Accidental pioneer: Rosemary Powell simply followed her determination

Rosemary Powell was among the first women in the military and one of the first women who wanted to work

October 6, 2013 

  • The love story

    The U.S.S. Black took Rosemary and the WACs to Le Havre. Pat Powell was assigned to entertain the women, and soon his attention was focused on one officer in particular. They immediately spent most of their time together, going to movies, dancing, talking all night. Ten days later, Pat asked Rosemary to marry him, and she said yes.

    The two had been married 55 1/2 years when Pat was diagnosed with liver cancer. To Rosemary, the doctor gave Pat about a year to live.

    "I said, well, I'll try to make it the best year he ever lived."

    Rosemary never knew if Pat knew the prognosis. But she savored each day together, and Pat died quietly about a year later.

    "It was sad because we were so in love.

    " … I had a lot of friends, and my children were very supportive. … I played a lot of bridge, read a lot of books, knitted a lot of sweaters. I don't know. There's a lot of bad things in the world, but loneliness is one of the worst."

    Over time, a friendship with Ralph Roberts (who had also lost his spouse) turned into something more, and he asked her to marry him.

    "I said, 'Why? I don't think I'm pregnant.' That would be the only reason in my estimation to get married (at this age)."

    But it was good to have companionship, she says. They were married in 2005, when Rosemary was 85.

  • Part of history

    As director of the office of civilian personnel, Rosemary Powell went to Nuremberg to look for workers and spent three days at the trial of Nazi war criminals. She saw Hermann Goering and was amazed by fancy new technology that translated the proceedings into a slew of languages.

    "There were about 23 of those prisoners. Every time there was a lull or a recess, all those would run down to where (Goering) was. He was Hitler's right-hand man. That's one of the greatest things I ever experienced was that trial."

    She had another brush with history when, one day, a man walked into her office with an envelope.

    "It said 'Top secret, top secret, top secret. Anything this man … puts in front of you, you sign.' That was all it said."

    It would be more than a decade before she would understand that she was authorizing payment to the families of brilliant German scientists who had been recruited to work in the United States. She was contributing to Operation Paperclip, so-called because of the paperwork attached to the scientists' tweaked secret identities during the project.

She stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Black in the dim morning light. It was just two months after World War II ended in Europe, and she had been sailing for days across the Atlantic. She and more than 100 others in the Women's Army Corps were headed for - they didn't know. Somewhere in Europe.

And there, on the ship just before dawn, she watched the famous White Cliffs of Dover glide by.

She says: "I remember writing mom and I said to her in the letter, 'If I have to be in this man's Army for the rest of my life, I can't pay them back for what I've seen.' That's the way I felt about it."

Rosemary Powell was just 20 years old when she joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (which later became the Women's Army Corps) and 23 years old when she stood on the deck of that ship. She didn't know it yet, but she was headed to Munich, Bad Tolz and Heidelberg. For 14 months, she would direct the office of civilian personnel for the Third Army and eventually be in charge of 98,000 employees.

"When I came home, I had 10 women at least, saying, 'Oh my God, Rosemary. I wished I had done that.' Because there were so many adventures that I had … "

Today, Rosemary is 93 years old. It's hard, from the vantage point of 2013, to comprehend how much of a trailblazer she was, or the sacrifices she made for things that today's women hardly notice now because they're so ordinary.

"I have so many 'onlys.' … (For instance), I went often to meetings in Omaha, and there'd be like 200 people there, directors of civilian personnel from various posts. And I was the only woman. 'Only' again."

She also faced challenges as a woman in the military and as a working woman. The captain of the ship? When he learned he was to take WACs overseas, Rosemary quotes him: "I told my superior I would rather take cows."

"You just can't understand it today. A woman going to war? You know what she wants, don't you - she's just looking for men. And those that went overseas - it wasn't anything that was proper in those days. That was the attitude people had."

But Rosemary was the kind of woman who was not constrained by convention. At 19, she had been working in an accounting office with one year at Boise Junior College under her belt when a nationwide call went out for women to assist in office jobs at Army posts.

"The advertising (said if) a woman joins the Army, that will relieve a soldier to go fight a war. … I thought, well, why don't I?"

Rosemary had a stirring to see something more exciting than the accounting office - and beyond Boise. Her father, a salesman, once won a trip to Chicago and came back telling glowing stories of the big city, the skyscrapers and nightclubs.

"Aren't you amazed at that? - You didn't live in 1945.

" … There are some of us who just knew what we wanted. I (was) going to see something better than Chicago, I knew that."

