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Veteran's History Progect

Yeoman 2nd Class, US Navy WAVES


October 19, 2017

Betty L. Johnsen

The Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.

Betty L. Johnsen Kern was a twenty year old young woman who got her start in the Cohagen, Montana area. After graduating high school, she obtained further education including stenography, shorthand and typing. The knowledge and skills allowed her to obtain a special teaching certificate so she could teach in western Montana. She was doing just that when in 1945, she decided to enlist in the US Navy.

Coming from a long line of family members who served our Nation, Betty knew it was the right thing to do by enlisting and being of some assistance. She went to the US Navy Recruiter who told her about the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services program, or WAVES. She liked what she had heard. After passing the required tests, she returned to her home and in a couple of months, was notified what was to happen next.

On the timeline of WWII, Victory had been won by the capitulation of the Nazi forces. The war continued in the Pacific Theater of Operations for a few months longer.

Her travel orders directed her to meet and board a troop train that was making its way from Seattle, WA to New York City. Other women heading for training classes were already on the train and as it traveled along across the northern part of the United States, the train filled up. The destination was Hunter College, in the Bronx, New York City, New York.

As the new inductees arrived, they were assigned dormitory rooms in the college. They were issued clothing - two sets of everything. The clothes had to fit fairly well. They were provided instructions about making the bed, how to display their clothing, how to clean the rooms, where to eat and getting on in the US Navy.

Once all the preliminaries were taken in, Betty and her peers then reported to the place to learn how to march, customs and courtesies, physical training, and Navy life. This was an unusual time to be new in the military. The women here had to prepare to march in quite a parade and show of personnel a few weeks after they entered boot camp. It was a welcome home parade of sorts for returning Soldiers, Sailors, Army-Air Forces and US Marines. On parade, Betty's pictures showed formations consisting of a total of about 300 women marching in Company formations doing a precision performance. The uniform for the parade was a white dress having a dark blue tie around their necks. The two parts of the tie joined at the front and were held in place with a pin. The rest of the tie was then flared out. They marched wearing Navy caps like all female sailors.

Betty met most of the women she trained with and made hard-fast friends with several. They would visit, commiserate, and help one another prepare for the next day. Most of the time, the uniform was a seersucker cloth with white and grey stripes.

The initial training lasted about 8 weeks. Prior to graduation, the hard-copy orders that directed each sailor to their next assignment had been issued. Betty was going to the US Navy Hospital in Oakland, California.

Fairly soon after marching on the Parade Field, she and many other women boarded a troop train headed west. Betty noticed that the windows on the train had been blacked out. She later learned that the train had made a leg of the journey into Canada, and for security reasons, the contents of those cars was secret. As the train went into Chicago, the passengers were allowed a day off in the big city.

On re-boarding, the train clipped on to California. After arriving in San Francisco, Betty was taken to the Oakland Navy Hospital. As she was trained, she reported in to the installation and the Officer of the Day. After being acquainted with where she would live and eat, Betty was in her work uniform and being shown to her desk and informed of her responsibilities.

Betty had a map and pictures of the building and lay-out of the Naval Hospital. Although the place has since been closed, it was good to get an idea of how it was to be and where she fit in. Up to this point, she had gone from Cohagen, Montana to New York City, then back to Chicago and to California.

Her co-0workers were from all walks of life. It was her first exposure to those in the Jewish Faith. Most co-workers were her age. Betty got some exposure to the patients in the hospital. There were many wards serving sailors, Marines and Soldiers. There was a section cordoned off for the mentally ill. It was likely the actions of war drove them over the edge.

Victory over Japan (VJ Day) had taken place by now. Betty said that she heard about it when she and her friends went to a movie. When they came out of the theater, they looked toward San Francisco, CA. She said it had "exploded" with merriment. Things were definitely looking up.

Betty was an expert in stenography and shorthand. That skill set meant she accompanied Navy Officers to take notes of conversations and events they were involved in.

A US Navy Hospital Ship arrived at the pier in Oakland. It carried prisoners of war. The ship had sailed from the various islands in the Pacific to the Philippines, to Hawaii, then to Oakland. The healthy men and women got to stay in Pearl Harbor where they could eat and get stronger. The ones really struggling came to the Oakland Navy Hospital. Betty remembered that all leave had been cancelled to take care of the arriving people. Responding ambulances had come to the pier to take patients to the hospital. She said there must have been over two dozen vehicles making a circuit to get the patients into the care facility.

These returnees had no records pertaining to who they were and what their medical history was. The patients had to be individually interviewed and records established. Files had to be created and work updated. Betty was present in the interviews and worked tirelessly to build the records of patients up to a current status.

Betty also worked with patients. In teaching them skills that would help them once they re-joined civilian life and work force. She taught them typing and shorthand. Those who had lost legs, could still type and file. Her work then was today's vocational re-hab.

Betty kept in touch with home by writing letters and mainly postcards. There wasn't a phone in her parents' home. Actually there wasn't electricity in Cohagen until after the War.

USO shows came to the facility to help the morale of the patients. Betty attended some of these and recalled how the patients seemed to enjoy them.

In June, 1946, Betty was notified that her time in the active Navy was due to end. She did what she set out to do by serving her Country in time of war. Yeoman Second Class Betty Johnsen Kern, thank you for volunteering and serving America!


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