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Ninety-seven year old Newtown resident Dorothea LaBelle clearly recalls her desire to defeat the Germans as a young woman, and how she rushed to enlist in the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), better known as the WAVES, for the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
That service was formally recognized just days ago, on June 29, when Town Clerk Debbie Halstead personally delivered a set of medals, a uniform ribbon, and a certificate signed by Governor Dannel Malloy and Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Thomas Saadi to her modest West Street home.
Ms LaBelle said although she had a brother and a sister, she was the only one among her siblings who volunteered for service. “My mother said she would shoot my brother in the leg before she would let the service take him,” she said, only half-joking.
“When I was trying to get into the service, somebody said to me to try out for the ‘singing platoon.’ So I did, and I got in,” she said. “Now this was one platoon of 30 girls in a regiment that was 1,000, so there was only one singing platoon.”
After enlisting, she remembers being sent to the WAVES version of boot camp, which was held in a converted apartment complex in New York City.
“We ended up marching through the streets of New York,” Ms LaBelle said. “And we had to make a lot of public appearances so we could attract a lot more women to signing up.”
She said the unit had to do all the training and studying that every WAVES recruit was bound to do, plus all the additional appearances and ceremonial functions requiring her 29 singing fellow servicewomen.
“We appeared with Arthur Godfrey, and I didn’t really care for him,” she said. “But I ended up getting stationed in Bethesda, Maryland. I wasn’t in for very long — only a year. The war basically ended as I was getting in.
“I didn’t get discharged right away, though,” Ms LaBelle said. “I was glad to be helping the war effort. That’s how I felt.”
Ms LaBelle’s schooling involved a major in chemistry and a minor in bacteriology. Once in the service, the local veteran said that while she was trained to draw blood, she also ended up receiving some very cutting edge medical treatment for the late 1940s.
“The food they served us was so high in carbohydrates that I wasn’t used to it, so I got [a skin infection]. So I was one of the first people ever to be treated with penicillin. And I never got sick like that again.”
Ms LaBelle said she was forced to eat the food that quickly landed her in the clinic, and she may have set herself up for a quick dismissal from the WAVES as a result.
“I had a big argument with my commanding officer, and one of the girls came up to me after and said I could be court marshaled for the way I talked to him,” she said. “But I knew that he knew I was right!”
While she did plenty of singing, Ms LaBelle said she and her fellow servicewomen did not receive a lot of the physical self-defense training that her male counterparts learned. But that did not stop the local vet from defending herself one evening from a would-be mugger.
“I went out to the movies one evening in Bethesda, and I was walking home alone. The cherry blossoms were blooming, and it was a lovely night, and I was enjoying the walk,” she said. “At one point, I heard footsteps behind me, and I wasn’t going to look nervous, so I didn’t turn around.
“All of a sudden, some fellow put both his arms around me from behind,” she continued, demonstrating the would-be robber’s bear hug. “I never got any defense lessons, but I did the natural thing and dropped my body, and I turned around and hit him so hard he ran away. I was lucky; I could have been a statistic.”
Beyond The WAVES
Upon her discharge, Ms LaBelle completed her Master’s Degree in Public Health at Yale and soon after pursued another Masters in Social Work at the University of Connecticut. That brought her to work for the State of Connecticut at Southbury Training School, where she met her soon-to-be husband Rauel.
“He was a personnel manager at the training school, and he was the first person to meet me and sign me in on my first day of work,” she said.
She and her husband never had children, but Ms LaBelle said she has been a long-time guardian for two disabled training school residents, neither of whom are verbal.
“I liked working there, and I was good at it,” she said of her many years in Southbury. “I liked working with the [disabled]. A lot of people get frustrated with them, and I’ll tell you I didn’t get very much help at that time, either — none at all.”
She remembered one African American youth she was assigned to who was being discharged with the hope he could take on a job.
“They told me ‘don’t bring him back.’ But I knew all his clothes were still at the training school,” Ms LaBelle said. “So I ended up taking him to Norwalk and buying all new clothes for him — and it wasn’t so easy because he was six foot five. I loved him, and he had all kinds of feelings for me. So we found a job for him, and he walked out of there with the clothes on his back. He lived in Southbury since he was two-and-a-half.”
Ms LaBelle was identified for her medals by Ms Halstead, who earlier this year set out to locate any living or deceased women from town who were members of the armed services during World War II.
As Newtown’s Veterans Services liaison to the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, Ms Halstead worked with fellow officials throughout the state to compile as many names as possible ahead of a celebration and awards ceremony previously held on June 10 recognizing a century of service by women like Ms LaBelle who served in the Armed Services.
Looking over the medals and certificate being presented by Ms Halstead, Ms LaBelle reflected on her decision to join the WAVES.
“You know, I could have joined the Army and got a commission, but I wanted to start fighting the Germans, so I joined the Navy instead,” she concluded. “I wanted immediate active duty.”