the next six weeks the WAVES— like thousands of male counterparts in other boot camps across the U.S.—between drills and calisthenics learned naval history and protocol, identification of planes and ships, knot-tying, Morse code and more.

“Everything you need to know as a sailor,” Kessel says. “We studied hard and we loved it. We all really wanted to succeed – there was a burning desire among the girls.”

Her starting salary: $25 a month.

Training pilots

At the end of boot camp, because of her aptitude scores, teaching experience and an interest in aviation, Kessel was assigned to pilot training. She and 19 other WAVES were sent to Atlanta to learn all about Link trainers, the flight simulators in which Navy flight students learned  instrument flying.

It was serious business. The nation was escalating its air forces at an astounding pace.

As the 1930s ended, the Navy and Marines together had fewer than 6,000 pilots and about 5,200 planes.  By late 1940, the Navy had upped its aircraft total to 15,000 and launched a flight training program in which 300 student pilots entered training each month. As 1942 began, the rate had skyrocketed to 2,500 a month and plans were afoot to build 27,500 new planes.

The WAVE team would step in to provide the Link portion of ground school training.  But when its members arrived at their Atlanta base, they were in for a surprise.

“We sat on the bus for at least five hours, just waiting,” remembers Kessel. “Finally an officer came on board, gave instructions to the driver, we took off again…and stopped in front of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Atlanta.”

The base had no accommodations for women, so the WAVES took over the hotel’s fifth floor.

“We were three to a room, with a small bathroom, comfortable beds, even maid service,” Kessel said. “Everything a sailor could wish for.”

They ate at a nearby restaurant and each day marched in formation to the nearby Fox Theater, which had been converted into a temporary training center. The WAVES had six weeks to learn their equipment and new duties.

Link trainers were small simulated airplanes with stubby wooden wings. About six feet long and mounted on bellows that provided realistic movement, about 10,000 of these “blue boxes” were built and used to train pilots. Kessel and her colleagues, at control tables outside the trainers, learned to be instructors.

After completing course work, the WAVES had to pass tests to earn promotion from seaman – the equivalent of an Army buck private – to seaman third class. The Navy also issued them uniforms in time for graduation from the Atlanta school and in time for assignment to their first posts as trainers.

Kessel was sent to the massive Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, where she moved into on-base barracks. Then the women went to work filling jobs previously held by men.

“We got quite a bit of flak – whistles, remarks, a little harassment,” Kessel recalls, “but it subsided. It didn’t ever bother me. We laughed it off.”

For the most part, Kessel says, life on base was all about the work at hand. Preparing so many brand-new pilots for such dangerous duty was stressful for everyone.

As an instructor, she would work one-on-one with about six students per day, and she would have each for a week or two.  By this time pilots had undergone many hours of actual flying, and Link training was one of the last steps toward earning their wings. It wasn’t easy.

A student climbing into the darkened Link cockpit found only a lit instrument panel and a stick to maneuver. The mission was to follow a flight plan using only those instruments and the instructor’s radio messages.

“We instructors set the headings, destinations, wind speed and other conditions,” says Kessel. “If the pilot got off course, we’d radio him to get back on course or he’d crash.”

Some pilots “washed out,” but others grew confident and proficient.

“It was wonderful to see them make progress and become more assured,” says Kessel. “We wanted them to succeed.”

On the downside, student pilots were killed in real crashes almost weekly. “When you’d lose a cadet in training, you’d feel terrible,” she says. “Your student wouldn’t report to class one day, then it became obvious what happened. You never got used to that.”

More than 3,200 Navy pilots – nearly a third of those who flew for the Navy during World War II – died in training crashes, military records show. And if a pilot survived to earn his wings, he would be sent off to combat – again risking his life. On base, Kessel recalls, that grim reality affected everyone.

“You felt like you were on hold. We didn’t know how long the war would go on. You lived day to day. You never made plans.”

Celestial opportunity

Kessel and her training team, nevertheless, became very close and had great times together.

They participated in a traveling drill team that showed off the WAVES’ sharp look and precise close-order marching. Its members even performed for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the Corpus Christi base, prompting an impressed superior’s order that the team board a bus and repeat its drill at each of five neighboring bases.

“They wanted to make it look like every base had its own crack team,” Kessel says.

She also spent a few hours in Navy planes. “I always loved aviation, so when pilots would ask me if I wanted to go up, I jumped at the chance.”

Once, high above the Corpus Christi base, the pilot said, “OK Mary, you take over!”

“I was terrible,” concedes Kessel. “I did all right when I concentrated on the instruments, but when I looked out, we were all over the place.”

After a year on the job and well over 100 Navy pilots Link trained, Kessel in the spring of 1944 accepted an offer to learn celestial navigation. She and nine more WAVES attended school in Seattle, learning to operate a Link trainer equipped with a canopy illuminated by hundreds of stars.

After three months of instruction, Kessel was sent to Alameda Naval Air Station. There she helped veteran pilots brush up on navigating by the stars in long flights over the ocean.  

“It was not as stressful because we were working with experienced pilots rather than beginners,” Kessel says. “They all knew the training was for their benefit, and they wanted to be there.”

While in Alameda, Kessel studied to achieve her next rank, seaman first class. She also met a young sailor from San Francisco, Ken Kessel. A six-year Navy veteran and an airplane mechanic who had spent most of the war on bases in the South Pacific, he was in Alameda studying for advancement to chief.

Marriage, family

“When we both made our ranks, we went out to celebrate,” Mary recalls. “Four months later we were married.”

That was in February of 1945, and by summer, the war was over. Mary was discharged in November, while Ken served another year. They settled in the Bay Area, Mary earned her degree in education and they started a family, welcoming daughter Karen and son Cooper. Ken went into the construction business, and in 1950 the family moved to Tuolumne County.

“I’m sick of these stoplights,” Ken told Mary one day. “Let’s move to the mountains.”

Settling in the Sonora area, he continued his work as a contractor, then went into building design and finally became an architect. He died four years ago.

Mary became a teacher, spending 20 years at Twain Harte and Columbia elementary schools. She also joined the early ranks of the National Organization for Women.

“Back in those days in Tuolumne County, that was almost subversive,” laughs Kessel. “But I still saw the need for more opportunities for women in the workplace, so I joined.”

Her time in the Navy, Kessel says, convinced her that women deserved nothing less than a chance.

“It was a great experience,” she says of her three years in the WAVES. “I felt a great deal of satisfaction and we had a real impact – both in freeing more of the men for combat and in helping open the door for women.  I considered it a privilege … and I was proud to be of service.”

Today’s Navy, thanks largely to the groundbreaking efforts of Kessel and her fellow World War II WAVES, includes more than 52,000 women – more than 15 percent of the active-duty force.  They fly fighters, serve on submarines and command warships. Their ranks include dozens of admirals and captains.

If today’s rules had been in effect seven decades ago, perhaps putting her in harm’s way, would Kessel have still enlisted?

“Probably,” she says. “My mom said I was always up for a challenge, and I think I’d be ready for it.”

 Copyright © 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Nilson September 15, 2012 12:00
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