Homefront Heroines

February 1, 2012 •

When Tom Brokaw wrote his paean to the Greatest Generation, he left them out. Filmmaker Ken Burns skipped them when he documented The War.

They are the estimated 100,000 women who joined the military during World War II. The Navy Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), their Coast Guard counterparts, the SPARS, and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) provided critical support to the American war effort.

“It’s really a shame,” says Margaret Thorngate, 88, who served as a WAVES yeoman, or secretary, in San Francisco. “Nobody under the age of 60 has even heard of the WAVES.”

But CU journalism associate professor Kathleen Ryan hopes to ensure the women’s contributions are never forgotten with her documentary and multi-platform media project, Homefront Heroines.

“Part of the appeal of the story is that it’s a largely untold history,” says Ryan, who joined the CU-Boulder faculty in 2010. “They really have not received the recognition they deserve.”

Ryan, whose mother served in the WAVES, spent 20 years working in television before going to graduate school at the University of Oregon. There, she decided that the Navy women would make the perfect subject for her dissertation.

The documentary is based on interviews with 52 WAVES and SPARS she did for her doctoral project, focusing on three women, including Thorngate. The film also makes use of five rolls of 16-millimeter film of female vets that have “never seen the light of day.”

Last summer Thorngate, who helped paint the USS Missouri during the war, visited the venerable battleship in Hawaii with Ryan for the documentary.

“When people aboard the Missouri heard I was a World War II vet, they were all very interested,” Thorngate says. “They start realizing that this is a generation that is passing by.”

The film is currently in post production. Ryan plans on pitching it to public television, cable channels and film festivals when it’s completed.

But she’s also pushing the story out on newer media platforms with the help of intern Laura Hampton, a 22-year-old CU journalism student. Besides leveraging such “old school” media as Facebook and Twitter, Hampton is using a “geotagging” smart phone application to “tag” physical locations with stories, photos and videos related to WAVES history.

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