Mary Phillips Gettys’ children don’t quite believe her, but she was one of the few women who served her country in uniform during World War II.
A commissioned lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Gettys was tasked with coding and decoding communications with America’s ships at sea while stationed at the Norfolk, Va., naval yard. When a particularly sensitive message had to be hand-delivered, Gettys would set out across the base with the communique and a strapped-on firearm, just in case she encountered any Axis agents along the way.
“I can’t believe she ever had a gun,” said Beth Pierce, Gettys’ daughter. “She’s such a lovely lady, I just can’t imagine it.”
Now a resident at Westminster Towers retirement community in Rock Hill, the dignified 95-year-old is probably best known as the wife of the late U.S. Rep. Tom Gettys. But she takes pride in the part she played in winning the Second World War.
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“A great many parents would not allow their daughters to do it,” she said of those who entered the service. “But mine responded well to the idea.”
On Sunday, Gettys was presented with a specially made quilt from Quilts of Valor, which distributes the quilts to service veterans around the country, even though she wasn’t sure her service on the home front qualified her for the honor.
“I had two brothers in the war who were both badly wounded,” she said. “But I suppose our numbers are getting thinner. Now the war was so long ago.”
But Harvey Mayhill with the Quilts of Valor Foundation said that’s not an unusual reaction from members of the Greatest Generation who are told they have been chosen to receive a quilt.
“We often hear people say, ‘I’m not deserving enough. There are other people who are more deserving,’ ” Mayhill said to Gettys. “I say, ‘That might be true. But we don’t know them. We know you. You have the privilege of accepting on their behalf.’ ”
Gettys was working, unhappily, as a junior high school teacher in Anderson in 1943 when she got the chance to sign up for the newly created women’s section of the naval reserves as one of the creatively named WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She went to New England for six weeks of midshipmen’s school before she received her commission.
The post gave her an exciting chance to serve her country and to make history for women in the service.
“At the time I started, women did not receive the same salary as men, but then the Navy decided women would receive the same pay as all officers of the same rank,” she said. “The men were very resistant because this was a new idea.”
Stationed in Norfolk, where she arrived after a crowded train journey from Chester where the young officer sat on her own luggage, Gettys took a post encoding messages with 10 other WAVES using a special coding machine. Much of the communication involved repair work on damaged ships in the Navy yard – the identities of which were a secret so that the full strength of the battle fleet at any given time remained unknown.
...the Navy decided women would receive the same pay as all officers of the same rank. The men were very resistant because this was a new idea.
Mary Phillips Gettys
Each day, all naval facilities received a new code for communicating with the fleet to thwart the efforts of enemy codebreakers. But the women tasked with coding the messages found it less challenging.
“It didn’t take a lot of brains,” Gettys said. “But in each coded message we had to write our own names, so they knew who to blame if you made a mistake.”
She never had to use the gun the Navy gave her, but she was present for some historic moments. Late one night in 1944, Gettys was working alone in the office, the only one there to hear some surprising news over the radio: Allied forces had made landfall in Normandy.
Proud of her service
Gettys stayed in the WAVES until 1946. Only then did she return to South Carolina where she would meet her future husband, who had also served in the Navy in the South Pacific as a lieutenant commander.
“Unfortunately, he outranked me,” she said.
Gettys remains a high-ranking member of a military family. Her daughter Pierce has two sons who went into the military, one a Marine and the other – Thomas, named after his grandfather – an Army captain currently deployed as a military adviser to Ukraine.
The proud grandmother remains equally proud of her service, even if it was unusual for a woman of her time. A member of the American Legion since she left the WAVES, Gettys was once asked for proof of her service for the Legion’s IRS records. She sent a signed letter thanking her for her service from James Forrestal, the wartime Navy secretary who went on to become the nation’s first Secretary of Defense.
That pride is shared by her family any time she receives an honor like the quilt of valor.
“My mother deserves every accolade she’s ever been offered,” Pierce said.
Now, as Gettys approaches her 95th birthday on Aug. 6 – which just happens to be the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – she looks back on her time in the Navy with fondness.
“It was important wartime service,” she said. “This wasn’t fighting and guns, but it was just as necessary.”
WOMEN IN WORLD WAR II
Gettys wasn’t alone. How many women served in the U.S. military during the Second World War?
- WAC (Women’s Army Corps): 145,000
- WAVES (Women Accepted for (Naval) Volunteer Emergency Service): 84,000
- WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots): more than 1,000