Like many a Midwest girl of the 1930s, Betty Gunckel dreamed of following in the footsteps of her silver screen idol Claudette Colbert.
“I always just dreamed of being a movie star,” she said.
But after graduating from high school and working two years at the F.W. Woolworth store in Muncie, Gunckel took a different pathway, enlisting on Aug. 25, 1943, and becoming a WAVE, or Women’s Reserve, in the U.S. . Though she had never before heard of a woman in the , she took the plunge and became the first woman from Delaware County to enlist.
“This came along, and my mother and everybody else thought it would be really good for Betty,” she said.
In honor of that unusual step, Gunckel will take an Honor Flight on Wednesday from Fort Wayne to Washington, D.C., where she spent her two years in the service. Gunckel said she’s especially excited to see the Women in military service for America Memorial.
Born Betty Mae Glasson 94 years ago in Stratford, South Dakota, near Aberdeen, Gunckel was the third of 10 children born to Louis Glasson, a mechanic, and his wife, Margaret Glasson, a stay-at-home mom. Glasson was a Hoosier and returned to raise his brood in Muncie.
“My mother was strict, but when anything got exciting in the house, she would sit down at the piano, and we’d all want to sing,” Gunckel said.
Following boot camp on the campus of Hunter College in New York, Gunckel and her unit were transported to the nation’s capital, where she worked one of three shifts, maintaining the communications machinery.
“I feel like I was doing something. I’m glad I could do it,” she said.
Seven decades later, she remains mum about her day-to-day activities.
“We really kept busy. It wasn’t too difficult,” she said. “The government had taken over some community college, and the guarded us.”
Though it was the age of Rosie the Riveter and women entered work to which they previously had no access, there were limitations, Gunckel said. She would never have been able to rise up the ranks, she said.
On her furlough days, Gunckel said she liked to travel to New York City to see a Broadway play or the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall or visit the USO. Sometimes, however, she would remain in D.C. and hike the Potomac River with her friends.
The specialist third class has been awarded a World War II Medal and an American Campaign Medal, neither of which she still has in her possession.
After being honorably discharged in 1945, Gunckel married her hometown love, Harold Gunckel, who had flown eight missions over Italy as a nose gunner for the Air Corps.
Gunckel used her G.I. loan to continue her education, becoming a beautician. She and her husband used their VA loan to build the home where she still lives on Lindberg Road in Anderson.
Melody Robertson, one of her two daughters, said she always knew both her parents had served in the in World War II.
“She wouldn’t talk about it, and mostly Dad talked about being in Italy,” she said.
Robertson said it was no big deal for her to tell people her father had served in the , but eyebrows sometimes raised in disbelief when she told people her mother had been in the .
“Everybody always questions you,” she said.
In fact, it was by accident that Robertson learned her mother had met an important U.S. dignitary during her time in the .
“At a funeral, I found out she met Mrs. (Eleanor) Roosevelt,” she said. “It would take a stranger. She doesn’t just let that out to us.”
About the WAVES
Established in 1942 by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) was more commonly known as WAVES for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. The acceptance of women under the act was for the duration of World War II plus six months.
Though not necessarily widely supported in Congress, WAVES freed men for sea duty while they performed shore duty at one of 900 stations throughout the U.S.
At their height, nearly 86,300 women served as WAVES.
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