An Army in Skirts
by Frances DeBra Brown
Indiana Historical Society Press, 2008
“To all the women who served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Women’s Army Corps. We were raised as ladies and we acted as ladies, hence the name of my book An Army in Skirts.”
Review by Jennifer Bergeron
An Army in Skirts is a collection of letters accented with additional remembrances of the particular people, times and events. Most of the letters are between Frances DeBra and her family, however several are included from friends she met along the way.
The book covers Frances DeBra’s WAAC enlistment on April 29, 1943 to her honorable discharge (WAC) on November 11, 1945.
I’ve enjoyed several collections of war time letters and An Army in Skirts definitely ranks as one of my favorites. I’ve found that the format of written correspondence is much more personal and provides the interesting antidotes that might be excluded from a more academic sourcebook. The author’s humor comes out occasionally, but in my opinion, the most valuable aspect is her amazing descriptions. Miss DeBra provides so many great details on everything! Uniforms, people, towns, work, art, food, music, movies and more!
Frances takes us on a wonderful journey that begins in Indianapolis with her enlistment in the newly organized Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in April of 1943. Just about a month later, May 24, she reported for training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. After her basic training, she was sent to Fort Meade, South Dakota assigned to the Signal Corps. It was in South Dakota that France became a fully “reenlisted” Army Private in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). She practiced and perfected her radio code with hopes of a transfer to an Air Base as an operator; a goal, that while attainable for women of the time, other than a couple short months, she never quite fully achieved. She was promoted to PFC and in October of ‘43, transferred to Marianna Army Air Field in Florida. Unfortunately, there were no positions working with radios, so Frances was assigned to work on the post newsletter, “The Beam”, which proved to be greatly perfected with her involvement. From Florida, Frances received her overseas orders. She found herself first in London (April ‘44), working as a draftsman on D-Day landing maps (top secret) and then transferred to Normandy (where she bivouacked in the camp at Valognes) and then on to Paris, France (September ‘44). In the newly liberated France, Frances worked in G-3, the headquarters for the special troops in the European theater of operations (ETO). There she served her remaining time until her discharge, as a sergeant, in November of 1945.
Not only was Miss DeBra a skilled radio operator and draftsman, we also learn she was an accomplished artist. Several of her sketches and watercolors are included in the book and she mentions often her drawing, supplies and requests for paper. These sketches give another perspective insight into the war-torn populations she encountered in her journey. While in France, she was able to attend art classes at the renowned Ecole des Beaux-Arts on her days off….something she’d often dreamed of doing.
The amazing details of uniform articles (along with some amusing complaints of some of the items…“mostly I felt my soul was colored khaki or olive drab”) will provide the reenactor with not only reliable authenticity guidelines and support, but also some amusing tales to share with the public.
“The chief problem was me, Army equipment and the width of the aisle. You’d love to see me in my “battle dress” as Charlie called it. There is a certain amount of equipment we must carry with us and after I have strung to the right, left and back of me I felt like a decorated Christmas tree. I look at it in a pile on the floor and can hardly believe that I can carry it away at one time. If I could remember that I am a different circumference “dressed” than normally everything would be fine. But one day I expect to find me and my field pack firmly wedged in a doorway.”
“I had to take all of my brass buttons, douse them with lighter fluid and then set it on fire. This burned off the lacquer with which the buttons were coated and which of was formulated to make polishing unnecessary. From then on we had to use a polishing shield, paste polish and a brass brush every few days to keep our buttons shining.”
“Another milestone passed [May 1945] we are to turn in our “Hobby Hats,” after packing them across an ocean. I am certainly glad to get rid of it. That hat was a mistake the WAC will never live down.”
The descriptions of the scenery and activities of the off duty WAC would add a beautiful backdrop to any ETO event and first person account. For those interested in the home front, An Army in Skirts also gives great insight to the struggles those at home faced. Particularly interesting to me, was the vast amount of things Frances requested from her family at home and the ability for them to actually acquire the items in the midst of their own shortages and rations. Care packages seemed to flow frequently to Frances and her associates; usually containing candy, baked goods, Kleenex and lotions that were hard to find in war torn France. She also would request (and receive) uniform shirts and KIWI shoe polish (mahogany). Although there were often unexplained delays in mail delivery, often it was quite regular and relatively quick for the time (letters within a week!). Many of these details were contrary to other accounts I’ve read.
An Army in Skirts is an easy, light read that held my interest easily. Amazingly, I found Frances able to develop the characters in her letters by actual description in her letters and added notes interspersed making the book read like a novel at times. Not overly heavy on details of meeting her future husband Halton Brown, she paints a delightful picture of his devotion and gentlemanly behavior through a few selected letters. We are introduced to many of her pre-WAC friends as well as many that she makes along the way. Just as reenacting brings together what become lifelong friends, it seems many of the women Frances meets on her journeys also become friends for many, many years to come.
I was struck by how often Frances was able to get away on her day’s off and explore the local sights and entertainment. “Our uniform was a free pass to ride, so I went everywhere within the city [Paris] limits.” One would assume, she was an outgoing, explorative type of person already, but the freedom and independence she enjoyed seemed unusual to me for a war time, overseas assignment. I found her descriptions of her adventures quite inviting and she makes the reader feel like they are there with her looking at the architecture or the landscapes. We understand by the end that this time in war-ravished Europe has lingering effects on her, but Frances always seemed to find joy in her surroundings even in the midst of her longing for home.