By Ellen Thompson
World War II changed the Army, and it changed Ann E. Alt.
Alt joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943, nearly two years after Pearl Harbor. She stayed in the Army, with two brief periods out, and retired in 1970 a lieutenant colonel.
"I liked the Army," Alt said.
She's put a lot of thought behind that brief statement. After her retirement, Alt amassed a collection of 2,000 military history books she donated last month to Montana State University-Northern, her alma mater.
The gift will be completed this month with a final shipment of books, and the university will honor Alt with an open house on Wednesday.
Alt, a native of Great Falls, entered the Army in the midst of one war, and stayed on for two more, witnessing the changing role of women in the armed forces over that period. When Alt retired, she had time to focus on a hobby, reading. She began collecting books, with a focus on World War II history.
During World War II, women joined the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, and also served as nurses overseas and as laborers at home. But Alt was somewhat different from most of her contemporaries.
Many women left the Army after the war, when men returned to some of the desk jobs women had taken over. Women laborers were fired, as a flood of men returned home, while many women in the military chose to leave, Alt said. At that time, the Army did not allow women to have children or marry while serving, she said.
Alt didn't marry and made a career of Army service. "The Army didn't know what it wanted to do with women" at that time, she said. The year Alt joined, the auxiliary part of the WAAC title was removed, as women were incorporated into the Army proper.
"Now that (auxiliary) doesn't exist, we are soldiers all" she said.
The Army made some discoveries: "Women, particularly, could make good soldiers and also they were very good at keeping track of things," she said.
"I think it changed the country. They could see now what women could do."
Alt joined because she didn't want to miss anything and found that the career suited her. She was trained as a teacher, but didn't think she was a very good one, always assuming her students had more knowledge than they did.
"There was no fritting about" in the Army, she said.
As to skills, Alt said: "It taught me to be able to size up people and what could be expected of them."
She was stationed overseas three times, and was the commanding officer of women's barracks in Okinawa and Germany.
During World War II she worked at the Pentagon, in the lower basement, filing papers. At various times in her career Alt's work was classified, and she sometimes had to conceal her real assignment from friends.
On a trip to Norway in the 1960s, Alt had to keep a prudent distance from the Russian border.
"I was in secret business at the time, so I had to keep 35 paces back," she said.
In another border experience, Alt, while stationed in Germany, went to the Berlin Wall.
"I looked up and here was a pair of binoculars pinned on me," she said. The soldier on the east side was watching her. "I just waved, and waved," she said. The soldier waved back.
In her time in the Army, a confrontation Alt remembers most involved an American. In the 1950s Alt was an officer in Okinawa in charge of women's barracks. There was a Marine base on the same island, and the men were rude and disrespectful to the women. Alt went to the Marine general to request that the base be moved.
"This little WAC captain went toe to toe with him and got his Marines moved," she said. The general she met also had family in Montana.
For the most part Alt said, she received fair treatment from men in the Army, though she once interceded on behalf of a few other women. "I just stepped in and said: 'Go to hell,"' she said. Most men she commanded had no trouble taking orders from a woman.
Despite her breadth of experience, it's World War II that has stayed with her.
"It's beginning to disappear from us," Alt said of World War II history. In particular Alt said she has spent time thinking about the Army's tactics in taking Japan. The Army did not know enough about the culture of the islands, she said. More lives might have been spared if they had known more.
Other area women were also in the service. Marge McLean joined the Marines in about 1941 and was discharged four years later. Originally from Dorchester, Mass., McLean said she had always wanted to join, and did so as soon as she could, at age 21.
At first she did not meet the minimum weight requirement, 100 pounds, but after weeks of banana creams she came within a half pound of the mark and she passed.
"Anyone who wants to be a Marine that badly, I'm going to pass," she was told by the screener.
McLean met her husband, fellow Marine Al McLean, and after she was discharged, married him and moved with him to Havre where their family runs a grocery.
Though she knew many men sent abroad, McLean said the war did not affect her directly. She worked as a photographer and retoucher of photos at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and her duties did not change during the war.
While McLean was stationed in Southern California, not far away Kremlin native Dorothy McCormick was challenging gender roles, working as a welder at the Long Beach, Calif., airplane manufacturing company McDonnell-Douglas.
On her first day, she overheard the men she worked with saying that they planned to get her transferred. She heard them because she was sitting in the cockpit of a plane eating alone because the men had not invited her to join them where they ate, under the plane's nose.
She surprised them by speaking up: "How are you going to get rid of me?" she said. "I'm a country girl, you S.O.B. You're not going to transfer me."
The men gave her a few challenges, asking her to perform some mechanical tasks that she completed easily.
When an insurance adjuster came by and told her a woman can't weld, she offered to weld his car doors shut, she said. With her feisty attitude, McCormick was quickly accepted by the men.
But once the war ended, she was fired to make room for the men coming back. She was always mechanically inclined, but it was her last chance to do that type of work, she said.