CONYERS -- When Helen Schukraft Sutherland's fiancee' went to fight the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II, she didn't want to be left out of the excitement. When the Navy formed a new branch for women called the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943, she put her name on the dotted line and the Atlanta native sailed away to Bronx, N.Y.
"I just liked the Navy," she said, now a spry and engaging 90-year-old Conyers resident who said she'd like to tell her story of serving her country. "I did not get into OCS for officer training, but I was happy to serve where I could. It was wonderful and I enjoyed it."
A graduate of Girls High, Agnes Scott College and the Draughton School of Business, Sutherland was better qualified than most to lead. Also, from 1939 to 1941, she taught dancing from the basement of her parents home in Cascade Heights in Atlanta. She knew how to teach groups of young women to move in unison and the Navy was astute enough to take advantage of those qualities.
"We taught them how to march in groups in sections of 40," she said.
She was made a Specialist S and was assigned the task of training group after group of female recruits during their six weeks of boot camp training and introduction into Navy life. She taught them at Hunter College in the Bronx, a facility the Navy had converted into the first U.S. Naval College for Women Reserves.
Members of the WAVES served in clerical positions, as well as in areas of aviation, communication, intelligence and medical services.
"So many girls had finished high school and didn't have any idea what they wanted to do," she said, but after six short weeks of training with Sutherland, she'd watch them depart for a specific field of service.
"I was so proud of those girls and being able to send them off for other schools and specialized training in many different fields," she said.
She recalls those groups of recruits as "good people," and feels a sense of accomplishment as she looks back on her service to her country.
"We didn't establish a personal relationship with each one, but I think I did send them away with a love of the Navy and a knowledge of it -- enough to feel proud that they were a WAVE," she said.
When it began to look as if the war would finally be over, recruitment of WAVES stopped and Sutherland was asked where she'd like to transfer. She chose the area of San Francisco, Calif., perhaps hoping she'd be on the right side of the country when her fiancee' T.J. Sutherland came home from the Army.
She was assigned to a Naval hospital in Shoemaker, Calif., where she and two other WAVES were assigned the task of overseeing the WAVES quarters. She kept up with the comings and goings of the WAVES, seeing that they prepared properly for inspections and making sure they got back to quarters ahead of curfew.
"More than once did I send someone up to the nearest pool hall and say, 'It's time to get in here,'" she said, adding that the WAVES stationed at the hospital were hard workers and always went out of their way to make sure the GIs coming home with terrible injuries were cheered up as much as possible.
Also, she was able to keep a close watch on what ships were docking where and sure enough, the day came when she learned that one special soldier was coming home.
"I was lucky enough to get out there and be there when my husband's ship came in from the Pacific," she said. "I was the only one. I was able to track the ship. That was something."
Their days of service to their country over, Helen and T.J. returned home to Atlanta and were married at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in January of 1946. The couple had six children and established T.J. Sutherland Heating and Air Conditioning. In 1970, the Sutherlands moved to Conyers and became active members of St. Pius X Catholic Church. T.J. died in 2005. Sutherland loves to play bridge and is the grandmother of 18 and the great-grandmother of 14.
Sutherland's WAVES uniform and that of her father who served in the U.S. Army during World War I are on display at the Conyers VFW.
A Veteran's Story is an occasional feature profiling those who have served their country in the armed services. If you would like to recommend a veteran to be interviewed, email news editor Barbara Knowles at firstname.lastname@example.org.