“If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women.”
–Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818)
Macie Vance left the movie in conversation with Derek Edson. They had just seen the newly released film Action in the North Atlantic starring Humphrey Bogart with Raymond Massey, Alan Hale and Dane Clark. The movie, released to theatres in June, was primarily a tribute to the contribution made by the Merchant Marine. Bogart was her favorite actor ever since she saw him in the 1942 film Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman. That movie became her all-time favorite.
She was a bit disappointed there wasn’t much romance in the film – Julie Bishop had a small part – but enjoyed watching Bogart just the same.
Besides, she thought, not only was the movie exciting but the Movietone Newsreel contained some upbeat new developments as well. In the Pacific the Americans had secured Guadalcanal and recaptured the Aleutian Island of Attu. Kiska would be next. In the Mediterranean, the news was also good. The Allies surrounded and defeated a large army in Tunisia. North Africa was finally free of Axis forces. Macie was glad the fighting ended there since that’s where she believed Jake was.
Since the launching of the Yorktown (CV-10) in January, Macie worked on the USS Intrepid (CV-11) until her launching in April. After the Intrepid was launched on 26 April 1943, Macie went to work on the new USS Hornet (CV-12). This aircraft carrier was originally named Kearsarge, but after the original Hornet (CV-8) was lost at the battle of Santa Cruz the prior October, the Navy Department decided to honor another lost ship with a namesake, just as they had done with Yorktown.
By this time there were five Essex-class aircraft carriers under construction at the busy Newport News Shipyard. Another five were being built in other shipyards around the country to add to the four that had already been commissioned since Pearl Harbor. The ranks of workers and laborers at Newport News had swelled to immense numbers. Macie was promoted to supervise a team of ten welders, mostly women her junior in experience although not necessarily in age. She was conscientious and was gaining more self-confidence each day, especially as others were showing respect for her. She wondered if Derek had anything to do with her promotion.
Macie and Derek, along with Nora and a sailor named Jesse, walked the crowded Saturday night streets of Norfolk to Harry’s Drug Store and Fountain. Macie always enjoyed a chocolate malted or banana split after the movies. It reminded her of home. Derek always cheerfully deferred to her wishes.
Nora leaned over to Macie and said, “Will you be here for an hour or so?”
Macie smiled, “I’m sure we will. Have a good time.”
“We’re going for a walk, you kids enjoy your ice cream,” Nora announced. She swung Jesse back in the other direction and waved goodbye.
Derek raised his eyebrows. Macie smiled, cocked her head and did the same in return. “She’s a grown woman. She knows what she’s doing.”
“Personally, I think she’s getting a little khaki-wacky,” Derek used the popular term for women who went a bit overboard for men in uniform.
They walked into the drug store and took the only two empty stools at the end of the counter. Derek was his usual amiable self. He was hopelessly smitten with Macie but accepted that he was the other guy. The better he came to know her, the deeper in love he fell. He had been careful for more than a year, not risking any overt advances. As much as he wanted more out of their relationship, he was not willing to jeopardize their friendship by making his move.
She was an unusual young woman. He particularly liked the fact that she was beautiful despite not wearing makeup most of the time. The small mole on her lip punctuated her fine looks. At the same time, she was not vain. She didn’t mind being seen in shabby work clothes or with her hair wet. He was also impressed that all of the women who knew her liked her. He watched her grow in her job and while she may not have always been confident, she was comfortable with herself and fearless when it came to trying new things. Macie was mature well beyond her years and Derek had to often remind himself that she was just twenty years old.
His best opportunity to be with her and make something more of their relationship was to bide his time, be ever-present and available. It may never work out, but he would rather be just a friend than not be anything at all.
Macie looked at his face as he leaned over to suck his malted through a straw. How could someone so young look so much older? Derek was only twenty-three but was aged by what he witnessed in life. He glanced sideways with his green-gray eyes and smiled.
“Did you have anything to do with my promotion?” she asked.
“Not one bit,” he lied. “You earned it. You work hard and you’re good at what you do.”
That part was the truth. Macie was diligent. All Derek had to do was convince management that women would eventually have to be used in supervisory roles as the number of female shipyard workers increased so dramatically. The mathematics was undeniable. After that, it was easy to point Macie out as a candidate for supervisor.
She gave him a skeptical look. “I know I work hard but I just don’t know if I can believe you had nothing to do with it. But if you did, thanks. You’re a good friend.” She stared at his face for a reaction.
“It was all your doing,” he countered without changing his expression. “You need to believe in yourself more, like Roxie.”
Macie pondered that suggestion. “You’re right, Derek. She is a very confident woman.”
“Speaking of Roxie,” he reached into his pocket. “I just got this letter today. You should read it.” He handed the letter to Macie and she read it between bites of her banana split.
I hope and trust this letter finds you well. I’m doing fine. I love this job and I’m making a real difference in the war effort. My sister pilots and I have been part of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, the WAFS, since last year. In one month all women service pilots will become WASPs (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots). Don’t you just love the cute little names they create for us?
