CLINTON, Md. (NNS) -- The outcome of World War II still hung in the balance when Ensign Genevieve Parker checked into her first duty station at the Dahlgren Naval Proving Grounds in 1944. One of the first WAVES officers to serve at Dahlgren, Parker still fondly remembers excitement, the dizzying pace of work and camaraderie during the war. Her year in Dahlgren was an eventful one: she met her husband Edelen and would spend the next few decades of her life as a Navy spouse.
At 95 years young, Parker recounts her memories with sharpness, clarity and humor.
Thousands of young women served in the Navy as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program, better known as WAVES, during World War II. Unlike the women who served during World War I, WAVES were led by woman officers. Parker was a teacher when the U.S. joined the war and called for woman volunteers.
"I'm from the middle-west, in Wisconsin," said Parker. "The war had just begun and they were taking all the men. You didn't have to volunteer in those days; they just took you. They took all the men. I said shoot, this is no fun. I'm going where the guys are. Another teacher and myself, we made the decision. We went to Milwaukee, found the Navy recruitment office and signed up."
Parker completed WAVES officer training at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass. "We all got our orders," she said. "The girls were standing around [saying] 'oh, I'm going to New York' or 'oh, I'm going to Philadelphia.' And I looked at [my orders] and said 'did anybody ever hear of Dahlgren?' Nobody had and nobody else got orders to Dahlgren."
Parker took a train from Boston to Baltimore and then caught a bus to the then-remote Dahlgren Proving Grounds. "When we got close I went to the driver and asked if there was a hotel in this area and everybody - because they were looking at this WAVES officer - everybody broke out laughing."
Parker was "saved" by fellow WAVES when she finally arrived at the base. "Those were the days," she recalled with a grin.
The flurry of work undertaken at Dahlgren during the war impressed Parker. "It was a pretty lively, going thing, Dahlgren," she said. "They were testing these big guns, all the way from the 3-inch, the 5-inch, whatever, all the way up to the 16-inch guns."
The first task was getting used to the very noisy testing that echoed across the base. "You ever seen that 16-inch gun fire?" she asked. "When they used to test those guns at the proving ground, it would blow the pictures off the wall and the furniture would shake and rattle. It was really fun."
Parker's primary job was to create range tables that helped Navy gunners hit their targets. In the days before computers, this was no small task and the list of wartime ordnance requiring new range tables was growing.
"In those days, they had a formula," she said. "You had to put in the speed of the bullet, the weather played a part - the wind, the temperature - it was a formula that incorporated all these things. This was a range table. When you shoot the gun, where does it go? What is the angle? You had to put all this into your formula so you could find out if you'd hit your target or not. You had to figure it out for every angle. And [the formulas] were huge. No calculators. you had to do it all with paper and pencil."
Though that particular job took place behind the gun line at Dahlgren, the WAVES occasionally got a front-row seat to the testing. "All the women got out there to watch them fire the guns," said Parker. "It was neat because they fired down the Potomac River and you could see the projectile if you stood right behind [the gun]."
While Parker calculated range tables with pencil and paper, she witnessed one of the Navy's most important transformations. The incredible amount of work that needed to be done at Dahlgren led Navy leaders, including base commander Capt. David Hedrick, to seek out more efficient means of completing new range tables. Hedrick ordered more desk calculators and commissioned the project that created the Harvard Mark II relay calculator, delivered to Dahlgren in 1947. Earlier types of computers had already made their way to the base just as Parker was leaving.
"It was just starting," she said. "A computer filled a whole room. I was just getting ready to leave when they got this computer. All the bigwigs, they were so excited about this computer."
Parker was later tasked with compiling reports and scheduling appointments for two captains in one of the range offices. As one of only a few WAVES officers, Parker was also charged with leading the enlisted WAVES.
"They lived right with the enlisted Sailors," said Parker of the enlisted WAVES. "They had a separate hallway or something. One of us [officers] had duty every night. We had go over there and sleep in the barracks with the enlisted WAVES so they didn't get into any trouble."
That responsibility continued when the enlisted WAVES went on liberty in Fredericksburg or Colonial Beach, where Parker patrolled the boardwalk. "We had to watch out for the WAVES and make sure they didn't get into any trouble," said Parker. "We had to walk up and down that boardwalk and watch the enlisted WAVES. They were just like us and probably some of them were just as well-educated."
If that weren't enough responsibilities, Parker also had one more collateral duty selling war bonds. "Everybody bought them," she said.
Despite the frantic war effort that affected every facet of base life, Parker and her fellow WAVES found time to relax. She still seems to be a little surprised by all the attention the WAVES officers received. "We had a good time," she said. "We were only three WAVE officers, so even the captains and admirals invited us to all the parties. We were a phenomenon, I guess."
The WAVES officers saw their male counterparts at meals and the group enjoyed movies, cards, golf outings and ping pong together. "We saw them three times a day," said Parker of the male officers. "Every once and awhile they'd a have a little party or serve drinks before dinner. My husband came over a couple of times and we'd walk over to dinner together; that's where I met him."
Then-Lt. Edelen Parker had already spent several years in the Navy, earning his wings in 1937. The dashing young officer was quickly promoted as the war progressed. "My husband was a dive bomber pilot testing bomb sights," said Parker. "He said they dropped bombs and missiles all over the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Once, they dropped one in a woman's back yard and boy did they hear about it."
According to family legend, Edelen Parker once flew his plane underneath the Harry Nice Bridge, then called the Potomac River Bridge. He clearly made an impression on the young ensign. "I thought that was the best year of my life," Parker said.
Edelen Parker stayed in the Navy after the end of World War II, reaching the rank of rear admiral and retiring in 1972. He passed away in 1993.
Neither love nor friendship could overshadow the war and the transience it produced, however. Edelen Parker was promoted to lieutenant commander and soon received orders to San Diego, where he would be assigned to USS Manila Bay. Parker married Edelen and left the service, though the required bureaucratic maneuvering was not without its complications. "I had everybody working on it, even the head of the WAVES unit in Washington," she said. "So I was able to get out then."
For the Parkers, World War II ended some months after VJ Day, when USS Manila Bay returned to San Francisco in 1945. In the many years since Parker left Dahlgren, she still remembers the main features of the base. "I can picture it pretty well," she said.
Parker's fondest memories, however, are of her husband. Edelen, it seems, included lots pranks in his courtship of Parker. "He'd push the doorbell and then run off and leave me standing there by myself," she said, smiling.
The Parkers' descendants currently manage Parker Farms, a business that began when Edelen retired from the Navy and began growing berries at his parents' Clinton, Md. farm. With the help of the Parkers' sons, the business grew and the family now manages agricultural operations in seven states. The origins of the family and family business, however, are the product of a wartime romance at Dahlgren.
Parker smiles sublimely as she remembers the days she spent with her groom at Dahlgren. "We got this canoe and we were out there in our uniforms on the water, so what does he do? He tips over the canoe. My hat went floating down the river. We finally got back into the canoe and he did it again. He was a real joker."
She doesn't hesitate when asked whether or not she avenged the prank. "I married him," she said, laughing. "That fixed him."
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