By Tech. Sgt. Sarah Loicano, r University Public Affairs
/ Published July 12, 2013
MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala., -- During World War II, more than 150,000 women enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Despite the initial difficulty the Army and the American public had accepting the notion of women in uniformed service, these women would honorably serve their nation in a variety of enlisted positions from telephone operators to aircraft mechanics.
Today, much of America's World War II generation is rapidly disappearing; the Veterans Administration estimates that roughly 600 veterans are dying daily and soon their stories may be gone forever. Montgomery is home to one such veteran, retired Tech. Sgt. Josephine Keim, who will be celebrating her 100th birthday July 15.
Originally enlisting in the WAAC in 1943, Keim joined the Army as a member of the Women's Army Corps when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation that officially created the WAC on July 1, 1943. Eventually, she would transition into the Air Force when it became a separate and distinct branch of service in 1947. All together, she completed just over 20 years of active duty military service.
Born as an only child to Italian immigrants, her mother a hairdresser and father a sheet metal worker, Keim describes her life as not particularly adventurous until her girlfriends convinced her to join the WAAC.
"I went to Catholic school in Pittsburg, and it was not a very exciting life," she recalled. "I was a hairdresser, did that for awhile, and then I joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. I had couple girlfriends who joined and they talked me into it in my weak moments. But I really enjoyed my 20 years, I really did," she said, adding that her family's initial reaction was one of surprise.
"My mother's first thought was that I'd lost my marbles of course, but after that it was fine with her. She didn't get upset, but of course when I went overseas, she wasn't happy about it," she explained.
Keim's adventures took her from her home in Pennsylvania to Florida for basic training, and eventually to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., where she was among the first group of female recruits to be stationed here. Although a WAAC training center had been opened at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, it quickly reached training capacity under the surge of incoming female recruits. To meet the overwhelming demand, the Army had created four additional training centers, including the cantonment camp where Keim arrived in the spring of 1943. She said she was just one of more than 100 women who came in from Pittsburg for training.
Despite how much time has passed, Keim still remembers details like her train ride to Florida and the first few days at basic training.
"That train was not the best accommodations in 1943, you know, but it was fun. And a lot of girls did not like the training but I really enjoyed basic. I got to be a security guard and say, 'Who goes there?!' Little old me," she laughed.
"I don't think I ever thought about making the military a career. That was never brought up, we just went. We didn't know what we were getting into," she laughed. "I had no idea what to expect [at basic]. The first morning we got up, we had no uniforms of course, we had just arrived. So I had a pretty blue suit on and they came in and said we had to wash windows. That's the truth. Here I am washing windows, half crying, with my pretty suit on," Keim laughing recalled.
"We had the old wooden barracks then. But I got used to it. I did KP [kitchen patrol] in that suit and everything. Oh I'm telling you!"
During her 20 years as a WAAC, WAC and finally in the Air Force, Keim worked a variety of jobs, from personnel locator, driver in the motor pool, drill instructor, and finally in the finance department. She would be stationed in Washington, D.C., and Ramstein, Germany, where she visited Paris, Italy and Greece on the weekends. During her 20-year career, Keim was repeatedly stationed at Maxwell, where she eventually retired and settled with her husband, Roger.
Throughout all her adventures and travels, Keim said it was the friendships she formed that stand out the most for her.
"It was the camaraderie that we all had. If one got in trouble, we all stuck together, we all helped each other. We were a very close bunch of girls. We really were. Oh we had fun. It was different then, I don't know. I met a lot of people, made a lot of great friends. Unfortunately, they're all gone, most of them, the ones that I had contact with," Keim said.
Among her friends that Keim has survived is her husband, Roger, whom she met while stationed at Maxwell. Laughing, she recalled the night she met her future husband while dancing at the base NCO club where he was on a date with another woman.
"He was a personnelist and I was in finance, so we worked together all the time. I had talked to him on the phone, but had never met him. But I was at the NCO club one night and he was up there one night and we met. He asked me to dance and I said yes. I like to dance, and he did too. He asked me to dance and boy that was it. Oh my, but he was quite a man. He was with another girl. She got lost in the shuffle," she joked.
Roger and Josephine would go on to date for almost 10 years and through several separate assignments before they were eventually married in 1962, right before they both retired.
"I was going with him for many years but we just never got around to getting married. I started dating Roger in the 1950s, and I left in 1954, before I went to Germany, and he was in Westover [Air Base, Mass.] at the time. He used to call me up every afternoon at 4 p.m. - they had the hotline. He'd call me up and I could hear the guys in the background giving him a hard time. We had a good life, and he was a great guy. We were too busy courting each other I guess, to get married. But I learned to do a lot of things, learned to fish, that I never did before."
Roger passed away 49 years ago, and Josephine, who never had children, also never remarried.
Although the 1940s was a time when military service was not common for women, Keim said she doesn't see what she did as anything out of the ordinary or particularly noteworthy. Instead, she remains remarkably humble about her service time and while she acknowledges that women in military service weren't always well regarded, things changed quickly, especially during wartime.
"I don't know if I was ever considered a pioneer, or paving the way for women, I doubt it," she said. "There were many more men serving than women, but we had three barracks full of women all the time. No, I don't think I made history, I was one of many.
"When the WAAC started we were not well thought of by the general public. They didn't think we were Army material. And of course then we went to the WAC, then we changed, I think the dispositions changed, you know. But we weren't very well thought of to start with. But oh that changed, very much so. When I left in 1963, we were very well thought of. The women were given more jobs to do that were advantageous to the Air Force. They worked everywhere."
Today, Keim isn't surprised how many career opportunities exist for women in the military from serving as general officers to participating in combat operations.
"It doesn't surprise me, no! Because I think, not me of course, but there are women who have more brains than I do. I think they fought to get it, but it doesn't surprise me at all," she said.
As her 100th birthday approaches, Keim looks at her military service as one filled with adventure, friendships, excitement and unwavering commitment even to this day. Pictures of her and her friends in uniform dot her house, and she still displays the American flag. In Keim's words, "Life goes on. Everything changes," but the American flag is always flying in her front yard, because as she simply states, "I'm still military."