WASHINGTON – Every time a Navy ship left the Baltimore harbor, Meda Montana “Peanut” Brendall, cried.
“Every boat that went out had my welding on it,” the 96-year-old Baltimore woman said. “You’d hear that ‘Woo! Woo!’ And you’d say, ‘I hope somebody doesn’t blow it up before it gets there.”
Brendall, a civilian welder during World War II who crafted battleship engine parts at Baltimore’s Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard, joined two other Maryland women — retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm and retired Navy Cmdr. Darlene M. Iskra — in sharing their experiences for a novel online Library of Congress exhibit honoring women in wartime.
“Experiencing War: Women at War,” will appear the next few months on the Veterans History Project Web site, where visitors can view 4,000 of the 45,000 veterans’ interviews, including those of 3,000 women.
Welding is not “dirty work,” Brendall said. “There’s no such word. It’s beautiful work when you’re doing it for your boys overseas.”
The tiny interior engine pipes she made had to be perfect, Brendall said. Lives depended on it.
She made 20 pipes a day, seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for four years. None were returned for imperfections.
“It was just beautiful watching those little melting pieces of metal.”
Brendall, one of the first women in Bethlehem-Fairfield’s shipyard, was a welder from 1942 until she and other women welders were summarily dismissed at the end of the war.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeanne M. Holm, 86, of Edgewater, recalled a time when “things were very, very different” when there was a “caste system” that now has almost disappeared.
Without the Library of Congress project, those unique moments will never be remembered.
“It will get lost if we don’t write it down.”
Holm, the first female Air Force general, and one of the first women to join the U.S. military, remembered in her online interview: “Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was preparing for war. We really felt that we were going to be going to war, and the women were searching for ways that they could serve.”
Women’s ambulance corps were organizing nationwide at the time. Holm, at 19, joined one in Oregon.
“We had uniforms. We taught first aid. We learned how to drive trucks,” Holm said.
“I taught a course, actually, in motor transport. I taught a course on the theory of the internal combustion engine,” she laughed. “We got deeply involved in motor transport, driving in convoys, driving trucks, and we had Army men who came and trained us, plus the Portland Fire Department.”
Six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Congress enacted the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps to enlist women for auxiliary noncombat duty in World War II. One month later, Holm turned 21. Now eligible, she enlisted.
“We felt like pioneers, we really did, which is very interesting, when I look back on it. We knew we were breaking ground.”
Holm’s 30-year military career spanned three wars and saw her ascend from Army truck driver to an honored high command.
“So many things in our lives have to do with timing,” said Holm, in one clip. “This was my time to be a lieutenant colonel, if I was going to be one.”
The first female commander of a U.S. Navy ship, retired Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, 55, of College Park, is also featured in the exhibit. She described her experiences leading the USS Opportune during the Persian Gulf War.
“We had no idea what was going on. I mean, people here, because they saw it on CNN, knew more than what we knew,” she said. “We didn’t know if we were winning. We knew nothing. It was terrible.”
Aboard an old ship with aging electronics, the commander, parked alongside the Suez Canal, learned of the war’s end via written message.
During Operation Desert Shield, she dealt with similar complications awaiting word that a ground war had started. Her ship wasn’t equipped with enough chemical and radiation protection kits at a time when speculation about Iraq’s ability to deliver chemical or biological weapons was rampant.
“We didn’t know if the SCUD missiles they were sending to Israel had the range to make it to our little ship in the Med (Mediterranean Sea), whether those SCUD missiles had the capability of having a chemical warhead, or any of that stuff,” she said. “And I found out that I didn’t even have the books on board to look this stuff up . . . ”
The commander helped her crew cope, she said, by doing “a lot of drills.”
The Veterans History Project puts a human face on wartime experiences and the sacrifices people made, Iskra said this week.
“When you look back at history, what do you read?” said Iskra. “It’s so sterile because you don’t hear anything about the people involved . . . I think that’s what this does, is to bring history alive.”
Veterans of World Wars I and II, the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, as well as civilians who helped to support U.S. wartime efforts — flight instructors, USO workers, medical volunteers, and war industry workers, for example — have contributed to the project.
But more participation still is needed, and there are tools on the project Web site to help.
Collecting the stories of America’s veterans will help current and future generations better understand the realities of war and the sacrifices of those called to fight, said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, last month.
An early champion of the project, the congressman was conducting interviews of Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots at the time.
“Every U.S. veteran carries with him or her an important piece of American history.”
The project can be found at www.loc.gov/vets/.
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