'Nice girls don't go in the Army': Vet recalls her service

Ruth Knox in her Minneapolis home.
Ruth Knox in her Minneapolis home. She enlisted on July 5, 1944.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

Ruth Knox can joke about it now. But she had the opposite reaction to one of her first military assignments during World War II. It was kitchen patrol, a miserable task.

"I sat on the floor and cried," she recalled with a laugh. "What else? They wanted me to clean the grease trap."

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World War II opened doors for women. Thousands signed up for duty that took them around the world and posted them in jobs at the very heart of the conflict. But many didn't get the respect they deserved. They faced hostility and harassment on-base and off.

But they also paved the way for generations of women who, like Knox, wanted to serve their country.

Ruth Knox, pictured in uniform.
Ruth Knox was a Women's Army Corps corporal during World War II.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

For her, the day came July 5, 1944 when the 25-year-old Minneapolis woman saw an "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster and signed up for the Women's Army Corps, known as the WACs. She had a good paying job then in the Twin Cities assembling thermostats at Honeywell. But she wanted to serve.

"My mother had a fit," Knox, now 95, said in a recent interview. "She just said, 'Nice girls don't go in the Army.' I was already in the Army."

She was sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, for basic training, assigned to Company 5, 3rd Regiment. Her postings included Grenier Field in New Hampshire and Morrison Field in Florida with the first and only group of flight traffic clerks.

It was no easy ride for Knox and other women.

The Women's Army Corps didn't become a branch of the regular Army until action by Congress in 1948. Opposition to women in the military included a vicious slander campaign that they were prostitutes in uniform and undermined the morale of men.

Congressional hearings traced the source of the slander campaign, largely defusing it, and found instead that the tens of thousands of WACS were filling jobs that freed men for combat and in fact supplied skills that in many cases men lacked.

Still, they fought regularly against hostility and harassment on-base and off.

Knox remembers her Army office job where every day a soldier tried to grab her. She complained to the commanding officer — "I'm not going to be at that desk anymore, I'm tired of having him chase me around."

She was reassigned to a job where she had more control over who touched whom.

A book of Ruth Knox's notes and photos.
Ruth Knox displays a book of newspaper clippings, photos, notes, letters and other papers.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

"They put me in charge of the physical therapy room, and every guy on the base wanted a back rub," she laughed.

Knox loved adventure and had a mind of her own.

At her first post near Manchester, New Hampshire, troops arrived there from Europe, including wounded soldiers on their way to the hospital.

When the WACs caring for wounded soldiers there decided the men deserved a party, Knox, who'd never been inside a liquor store, went to buy supplies.

"I bought one bottle of liquor, which meant that everybody would get about half a teaspoonful," she remembered, then laughed.

For that, Knox was confined to base for six weeks and demoted from corporal to private.

She eventually won the stripe back.

Eventually, another WAC talked her into trying out for training to be a flight attendant on planes that carried troops from California to Hawaii.

Combing through her mother's records, Ruth Knox's daughter Barbara found that she transferred to Hamilton Field in California. Knox was an attendant on C-54 Skymaster cargo planes that carried as many as 40 people.

Knox escaped punishment during that hitch when she violated military dress code as a flight attendant. The Army-issued women's shoes were ugly. So, Knox made a personal dress code decision and "bought a pair of the highest heels I could find — snake skin leather or something."

Knox won a recommendation to officer candidate school. Then the war ended.

She returned to St. Paul, married a neighborhood boy, raised six children and worked for years as a grocery store clerk.

She blended quietly back into civilian life along with many of the more than 100,000 women who served as WACs during World War II. The Corps was abolished in 1978 when women were assimilated into Army ranks with men.

Women now serve across the military in command and leadership roles. In 1997, a Women In Military Service For America Memorial was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery to honor all military women.

Ruth Knox in her Minneapolis home.
Ruth Knox signed up for the Women's Army Corps, known as the WACs.
Bridget Bennett / MPR News

One of Knox's favorite military memories happened just a few years ago.

A benefactor arranged a trip to Washington, D. C., and the World War II memorial for a group of veterans.

"It was like we were heroes or something," she said. "People were lined up along the road and they were crying and clapping and saying, 'Thank you,' It was fun."

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