Elna Grahn was a professor of mathematics at the University of Idaho until she retired in 1969. Grahn was a major in the US Army and worked at the Pentagon after her years in a secret training mission for woman who learned to operate anti-aircraft artillery. She lived in Moscow until her passing in late 2006 at the age of 92.
Jim: What years were you in the service?
Elna: I was in the service from '42 to '46, regular or active service and then I was in the reserve for (inaudible) years.
Jim: Then you were in the WAC, is that what you were in?
Elna: Yes I was in the WAC.
Jim: The whole time?
Elna: Well it, it . . .
Jim: You were active?
Elna: Well it was was all the same, it was WAAC originally from uh '42 until '43.
Elna: And then the second A was knocked out of it.
Jim: Oh, okay.
Elna: And then it was.
Jim: Good, the one other thing I want to talk about was you were in a sort of secret experiment, weren't you?
Elna: Yes I was.
Jim: Tell me about that.
Elna: Um along in January of '42 General Marshall was in Europe and observed the ads in England the women in the service working in anti-aircraft and he wanted to try it in the United States, so that was the source of it, but it was also very secret, I didn't know he was behind it until way later, yet the Officers under me knew Colonel Havee had mentioned it to them, but everyone assumed I knew, I didn't.
Jim: So now what did they actually train you to do?
Elna: Uh what we actually were to determine if WAC could be trained in fire control aspects of anti-aircraft batteries.
Jim: And was that?
Elna: They wouldn't be on the guns, but they would be like in an airplane for tracking a plane for tracking a plane, you would be tracking and the thing we found out after only a couple of months training was that the women were better than men in the process and we couldn't figure out why because they were trained by the men, but we by observation uh by some Officers from New York we found that whereas the men would over (inaudible) and come back under (inaudible) and zero in on the target, the women seemed to sense that they were getting on target and would just creep up and stop dead on target and we found that out when uh General Jarman who commanded the Eastern Defense Command uh for anti-aircraft was down with his staff to inspect and I was the head of the experiment, I was standing next to his G-3 and I noticed in the uh trial as soon as the officer in charge said on target he started his stopwatch and then when she said on target then he stopped it. I get, did I say in range, it was in range that's when they uh were on target and uh so he stopped his watch and then he said impossible, I said what's impossible sir? And he said they just equaled the time of the best battery in the Eastern Defense Command and I think he suspected that one of the Officers was fudging a bit when she called out on target or something that's why and so he went over breathed down her neck both her and another test and they did it again and they did it again so then he believed it and uh found out the nature of it and that was it, but that was a, we fired down at uh Bethany Beach in (inaudible) and uh did very well down there. Our battery never had an official designation, we were referred to as Batteryettes we had to have something to talk about so we'd know what was being talked about and so we called 'em Batteryettes, but officially it never was on paper.
Jim: Why was it so secret?
Elna: It was so secret because we were WAAC's, Civilians in Uniform and there was a certain amount of antagonism to having women in anything that might be associated with combat. So that's why it was top secret, in fact it wasn't declassified until '68. 01 58 42 28
Jim: I saw that, that's amazing, I mean over more than, almost 25 years.
Elna: Yeah the uh it was successful in late May it was ruled successful and it was near that month that the bill was passed President Roosevelt was (inaudible), the bill was passed that cut out the auxiliary and it became (inaudible) corp. . . . But it was just this plain general antagonism because the idea of women in combat.
Jim: Did that make you mad?
Elna: It didn't make us mad, but it was as far as recruiting or anything they figured it was important.
Jim: Was the plan that sometime you might go into combat, or why did they want to train you?
Elna: It the training was in case the United States was attacked by air. There was no thought of the combat.
Jim: So it was in case the planes started coming over to the homelands?
Elna: No we uh in our trials we actually shot down the targets, but they were just (inaudible) out about 40 yards or so behind the plane and we didn't know that the little planes that were flying were flown by women, but we didn't know it.