Rosemary was out with girlfriends, riding horses in the Boise Foothills, when the news of Pearl Harbor was announced. Her father met her at the door.

"Of course, my first question was 'Where is Pearl Harbor and what is it?' From that minute on, I never stopped watching the war. In my room at Fort Des Moines, I had a world map on the wall. And at the 10 o'clock news, I was listening to it … I had pins for where all the Americans were, where the Japanese and Germans were, where the Russians were. And I would change the pins and I was always sad on the days when I had to move them the wrong way.

" … I think we were more acutely aware of the war. …When we advanced, it was good, but we (also) knew how many were dying and how many Americans were dying; and the battles, we kept track of them.

"My attitude was, this is war and war is hell."

When Rosemary arrived in Europe, her orders were for Munich, where her driver took her through the bombed shell of a city.

"The streets - there were no streets. … I was astounded by what I was seeing, and I said to the young driver, 'What in the world is that odor?' And he turned his head and looked at me, because I'm one of those damned woman officers (and said),'Them's bodies, ma'am.'

" … It was so much worse than I thought it would (look). When I asked that stupid question, I noticed old men and old women digging through the rock piles. I just felt sick in my heart. …

"All your life you've had situations that were different - unusual and the first time. And I'll tell you, you handled it like you were. If you were a scaredy cat, you were probably terribly upset and worried and wanted to go home. Not me. … "

Rosemary plunged into work. She was in charge of discharging soldiers who wanted to stay to work, and taking care of and finding civilian workers to help rebuild Europe.

"I never was afraid. Everything was an adventure. I worked so damn hard at the jobs I did in the Army. One of my first employers here said I worked like I was killing snakes - I don't know anything else.

"I know there was a survey a few years ago that asked a question of soldiers, … 'What was the happiest period in your life?' And every one of them said the years that were in the Army. (For me?) Absolutely. I was learning so much. … "

She was also falling in love.

"The officer that instructed us at Le Havre turned out to be my husband, so I started a romance the day I got off the ship. I didn't know it then. …

"It was a fairy tale romance."

When Rosemary went to Paris for work, she and Pat Powell would rendezvous for long weekends, and on one of those trips, they got married - a marriage that lasted 56 › years.

When they left Europe in 1946, Rosemary and Pat settled in Boise. Immediately, Rosemary went to the employment office.

"And (the man) said, 'Well, we can't hire you. You are over-qualified. And right now, we are in the process of hiring (returning servicemen) who are the breadwinners in the families. And they get the jobs first.'

"Well, I agreed with that. … But it wasn't right. Yeah, my husband was a breadwinner, and I didn't need the job, but I wanted it so badly. … "

As Rosemary says, those days were different. Instead of nursing bitterness, she raised three daughters and, years later, finally went back to work - first, as a personnel manager for the Downtowner motel, and then for 18 years as the principal's secretary at Borah High School.

Now retired for good, Rosemary plays bridge, keeps up on current events and sometimes tells her stories to keep history both alive and in perspective.

"Getting old? I'll let you know when I get old."

At her age, death does cross her mind.

"Absolutely. I just don't think I'm going to do it very soon. (Afraid?) Hell, no. I've appreciated every age I went through. I think going through the end of your life can be just as good as the rest of it.

" … I've lived such a magical life and such a healthy and joyous life. … I don't want to be some sick old lady that people have to take care of. I just want to go to sleep some night (and not wake up). And if I don't, whatever happens will happen."

Newscaster Tom Brokaw has written that Rosemary's is the greatest generation that lived.

"Haven't you heard that? My generation. And we were. You have no conception, at your age and the things you do, what it was like in my generation.

"I remember sitting around … a radio. It had earphones and we sat around and took turns with the earphones listening to things out of the blue. Somebody's voice. … That was the beginning."

They had a telephone and the marvel of electricity. She's lived through civil rights, the Vietnam War, women's rights. She was among the first women in the military, she witnessed a man on the moon; she reads from a Kindle.

"Everything you can think of has happened. I remember a teacher at Borah one day, talking to this kid. He said, 'You know, what you're going to do as a job in your lifetime has not even been thought of yet.' It was true. … "

Just a couple of weeks ago, Rosemary sat down with a handful of family and friends to celebrate her birthday. Two candles, a nine and a three, adorned the chocolate cake. She blew them out and forgot to make a wish.

"I don't know what I'd wish for. …

"I am so grateful that I lived through 93 years and saw all that I saw and lived all that I lived. And I don't think half of it's been discovered yet. … We're going to have that much more every generation."

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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