The uniform is stashed in the basement somewhere, a perfect size 8 with stripes on the shoulders and white anchors on the collar.

Bettina Black plans to dig it out of storage someday as proof to her offspring that their grandmother really wore Army boots.

Well, Navy high heels, anyway.

Bettina, 86, was proud to wear that uniform 63 years ago, when she signed on the dotted line to become a Navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II. Now that she's about to become president of Salt Lake City's WAVES of the Wasatch club, she thought it would be a good time to share a Free Lunch of soup and salad and pay tribute to the thousands of women — past and present — in military service.

"There aren't many WAVES left — we're a dying breed," she says, settling into an easy chair in her Salt Lake home to flip through old snapshots of her and her comrades. With Memorial Day a few days away, "we should take a few quiet moments to remember them."

Bettina was 21 and going to law school at Ohio State University when a student burst through the doors of the law library with news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

"For a long time, there was complete silence," she says, "then everybody snapped their books shut. Every young man in the place got up and walked out. They knew they'd be needed."

About a year later, Bettina decided to do her part, too. When she spotted a poster announcing that women were needed to help with the war effort, she immediately signed up to become one of the first WAVES.

From the day she and other female recruits got off the bus for basic training in Southampton, Mass., "we were marched everywhere and trained just like soldiers and sailors," she recalls.

Except that male sailors weren't measured for designer uniforms and ordered to wear hose and high heels. It's probably a good thing, says Bettina, that WAVES weren't allowed to serve aboard ships. "There would have been a number of sprained ankles, or worse," she says.

Instead, Bettina was sent to Washington, D.C., where she was assigned to decode messages from Navy ships, which were then sent to President Roosevelt and high-ranking officers.

"They were all pretty important, but you just typed them out and forgot them," she says, recalling the posters plastered around her workplace: "Loose lips sink ships." But there was one dispatch that she and her friends couldn't forget.

"One night, a message came through to one of our WAVES that the destroyer her husband was on had been sunk," she says. "That just knocked us all out. The job we were doing became more personal then."

Sexist comments were common in an environment where women hadn't been welcome before, but Bettina and her comrades quickly learned how to deal with rude behavior.

"One commander came in off a ship and the first thing he did was ask one of us to get him a cup of coffee," she recalls. "We were too busy doing our jobs to mess with coffee, so one of the WAVES told him, 'Get it yourself.' He was speechless. Finally, one of the men jumped up and got it for him. I don't think he dared to ask us again."

Still, Bettina didn't say no when one of her male supervisors asked her on a date. She and Wayne Black hit it off so well that six months later, they became the first Navy officers to get hitched. Bettina had to get special permission to wear a satin wedding gown and a veil instead of her Navy whites to walk up the aisle.

"I always loved being a woman in uniform," she says. "But not on my wedding day."


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