Mildred Annettie Ferguson was a spinster when she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp. on January 5, 1944. She was thirty-seven years old, a teacher at Pestalozzi School in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, and lived at home when she enlisted in the WACs. She traveled further than I’m sure she ever imagined while performing a service for her country. Her time in the WACs is preserved in a scrapbook that she lovingly put together. This treasure captures what it was like to be a WAC during World War II.
Over many months, Mildred traveled to several places in the United States. Basic Training took place at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. From Iowa, she traveled to the Adjutant Division of Base Headquarters at Eglin Field in Florida and eventually to Ft. Oglethorpe, GA for overseas training. When her training was completed, she traveled by train to Camp Stoneman, in California, and then to San Francisco where she boarded the troopship Lurline.
Once known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” the beautiful SS Lurline was a luxurious ocean liner built for the Hawaii and Australasia runs from the West Coast of the United States and had been stripped down to accommodate about 4,100 troops. ¹
As Christmas neared, Mildred was recruited to sing Carols on Christmas Eve during services held for those onboard. This is what she wrote about the day:
Christmas Aboard a Troop Transport – 1944
“Probably one of the most unique church services I shall ever attend was the one held on Xmas Eve Sunday, 1944 aboard the U.S.S. Lurline on our way to New Guinea. We had crossed the equator the day before—consequently the weather was very warm.
Aboard the ship were members of the armed forces of several of our Allied nations. There were Australians, New Zealanders, Soldiers and WACs of the Netherlands East-Indies, as well as nurses, soldiers, sailors, and WACs of our own armed forces. Traveling with us were Red Cross Workers, both white and black, and members of a U.S.O. Troupe.
From this mixed group the chaplain trained a choir made up of individuals all of these groups—about 4 in all. We had worked hard on the traditional carols under very adverse conditions since it was almost impossible to find a quiet place to practice aboard such a crowded vessel. At times the library was closed for us; again, we used the administrative office during the noon hour. Wherever we went the heat was intense and felt, especially, as we were standing in close formation and working for volume, since we must of necessity hold services on the open deck where the wind was likely to carry our voices away.
Since we had only a protestant chaplain on board, he felt the best service he could conduct for all various faiths represented would be a musical one, consisting of the reading of the Christmas story and prophecy from the scriptures augmented by the singing of the carols.
To accommodate the crowd the service must be repeated three times. Everyone was anxious to attend and hear the choir, which had been quite widely publicized and highly praised by those well qualified to judge choral singing.
It was indeed an inspiration to see the attentive audience and to watch them continue to remain seated on the deck during the three tropical squalls that came up during the services. Many were drenched by the rain swept across the deck by the wind. So earnest were all participating that, during the singing of the hymns, choir and congregation alike just moved over a little closer against the bulkhead and continued their worship.
Never I think, were the solos – “Ave Maria” sung by a U.S. Army Major, and “O Holy Night” sung by a U.S.O. performer – sung to a more appreciative audience – tho’ enveloped in driving rain part of the time.
I could not help but think that with such cooperation and sincerity, surely we must soon triumph in realizing our aim and ideal of peace on earth and good will among men.”
Of the many pieces of ephemera in Mildred’s scrapbook was the program shown below mimeographed on thin paper. It is now browned with age but still legible.
On Sunday, January 2, 1945, the SS Lurline steamed into the Bay of Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea. Mildred never got to see what the ship looked like because the troops entered through the hold of the ship at water level. They exited through the same doors they had entered before the long sea journey and were transported thirty miles by ambulance to Mount Cyclops and the FEASC headquarters near the Lake Sentani Airstrip. There she and three other WACs were responsible for logging and delivering all correspondence received for the eighteen sections in their division. Mildred handled all radiograms coming into or going out of their division. Her morning began with Reveille and her evening ended with Taps.
When the war in Europe was over, plans were to move two-thousand office personnel scattered around the Pacific to Manilla, in the Philippines. On August 6, 1945, Mildred and others were transported aboard C-46s to Manila. They flew over Mindanao and came into Manila over Corregidor and Bataan and landed at Nichols Field after twelve hours and two-thousand miles in the air. Before their arrival, Manila was devastated when U.S. and Filipino forces routed the Japanese from the island.
A little more than a week after their arrival, V-J day was declared. On September 28th, she arrived home from work to find she had orders to go home because she was “over 38.” Older WACs had priority to be flown home. That evening she turned in her clothing, went back to the office, and cleared out her desk. Most know that the army is “hurry up and wait.” After six weeks of waiting, with clothes packed ready to leave, the WACS received their flu shots, lined up their duffel bags, and were taken by truck to the harbor where they walked up the gang-plank of the Lurline. Mildred finally got to see the entirety of the “Queen of the Pacific.”
The trip back to San Francisco took fourteen days and covered six-thousand miles. The ship took the northern route to avoid typhoons. Those onboard nearly froze because the ship was unheated and their blood was thin from their year in the tropics. Mildred received her discharge papers on November 26, 1945.
Mildred Ferguson eventually married Robert Copley in 1955. Aunt Mil, as we called her, and Uncle Bob never had kids. We spent many Christmas days with the Ferguson family. We never heard Aunt Mil speak about that Christmas Eve and the music that filled the skies of the Pacific Ocean so many years before.
Mildred Ferguson Copley was born to Thomas C. Ferguson and Lola Pope Ferguson, and is my husband’s aunt. She was born in 1906 and passed away in 1989. Aunt Mil is buried in Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.
The theme this week for Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks is Music. Writing about the theme, or prompt, for each week has been a fun, but challenging.