It was the spring of 1940, and I was sauntering down the streets of Washington, D.C., stretching my legs after a brief lunch. I was 20 years old, and everything was new and exciting. I had gotten through high school and a year of Agriculture College at Rutgers University, New Jersey, but my parents and I could not raise the $100 tuition for me to continue the second year.
What probably formed the direction of my life was joining, at age 15, a horse artillery unit of the New Jersey National Guard. I told everyone I was 18 (which nobody believed), and even had to obtain a waiver, since I was about 5’5” and weighed a huge 112 pounds – 8 pounds under the minimum. Actually, the enlisted members of the National Guard were far from the brightest or more successful individuals in the State, but the main attraction for me was that just outside of Trenton, New Jersey, my hometown, the regiment had horses. We met one evening each week, practiced riding, engaged in various drills, and – best of all – got the privilege of riding horses weekends and holidays. We could even invite guests, and girls had suddenly become interesting. Pay was about $14 every three months, and, after “contributing” to this slush fund and that slush fund (always illegally run by a tough, hard-fisted sergeant), there was usually $5 or so remaining to buy a beer at $.05 a mug and finish off a large pizza at $.25 each.
After college, I took a civil service examination and, surprise, was appointed to the Department of Justice, as a messenger boy, at the magnificent salary of $95 per month. A room in a boarding house, shared with 3 other fellows, cost $18.50 bi-monthly, and we were served breakfast and supper during the week, and breakfast and lunch on Sundays. Saturday lunch was always a treat – I got a bowl of spaghetti, one roll, one pat of butter, and a coke for $.25. A second roll cost $.05. Usually, a couple or three days before payday, everyone was broke, so we generally concealed a slice of bread from breakfast and ate that during lunch. But within a few months, I was offered another job with The National Archives at $105 per month. I loved it, since it exposed me to history, which I enjoyed ever since I began reading.
Anyhow, here I am walking the street when I came upon a building which contained a rifle range. Inside were seated three ancient ladies, about 40 or 45 years old, and I was informed that the range was only for members of the Green Guards of America. One of the ancients, a fine looking lady named Virginia Nowell, explained that the GGOA was a woman’s organization formed to help the country in the event of an emergency.
When I explained that I had spent 4 years in the military (I neglected to mention that I was merely a private during this period) she asked if I could teach some courses. So I was promptly taken in. The building was five stories high. One floor was where the “girls”, aged 16 to 80, learned to march, another was the kitchen and dining area, a third held classrooms, and the fourth were the offices. There were about 300 members, and I taught close order drill, map reading, first aid, etc. There was also an older fellow, a former army sergeant, who taught classes, and we were the only two males there. Other GGOA posts had already been formed, and several others were were in the mill.
It was great. I was able to use the rifle range, it gave me something to do evenings, and best of all, I met several girls.
One day, during lunch, I stopped by and found Virginia and her main assistant, Eleanor Phelps, in tears. Two roughies had stopped by and said they were sent by a local mobster to become part of the organization. It was a matter of money. Each woman who joined paid $5 per year. One dollar went to the local group, one dollar to the state headquarters, and three to national headquarters. The toughies had stated they would accelerate the expansion, and that they wanted one dollar per member as their commission. One had even opened his jacket to show he was carrying a gun, and the threat was quite evident.
I got the name and address of the mobster, and that evening I went to his house and told him that if any of his men come around again, I would return with a gun of my own. When nothing happened for a week or two, I was declared the unit’s hero and savior, and the dates with the girl multiplied. Frankly, I must have been nuts to have gone there in the first place.
Soon after, Virginia called me in for a talk. She was having trouble with her company officers. One, who was more important in the organization, was a captain, while a lesser important member was a major. Most people take rank seriously, women especially. I suggested that she establish the company on military lines, and that should take precedent rather than company positions. She asked if I could set that up, which I did. Actually, I got a copy of military organization, determined which ladies were most important, and suggested ranks for special jobs. Virginia was to be a major general, Eleanor a brigadier general, a slot of colonel was reserved for a chief of staff (third most important position), then down the line. State commanders were to be majors, local commanders, captains.
Virginia and Eleanor loved the idea. Then both asked if I would become the chief of staff. I was floored. First, I was still pretty young: second, I would be the only male.
The situation of the GGOA at that time was booming. Women were writing from all parts of the country, wanting to join. When we had at least ten in an area, we would appoint one who seemed dominent as a lieutenant, then send instructions how to organize, what to accomplish, etc. All positions from rank of lieutenant were assigned and promoted by me. We even had a cavalry company in Maryland, made up of women with horses. We got a lot of publicity having them ride from Baltimore to Washington to deliver a message, in the event communications were cut off. The World’s Fair was on, and we had a Green Guard day, during which we sent a small group of women in uniform to march. Besides having a trim uniform (which the ladies adored) we had a flag, a song, and other symbols. In areas where only a single woman applied, or very few were banded together, we sent subcourses, which taught them subjects we gave in National Headquarters. For a fee, of course.
