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San Diego's Wartime Women Vets Still Serving Their County Decades Later

U.S. Navy
Women in WAVES take the oath of enlistment in New York, February 1943.
San Diego's Wartime Women Vets Still Serving Their County Decades Later
Decades After Wartime Service, San Diego Women Veterans Handcraft Pillows For Troops
A group of women veterans in San Diego who served in the Navy decades ago has taken on a new mission: they’re bringing comfort to military troops with handmade neck pillows.

Evelyn Coy remembers it was 72 years ago when she answered the call to serve.

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“Because I wanted to do for my country,” Coy said. "I couldn’t believe what was being done to our country.”

She enlisted in the Navy in 1942 during World War II.

“When I went into the Navy our uniforms were still on the drawing board,” Ellis recalled.

Susan Murphy
Evelyn Coy, 93, a WAVES Navy veteran, shares memories of serving as a cryptologist during World War II, October 8, 2014.

Coy was in the WAVES division, which stood for: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

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“The WAVES were 21 days old, and I enlisted on my 21st birthday,” Ellis said. “You had to be 21 to enlist.”

The special unit was created as a temporary assignment during World War II. Coy was in the very first WAVES class.

“We weren’t even allowed overseas in World War II. The admiral said ‘no women.’”

But they were considered an official part of the Navy, receiving the same rank and pay as men. Some women worked as nurses or office assistants, others built airplanes. Coy was a cryptologist.

“And you were never allowed to tell anyone what you did. My folks never knew what I did,” she said.

Now at 93, Coy proudly shares her experiences of working around the clock and breaking enemy code in top secret offices in Washington, D.C.

“Imagine I was 21 years old and I was sitting in the White House talking to the president’s wife,” Coy said.

After World War II, a law was passed giving women permanent status in the military. The WAVES unit ended, but the name stuck and continues today. So does Coy’s desire to serve her country. She and nearly five dozen others from the San Diego Chapter of WAVES National women's veterans organization, now have a new mission: to ease long journeys for active-duty troops.

Barbara Ellis is chair of the pillow-making project. She joined the Navy in 1954 as a personnel officer during the Korean War, but her military career was cut short after she got married and became pregnant.

“There was no maternity uniform in those days," Ellis said. "When you couldn’t fit in your uniform you had to get out."

Ellis said they started the pillow project two years ago, inspired by their patriotism and desire to support the troops.

Susan Murphy
Barbara Ellis, a Navy veteran from the Korean War, cuts of neck pillow patterns in her kitchen, October 8, 2014.

“Last year one of my granddaughters had a school project and she had to give a speech on the most patriotic person she knew, and she picked me,” Ellis said, proudly.

She hosts a pillow-making party at her house once a week where the WAVES veterans share war stories and practice their military precision, armed with thread, needle and boxes of stuffing.

Ellis said they’ve made so many pillows they’ve lost track.

“Well over 2,000,” Ellis said. “I deliver 20 every week.”

Ellis delivers the pillows to the USO Neil Ash Airport Center at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, where they’re given for free to military members and their families.

“When the WAVES came to me and say, “Hey, this is a concept we would like to do, are you on?’ We took a look at it and said, ‘this is great!’” said Bobby Woods, director of the USO Center.

Nicholas McVicker
Marines at the USO Neil Ash Airport Center thank Barbara Ellis for the neck pillows, October 6, 2014.

Woods said 10,000 service members pass through every month. Many are newly graduated Marines fresh out of boot camp from the nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot. He said the pillow project has united young and old generations.

“A lot of these women come from the 'greatest generation,'" Woods said. “They want to continue to serve… and I can’t think of a better way for them.”

The women’s handmade pillows make a difference for new Marine recruits, such as Curtis DeWulf from Debuque, Iowa.

“Because a seven-month deployment…even coming back from recruit training, you just want a chance to relax and not sit on a plane straight-up,” DeWulf said.

David Scribner from Fort Wayne, Indiana said he feels a debt of gratitude to the WAVES women for their military service and their pillows.

Nicholas McVicker
A rack of neck pillows made by Waves National women veterans is displayed at the USO Neil Ash Airport Center in San Diego, October 6, 2014.

“When you’re shipped out or you're gone for so long, it’s nice to know that there’s still people serving and trying to help you out,” Scribner said.

For Evelyn Coy, there’s nothing more thrilling than supporting the troops.

“The young Marine comes up to you and says, ‘I want to shake your hand and thank you for the job you did,’ and ‘We are where we are today because of your service,’” Coy said.

So the WAVES women sew and stuff. With hands that served decades ago in war, now crafting comfort for those serving today.