May 22, 2000
Third Class Pharmacist's Mate Beverly (Collins) Burns.
by Bronwyn Wilson
The terrible casualties in the Pacific during World War II brought planeloads of severely wounded men to the naval hospital where Bev Collins was stationed. At 21, Bev was a third class pharmacist's mate stationed at Eagle Mountain Lake Naval Hospital, northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. It was 1944.
As a navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), Miss Collins was among the 350,000 women who enlisted in the military during World War II. Although women were not allowed to fight in combat, they filled almost every other military position from parachute rigger to transport pilot to traffic controller.
Before transferring to Texas, Collins had completed her navy training at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Once she arrived at her station in Texas, she was practically a full-fledged nurse. The injured men arrived day and night, and Bev worked long hours, doing what she could to ease their pain and suffering. A number of men died in her arms and she said she would never become hardened to that.
Like many of the servicewomen, Bev had enlisted in the WAVEs to travel, learn nursing, and contribute to the war effort. WAVEs, WACs (Women's Army Corp), Coast Guard SPARS (for the motto Semper Paratus, or "Always Ready"), WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and Women Marines were pioneers in male institutions. They demonstrated they could instruct student gunners, fly fighter planes like the P-51 Mustang, and graduate at the top of their class in co-ed hospital corps school. Patriotism soared during the early 1940s and volunteers jammed recruiting centers out of a sense of duty. Women were just as eager as men to defend their country.
The women trained separately from the men. And although they didn't train in the use of a weapon or in combat tactics, they shared many similarities with their male counterparts. Female soldiers, for example, hiked through mud and rain. They bathed from their helmets just as male GIs did. Their uniforms resembled the men's. WACS, for instance, were outfitted in khaki shirts and skirts over GI slips and girdles. Prohibited from using heavy makeup or jewelry (other than a ring and a watch), the women's GI fashion statement wasn't complete without the regulation hairstyle--a bun or a bob above the collar. And as for the women's pay, it was equal to that of a male enlistee. All female GIs (except WASPs) qualified for veteran's benefits as the men did (WASPs were considered civilians and were denied military benefits, although they delivered combat planes and flew test missions for the Army Air Forces.).
Bev was discharged from the United States Navy on January 14, 1946. After the war, she married, had two daughters, planted marigolds, and baked lopsided chocolate birthday cakes, slathered in blue frosting. She wrote magazine articles, and with published success behind her, she started a novel based on her experiences as a WAVE.
In 1962, Bev was diagnosed with leukemia. She believed her illness was the result of her radiation exposure during the war. Having worked in radiology as a pharmacist's mate, Bev had been exposed to high levels of radiation. Precautions were not taken as they are today, and the long-term affects were not known.
Memorial Day is May 30, but will be observed May 29. Not only does the day honor those who were lost in World War II, but it honors all heroic women--and men--who served their country in any war, on or off the battlefield, and are no longer living. Originally known as Decoration Day, instituted in 1868 to honor the Civil War dead, the U.S. holiday now called Memorial Day commemorates all war dead. It is a day to honor the sevicemen and women who gave all they had during wartime.
Author's note: My mother, Beverley (Collins) Burns, passed away, March 7, 1962, at the age of 38. Her book-in-progress, which she described as a "crazy trip from the woods to the WAVEs," was more than halfway complete at the time of her death.