For Women’s History Month, this is Part II of a series dedicated to my grandmother’s WWII military service. Click here to read Part I.
My Nana, Millie Kaiser, joined the Navy WAVES in 1944 when she was 21 years old, in the middle of WWII. She joined the WAVES because she felt it was the right thing to do for her country. After Basic Training in New York, she had a few days leave at home, and then she was stationed in Pensacola, Florida. Millie had never been that far away from home before. For her, it was an exciting new adventure.
Daily Life as a WAVE
In early summer of 1944, Millie arrived at Saufley Field Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. She and the other WAVES that arrived with her were the first girls to be stationed at Saufley. Millie was a Seaman, Second class, and was assigned to Tower Two. Her primary job was to log each plane that went in and out of the airfield, looking for the plane number located next to the propeller. Because the pilots had to log a certain number of in-flight hours for training, Millie had to log each minute that each pilot spent in the air. Some days she was pretty busy, but other days, the hours went by slowly.
It was usually a pretty uneventful job, but occasionally she had a scare when a pilot “didn’t land quite right.” Although a couple of the accidents were severe, very few of the pilots were badly injured while she was there. The rest of the time, the WAVES in the control tower would pass the time listening to Millie’s radio. One Christmas when she was home, Millie’s father gave her a small radio as a gift. They were not supposed to have personal radios in the barracks, so she kept her radio in the control tower to keep herself and the other girls entertained during those long hours. However, radios were in high demand and it was eventually stolen from the tower one night. She had figured that some of the male soldiers stationed there were eager to listen to the radio and helped themselves to it. Her precious radio was never recovered. After that, they had to keep themselves entertained with stories from home.
Life in the barracks was pretty routine, and everyone would rotate chores. Millie did not enjoy sitting up at night for the overnight watch. She recalled, “We also had a 24-hour watch in the barracks. There would be two of us. Everyone had to be in at a certain time, and then the doors would be locked. If someone was late, then of course we had to let them in. We rotated shifts, and I would have to work nights every so often.” It was not a glamorous life, but it was an important part of the training base. I know that she missed her family and friends back home, but she always felt safe on the air base, and she always knew that she’d make it back home. She was aware that many of the pilots that she met and helped train would not make it home. Her family was very proud of her!
Free Time on Base
Millie made several close friends while she was stationed in Pensacola, and they would make the most of their free time! Stay tuned for Part III to learn more about their adventures…
Interview with Mildred (Kaiser) Drake, conducted by Eva Weil, 2015.
Interview with Mildred (Kaiser) Drake, conducted by Eva Weil, 2005.
Photos from private collection, Mildred (Kaiser) Drake’s Pensacola photo album, 1944-1946.
American lives were changed forever when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. My grandmother’s stepfather, Wally Jordan, served in the Navy later during WWII, and was stationed at Pearl Harbor for a brief time. He was not there during the attacks, but had photos of the attacks with his other military photos. I’m guessing the prints were offered by the military. Let’s not forget those who died defending their country 75 years ago.
Sometimes you live through history. I am blessed to have witnessed the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years. Being a Cubs fan is just in my blood.
When I was growing up, we’d try to go to a Cubs game once a year. As a kid, Chicago seemed very far away, and traveling to a Cubs game seemed like such a trip. Most of these trips were organized by a local bank, who sold tickets to its members and would take us to the game on a big fancy Cubs bus. We’d usually sit on the third base side, under the balcony so we were protected from the sun and the rain. My grandfather (Papa) would buy tickets for the whole family, and we’d spend the day at Wrigley. I’ll never forget sitting next to Papa during the game while he explained who everyone was on the team, and gave us some light commentary.
The rest of the season, Papa would often listen to the Cubs games on WGN while he worked. He’d always know the score of the day’s game, and could tell me all the stats if I asked. In his own quiet way, he loved the Cubs, and loved to see them win. He remembered the last time they were in the World Series in 1945. He played baseball on a community team about that same time. I’d imagine that he listened to those games intently on the radio with his brother and dad, or gathered at a teammate’s house to cheer them on.
