SALT LAKE CITY — No doubt there were a few raised eyebrows in 1942 when newly enlisted Navy sailors showed up for machine gun training and discovered that their instructor wore high heels with her dress blues.
But for those who were skeptical of her expertise, Ruth Klein had a quick remedy: The men had to accompany her to the skeet-shooting range so she could set them straight about who was the better shot.
“They were usually quiet after that,” she recalls with a warm smile. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to prove myself very often. The majority of the boys were very respectful and eager to learn. You see, they felt they were doing their patriotic duty, just as I felt like I was doing mine.”
Seventy years after she enlisted during World War II to become one of the Navy’s first WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), Klein, now 89, wanted to get together for a Free Lunch of turkey sandwiches at her Salt Lake City retirement home to recall those days and honor fallen troops in advance of Veterans Day.
“The hardest part about what I did,” she says, “was not knowing which of the boys I trained would make it back home. When the USS Franklin was attacked by the Japanese, almost everyone was lost, including a large group of boys we’d just trained. I could remember their faces and their determination to do a good job for their country. That was a really tough thing.”
Now among only a handful of surviving Utah WAVES, Klein, an elegant woman who tries to stay active despite diminishing eyesight, looks back fondly on the day she made the decision to join the Navy and go away to boot camp.
“Four of my brothers were in the Navy and when they asked for women to help, it seemed only natural to sign up,” she says. “At boot camp, we were so new, they weren’t quite sure what to do with us. They put six of us to a room and took us out marching every morning. I loved the marching, even though we had a tough drill sergeant who yelled a lot. It made me feel proud.”
When an officer at boot camp learned that she was a sharpshooter who had hunted pheasants back home with her father in Valley Springs, S.D., Klein was sent to gunnery school in Pensacola, Fla., then on to teach at the North Island Navy Air Station on San Diego Bay.
Klein pulls an old black-and-white photo from a scrapbook and points to an attractive young woman with dark curls, showing a new recruit how to operate an anti-aircraft machine gun.
“I remember it like yesterday,” she says. “Learning to operate the guns was a big part of it, but we also had to teach these Navy boys how to immediately recognize if the aircraft they saw overhead was American, British, Japanese or German. They had to figure out what they were looking at in less than one second.”
After three years in the Navy, Klein returned home, grateful that all of her brothers made it back safely from the Pacific. She will forever remember the day a neighbor came to visit after the war and scolded her mother because all five of her children came home.
“She said, ‘It isn’t fair — how come you sent five to the Navy and they all came home alive, but my one son didn’t make it?’ ” recalls Klein. “Of course, it wasn’t mother’s fault, but we all felt so sad. She would never speak to mother after that. It was very hard on everyone.”
In honor of that neighbor boy and all others who paid the ultimate price, Klein keeps a sign on her front door year-round telling everyone who passes by to “Honor Our Veterans.”
“They were all so brave and so young,” she says, brushing away tears. “I’m so glad that I was a WAVE because it was an honor to help them and a privilege to know them.”
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Cathy Free has written her Free Lunch column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.