Strong love of country drove young WAC to enlist at 16.
In 1944, Dorothy-Mae (Hinson) Brandt was four years too young to join her five older brothers serving in America’s armed forces during World War II. Like the estimated 100,000 underage veterans who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, this determined patriot didn’t let age restrictions stand in her way.
At age 16, Brandt enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), in 1944. At that time, a woman had to be 20, with parental consent—or 21 without it—to serve in the WAC.
“I had always wanted to serve; that was my goal,” she told the Women’s Memorial Foundation during an April 16, 2008, oral history session.
Serving the war effort was everyone’s goal, adds Brandt who first tried to satisfy her desire to serve by working in a defense plant in Charlotte, NC.
However, the military still beckoned. “So, I got off from work at the defense plant … and I went down to the recruiting station” to wait for the recruiter after working a night shift. “I fell asleep and he came and found me there when he arrived in the morning. I guess he must have thought, ‘well, if she wants in this bad, you know, maybe I should sign her up,’” she says.
The recruiter never asked Brandt’s age and accepted the signed testament of a neighbor who said that Brandt was 21. Brandt had convinced the neighbor to vouch for her by arguing that he was unable to serve and she could serve in his place. “If you didn’t have a birth certificate, you could have somebody to sign that they knew you,” she explains.
Computerized record keeping and document requirements in place today all but ensure that Brandt and other underage veterans are a phenomenon of American military history. Members of the Veterans of Underage Military Service meet annually to preserve and share the unique bond of initial deception and incredible determination and dedication to service that binds them. The 2008 reunion was held April 24-27, 2008, in Rapid City, SD. (To learn more, visit the VUMS Web site.)
The means by which this unique group entered the veteran ranks vary widely. Many bypassed their parents, and the military, to enlist. Some altered birth certificates and other documents. Others, like Brandt, had someone to vouch for a supposed age. Some male veterans registered for the draft pretending to be 18 year olds and then used the draft paperwork to enlist instead.
Parental support varied too. Some parents supported their teen’s decision to enlist underage; some didn’t know about it until the teen was already on his or her way overseas. Other parents strongly objected and turned in their child so he or she would be discharged and returned home.
Brandt’s parents were less than pleased when she told them she had enlisted, but they didn’t reveal her true age to the military—which would have resulted, as it did for many underage enlistees, in an immediate discharge. “This is the way [my mom] expressed herself, ‘I think that you’ll be homesick, you know, and then just tell them how old you are.’”
“I never looked back,” says Brandt who went through Basic Training at Ft. Ogelthorpe, GA, where, she said, she got the education of a lifetime. “We were a conglomerate of people from all over the nation, all ages, all walks of life. It was an education just beyond words,” she says. For example, “just in the circle around my bed, we had a Powers model from New York; we had a lady logger from Oregon; we had a mother and daughter outfit who were very religious. I mean it was just a university within these barracks’ walls. I just can’t imagine anybody [having] a greater experience.”
Brandt became an active training sergeant in charge of training other women, some of them twice her age. Educational experiences continued when Brandt went to Des Moines, IA, for overseas training and in late spring of 1945 traveled across the Atlantic with about 100 other WACs to serve in General Mark Clark’s 15th Army as it made its way through northern Italy to occupy Vienna, Austria.
What Brandt saw there made a lasting impression. “It was seeing ‘what war does’ to people. [They] starred blankly at you, not with hatred, or not with love, or not with anything, just with war-weary, tired nothing. … It was very heartbreaking,” she recalls.
Not all experiences were heartbreaking. “I made friends with people; I love people,” she said. Friends included a German-Austrian lady who cleaned the barracks in Vienna. Her husband was killed in the war and her son was missing in action. One day, the woman ran to Brandt with “big tears flowing;” her son was coming home. “She invited me to the welcome home party and I was so honored. That was one of the most memorable things I had,” Brandt said. She added that meeting the son was a poignant moment that showed the age of war versus the age of a person. “At the time, I was 18; he was 18; [he was] “very, very thin; he had been a prisoner of the Russians.”
After a year, Brandt returned to the United States and like most WACs was discharged and returned to civilian life. Just a few weeks later, she was asked to return and fill a need for office workers in the adjutant general’s office in Heidelberg, Germany. “Off I went again, though I still wasn’t old enough to go,” she said.
Brandt made lots of friends in the picturesque German city, including meeting her future husband, an Army and Army Reserve veteran, to whom she is still married 60 years later. Another friend was a woman who worked in the club across from the barracks. She had served in the German army with her brother. “Her brother had lost both legs in some battle,” Brandt recalls.
“When I left, she gave me a picture of her and her brother, a beautiful picture of them in uniform. On the back of it, she wrote: ‘It’s so easy to remember and so hard to forget.’”
The statement rang so true decades later that Brandt used it to highlight her chapter in a book about America’s underage servicemen and servicewomen, titledAmerica’s Youngest Warriors. “I titled my story [that way] because I’ve never forgotten,” she explains.
Brandt was often commended for her work but never questioned about her age during her service, from 1944-1947. The fear of discovery—and subsequent dismissal from the service she loved and the country she was determined to serve—was always there, in the back of her mind, Brandt admits. “It was a fraudulent enlistment, and we didn’t take that lightly. … You didn’t feel fraudulent, but we were scared. We were really scared [about being discovered and discharged].
In 1947, as Brandt prepared to be discharged, she thought she should set the record straight and approached her commanding officer about her true age. “‘No, no, no” the CO said. ‘Just forget you ever told me this!’” Brandt recalls. “‘You served your country and you’ve served it well, and you have a perfect record and I don’t know what would happen.’”Brandt was quietly and honorably discharged in 1947, though she was still not old enough to join the WAC without parental consent.
Like many underage veterans she’s met through the VUMS, Brandt adds that while she’s not very proud of the deception, she is extremely proud to have served.
“Serving my country was the greatest honor I ever had,” she says. “I appreciated my country when I went in and the longer I was in the more I appreciated it. The more I saw, the more I appreciated it, and I still feel that same way today.”
We honor you, Dorothy-Mae Brandt.