As the first Duluth woman to volunteer for a new recruitment push during World War II, Elizabeth Hughes reported for duty in 1942 even before her Navy uniform was stitched.
Hughes enlisted right after President Franklin Roosevelt created WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). A 77-year-old photograph shows her among 10 female enlistees, waving her hand as they boarded a train bound for radio training school at the University of Wisconsin.
“We marched to classes in our civvies and high heels until tailors from Marshall Field’s in Chicago came to Madison, measured each of us individually and sent our well-fitting uniforms to us,” she recalled in 2006. “We felt very special the first day we marched to code class in our new uniforms.”
The oldest of three daughters of a World War I bugler, Hughes met a Navy recruiter in Duluth who said women would be brought on board in September 1942 — the same month she turned 21.
“To prepare myself ahead of that date, I enrolled in a men’s Morse Code training class and found that I really enjoyed learning code,” she said. “The Navy needed male radiomen overseas so they asked about five of us if we would like to train as controllers. I readily said I would like that training.”
She served three years as a control tower operator at a naval air station in Florida, earning the rank of “radioman” first class. After her discharge at war’s end, she worked as a top aide and executive secretary at Target.
“My mother was a feminist at heart and was so proud to be a groundbreaker for women both in the Navy and the corporate world,” said her daughter, Leslie Bentley, who lives in Minnetonka.
Jon Gersey, who would become Hughes’ husband for 55 years, was among those who initially bristled at the idea of women in the Navy. After two years as a radioman in Idaho and Trinidad, Jon was promoted in 1944 to traffic chief — becoming Hughes’ boss at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
When he first reported to work, “He walked into our office, put his seabag down off his shoulder, and exclaimed, ‘Women! I’m not going to serve with women!’ ” his wife later recalled.
He asked for a different assignment, but an officer barked: “ ‘Sailor, you’re in the Navy and you’ll go wherever you are assigned. Get back upstairs and get to work!’ And so he did.”
Dusting the office during a lull in the graveyard shift at the air base, Elizabeth found Jon relaxing with his feet on his desk. When she asked him to move his feet, he grinned and said, “You move them.”
“I just glared at him and walked away, saying silently to myself, ‘Let him clean his own desk,’ ” she recalled in a 2006 interview for the “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” project at the Minnesota Historical Society (full interview at https://tinyurl.com/Gersey).
A hurricane, of all things, thawed the tension on her 23rd birthday in 1944. Stranded in their office amid downed trees and high winds, the pair worked the circuit boards until their shoulders cramped — eating Hershey bars and tomato soup, cut off from the mess hall.
“I asked someone to please relieve me for a few minutes so I could stretch my shoulders and ease the pain,” she recalled. “Jon came over and massaged my neck and shoulders over and over until the pain subsided. I looked around, smiled and said, ‘Thanks, Jon,’ and Jon said, ‘Any time.’ ”
They were married five months later at the Catholic chapel at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville.
“I found it interesting that the Navy supplied me with a wallet-size copy of our marriage certificate so I could check into a hotel with Jon,” she said, “but he didn’t need such proof.”
After the war, the Gerseys (rhymes with mercies) had two children and lived in Chicago for seven years before settling in Richfield. While serving as a top administrative assistant at B. Dalton, Target and Dayton Hudson Corp., Elizabeth wrote a newsletter called Scuttlebutt to keep connections going among Navy friends. She was also active in arranging brunches and events for Minnesota’s female veterans.
Jon died in 2000 and, eight years later, Elizabeth, then 87, joined more than 90 WWII veterans on a daylong Twin Cities Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
“It was a steamy hot day visiting the monuments, and we didn’t get back until about 10:30 that night,” said Bentley, who accompanied her mother on the patriotic trek. “When we got back to the Twin Cities airport, there was a huge crowd up in the balcony and the concourses giving the vets a rousing cheer.”
She said her mother felt “so incredibly special because her service was so important to her,” Bentley said. “It was an overwhelming moment.”
Elizabeth Jayne Hughes Gersey — known to many as B.J., short for Betty Jayne — died at 93 in 2014. She was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery — in her uniform.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.