The love for the Cubs runs deep on my dad’s side of the family too. My grandmother’s side of the family lived on the North side for several generations, and her uncle Ed lived within blocks of Wrigley Field. Great-Uncle Ed and Great-Aunt Edna were like grandparents to my dad, and he loved to go and visit them. Some of my dad’s earliest memories are visiting them over summer breaks and holidays, and of Wrigley Field. Uncle Ed and his son Jim were devoted fans who hardly missed watching or listening to a game. They’d watch the home games on WGN every afternoon and absolutely loved Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau, and respected humble players like Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and others who were happy just to play the game.
Going to a Cubs game was probably the best part of the summer for my dad when he was growing up. They would get General Grandstand seats, usually just off center of home plate. They’d walk to the stadium early, watch the end of batting practice, and then usually waited for the crowd to leave after the game. Probably the best day at the park came when he was about 10 years old. It was a double header day. The first game was something like 18-16 (Cubs win) and the second game was 1-0 Cubs.
Even though the Cubs were not “winners” in the usual sense, they embodied the good things about many people around the country. You loved them because they continued to play well (not great) and were popular. Even in their worst years, they packed the place day after day. Wrigley is a comfortable pleasant place to visit. Most people who cheer for the Cubs are life-long fans. There hasn’t been much to draw the people who cheer only winning teams. So the loyalty is there. For the people who aren’t baseball fans, they probably know someone who is a Cub fan.
The Cubs have certainly made history this year. Many of their fans are devoted, lifelong fans who love their team and their city. Through many years, the Cubs embodied the good things in life, like hope, loyalty and commitment. Even in their worst years, fans turned out to watch the games at “the friendly confines.” Many lifelong fans hoped and prayed for this day, but never got to see it happen. This year many new Cubs fans were born, but I am proud to say that Cubbie Blue runs deep in my blood. I’m so happy to say that I’ve seen this day, and I’ll never forget it. We can finally say again, The Cubs are World Series Champs! Go Cubs Go!
“Hey Chicago, what do ya say, Cubs are gonna win today!”
My sister and I before the World Series game 5 on Sunday, Oct. 30.
When I was young, I’d go driving with my grandfather Ed Drake, and he would often point out local landmarks and tell me little tidbits about each place. When we would drive on Pleasant Hill Road, we’d pass his old family homestead. He had fond memories of growing up there. He would mention getting into mischief with his brother, and raising chickens and other animals. Just recently, I remembered that Papa had mentioned that he and his brother discovered some hidden spaces in the barn. At the time, he didn’t realize their significance. Looking back now, it appears that our old family farm was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Located in Mayfield, IL, the Pleasant Hill farm was established by Ira Douglas, an early Mayfield pioneer. Ira Douglas was one of the very first settlers in Mayfield Township, arriving in the fall of 1836. At that time, the whole area was prairie grass, with some marshes in the low-lying areas, and some forested areas close to the Kishwaukee River. For his homestead he chose the top of a small hill in the Northeast corner of the township, and named his farm Pleasant Hill. From this hill, you can surprisingly see pretty far across the open prairie. Pleasant Hill Road is named after this estate. Besides farming, Ira Douglas raised cattle, horses, sheep and hogs on his 450 acres.
The abolitionist movement was particularly strong in rural DeKalb County. By the start of the Civil War, over 1,000 households in the county were antislavery supporters (about 25% of all households). Last weekend, the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society commemorated three prominent Underground Railroad stations in DeKalb County.One of these sites was the Mayfield Congregational Church, which was once the Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church, a congregation of antislavery supporters. Ira Douglas was a member of this church, which was located at nearby Brush Point. Like many of his neighbors, Ira Douglas was outspoken against slavery and its evils and was willing to break the law to help those who were escaping slavery. He subscribed to the Western Citizen, a prominent anti-slavery newspaper that served Illinois and the surrounding areas. The Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church had its roots in about 1839 in his log cabin, located near the site of the large frame house that he later built. As Nancy Beasley points out in her book The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois, the group started as a Bible study, but “one might surmise that the evening conversations may have turned to social causes of concern and to discussion of slavery in particular. The small group continued to worship regularly at the Douglass home for a couple of years until they moved their meetings to the new Pleasant Hill School [across the road], and later to the Brush Point School” (p. 118).
The Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church as built in 1860 in its present location at Brush Point. He was friends with known Underground Railroad station agents like the Nickersons, the Nichols and the Townsends. Two of his daughters married into the Nichols and Townsend families. He was definitely part of local efforts to aid fugitive slaves. Whether his farm was actually a station on the Underground Railroad hasn’t been officially recorded.
My grandfather and others who grew up exploring the farm know that it was a testament to Ira Douglas’s commitment to the antislavery cause. Based on descriptions from Papa and others who lived there after him, his farm was definitely one of many local places that sheltered fugitive slaves. There were secret doors and rooms in the sheds and the hay barn. A room under the shed had a hidden loft in the corner where someone could hide. There was also a hidden room in the basement of the house with a small tunnel that lead to one of the sheds. The Douglas family lived there for almost 30 years before slavery was finally abolished in 1865. Who knows how many people Ira Douglas and his family were able to shelter during those years!
Ira Douglas passed away in 1888. He is buried in the Pleasant Hill Cemetery across the road from his house. His obituary doesn’t mention his role in the antislavery movement. My grandfather’s grandfather, Gustaf Medine, rented the farm for a while from Ira Douglas’s son, Ira W. Douglas, and purchased it from him sometime after 1905. When my great-grandfather (Gust’s son-in-law) Charles Drake lost his farm in the Depression about 1936, Charles Drake brought his family to the Pleasant Hill farm. Papa spent much of his young life on this farm, attending school at the one-room schoolhouse across the road and working and playing in that barn. When Charles passed away in 1948, Papa and his brother gave up farming and sold the farm at auction. Through the years, there have been several more owners, and many of the children who grew up on that farm remember spending many hours playing hide and seek in the hidden spaces in the barn and shed. By today, all of the outbuildings, including the big hay barn, have been lost.
Because the outbuildings are no longer standing and the house has been remodeled, there is no surviving evidence of Ira Douglas’s role in the Underground Railroad. Even after slavery was abolished, there were many who had hidden fugitive slaves that never spoke openly about their role in the Underground Railroad. There are most likely countless men who risked their livelihoods to aid escaping slaves, and when their job was no longer needed, they quietly went back to normal life. Their courage to stand up for justice shouldn’t be easily forgotten. There are also countless lives that were saved from the horrors of slavery, and I hope that someday their courageous stories can also be told.
Timeline of the Pleasant Hill Farm:
1836 – Ira Douglas arrives in DeKalb County and settles in Mayfield Township. He may have been the first settler in the township. Several other families settled in Mayfield Township about the same time.
1837 – The first meetings of what will become the Mayfield Wesleyan Methodist Church take place in his log cabin.
1840 – Ira Douglas appears in the first census taken in Illinois.
1840 – 1865 – Ira Douglas supports the antislavery cause through his participation in his church, his subscription to the Western Citizen newspaper and by giving shelter to fugitive slaves on his farm. Sometime during this time, he builds a large frame house to replace his log cabin, and the log cabin is disassembled.
1865 – Slavery is abolished in the United States with the passing of the 13th amendment.
1871– Pleasant Hill appears as the residence of Ira Douglas in the 1871 DeKalb County Plat Atlas with a school and cemetery on the west side of the road. A view of his farm is also provided in the plat map.
1884 – My great-great grandfather Gustaf Medine arrives in America from Sweden. He begins farming in DeKalb County and rents property.
1888 – Ira Douglas passes away and his sons Cyrus and Ira W. Douglas purchase the property.
1892 – Ira W. and Cyrus A. Douglas own the property. The map of Mayfield Township in the Plat Map shows the house with a barn and several outbuildings on the east side of the road, and the small schoolhouse and cemetery on the west side of the road.
1905 – Ira W. and Cyrus A. Douglas own the farm, and Gust Medine owns property to the west, based on the 1905 Plat map. A newspaper article mentions that Ira W. Douglas lives on the farm.
1910 – Gust Medine appears to own the property in the 1910 census. (Property ownership papers needed to confirm.)