I hope the women we recruited for the yard are working out. We need them so badly in the labor force. Just as we need women pilots to free up men for combat.
I must say this job certainly has its moments. Last year I qualified to fly the B- (blacked out). They really need those planes in England so I volunteered to fly one over. Nancy sold it as part of the evaluation to see if women could do the job. I was the co-pilot. We were in a flight of 8 planes, with another B- (blacked out) and 6 P- (blacked out). We flew from Seattle to Long Island and on to Goose (blacked out).
Macie couldn’t decipher the blacked out words. Derek knew from the reference to Seattle Roxie was flying a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. He also deduced she meant the huge new airbase at Goose Bay, Newfoundland.
Those fighters are beautiful little airplanes with their twin booms and dual engines. I’m already checked out in that type and hope to be able to ferry them someday. That would be a rush!
Derek explained his interpretation each time Macie got stumped by the censor’s deletions. Roxie was describing a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a fast twin-engine pursuit plane. She was doing a good job communicating through the censor’s erasures.
Our destination was (blacked out) using the northern ferry route. At the last minute, the brass found out that a woman pilot was involved and they pulled me from the mission, which was called Operation (blacked out).
“I’ve heard of Operation Bolero. It’s a massive effort to get planes to England quickly.”
I was really disappointed they wouldn’t let me finish the mission. I was told they couldn’t risk losing a woman. When will they ever let us decide what risks we’re willing to take? Anyway, the flight ran into some serious weather and had to set down on the (blacked out) icecap. They all landed safely to ride out the storm. The army sent a rescue party. They had to leave the planes but saved all the pilots.
“It had to be the Greenland Icecap she was referring to,” Derek concluded.
The thing I like most about this job, aside from actually flying the planes, is the look on the men’s faces when they see a woman is flying it. That awesome look of wonder always brings a smile to my face. It’s the best feeling in the world. Please write back. Tell me how the ships are progressing at the yard and how our lady recruits are doing. You too.
Your friend, Roxie
When Macie finished the letter, she handed it back. “Oh my gosh! She’s amazing. She is one strong woman. I really do want to be more like her.”
“You will…you are,” Derek corrected himself. “When I write back, I’m going to tell her our lady recruits are doing just fine and that our prized recruit from Bedford, Virginia, just got promoted to supervisor.” He had a huge smile on his face.
Macie blushed. “So, my good friend Derek. You didn’t do anything to help me get this promotion. What kind of friend are you, anyway? Not helping your friend get ahead.” She was toying with him, just having some fun.
Derek didn’t realize she was joking. He got defensive. “I’m trying to be the best friend you ever had. I’d be more if I could but I’ll settle for friend if that’s all there is.”
She turned on her stool to face him. He had broken the unspoken rule between them. Ever since she met him he intrigued her. She knew, as much as a woman’s intuition could assure her, he liked her a lot. The fact that he was always a perfect gentleman was part of the reason she enjoyed his company. And he made her laugh. In fact, she not only liked to spend time with him but also felt safe with him. There were flirtations, of course, hugs and gentle kisses on the cheeks but he had never outwardly professed any love for her nor made any intimate advances. There were even times, she had to admit to herself, that she purposely tempted him with any number of playful, teasing gestures. He never bit. Derek, she concluded, would never make a serious sexual advance toward her. Nor would he speak of any. She was happy he never forced her to decide to accept or reject his advances.
“You want us to be more than friends?” Her candor shocked him. Derek became embarrassed and was not sure how to respond. He brushed back a wisp of blond hair from his forehead with his prosthetic hand.
“I know it’s not possible,” he replied slowly to her question. “You have Jake and I respect that. But in another time or in another life, I could easily see myself with you.”
“And what about this life?” she probed.
“Yes,” he confessed. “I want that all the time. But I’m not going to screw up our friendship. I’m not even sure you would choose me if things were different.” He briefly waved his crippled hand.
“You’re a good guy, Derek. You’ll make some girl very happy someday and your handicap won’t matter any more to her than it does to me. Nobody even notices any more.”
“Thanks, Macie, but if it’s all the same to you, I don’t want to rock the boat. I’m perfectly happy to keep things between us just the way they are.”
She too enjoyed the status quo. The last thing she wanted to do was to have this conversation. He didn’t even date other women as far as she knew. “Maybe I shouldn’t be taking advantage of you this way, Derek. I’m feeling a little selfish wanting to have both Jake and your company and friendship at the same time. You should be dating and not spending all your time with me.”
“It’s perfectly fine with me and besides,” he stopped in mid sentence.
He shook his head. “Never mind, this is coming out all wrong. There’s no right way to say it.”
“Go ahead. Say it. Let’s get it all out in the open, once and for all.”
Derek was struggling with this conversation. “I just want you to know, if anything happens to Jake…I’ll be here for you.” He took a deep breath. “There, I said it.”
Macie just stared silently at him. There was no emotion on her face to betray her feelings.
“I’m sorry, Macie. I didn’t mean to offend you. Please…”
She held up her hand to silence him. “You’re right, Derek.”
“There was no right way to say that.”