Hoffman’s National WWII Museum speech

The following is a speech the late Frances Skiba Hoffman gave on Tuesday Jan. 7, 2007 about her time in the U.S. Marine Corps. Hoffman, a WWII veteran was one of the oldest female Marines prior to her death on March 24, 2020 from COVID-19.

I am pleased to share my Marine Corps tour of duty with you. I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1923. My parents were Russian immigrants. My mother died when I was five-years-old. My father was left to raise two stepsons and four daughters. He succeeded with the help of his sponsors. There was no welfare or no government help

In June 1941, I graduated from high school. Most of my friends married. Those who took jobs never considered college or long term careers. College for men was limited. There were trade or vocational schools for men. Husbands did not want their wives to work and did not allow them to work. Men felt strongly they and they alone were to support their families

Women’s role in the country was changing in a very big way! 

In December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It was the beginning of World War II. 

Early in 1942, men were leaving for military service. Women were asked to take jobs in the factories. There was an urgent need to produce supplies and equipment for the war. I applied at Kearney & Trecher, a factory making milling machines. All factories worked 24 hours a day. 

I became a grinding machine operator and worked the second shift (3 p.m to 11 p.m). We had to buy our own tools. I traveled to work on a public streetcar. We brought our lunch in brown bags and ate it at our work station. Men lined the aisles watching us approaching. They willingly trained us. Salaries were fantastic. When I accepted the factory job, my father was upset because he said I was depriving a man who needed to provide for a family. 

In 1943, the Marine Corps opened a recruiting office at the main office in downtown Milwaukee. The Marine Corps began to accept women for the first time. The Navy and Army began accepting women in 1942. 

Why did I enlist? There were rumors that California was threatened and it generated fear in the country. California is not too far from Pearl Harbor. Enemy submarines were sighted in the Gulf of Mexico too. Why the Marine Corps? Even then, Marines were known to be “Peace Time Warriors”. They were called upon by many countries in need during peace time as well as in war. Marines are unique because they have been and will always be volunteers. 

At the recruiting office, I had to take IQ tests. I had to present three references. One teacher I asked indicated that I was not qualified because I was an immigrant’s daughter. As for the physical exam, there was no facility for service women. So I had to take mine with all navy men. They wore towels and I was given a bed sheet. There were several specialty doctors located on one floor at a medical center. The men were polite and let me be first in all the lines. All said and done, I lived through the ordeal and passed all the tests

After a few months of waiting, I received orders to report to the Union Railroad Station in Chicago, Illinois. Trains were our main mode of transportation. My sister Ann took me to the Milwaukee railroad station in a taxi. It was a real luxury at that time as few people owned cars. In Chicago, women from all over the country gathered during the day. That evening we boarded a train for an overnight trip to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for our six weeks of boot camp. 

During the first six month of 1943, 400 women Marines reported to Hunter College in New York for boot training. 

The second six months, July to December, 400 women reported to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for boot training. It was newly built at the time. 

After our overnight trip, we arrived at the newly built Camp Lejeune. There we began our boot training and faced a new life. 

Our barracks were two-story buildings and housed about 200 women. We each had a slim upright locker, a foot locker and an iron bunk bed. I got the lower bunk. Immediately we learned how to make up our beds in a military style and stowed our gear in a regulated way. 

This was all done before we were marched to the mess hall for breakfast. 

We began to learn a new language. We hit the dick at the crack of dawn. Lights were out after 10:00 p.m. muster. Toilets were called “heads.” Our dozen heads were lined up without doors. Showers were community style. In the center of the building there was a laundry room, a recreation room where we could visit and write letters. There was a small office called “the guard station” where we got messages and our mail. We also had to sign in and out for “liberty time”. When we had dates, they came to the guard station to pick us up. 

Life took a little adjusting the first week.

  1. We started with a series of shots and another physical.
  2. We were issued casual clothes called dungarees (bib type coveralls) in green cotton with a short sleeve jacket. And very sturdy shoes. We had a lot of walking to do. We learned drill and parade procedures daily.
  3.  We packed our civilian clothes to be mailed home. Our sergeant told us after boot camp we would no longer be civilians. Instead, we would belife time Marines.
  4. We had daily classes in Marine Corps history rules and regulations and cultural awareness. Part of the training included going aboard a Higgins Boat. In all, we learned what to expect and what was expected of us. 

After several weeks of training, in our custom fitted dress uniforms, we were ready to graduate. Our platoon jointed other platoons for the Saturday morning parade. We passed in review before three admirals, four generals and several handsome young officers. 

To my surprise, I was called to the platform to receive a “PFC” stripe. Being nervous, I snatched the stripe with my right hand and saluted with my left hand. Big mistake! 

After graduation, we were ready for our first assignment. I was among those assigned to duty in the mess hall for two weeks. That meant serving three meals a day and cleaning up the mess hall. While I was on duty, the Commandant of the Marine Corps came to inspect our crew and the mess hall. It was General Vandergrift with an entourage of several handsome Marine officers

My first real assignment came next. I was assigned to the Aircraft Salvage Yard at Cherry Point, North Carolina. We few women were to assist mechanics who were stripping fighter planes for parts to be used on active planes. We were called “grunts” who took parts to a warehouse to be processed. We did so in a wheel barrel up a muddy hill. Some warehouses were tents. 