Jim: Was that exciting, I mean to be a part of something that was secret and you're using guns and, my goodness!
Elna: Yes it uh we really were famous to keeping our mouths shut, uh and I know one time I was on a plane going home on leave and I was in the dining car and there were two civilians at the table and there was a young anti-aircraft officer from one of the men's units and the uh the 45's weren't involved in the experiment, uh and so there was nothing about that because uh with the 45s see how should I put it, um those batteries were ones that had the (inaudible) on one tower and the fire control on another and the two crews had to be interchangeable and therefore we could not have women on the gun part of the crew, so he was in that part of it uh the uh oh I can't remember the numbers of the . . . of the airplanes now, but uh because they could not be interchangeable he just knew there was an experiment, he did not know the exact nature of it, but he kept prodding to get more information out of me and I knew I couldn't give it, and finally I got up and left the table in the diner before I completed my dinner.
Jim: Wow, wow. How did you end up joining up in the first place?
Elna: I was teaching at a Junior College in Iowa, I was teaching mathematics and Fort Des Moines was to be the training grounds for the uh WAAC and so there was probably more in the Des Moines paper than any other about it. So I read about it and I got thinking teachers (inaudible) are going in a (inaudible) at that time and my dad could not be in the service because he was a train dispatcher and he was needed for railroad transportation work that was important uh for that reason and uh my brother was a diabetic so he was deferred and my sister was the arty type, she wouldn't have been interested in it and uh my grandfather dad's dad had served in the Civil War and somehow I just had the notion that someone in the family should be there and knowing about it, it rather enticed me with a mathematical background (inaudible).
Jim: Interesting. So when you went to join were was anybody surprised, I mean were people used to seeing women coming in and and saying that they wanted to join up?
Elna: Oh there were lots of people putting in for it, uh the idea originally was I think that something like only a 1,000 women would be taken in originally, but the caliber of the women applying for OCS was such that they raised the amount that they took in. They were only going to take one class of four companies I think it was, which would've been about a 1,000 women, but they took actually about seven classes.
Jim: Oh wow.
Elna: But they weren't as large, but uh, uh my class was 400 about and that was just the one class.
Jim: Other people we've talked to have talked about the effect that the bombing in Pearl Harbor had; when that happened it seemed like people were really motivated to go into the service and do that.
Elna: That was a factor right at the beginning that was important, but I think it was beginning to taper off.
Jim: What was it like when you heard about Pearl Harbor getting bombed?
Elna: Well I remember where I was, I was on a davenport watching an opera on TV and it was about 1:00 or so it came over the line in Iowa, it was just kind of an Oh you know thing that were quite surprised by it and uh it changed things rather drastically right from the beginning. Uh I remember Jerry Ryan an English Instructor was called in, he was a Reservist, he was called in so we had to add a class to the day and we actually had a 7:00 class in the morning and a 4:00 class in the afternoon to cover.
Elna: Because I think someone else was to or an assistant and I remember on in January at a basketball game at the Junior College someone came and gave a note to the Coach just before half and one of the players was not suited up the second half, because they were calling them in very quickly and, but uh it was all very, very top secret and one thing for sometime we didn't wear uniforms because there weren't sufficient (inaudible).
Jim: Right, sure, I can imagine that. Pearl Harbor, we were talking about that and how it really changed things. What was the spirit in America like at that time?
Elna: That we had to retaliate I'd say, that was my impression, know I understood that in some places that was not the case, they were more reluctant, but uh in many places it they were all gung ho.
Jim: People have talked about the book that Tom Brokaw wrote about the Greatest Generation and things like that. Do you feel like it was the greatest generation?
Elna: In a sense yes. I think there was a, a national spirit there that there hasn't been in sometimes later conflicts (inaudible) on uh Chief Officer's side, but uh for example I think I would not have gone in (inaudible), I don't know since it didn't actually come up for me to consider it, but I just have a hunch I wouldn't have been for it.
