Her white hair thickly curls around her head, and her eyes hide behind large framed glasses as she stares off into space, caught up in memories. For a moment, she isn’t in her room at La Villa, rather, lost somewhere in North Africa, circa 1944 and the Second World War that changed her life.
“If I told my kids some of the stuff, they wouldn’t believe it,” she says.
Doris Phillips is 93, and she not only lived through WWII, she participated in it.
She grew up in Iowa, but after the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was created in May 1942, she decided to check it out. Leaving college with a friend from Kansas, the two set out to Omaha where “they talked us into it,” she chuckled.
“I started college, and I thought I didn’t want to be tied down.” So she enlisted and was sent to Fort Des Moines.
It was a regular cavalry fort and the barracks had just previously been used as horse stables. Their training was the same as any Army personnel, Phillips says.
“We walked the post at midnight when snow was fanny deep, and I think we were supposed to stoke the fires but I didn’t get in on that because I don’t know a thing about those furnaces. So I let somebody else do those.
“Oh, it was cold as heck.”
They were also trained to shoot and reload 40-06 M4s, guns she says they were barely able to lift.
“So anyway, when we got ready to ship out from Manchester, N.H., they handed us a little knife,” she recalls. “And I thought after, getting out in that ocean with that little knife, what was it going to do? We laughed about that afterward, but we were very serious about taking care of that knife. What good it would do against a bunch of whales and sharks, I don’t know.”
Phillips was eventually a sergeant in the 1250th AAF-BN-NAFD-ATC, or Army Air Forces, Battalion, North African Ferrying Division and Air Traffic Control, which they jokingly called Army of Terrified Civilians. Her occupational specialty was listed as “clerk typist,” but she was actually a medical field technician, spending time at general hospitals in North Africa.
She was in charge of administering shots and keeping track of health records for the 1252nd. And depending on what specific job she was doing, her outfit would change: outside required Army fatigues, and inside was simply regular Army or Air Corps clothes.
“And you didn’t care what size it was. You were just glad to get them. I think I still have a pair of pants that they gave me at Fort Des Moines, and they’re khaki, and they are about that low,” she says, motioning to her knees and laughing. “I don’t know why I kept them. But you never told the clerk (if) that was too big for you. You just accepted them.”
She and the other WAACs, later changed to WAC, removing auxiliary from the name, worked hard and without the furloughs today’s soldiers are offered.
“I mean, you know when you’ve worked a lot of hours and it’s work, it’s not just a job or a duty, it’s work,” she stated simply. “You get a lot of satisfaction out of it, but no pay. I went in for $21.50. That was a monthly bill. But out of that you paid your taxes, your premiums. And I don’t know. It was fun, and yet you think back, and who in the world would ever sign up for a month of only $21 anymore?”
On top of the long weeks of hard work and little pay, the WACs were not accepted at first. From training and then into the field, Phillips faced struggles because of her gender.
“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but it was a regular Army that was training us, and they didn’t like us,” she admitted. “They called us WAC Asses.” She laughs at this now.
But being a new unit, hardly organized at the time, many men were not used to the idea of women being in the Army.
“We had a couple (men) I tried to avoid,” Phillips explains. “I didn’t like their attitude. They still resented. One (man) was an old homey type of person, and he resented women. So we thought it best not to offer to do anything (for him), but if he asked us to do something then we would.”
Despite the struggles, she had some fun times; some stories of which “I don’t think they’re repeatable,” she chuckled mischievously.
Then, in Casablanca, the Army changed her life further by introducing her to her future husband, Earl Phillips, who was stationed there while serving with the Military Police. They would eventually marry in December of 1947 and go on to have two children. They celebrated nearly 60 years together before Earl’s death in 2008.
“Oh, there were some eye openers for me,” she concludes about her time in the Army. “I hadn’t been out in the world too long … you know, really out in the world. So I had never experienced some of that stuff. Some of it was very eye awakening for sure. It was different, but it was so interesting. You see and do things that you never think about.”