WAVES Trailblazers: Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African-American WAVES officers

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Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, in December 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

With this blog post, I’ll be taking us back, once again, to World War II. You may already be familiar with the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which functioned as the women’s reserve branch of the Navy during WWII. While we did have a previous blog post on the WAVES and what some of their members did when serving at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE), with this blog I’d like to delve a little deeper, and talk about two specific WAVES: Lt j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African American women to join the WAVES, and the first African American officers in the WAVES. 

We often think of WWII as being a general call to arms, an “all hands on deck” time in our history. Despite this sentiment and the genuine need for troops,  the military often barred or refused to enlist African Americans. While the Women’s Army Corps (or the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps until 1943) and Army Nurse Corps allowed African American to enlist in 1942, they were both segregated institutions. The Navy’s WAVES, the Coast Guard’s SPARS, and Navy Nurse Corps did not integrate for several more years. Despite the racist policies and practices put in place by the military, many African Americans (and BIPOC) continued to fight against these bigoted policies and attempted to enlist.    Read more

Beyond the Frame: Will They or Won’t They?

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“Rescue of the Crew of the USS Monitor by USS Rhode Island, December 31, 1862” William Richardson Tyler, 1892. Oil on Canvas. 2018.0005.000001

The piercing moonlight emanates from the canvas like a siren song, calling you closer, pulling you in as you approach this piece. The wind whips around you, the clouds envelop you, the waves engulf you – there seems to be no escape – it’s too late.

The Power of Light

Personally, I’m a sucker for chiaroscuro – It’s that intense contrast of darkness and light that creates drama in a work of art. It’s what drew me to this piece in the first place. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. I loved the darkness, the drama, the fact that – for a civil war painting, it wasn’t really “civil war-ish”. Looking at this work, “Rescue of the Crew of the USS Monitor by USS Rhode Island, December 31, 1862” by artist William Richardson Tyler is an experience best enjoyed over a few minutes, at least.    Read more

Remembering their Sacrifice: The 77th Anniversary of D-Day

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Panorama of Omaha Beach, “Charlie” and “Dog Green” sectors, 2016
Photographic interpretation by Lyles Forbes/The Mariners’ Museum and Park

We arrived at the beach early in the morning when the tide was out. A long way out. A warm breeze was coming in as we walked out to the water’s edge. “Don’t look back until you get out to the water.” When we got out there, and turned around . . .

. . . and stared at the bluffs overlooking Plage de Colleville-sur-Mer.  On this day 77 years ago,  the scene on Omaha Beach was far different from the quiet, sunny morning we experienced while there. It was, however, a powerful moment to try and imagine the landings made by the American V Corps.   Read more

“Taps,” Bugles and Military Memorials

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E. P. Griffith, photographer, 1918. Mariners’ Museum Archive Number MS0228-01-0976

Have you ever wondered how the bugle call “Taps” came to be used at memorial services for military personnel? As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to explore how this practice began.

In an earlier blog post, I presented the history of “Taps” and discussed evidence that points to the fact that the crew of USS Monitor heard “Taps” being played at some point during July or August of 1862. This post is a continuation of the history of “Taps” and how it became a part of military funerals and memorials.

John C. Tidball served as Captain of Battery A, Second U.S. Artillery during the Seven Days’ Battles, June 25 through July 1, 1862. Battery A moved to Harrison’s Landing with the rest of the Union forces after the battle of Malvern Hill.

While at Harrison’s Landing, one of the men under his command died. Captain Tidball described him as “a most excellent man.” (1) He wished to bury him with full military honors but was refused permission for the customary firing of three guns over his grave.

Captain Tidball chose to have “Taps” played instead of the three-gun salute. This was the first time “Taps” was played at a military funeral. He said, “The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.” (2)

The playing of “Taps” became standard for military funerals in 1891, although I think it is safe to say that it had been played unofficially for many years prior to 1891. John Tidball died on May 15, 1906. He was the last surviving member of his West Point class of 1848. He was laid to rest with the sounding of “Taps” just as it had been played forty- four years earlier at Harrison’s Landing.

Some of you may have seen this stained-glass window in the Chapel of the Centurion at Fort Monroe. It depicts the playing of “Taps” in 1862. It is a beautiful window, but the first time I saw it I could not understand why it was there. Fort Monroe seems a long way from Harrison’s Landing. I discovered that John Tidball became Commander of the Artillery School at Fort Monroe in 1883 and served there until 1889. The Chapel had been completed in 1858, but several stained-glass windows were designed as part of the centennial celebration in 1958. The commemoration of the playing of “Taps” was one of them.

John Tidball’s daughter, Mabel Tidball, was invited to the centennial celebration in 1958. At the age 83 and living in Charleston, S.C., she was unable to attend the celebration, but requested that “Taps” be performed to remember those who had died in the past 100 years.

In 2013, the United States Congress designated “Taps” as the national “Song of Remembrance,” under Public Law 112-239, Section 596.   Read more

Beyond The Frame: The Secret Ingredient

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“Violent Squall on the Adriatic”, Edward WIlliam Cooke. Oil on Canvas, 1856. 1982.0037.000002, The Mariners’ Museum and Park.

I’ve always believed that society is like a skeleton and that art is a soul. And within the art world, there are pieces that have a way of making a lasting impression; the artist has added something special – like the secret ingredient in a loved one’s cooking – that unique element you can’t quite put your finger on.

I think that’s why, when you look at Edward William Cooke’s 1856 painting, “Violent Squall on the Adriatic”, it becomes so much more than a painting of a fishing boat, instead it comes to life and plays out like the dramatic climax of a movie.    Read more