Jim: You were trained with the guns and the firing and doing all that stuff; is there any part of you that wishes you had gotten to use that in for real?
Elna: No, because we knew we'd do it if we had to, so there wasn't any necessity, the, the States weren't fired upon by anti-aircraft and that was the idea originally just for protection was the, the, the States.
Jim: People who are watching this I think might have a hard time realizing that in the United States at that time a lot of people were truly worried that we were going to be attacked.
Elna: Yes they were and we were ready for that, uh steps were taken to maintain secrecy as far as the women were concerned and naturally it covered some of the men's units too anything to protect them from counter attack on the we had some British Officers that injected us because they had the units in Britain where other than that I don't recall ever having any foreign officers involved in any way and we had uh well I can think of two or three in particular.
Jim: Back in the 40s obviously everybody was aware of the fact that the war was going on; I think there was that feeling that it was the kind of war that everybody was fighting even if you were at home. What was the feeling like at home? It seems like people really felt that they were fighting this war also or am I wrong about that?
Elna: No I think that's the way we feel. It uh I don't think there was doubt in our minds that we were being used or anything like that, we were doing what we could do such as working on the fire control and the experiment and uh then later I had most of the, practically all of the WAACs that works in the Pentagon under me and we had very strict uh laws about them, and what they could say and couldn't say.
Jim: This wasn't something that you just did for a little while and then left; I mean it wasn't like somebody who just pitched in for a couple years during the war; this was, this was a big part of your life?
Elna: Yeah the uh when uh the experiment was ending in May of '43 uh there was women who were assigned in various other places and uh at the time during that experiment there was a WAACs I don't know how much of this should be written, there was a WAAC Staff Director for the Military District of Washington and she was on a trip to England with Colonel Havee she was Deputy Director on the WAAC and uh had shall we say a personal family background on the (inaudible) and she got the flu while she was England and our troops were coming in on the 8th of January and we had to get camps ready for them to receive them and assign them and she wasn't back the Friday before so as (inaudible) experiment and with the advise of the other officers we assigned which officers would command at which installations in terms of who could best service the SEAL and that kind of thing and she got back on a Tuesday from her tour and found the orders assigning these people which was her prerogative so I was out inspecting for her (inaudible) so I had gone directly home and I got a call that I was to see her at 8:30 the next morning so I went I think its written up in the book and I went to the office about 8:00 in the morning and Colonel Havee came or not Colonel Havee, Colonel uh what was his, I've heard it, his picture is there.
Jim: That's fine, yeah.
Elna: Yeah and anyway he was came in the office early about 8:00 which is unusual because he usually stopped at places along the line coming in and he said to me I understand you have an appointment with this Officer at 8:30 this morning. I said yes I do. He said then (inaudible) remember two things one think twice before you say anything and second no matter what you say General Lewis and I will back you 100%. So that was kind of odd advise I thought, but I went down and saluted and reported she didn't tell me to stand at ease, so I stood at attention for it all and uh I uh she, she accused me of Usurping her authority and so she was had an appointment with Colonel Havee at 10:30 to request that I be dismissed from the service for insubordination and uh I had my notes with me and told her the basis on which we had assigned each officer to the job she was to hold, but she just kept saying you Usurped my authority. So finally she excused me and I went back to my office and I think I just plain set down stared into space and uh couldn't help thinking of the fact that my folks hadn't seen me in uniform yet and things like that because this was just in December and uh Colonel Kimberly that was his name, came in again and sat down on the edge of my desk and I really didn't see him at first I was just kind of away and he said damn you, you forgot what I said. And I just looked kind of blank, he said she didn't go out to get your head chopped off, she went out to get her own head chopped off. It seems that the afternoon before, Tuesday afternoon when she'd read this news of it she turned down to his office and stood there and shook her finger under his nose and as she put it she backed me up to the radiator, its not often I've been on the hot seat and uh so anyway he said it was all okay I was still in the job and he said uh well get your hat and coat on and go out on your inspection as you planned today. So I did and as I went down the hall I met General Lewis who commanded the military district of Washington and she had been the WAAC Staff Director for his command and he stood at (inaudible) I want to apologize to you. Apologize sir? He said yes for what you went through this morning and he turned and walked away, so.