After a certain age, planes were retired from active use. At that point pilots flew them in groups to our base and they were delivered to the salvage yard. Since there was a gas shortage, the planes were promptly drained upon arrival. It was my pleasure to have a big pot of coffee ready for the pilots. On one occasion, I hitched a flight to go home on leave with this connection. I flew in a B24 bomber to Arkansas with my parachute. No accommodations for me, so that night I stayed in the hospital maternity ward. In the morning I went to Milwaukee by train to spend leave with my family. 

Before going to Hawaii we were required to go through more intense training, more shots and a complete physical. More classes for overseas duty, more instructions on firearms, service swimming tests. Jump off of high diving boards, swim 200 years, inflate dungarees. We had to learn how to pack and carry back packs in preparation for boarding a troop ship. We boarded the USS Solace in style. 

On board ship, I was assigned to the 3rd deck and a top bunk. Bunks were five deep. We spent time on Japanese aircraft recognition. Daily bulletins were distributed on memograph sheets. At night, under moonlight, we had movies top side. Day time duty we took our garbage GI cans to the fantail, cheered on by sailors on the main deck. I couldn’t handle the food and was very sea sick. One of the sailors provided me with crackers daily. In exchange I went to the movies with him. 

After several days at sea, we arrived at Iahu in Hawaii. Beautiful blue sky, rich red soil and flowers were everywhere. We were taken to the U. S. Naval Station at Ewe. Our barracks were twostory Quonset huts. I was assigned to the Fleet Marine Corps Headquarters, a choice assignment. The office was responsible for troop movements and supplies for combat Marines. I became an IBM computer operator. IBM systems were new at that time. Our office received daily reports with other military services in the Pacific. Our IBM systems were used in a special effort, after the war ended, to assign POW’s and rehab patients to plane transportation instead of ships when going stateside. 

Working for the Fleet Marine Corps Headquarters office had advantages besides handling confidential material. We had transportation to and from work in milk trucks. Milk trucks in civilian life were used to deliver milk and dairy products to home before supermarkets came to be. Milk trucks were converted to provide our transportation. 

In the General’s private CH7 plane, we traveled to Hilo, the main Island in Hawaii, to visit a rehab hospital and badly injured combat Marines. We joined the men for lunch and visited them all afternoon and danced with them that evening. Mostly we wanted them to know there were women in the Marine Corps. It was an overnight trip. 

The women Marines’ mess hall was famous for good food. We became popular with the men. It was always heavily used for social gatherings, including many wedding receptions. 

Being in Hawaii, when the war ended, was a happy time. We had special liberty to go to Honolulu. Our group had special transportation and we were able to stay in town. There was an all-day parade. That evening, from the hill above the harbor, we were able to see all the ships in port light up in celebration. 

A cumbersome point system was set up for our return to the states. My name came up in November of 1945. This time we traveled on a hospital ship to San Francisco, CA. Those traveling on the train cross country were traveling to Washington DC to be discharged. The trip across country, by train, took 7 days. We changed troop trains 3 or 4 times along the way. I was discharged on December 7, 1949

I got home for Christmas, so did my sister Ann’s husband, an army infantry soldier who fought in Africa and Italy, so did my sister Esther’s husband who was on the USS Nelson on D-Day in Normandy. His ship was torpedoed. He was one of 12 men left on board when it was towed to safe harbor for repairs. 

Their families and our family came together on Christmas day. house was filled with laughter, tears and pure joy. It was a perfect home coming for all of us

It is routine when Marines complete their regular tour of duty, they serve another four years in a Reserve status. 

A surprise awaited me in 1949/1950. I was recalled for duty. The Korean War was forming a Howitzer Battalion and needed men with my specialty number. My specialty number was 527, assistant airplane mechanic. With the name of Frances, I could have been a man. Needless to say, I did not qualify for the Howitzer Battalion. 

That tour of duty was brief because the Marine Corps sent women to be formally trained as real mechanics. When these women mechanics came to replace us, we had the opportunity to transfer to Hawaii. They wanted women 25 or older, to volunteer. I was only 21 years old but a friendly officer did some finagling and I got to go. When I became a member of the Molly Marine Chapter, I began to get the WMA Newsletter and found her name. Major Jean Durfee was at a Nursing Home in Virginia and in another issue her passing was reported. 

Today I am a volunteer at the National World War II Museum. It took three years to level a two-block area and to lay the pilings. 

This year the construction began. It will grow four times larger. In 2009, they will build a fabulous theater, a canteen and a model 1940 railroad station. Seven more World War battle exhibits will follow including China, India, Burma, Alaska, Africa, Italy and the Aleutian Islands. It’s executing to be a small part of the expansion. 

Today you have honored me and, for that, I thank you.