Written by Lane Tillner, graduate assistant
The Albert Gore Research Center has many things to offer to its researchers, chief among them, variety. The AGRC houses a multitude of available sources for numerous topics from its namesake Albert Gore, Sr. to all things horses to many of the records of local chapters of various organizations. Needless to say, when setting out to write this post, I was provided with numerous options on which I could write. However, one particular part of the collection caught my eye. It was the transcriptions of the letters of Elinor Folk. While the owner has retained the originals, the transcriptions prove to be a valuable addition to the Albert Gore Research Center.
Who is Elinor Folk? Why do her letters matter? Elinor Folk was one of the many women who took up the call and in 1942 joined the WAVES branch of the U.S. Navy. The WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) was a newly formed part of the U.S. Navy in which women were given the opportunity to participate in the war efforts other than civilian activities on the home front, though they were not permitted into combat. Elinor’s letters, which were often started off with ‘Dear Mother and Polly’, provide insight into the lives of these young women who were leaving all things familiar to enlist in the WAVES. These letters also provide a different perspective on the war effort by women, in contrast to the movement of women into the factory system and the tales of the Rosie the Riveters.
Her letters highlight various aspects in the lives of the WAVES women. From saying goodbye to loved ones, to her grades in her various classes to being homesick to matters of the heart—her new found love Gillie—her letters provide an insight that could not otherwise be achieved.
In her first letter, dated December 13, 1942, she sent to her mother and sister, Polly, she describes how it was difficult to say goodbye and her homesickness:
“I think we (four) all did pretty good at the station, don’t you. But I sure had to talk fast a couple of times to avoid a deluge of tears. I’m so glad there was no one else there beside you three. I don’t know what we would have done with them in all the excitement. Be sure to write soon and often.”
In reference to her courses she wrote on January 4, 1943:
“Naval Hists Personnel——-4.0 perfect
—————3.3- don’t remember how many questions
Seamanship——————–3.8- missed 2 out of 40
————–3.9- missed 1 out of 80
Administration—————-3.7- missed 3 out of 100
18.7/5= 3.75 average”
About Gil or Gillie, she wrote in an August 21, 1943 letter:
“Of course I can hardly bear to look at anyone except Gil- but I try to go out with other people as much as possible just to keep myself “balanced”. And I know Gil wouldn’t like me if he thought he was “attached” to me in any way.”
And on a fun note in a letter dated March 27, 1943, Elinor wrote:
“And I want all my underclothes and pajamas fancy and feminine. Even if we must be military on the outside we can still be fancy underneath.”
Her letters abound with many more details of her life in the Navy, her love life and just her casual thoughts.
It is also interesting to note the parallels between the content of her letters and sentiments that college students feel today when starting that new phase of their life. Some things haven’t changed after all, huh?
However, her letters do not simply recount times of great cheer; some also contain her discontent with her position and the struggle in deciding whether or not to apply for a commission. This particular aspect provides an interesting contrast to the romanticized tales of the war effort that have become established in our lives today.
So if you have any interest in World War II and want a new perspective on the emergence of women’s roles in the military or just want to read about this period of Elinor’s life and find out if she and her beau Gillie were married, then stop by the Albert Gore Research Center and request her files. We also have an oral history she did (MT 136) that will prove just as interesting. It will truly be worth it!