Women’s Experience in the Red Cross during WWII – Just scratching the surface for the Reenactor
About Laughing Moon Mercantile Pattern #139, WWII Red Cross Uniform and Civilian Skirted Suit
I am a patternmaker who has made 19th C sewing patterns. Before I publish patterns I include what I have learned about the garment, usually in a section called "History Notes". Sometimes it’s like documenting an Easter Egg Hunt. I record little nuggets of information I have dug up in the innards of a huge book written by a smart textile historian or show a photograph of a raggedy piece of clothing rescued from eBay. This time I found so much information about the WWII era woman’s Red Cross uniform it was more like the well-known phrase “taking a drink from a fire hose.” Information about WWII and the American Red Cross abounds. WWII ended in August of 1945 with the surrender of Japan.At the time of this writing that was only 72 years ago. There are eye witnesses still with us. There are countless photos and films. And fortunately, there are many written accounts. And for the costumer, there are lots of surviving primary sources and actual clothing.So, I am only writing this so that I might make some of this information easier to find. I cannot hope to list all of it.
Here is a link to the download pattern on our website: https://www.laughingmoonmercantile.com/product-page/139-download-ladies-arc-uniform-and-skirted-suit-1940s
Here is a link to the printed pattern:
Here is a link to the extant uniform copied for this pattern: https://www.pinterest.com/LaughingMoonMer/red-cross-uniform-wwii/
The best book I read while researching WWII and women was “Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front in WWII” by Emily Yellin written in 2004. No matter what impression you might want to do for a WWII reenactment, this book will give you information about it. It will also help orient you to the wider view of different roles American women played in the period. It is so good and complete I think it should be required reading.You can purchase a hard copy or you can read it online here:
https://books.google.com/books/about/Our_Mothers_War.html?id=BcQDE0Ce9GAC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false Myrna Loy in her Red Cross Uniform
You might ask, “Why do an impression of a Red Cross Girl?” I think most people immediately think of Army Nurse as the most logical person for a woman to portray in WWII. Nurses were certainly some of the most important people and lived through what might be the worst experiences. Their bravery was exemplary and some suffered greatly. But they weren’t the only women that joined up to help in the war effort and nurse wasn’t the only job available for those who wanted to contribute. Some of the books I have read certainly opened my eyes to that fact. One bit of information I learned from my reading was very surprising to me. At the end of the 1930s, when many of the people affected by WWII were growing up, America was very unsophisticated to our minds.Contrary to what I believed, though a nurse was considered a woman’s job, being a nurse was not always considered an appropriate job for a “well-brought up girl”. Stating it plainly, since nurses in their natural course of work would see naked men, and understand physiology, human sexuality, and venereal diseases, many parents found the job description unacceptable for their daughters.In fact, many nurses pursued their vocation over the loud objections and to the shame of some of their parents.Add that to the prevailing resistance to women joining the military and physically moving away from their home, nurses and Red Cross girls had a lot to stand up to. But stand up they did. By the end of the war over 35,000 Army and Navy nurses and 7,000 Red Cross girls were serving overseas. But not everyone was able to become a nurse or leave their homes. Fortunately for the patriotic woman, alternatives abounded.Many of these choices are listed in the excellent books, Dressed for Duty volumes one and two. There are many groups and corps listed that would make equally interesting material for women's WWII impressions. The Red Cross Girls that were hired to serve with the military overseas were a little different from those Red Cross volunteers who had to stay in the USA, though the uniform was the same. Incidentally, I am fully aware that these were women and not “girls”, but in the vernacular of the day, that is what they were called. In any case the Red Cross had a stringent interview process for those women they were going to hire. They only wanted women who were at least 25 years of age and who had a college degree.They were not looking for teenagers, but well-rounded intelligent women with an education. They wanted women that could be trusted to take on a great deal of responsibility with a minimum of supervision, sometime in very far-away places during wartime with all its uncertainties, dangers, and difficulties.They were looking for women who would work hard and wanted to serve their country in the best way they could.So right from the start the Red Cross Girls gained an excellent reputation and were top flight. This countered some of the resistance the women faced from their families about serving. Once hired, the women went to Washington D.C. for weeks of training. The mission the Red Cross set for these women was to “bring a little touch of home to the boys away from home.” (Ruth Register) After shipping out and arriving overseas they were assigned either to a Rest Home for the injured or Hospital, USO Clubs in the cities, a Clubmobile, or an Aero Club at aircraft bases and stations. They were stationed in the European, Mediterranean/African, and Pacific Theaters.