1927 – Gust Medine passes away and his estate continues to hold the property.
1929 – Gust Medine’s estate owns the property, based on the 1929 Plat Map. Several families live on the farm before 1936, including the Melvin Voltz family and the James Garvin family.
1936 – Charles Drake purchases the land and moves his family back to the Pleasant Hill Farm.
1948 – Charles Drake passes away and his sons Ed and Chuck Drake sell the farm at auction. The Pluister family purchases the farm.
1948 – abt. 1962 – The property is owned by Chas. & Maggie Pluister.
abt. 1962 – 2016 – The property has been owned by at least three other owners, including Floyd Mollet, Knute Olsen Jr. and Mr. Stores. Several other families have rented the property.
1987 – The hay barn (already in weak condition) and the shed fall down in a tornado/storm.
after 1994 – The rest of the outbuildings are torn down and the house is remodeled.
2016 – Ira Douglas’s house still stands.
The Underground Railroad in DeKalb County, Illinois by Nancy Beasley, 2013.
Nancy Beasley, speech made at the dedication of an Underground Railroad plaque at the Mayfield Congressional Church, Mayfield, Illinois, Oct. 15, 2016.
Past and Present of DeKalb County, Vol. 1 by Lewis M. Gross, 1907. (pages 151-152)
Portrait and Biographical Album, DeKalb County, Illinois, 1883. (pages 323-324)
A Journey Through DeKalb County, vol. 3 by Stephen J. Bigolin, 2004.
From Oxen to Jets: A History of DeKalb County, 1835-1963, by Harriet Wilson Davy, 1963.
Combination atlas map of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1871.
Plat Book of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1892.
Standard Atlas of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1905.
Atlas and Plat Book of DeKalb County, Illinois, 1929.
Atlas of DeKalb County, 1955.
Personal electronic correspondence with Becky Kaufmann, Rhonda Mollett Kitsos, Carrollene Burtch, Nancy Michael and the Facebook group “Genoa-Kingston, Remember When…”.
My grandparents Ed and Millie on their wedding day 70 years ago.
Our wedding day, one year (and a few days) ago.
My grandparents were married 70 years ago today. Before they passed away, they had celebrated 64 anniversaries. This is the first wedding anniversary that they’ll be celebrating together in heaven. My husband and I just celebrated our first anniversary. We hope to share just as many years together!
When I was in elementary school, my teacher asked us to interview a veteran as part of a Veteran’s Day project. While asking my grandpa and uncles if they were veterans, I was surprised to discover that my sweet, pie-baking Nana was the World War II hero of our family. She has recently passed away, and so I’d like to share her story in honor of Women’s History Month.
A short history lesson
My Nana (then known as Millie Kaiser) served during WWII in the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). In those days, women in the military was not very common. Nevertheless, nearly 350,000 women volunteered for the armed forces during WWII, serving in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS), the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps. Most women in the armed forces served stateside, becoming radio operators, machinists, truck drivers, clerks, and even pilots. The men that would normally do these important jobs were then free to be sent overseas to combat. The contributions of these women were essential to winning the war. (Learn more here.)
Why did Nana join the WAVES?
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Millie was 18 years old, living in DeKalb, IL. She was a senior in high school, and was about to graduate in June. After graduation, she worked for a while at the Wurlitzer factory in DeKalb. Before the war, they made pianos, but during the war, they switched to making wooden propellors for planes. In about 1944, she heard about the Navy WAVES through a coworker who had signed up for service. Millie enlisted in the WAVES in April of 1944. When I asked her why she joined the WAVES, she said, “It was just something I thought I should do.” Military service was valued in her family. Her father had served in WWI, and several male cousins enlisted during WWII. An added bonus was that she got to travel!
Basic Training in New York
Millie traveled to New York City for training at Hunter College. Training lasted six weeks and consisted of marching, drills, fitness training, and skill training. She said that the highlight of basic training was time off to go sightseeing in NYC. She even got to see the Statue of Liberty. The rest of the time, there was a lot of marching. After training, she was stationed at a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida. Check out more photos of basic training below!