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When the Womens Army Auxiliary Corps was formed during World
War II, Martha Settle Putney Gr55 glimpsed a way out of her dead-end
government job. And so she volunteered. Armed with a masters degree
from Howard University and a strong sense of self-assurance "I told
the W.A.A.C. official I would accept nothing less than a commission"she
entered elite company as one of few black women accepted into the officers-training
Lieutenants bars didnt immunize her from
racial injustice within the larger society or the menial tasks doled out
disproportionately to African-American military officers. But Putney did
her partbefore, during and after the warto push for equal
Putney, with Nao Takasugi WG46 (see accompanying
article), was one of dozens of Americans who told their World War II remembrances
to Tom Brokaw for The Greatest Generation. That book generated
so many responses that it prompted the publication of The Greatest
Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections in November. "Its
too much," Putney says of the attention she has received since the book
came out. But she patiently retells a few anecdotes about her encounters
At first, Putney was assigned to Fort Des Moines, where
she helped train female recruits. Swimming schedules for the base pool
were segregated by race, but Putney put an end to that practice. "All
non-black companies could swim any day of the week except Friday; the
all-black troops could swim only on Friday. And of course the pool was
cleansed with chemicals afterward," she says.
There was one racially mixed company at the base, however,
made up of women who had difficulty completing basic training. Putney
ordered the handful of black recruits in that company to swim with the
rest of their unit. "Nobody said anything. They didnt want to leave
out the 90-something whites in that unit. As soon as other people saw
what was happening, they jumped in whenever they wanted to. So it became
more or less desegregated."
Traveling from one assignment in Midland, Tex., to
another assignment in the Midwest, Putney had to assert herself again.
The conductor refused to honor her Army-issue Pullman ticket and sent
her to the "Jim Crow coach," directly behind the filthy coal cars. "All
the coal dust in the world would come in there. I refused to stay." After
repeatedly ordering her, to no avail, to move, the conductor called the
military police. "He was disturbed when all of those Army men saluted
me!" Putney says, enjoying a good laugh. "He let out some four-letter
The only war-era slight that still angers her was one
that she was powerless to change at the time. Back in Des Moines, a group
of German P.O.W.s being held nearby were invited to the officers
clubthe same club from which black officers were barred. "They were
letting the enemy in, but keeping us out."
After the war was over, Putneys doggedness helped
her through doctoral studies at Penn, on the G.I. bill. When Putney interviewed
with the late Dr. Lynn Case G29 Gr31, then head of the history
department, she remembers him telling her, "We dont give these
degrees to your people. I just looked at him frankly and told him
I didnt want him and the University to give me one thing.
If he didnt think I could make it, let me know as soon as possible,
because I didnt have any time to waste. He said okay, and halfway
through the semester, he told me, Youre going to make it."
Putney went on to teach at Bowie State College and
then Howard University, pushing her students to work up to their potential.
Since retiring, shes kept busy writing books and articles; her latest
project is a history of African-Americans in the Army from the Revolutionary
War through the present.
Last fall, Putney was one of four recipients of the
1999 Eleanor Roosevelet Val-Kill Medal, honoring individuals who have
made contributions to society in ways that reflect Roosevelts ideals.
Putney attributes her lifelong perseverance to lessons
in self-esteem she picked up from her parents, growing up in a family
of eight children in Norristown, Pa. "I just decided I wasnt going
to accept [other peoples] classifications for me," she says. "I
knew that somebody was going to open the door for me if I kept on pushing."
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Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/22/99