When asked to deliver a top-secret message that had just arrived at her office by teletype, Lt. Rosemary Russell was quick to oblige. Though she often worked the night shift, the halls of her building located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City always seemed dark and endless.
“I knew guards were present in the building, but it was scary having to walk the halls," said Russell, who moved to Fort Wayne after World War II. “Shadows seemed to leap out at us."
Born in Fillmore, Mo., in 1920, Russell had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 after graduating from North Central College in Naperville, Ill. She had majored in biology and was considering furthering her education in pre-med when her mother had another idea.
War had been declared on the United States by Japan and Germany, and the Navy needed officers, including women. This would enable male soldiers who held shore jobs to go to sea.
JOINING THE WAVES
Rosemary thought enlisting in the Navy was a good idea. Approximately 86,000 other women thought so too, and volunteered to serve in the Navy as WAVES ("Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service").
Russell applied with letters of recommendation from the president of her college and her pastor.
She was accepted into the Navy in early 1943. A photo of her being sworn in was placed on the front page of the Chicago Tribune as one of the first class of women in the U.S. Navy. Russell’s brother, Samuel Jr. joined the Army, while another brother, Keith, served in the Army Air Corps.
As a lieutenant, Russell bypassed basic training but still trained with other WAVES for three months in Navy regulations, policies and practices. The training took place at Smith College in Massachusetts.
“We were called 90-day wonders," she said.
She and other female officers received a good reception from the male seamen, except for one soldier.
“The Marine sentinel at the front gate was required to salute us," she said. “He didn't seem to like it.”
Russell lived in an old hotel with eight women assigned to each room. She didn't mind the crowded conditions.
“I met a lot of nice girls from around the nation," she said.
ON THE JOB
At her assigned location at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Russell was made communication watch officer in a decoding office.
“Each day we received a new code," she said. “It might look like a garbled message, but it contained various levels of information.”
When a top-secret message arrived, no matter the time of day or night, Russell took it immediately to the head office. All military personnel assigned to her department were given strict instructions about confidentiality of their jobs.
“We were not supposed talk about our work to anyone when we were off-duty," she said.
In letters to her parents, Russell described what it was like to live in New York City.
“I never had been away from home before," she said. “Dad was proud of me, but Mother was concerned.”
Perhaps the most complicated part of Russell’s life was not her job, but her daily commute. Every day, she started out riding a commuter train to Grand Central Station. Then she took the subway to Brooklyn Bridge and, finally, a trolley delivered her to the navy yard.
During the days, Russell could view ships being built in the nearby shipyard.
“Margaret Truman (U.S. Sen. Harry Truman’s daughter) tried to christen the U.S.S. Missouri, since her family was from that state," she said, “but the bottle would not break.”
Given the opportunity to meet her, Russell was shocked when Margaret Truman complimented her on her military hat. “She even asked to try it on,” Russell recalled. Harry Truman would soon become U.S. vice president and later president.
Russell also met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“She was a very charming woman," she said. “She asked me what Navy training was like. She was awfully nice.”
A BIG CHANGE
Midway through the war, Russell’s life took a major change. While a student at North Central, she had met Robert E. Schmidt from Clarendon Hills near Chicago. He had graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in 1942. The couple was engaged, but when war was declared, they held off making plans for marriage.
When Schmidt was drafted into the Navy, he was assigned to an aircraft carrier and served in the Atlantic and Pacific.
“I hated to see him go overseas," she said. “I always kept control of my tears until he was out of sight, then I’d let them go.”
In March 1943, Schmidt called her. He was in port at Norfolk, Va., and wanted her to come down to get married. Russell agreed. They were married on March 24, 1943, by a Presbyterian minister in his home.
Schmidt had to leave with his ship immediately so the couple didn't have a honeymoon. In fact, they barely saw each other for the next two years as Robert sailed around the world, fighting battles for the Allies.
Rosemary prayed much for his safety, and the couple wrote to each other using V-mail (a form of military stationery).
“His letters had much content crossed out by censors who were assigned to read them, as he was not supposed to tell me his location or what they were doing," she said.
AFTER THE WAR
When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in September 1945, Rosemary chose to be discharged in October.
“I could have received a promotion to lieutenant commander if I had re-enlisted," she said. “But I would have had to serve five more years, and I didn't want that.”
Robert was discharged in January 1946. The couple became parents to three children. Upon moving to Fort Wayne, Robert worked as a mechanical engineer at International Harvester, which later became Navistar. He died in 2014.
Despite being separated from her family and husband for many months during the war, Rosemary Russell Schmidt enjoyed her military work.
“We were at war, and I wanted to help," she said. “I tried hard to do a good job.”