During one period, I went home on leave from my government job, and unbeknowst to me, Virginia had a sent an article to the local newspaper about the GGOA and me, in particular. From the moment I walked into the house, the phone did not stop ringing, asking about joining. I got about 35 women together, gave them the required information, then took off.
The trouble was, of course, we did not have the money, time, or people to handle the sudden gush of requests. I understood, then, what the mobster had foreseen, and wouldn’t have minded a little help. The women were working around the clock, but since most of them had regular jobs, families, etc, there was just so much they could devote to the oganization. Once we had accumulated enough money, we could hire help, but that seemed far off. Actually, we had to slow down, delay, or cancel many of the inquiries.
Then one day I received a message from one of the senior attorneys in the Justice Department, asking for a meeting. He seemed to know quite a bit about my associations with the GGOA, and it didn’t take long for me to understand that he wanted to know whether the organization had fascist or communist overtones. I assured him that I would not allow any of that, and he seemed convinced that I was above reproach, and that the aims of the GGOA were fully patriotic.
California seemed like a gold mine. Inquiries rained in, and they were pretty much bunched up, which made organizing much simplier. Virginia decided to visit there to get them started. She sent back optimistic reports, and we were excited that perhap she could raise enough money from new members to handle the flow.
Then, one of the girls got a telegram from Virginia asking her to send her uniform post haste. Soon, a second girl got the same request. We were mystified, and asked Viriginia for an explanation. None came, except more urgent requests for the uniforms. Still trying to learn what was going on, we next got a message from Virginia that she had swallowed small pieces of glass in an ice cream dish and was in the hospital being treated. With that news came almost hysterical requests for the uniforms.
Out of the blue, I received a request to attend a meeting at the Metropolitan Police Headqurters in Washington. At my arrival, I found the senior officers of the GGOA waiting, having also been invited. Soon, we were ushered into the office of the captain, who held up a thick file and explained that it contained the history of Virginia Nowell. She had been a concert manager, had been involved in a number of show ventures, and had publicized pageants, none of them illegal, but, in 1940 America, a woman in those fields was suspect of living too free a life. We all knew a bit about Virginia’s past, but it struck me that a prim housewife with a flock of children and a bookkeeper type husband would not have had the verve or gumption to put together an organization such as the GGOA. But I kept quiet.
The captain then went on to explain the situation. Large numbers of women had written to their congressmen requesting advice about the GGOA, and they had been passed over to the Metropolitan Police for investigation. The police, up to that date, had given the GGOA a reserved bill of good health. But they were skeptical of the leadership of Virginia. Then he amazed us all, by saying that undercover agents from the police and the FBI were members of our Washington Post, and they had not found anything wrong – yet.
The reason we had been called to his office was that the police had learned that Virginia had taken payments for uniforms from a number of the women in California, and had spent the money residing in first class hotels, hiring a limousine service to take her about, and dining in expensive restaurants. The women had begun to press Virginia about their uniforms, and she had written to members in Washington to have a couple forwarded to keep the new members off her back until she could get enough money to cover the expenses.
Then he dropped a bombshell. The police had decided that unless Virginia was relieved of her position, they could no longer give the GGOA a clean bill of health, and they suggested that Eleanor, or one of the other senior officers, take over, at which time the police would be more than amenable to assist the GGOA.
The officer left us alone while we discussed the situation, and the group, which consisted of about 6 or 7 old timers who had run the various departments since its early days, hashed it over. It was decided to meet again the next evening to make a decision. I immediately went to the office and wrote out an order that no resignations would be accepted for at least two more weeks, posted it on our bulletin board so it couldn’t be missed, and started thinking. It was quite evident in my mind that none of the others had the vision, drive, and knowledge to keep the GGOA afloat, let alone make it prosper. So, at the next meeting, while the subject was being bandied about, with no clear cut decision in mind, I told the women to divide the GGOA records into four or five parts (so nobody could take control without others agreeing) and I handed in my resignation.
I did so because I was about to go back into service, and to try to watch the organization from afar, was out of the question.
What happened to the GGOA? I don’t have the foggiest. The last I heard was that the women were still discussing the situation, and that Virginia had come back East to handle that problem.
Is there anyone out there who knows anything about the situation? If so, please write
One last note. It took another twenty–seven years for me to earn those colonel’s eagles again.