Like John Boyne’s unforgettable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the young adult version of Laura Hillenbrand’s inspiring Unbroken, the majority of YA books published today about World War II focus on its horrors. Not so during the war itself, when publishers like Whitman (popular from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s) sought out books written to heighten support for the United States entering the war and muster participation in homefront efforts. Printed on the dust cover of Norma Kent of the WACS, as example, was this call to action:
SAVE COOKING FATS AND GREASE!
Grease makes bullets and shells and bombs
for our soldiers. You can help them win!
Norma Kent of the WACS was one of Whitman’s most popular titles featuring a female protagonist determined to do whatever it takes to help Allied troops defeat Germany and Japan. Set in New England, it tells the exciting story of Norma, a Nancy Drew-like character who tracks down spies and shadowy villains intent on destroying America.
Roy Snell, a WWI veteran and graduate of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, wrote Norma Kent along with two other titles in Whitman’s Fighters for Freedom series: Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command and Sally Scott of the WAVES. In Sparky Ames, Mary is a pilot and member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron who, among other adventures, rescues Sparky after his plane is shot down by enemy fire over Brazil. In Sally Scott, Sally breaks regulations by bringing a new kind of radio capable of picking up “secret frequencies” onto an aircraft carrier. Invented by her neighbor, the device causes more trouble than good for Sally–until, that is, her commanding officers learn they can use it to track enemy submarines and save American ships and sailors.
Sally Scott opens with a fellow Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service unit member discovering her secret:
It was mid-afternoon of a cloudy day in early autumn. Sally Scott glided to the one wide window in her room and pulled down the shade. Then, with movements that somehow suggested deep secrecy, she took an oblong, black box, not unlike an overnight bag, from the closet. After placing this with some care on her study table, she pressed a button, and caught the broad side of the box, that, falling away, revealed a neat row of buttons and switches. Above these was an inch-wide opening where a number of spots shone dimly.
After a glance over her shoulder, Sally shook her head, tossing her reddish-brown hair about, fixed her eyes on this strange box and then with her long, slender, nervous fingers threw on a switch, another, and yet another in quick succession. Settling back in her chair, she watched the spots above the switches turn into tiny, gleaming, red lamps that gave off an eerie light.
“Red for blood, black for death,” someone had said to her. She shuddered at the thought.
From the box came a low, humming sound. She turned a switch. The hum increased. She turned it again and once more the hum rose in intensity. This time, however, it was different. Suddenly the hum was broken by a low, indistinct hut—hut—gr—gr—gr—hut—hut—hut.
“Oh!” The girl’s lips parted as a look of surprise and almost of triumph spread over her face.
And then, suddenly, she started to leap from her chair. A key had rattled in the door.
Before she could decide what she should do, the door swung open and someone snapped on a light.
Thanks to the wonderful Project Gutenberg, you can read Sally Scott of the WAVES, Norma Kent of the WACS and Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command for free and in their entirety. Today’s readers will likely find the books to be sexist, perpetuating gender stereotypes and limiting what women can do.
Indeed, they are sexist. But they’re also great fun, as well as provide an insightful look into the beliefs and mindset of 1943 America. Their message about the need for national unity is also one today’s America needs to hear.