Written by Molly O’Rourke
Elinor Hardy Johnson Folk was born just outside of Los Angeles, California on April 9th, 1917. She graduated from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles on February 1st, 1935, and started working for Employers’ Liability Assurance Corporation in May, 1936. I know this because here at the Albert Gore Research Center on the Middle Tennessee State University campus, we have Elinor’s oral history, which was recorded in 2002 by Betty Rowland. The Albert Gore Research Center also has digital copies of Elinor’s letters to her mother and sister, Polly, from December 13, 1942, until December 4, 1944.
Elinor remembers what she was doing when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was laying in her backyard,sunbathing. In December in Los Angeles, you can do that. She remembers the attack being of great interest to her because she had saved enough money from working to vacation in Honolulu in 1938. After the attack, she recalls living in fear. Fear they(on the west coast) were going to be attacked. They had blackouts, all night long, and couldn’t return to work in the morning until the blackouts were lifted. Elinor remembers the unfair and unfortunate events of her Japanese friends from high school being sent to concentration camps.
If you’re wondering why I’m sharing this with you, it’s because Elinor also remembers her decision to join the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as WAVES. WAVES was a program created by the U.S. Navy in August of 1942 in response to the need for additional military personnel during WWII. Elinor was among the first women to join the U.S Navy.
Elinor was riding a street car home on a Saturday afternoon from work and flipped opened a magazine, and an article about the WAVES caught her eye. The article included some sketches of the WAVE uniforms. “This was something absolutely new…I just suddenly thought, ‘Well, I think I’ll do that’…I just needed something to–I just wanted to get away and this terrific spirit of patriotism that we all felt,” described Elinor of that day.
On December 13, 1942, Elinor boarded a train at California’s Union Station in Los Angeles and headed to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where she attended boot camp at Iowa State Teachers’ College. You can read all about her train ride and experiences at boot camp in her letters home, including her first experience with snow!
After completing boot camp, Elinor went to Atlanta, Georgia to complete her training as a
Link Trainer Operator. In a letter dated February 1, 1943, she describes a Link Trainer as a, “small airplane (cost $10,000 each) we get inside-put a hood over us and start flying. Of course we’re attached to the ground so we wont take off. The cockpit is just like a regular airplane with instruments, rudder pedal and a stick and everything.” She graduated on March 27, 1943, and described it as , “the most thrilling day of my life!”
From Atlanta, Elinor flew to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida where she was stationed until August 1st, when she was transferred to Whiting Field in Milton, Florida. She describes Whiting Field in her August 5th, 1943 letter as a, “masterpiece of disorganization”, “no hot water until October” and “one hundred girls all using one ironing board”.
The terrain was also much different from the Pensacola Naval base, “Wait till I tell you about the mud and dust. It rains everyday leaving nothing but thick gooey mud to walk around in. There are not streets, and sidewalks are unheard of. You sink in mud to your ankles-but at least they don’t expect us to keep our shoes shined.”
Elinor was a Link Trainer Operator at Whiting field until she was sent to the Naval Air Station in Seattle, Washington on April 9, 1944. In her oral history and letters home Elinor talks about her tasks as a Link Trainer Operator and spending time at the different naval bases. Elinor shared delightful photos to go along with her stories and letters, which are available to view here at the Albert Gore Research Center.
Pictured above (clockwise from left) 1. Elinor talking to sailors on what they called a “crab”. 2. Elinor getting ready to fly in a plane with a sailor. The WAVES received extra pay for spending four hours a month in the air. 3. Elinor giving instructions to a sailor in a link trainer. Pictured below (clockwise from left) 1. Sailors in line for the lunch. 2. The food served in the mess hall, “We had beans a lot”, Elinor said. 3. Sailors enjoying lunch.
What’s also fascinating about Elinor’s oral history and letters is her stories about social life, dances and dating. In her letter’s she writes about the movies she was attending at the theatre and the books she was reading. In a letter with no date, but sometime before August 5, 1943, Elinor finally addresses the “Chief” she had been mentioning in many of her previous letters. She writes, “Maybe you’d like to know a little more about the chief-and why I think he’s so interesting. He is by far the most brilliant man I have ever known – or hope to know.” She goes on to write, “We have definitely decided that we are not in love-but we do enjoy each other’s company so much.” To find out what else Elinor had to say about the “Chief”, you’ll have to visit the research center and find out! Elinor Hardy Johnson and Reau “Gillie” Ester Folk (the “Chief”) were married in Seattle, Washington on June 12, 1944.
Elinor was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy on July 19, 1944, and became a permanent resident of Nashville, Tennessee with her husband, a Nashville native, in December of 1945. Elinor and Gillie adopted two children, and took them to Pensacola on their 25th wedding anniversary. They all enjoyed dinner at a place called “Bartel’s”, where Elinor and Gillie had their first date. Of the occasion Elinor said, “And we had fried chicken and biscuits and Scuppernong wine. And that was our celebration for our twenty-fifth anniversary, with the children. And the jukebox was there and we got up and danced, our children were so embarrassed.”
After her time in the service, Elinor became a storyteller at the Nashville Public Library for several years and appeared as a storyteller on WPLN the day it went on the air, December 17, 1962.
She was named 1972 SESAC FM Broadcaster of the Year for American Women in Radio and Television (AWRT) and served as a producer/broadcaster until 1995. Elinor is an active member of The Olde Worlde Theatre Company where she serves on the board. She has performed or narrated in several Olde Worlde Theatre productions including “The Ugly Duckling,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” and “Rapunzel” at the Belcourt Theatre. She often joins theatre company directors Richard and Lisa Stein in outreach performances at nursing homes, adult day care centers and schools.
Elinor’s stories are surprising and fascinating, lovely and inspiring. Her stories will make you smile, and they are worth a listen, and a read. To learn more about Elinor Folk and the WAVES, contact University Archivist Donna Baker or Archivist Sarah Calise at the Albert Gore Research Center.