Elna: That was one reason I always liked General Lewis, that I learned more from him than anyone else in the Service.
Jim: Oh I can imagine.
Elna: He uh he was a person that never said do so and so, he was the Commanding General for all of Washington, D.C., but he never said do it, he always said what do you propose?
Elna: And then when you gave him some of your ideas of how you'd solve we had so many problems to solve and when you told him how you thought you might go about solving the problem he uh fix on it somehow, but uh I know one time uh we later found that (inaudible) was against the rules and yet previous officers weren't (inaudible) of the log outfits in the war department to skip KP they were so busy they just couldn't have their people on and so gradually found that KP was and on a Monday afternoon I was discussing it with Captain Keffer who had replaced Thomas and uh we were talking about how we could lick the problem and General Lewis was leaving and he stuck his head in the door, said what's wrong now? And sometimes it wasn't that, but what's wrong with you or what's next on your litany, I was always (inaudible) something and uh so I told him and he said well don't be silly he said you know the war department, I had said we take them all and put 'em on a rotating basis, we take 'em all up through Staff Sergeant, he said don't be silly you know the war department, they'll promote 'em all to Master Sergeant and uh so I said well then we'll taken 'em all. He said you may have a point. That was Monday afternoon 5:00, Tuesday afternoon I got a call from Captain Keffer I was on his staff, she said you may be interested to know General Lewis willing to work with General (inaudible) today he was a Assist Troop Commander its okay with him to take them all.
Elna: And she said he's going to ride to work with General Marshall tomorrow and Wednesday night I got a call from her that it was okay with General Lewis and that the next day I would have a letter from the, from the Deputy Chief of Staff. I think it was about the second, first or second person or personnel anyway. . . . And so that was what was okay by General Marshall and Friday morning I remember it was St. Patrick's Day so my Irish was, the Chaplain came and told me that four (inaudible) from the Air Force WAACs were going AWOL Saturday night and I asked, they had been enlisted with the idea that they would be in the Air Force, but somebody hadn't bothered to make out the papers to implement it, so they'd been sent where they were needed the most which was War Department and yet they didn't have the uh the help or the qualifications that they actually needed.
Elna: So uh they were the ones going AWOL so I had this letter from the Deputy Chief of Staff, I went down to the vessel and knew they were on duty, had 'em set down, told them that as of the 1st of April that KP, permanent KP would be over with and one of these Air Force (inaudible) said just another promise to be broken. And I, I (inaudible) and I said before you pull KP on the first of April I'll pull it myself, but I didn't pull it.
Jim: What was the general sort of feeling toward women in the service at that time; were people very accepting of that or not?
Elna: Some very much resented this business of being on KP, they didn't have quite the call for (inaudible) so there was a certain amount of resentment on so you could understand the way they felt.
Jim: Sure. How did the men react to having women learning all the . . .
Elna: Some men resented 'em because they felt, because they were there they'd be going overseas so that was one type. . . . So some of the men definitely resented the women because they felt they were taking certain desk jobs, KP and items of that sort which kept them from staying in the states, that they'd get asked to go overseas whereas the women weren't to be in combat.
Jim: When you tell people that you served, do you feel nostalgic about that time? I mean is it something that you were?
Elna: What came up?
Jim: When you talk to people about that that time period during the war and during those years, is it something that you feel warmly about or, or how do you look back on it?
Elna: I don't think I was home enough other than just strictly family and they were interested in other things.
Jim: Right. What about looking back now, how do you think about it?
Elna: I don't think they felt so much about it, because now they're in a lot of that. So it's not a question now. . . . There are relatively few that I still keep in touch with. A lot of 'em are dead (inaudible). So uh but uh they didn't resent it or think, they were quite willing to go, they didn't some of the men may have resented them, but I don't know.