Ready to Serve As for Red Cross services provided at the home front, the involvement was huge. This website gives some of the story and statistics. The Red Cross was the largest organization that provided stateside services. The uniform in the pattern was also worn domestically as well as overseas. http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-and-education-magazines/home-front-organizations-and-services Here are some statistics from this website: During World War II (1939–45), the Red Cross was the largest civilian organization providing vital services to military personnel and their families. By 1945, the last year of the war, the Red Cross had 36.7 million adult members, 19.9 million Junior Red Cross members, 7.5 million volunteers, and 24,378 paid staff. Almost every household in the United States participated in some way in Red Cross activities. Between 1941 and 1946, when the average yearly U.S. family income was roughly $3,000, Americans contributed about $785 million to the Red Cross war fund.
Volunteering at the Canteen Red Cross volunteers meeting troop trains in the USA. Women of all ages volunteered in the Red Cross at home.
Meeting with the crew before takeoff and after landing from bombing missions
Activities for an Impression: Delivering the mail to soldiers – If the Red Cross was going out in the field they sometimes would also take the mail to deliver to the soldiers. Playing games, playing records, dancing, singing, putting on skits. This included going to dances in the evening wearing their uniform – as many as they could go to, including the USO clubs, and dances put on by the military bases and the local inhabitants where they were stationed. Dating the servicemen was allowed but many girls were wary of getting too involved. Talking to the servicemen, asking where they are from, about their loved ones back home, telling jokes, and being cheerful. 1940’s slang words and definitions can be found listed on the Internet. Some of the women who wrote books mentioned how important subtle makeup, nail polish, and perfume were even though they were always in uniform and were not supposed to wear jewelry. The GIs would admire and mention it. Handing out small supplies and snacks: Donuts and coffee, snacks and juice, candy, chewing gum, cigarettes, playing cards, writing paper, stamps, and envelopes, postcards, sewing kits, books, magazines.Donuts were such a common snack for the Red Cross the Red Cross girls were sometimes called “Donut Dollies”. This is a synopsis of a book listed in the bibliography that will give you more ideas for your impression.https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2007/fall/lipstick.html
Dancing to popular tunes played on a phonograph set up on gas cans.
Working from a jeep visiting solders in the field.
Singing around the piano at a Red Cross Aero Club
Sources for Reproduction Items: Candy, snacks, and gum: http://wwiisupply.com/candies/ WWII Cigarettes – Chesterfield, Camel, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Viceroy, Raleigh, Kool, Old Gold, http://wwiisupply.com/tobacco/ Playing Cards: https://www.usgamesinc.com/Spotter_Playing_Cards_Double_Deck_Set/ Sewing Kits: http://www.serviceofsupply.com/product/wwii-reproduction-sewing-kit/ General Women’s Items: https://wwiisoldier.com/product-category/1940s-women/ Baseball: https://wwiisoldier.com/product-category/u-s-military-reproductions/baseball/ Writing supplies: https://wwiisoldier.com/product-category/u-s-military-reproductions/writing/ Toiletries: https://wwiisoldier.com/product-category/u-s-military-reproductions/u-s-army-toiletries/
Playing music and singing in the field using a Dodge WC truck – somewhere in France 1944 More Information about the Red Cross in WWII: Here is another excellent website that explains the services provided by the Red Cross in WWII: https://history.delaware.gov/exhibits/online/willis_red_cross.shtml Books https://archive.org/stream/athissidethestor027200mbp/athissidethestor027200mbp_djvu.txt At His Side the Story of the American Red Cross Overseas in WWII by George Korson, 1945. The link above takes you to this book so you can read it online. It is also available hard copy through the usual online sources.This book was written before WWII was over and could be regarded as a recruitment for the Red Cross.Nevertheless, it has great information about the direct involvement of the Red Cross giving war information including specific dates, places, names, and direct quotes from all the theaters of war. The following books provide excellent information about the lives of Red Cross Girls overseas through their letters home. Though sanitized by wartime censorship and burdened by the everyday minutia of letters (“Please send me some panties and more stuffed olives.”) the writing is informing about these women’s daily lives. They are all a worthwhile read. My War: From Bismarck to Britain and Back, edited by Christine C. Woods, 2006. This book contains the letters of Ruth Register and the diary of Edith Christianson, her mother, and was edited by the daughter of Ms. Register. It is a very good description of the life assigned to an Aero Club in Europe at a bomber base. Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys: An American Woman in World War II, 2007. This book is a compilation of the letters of Elizabeth Richardson of her time in the Red Cross. The editor and writer of additional information is James H. Madison. He was a professor at the University of Indiana and provides interesting illumination about the context of the letters. This book provides very important information about the Clubmobiles in Europe. Here is a synopsis by the author: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2007/fall/lipstick.html War Through the Hole of a Donut by Angela Petesch, 2006.This might be the most well written of all the memoirs written by way of letters home. Ms. Petesch worked as a feature writer at the Chicago Tribune before the Second World War, and her expertise shows in this book. It was decided before she left that she would write one letter periodically that would be shared with all her family and then saved for her when she returned. She thereby kept all her family up to date and created a journal of all her experiences for the future. This book has excellent information about Clubmobiles. How to Play During a War: A Free Spirit’s Life in Letters, by Evelyn Merritt, 2007, through her letters home. This book was edited by the author’s son, Lynne Whelden. This book has interesting information about the Pacific Theater, the women assigned to hospitals, and the challenges they faced. This title is misleading, I think. The woman who wrote the letters in this book was very independent, but also very religious, traditional, and took her work seriously. Destination Unknown, LeOna Cox and Kathleen Cox, 2009.Excellent information about setting up a Red Cross club in North Africa and then moving on to Rome.
A little mud didn't stop them.
Under new Management - The Red Cross Girls and their VW schwimmwagen “donated” by the German Army
Wherever they went, a line would form. Online Sources The following is a list of Red Cross information online in period newsreels and modern videos of former Red Cross Girl’s remembrances of their experiences. You will see the uniform in this pattern in most of the following films. It is very interesting to see the uniforms in context. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_UUPoPOXKg - Personal interview – don’t miss it.Mary Burgess https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAwCMIiVdyA - Personal interview – Jill Pitts Knappenberger https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-HgFf62Mc8 - Seeing Them Through – Newsreel about the Red Cross https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GJTwTrDYO0 - Red Cross in Sicily https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQkuWjpamMI&t=469s - At His Side – Newsreel about the Red Cross https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-JwFQWWw00 - Bogie makes a pitch for the Red Cross https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADDakA7PRZg - Personal interview with a former Clubmobiler – Barbara Pathe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uk1VKwDXIS4 – Personal interview with a former Aero Club Red Cross Girl – Erna Torney https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K27Pq7e6hSQ - Red Cross recruiting nurse, clubs overseas, Blood Drives & blood plasma, stateside canteens and clubs, Jr. Red Cross, POW work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tc9ySEbnAec - Short promo for the book “Destination Unknown” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW9dbcNVy44 - Story about the Evansville, Indiana Red Cross Canteen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xtbMmUrL2k - Silent film footage of Clubmobilers about August 1944 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCfwV556a00&t=68s - Overview of Red Cross history https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aglwXv93y2I - Red Cross Rest Camp, New Caledonia https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FS-9UnROmS4 - Personal interview – Margo Hemmingway (not Margaux Hemmingway) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISv3SSkOjkI&t=144s - Modern compilation of WWII footage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdlOu36CW30 - Red Cross workers in Egypt Online Forums http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/ - General Militaria with some sub categories of “Women Services” and “Homefront” http://www.blitzkriegbaby.de/ -Specific forum for women’s WWII Uniforms and Women’s History Thank you for slogging through this! I hope this has given you some ideas for a WWII Red Cross impression. Reading and researching has given me a huge interest in WWII and the place women had in it. From this interest I have added lots of women's WWII uniforms to my personal clothing collection, both American and British. Just to warn you, this was with an intent to make patterns from them. Most of which, might I add, would make wonderful civilian clothing, including “Rosie wear” using different material. Thanks! JoAnn Peterson, December 26, 2017
The 340th Bombardment Group