Before Roxie Remley was a force for the arts in Statesboro, she helped beat a path for women into the U.S. Army during World War II, becoming an officer and receiving some training classified top secret.
Her experimental training may have been secret because it involved the use of radar when it was a closely guarded wartime technology. But the mission was also sensitive because it placed women in a potential combat role, she suggested during a January talk to the Bulloch County Historical Society. On the cutting edge of history, Remley served in what was originally the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and volunteered for overseas deployment after the corps was made part of the Army.
Remley, now 97, insisted on standing at first, but her friend Sims Lanier encouraged her to sit nearer the microphone, and Historical Society Vice President Brent Tharp advanced a slide show with photos selected from Remley's notebooks.
"She could have been the model for the recruiting poster," Tharp said.
That wasn't really her in the WAAC poster, circa 1942. But the photo beside it of the young Remley, with short but still stylish hair covering her ears beneath the military cap, did resemble the model recruit, who wore the same smart khaki uniform with matching tie.
After graduating from high school in Darlington, Indiana, in 1937, Remley had gone to live with one of her brothers and his family in Racine, Wisconsin, where he helped her find a job and she enrolled in a business college.
Change of plans
Then the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war and added urgency to efforts to give women more opportunities in the military. After Congress voted the WAAC into existence in May 1942, Remley put her college plans on hold to join.
Sworn in on Aug. 13, 1942, she reported to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, four days later for Basic Training, she recalls. For the female recruits, this phase of training lasted just three weeks. Remley was then ordered to Transport Motor School, which took 12 weeks.
"I learned all about driving jeeps and changing oil and changing tires," Remley said.
Her first assignment was as driver for the post chaplain.
Not content with this kind of work, Remley applied for Officer Candidate School. Accepted to OCS in November 1942, she graduated in January 1943 with the rank of third officer.
As Lanier pointed out while coaxing answers from Remley, this was the equivalent of second lieutenant. The altered ranks were one of several ways that women in the auxiliary were denied equal status with male soldiers. WAAC enlisted women's and officers' pay was also less than that of men of equivalent rank. In fact, the reason the organization was called an auxiliary at first was to emphasize that it was not really part of the Army.
As a new WAAC officer, Remley was assigned to Fort Myer, Virginia, and more specifically to Camp Sims near Washington, D.C., to work with Battery X of the 89th Coast Artillery Regiment's antiaircraft battalion.
"It was defending our own coast," Remley said. "Well, we were not supposed to be assigned to any combat area, and the experiment was to be releasing men, enlisted men, for combat duty."
That the WAAC women were to replace men in noncombat roles was a frequent public justification for the auxiliary's existence at the time. But the 56 women sent to Battery X - and it was "X," not the Roman numeral - had a top secret experimental mission, she explained.
The women learned to operate equipment that guided the antiaircraft guns. Actually firing the battery's three 90mm guns was the job of enlisted men.
"We were not supposed to be anyplace close to a job with men," Remley said. "Well, this was an experiment to see if women could learn how to operate control of the guns."
In 2017, the idea that such an experiment was thought necessary prompted some laughs.
For practice, the antiaircraft battery was moved to a nearby island. An airplane flew over trailing a "sleeve" as a target. The men readied the guns, the WAAC commander gave the order to secure the target, and the women operated the controls.
"The command was given to fire, and the three guys fired, and the sleeve fell, and not the plane," Remley said, drawing applause from the Historical Society.
"There is nothing in the way of printing about this because it was an experiment, and it was a top secret experiment, and so there was no publication about it, and we didn't know all these things at that time," Remley said
Meanwhile, other WAAC officers and enlisted women were proving their value in other roles.
"There were many who were not in favor of women being in the military in the first place," Remley said. "But Congress had voted for such a thing to happen, and it was the law."
In the summer of 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law that made the WAAC simply the Women's Army Corps, or WAC, dropping the word "auxiliary."
"We were now a part of the Army," Remley proclaimed, her pride still evident.
Auxiliary ranks were exchanged for ranks identical to those of male officers. The women's pay was also increased, but not made equal at all levels.
With the transition from WAAC to WAC, the women, who were all volunteers, were given an option to drop out and go home. Remley instead volunteered for overseas duty, and was deployed to Cheltenham, England.
Meeting the queen
"Did you meet anybody over in Britain ... anybody with any recognizable title or name?" Lanier coaxed.
"No. Oh, oh yes!" Remley said. "By all means. The queen."
Remley was a first lieutenant in command of a platoon in London when the war in Europe ended in May 1945. Queen Elizabeth, wife of King George VI, asked to meet the American women in uniform. A king's consort rather than a reigning monarch, this Queen Elizabeth was later known as the Queen Mother.
Like her daughter who is now England's longest reigning monarch ever, she signed her name "Elizabeth R," as Remley can prove by her scrapbook.
"I still have the signature that she wrote at my desk," Remley said. "She sat down to write her name."
Also in Remley's collection are captain's bars, showing her rank at discharge. At the time, the highest ranking women in the Army were the colonels commanding the WAC and the Nursing Corps.
After the war, Remley attained bachelor's and master's degrees at Peabody College and a Master of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in New York. In 1950, she came to Georgia Teacher's College - now Georgia Southern University - where she established the art department and taught for 26 years.
After her 1976 retirement, she continued to create art, showing her work in more than 100 exhibitions. She remains active with the Averitt Center for the Arts, as well as with the Bulloch County Historical Society and other organizations.
Three WWII vets
The Historical Society recognized two other World War II veterans who came to hear Remley speak. Olive Schilling, 94, is originally from London and served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the British equivalent of the WAC. She worked on preparations within Britain for the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
Euel Akins, 96, who was born in Statesboro and has returned here in retirement, served in the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division when it broke through German defenses in the mountains of Italy.
"An amazing little group," Lanier called these three.
Editor's Note: The Bulloch County Historical Society has changed its meeting place. Beginning with the Feb. 27 meeting, the society will meet in the Pittman Park United Methodist Church social hall. The lunchtime meeting for members and guests begins at 11:30 a.m. on the fourth Monday of each month. Haley McKenzie, a Georgia Historical Society program intern, will be guest speaker Feb. 27.