Jim: When, when you think about those times now was that um, was that to you uh you know when you look about it, look at it and think back I mean we're talking it was almost 60 years ago that was, that was going on. Um do you remember that as being?
Elna: That was over 50.
Jim: Over 50, yeah almost 60 years ago.
Jim: Do you remember that being was that a happy time for you?
Elna: It was for me, I didn't feel any resentment or anything, uh once in a while there were a little hardships of one sort, like getting something you needed, but that was true for everybody. I had, I always felt we had a job to do and we had to do it. I think our feeling was we knew what we were getting into when we did it. It's strange the way I think feelings changed later, quite a bit, but uh I don't think people resented it too much except some of those that had cushy jobs and then couldn't keep them.
Jim: In looking at some of the information about you and your late husband, he's buried at Arlington, is that correct?
Jim: He's not.
Elna: No he, I don't know now how much you should put in about this.
Elna: Um he was militant and knowing he was about four years old he had polio and was paralyzed and he made transitions switches like he'd write saw for a was, things of that sort so later after we were married and he'd be writing recommendations for some student he'd have me write it out from his manuscript and correct the spelling, because his secretary would write it down, would type it the way it was written and uh that was one way we handled that situation and then um he was doing grad work, (inaudible) grad work here at Idaho and some fellow was drafted and apparently Ed would start talking about it and then he'd clam up so I never got the, quite the whole story, but I just had a feeling that this fellow kept egging him on that he'd somehow avoided the draft and was deferred and anyway Ed uh volunteered and because of his thing he was sent to basic and they said, said he should be in OCS so they sent him to OCS, but at first, one time when he marched troops with his reversal business he marched 'em into a wall for (inaudible) of OCS.
Jim: Oh my.
Elna: But he insisted on staying in and the only thing he could be in was the medics and he was with a station hospital in (inaudible) Germany was one place I know. But (inaudible) close another, but uh he stayed in as long as we needed him.
Elna: So uh there was that about him that he had a different feeling than some of the others did, but uh he uh he never seemed to think that he was over the line in doing that, he just was showing his Swedish temper.
Jim: When you um when I don't, I don't want to take up a lot of your time, we've already taken up a lot today so I'd like to stay here forever with you, but um the um with girls today that think of, I mean there's so many more opportunities for them in the military and in life in the world, um but do you have any, any advise you think that you could give to those young girls that are thinking about doing something, with all that you've done and all the women that were under your command and all of that?
Elna: I'd say get all the information you can about the type of duty you might be assigned for to and see if it's within your ambitions for yourself. You probably have some ambitions of where you want to go in life and check out and see if the same thing is true going in to any profession.
Jim: But I think, I think a lot of women would you look at you as kind of a pioneer with what you did.
Elna: Oh I don't think I was. I just did something that came along and I felt I could do it and I did it.
Jim: Well that's wonderful.
Elna: I felt it was within my, my possibilities, I'd been teaching math in high school and in Junior College and I had well most of my work towards a Masters completed so I didn't think anything of it, but uh the thing I when General Lewis I think he judged me, I don't know how much chance he had to judge me when I first took over the anti-aircraft experiment, but from then on anytime it came up he'd step up for me. I know that and at first before I was assigned to the experiment, see I had a math background and that was needed for anti-aircraft so that was one thing in my favor and the other girl that was being considered had more the um statistical rather than the theoretical side of mathematics, but uh I, my first assignment in Washington when I was sent there was in the schools division of the training division and there they had staff coming from all sorts of colleges wanting training division to get ready for using my work and it was significant he always brought it just to me and it turned out later that he had been assigned to check on me to see if I was capable of doing it.
Jim: Well like I said I don't want to take up your whole afternoon and evening, but I appreciate all the time you've spent with us.
Interviewed by Jim Peck, producer of The Idaho Homefront: World War II