Navy vet stands for everywoman in history

Mona Hill
Sixty-nine years later, retired Navy Chief Storekeeper Ruby Vocke stands again at the business end of a Boeing Stearman Model 75, one of the types of aircraft she maintained during World War II. Photo by Mona Hill
Staff Writer

March is Women’s History Month and while not every woman is famous, she still has her place in history — simply by virtue of what she has done.

BRubyNinety-two this month and no bigger than a minute, Ruby Vocke is a spitfire — appropriate considering her service in the Navy as an aviation machinist’s mate during World War II.

At the time, American women were active in factories, airfields and shipyards, filling places left vacant by men who had gone to fight. An icon based on a real woman working on an assembly line, “Rosie the Riveter” became everywoman during the war years.

In the first year, 27,000 women became part of the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), working in the aviation, medicine, communications and intelligence fields, as well as in clerical functions.

For the first time since suffrage, American women were stepping out of their traditional roles, taking on “men’s work” and performing as well as any man in those roles.

Invited by John Fehrman to see Ted Miller’s nearly restored Boeing Stearman Model 75, Vocke visited Gansner Airfield recently and talked about her military service.

Born in Peabody, Mass., Vocke joined the U.S. Navy when she was 21 — 11 months after Pearl Harbor and five years before America had a separate air force.

Vocke’s brothers were already serving in the military: The oldest was in gliders, another was a Marine and the youngest was in Patton’s Army when she was lured by the glamour of the uniform.

Vocke went to Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls for her initial training. At some point, Navy officials wanted to send her to radio school. She balked and aviation it was, forever more.

From Cedar Falls, she went to the naval air station at Norman, Okla., and began training as an aviation machinist’s mate.

By the time Vocke arrived at NAS Pensacola in Florida, she could remove, dismantle, repair and replace an airplane engine. Her diminutive size was definitely an asset, allowing her to get in behind the propeller, up close to the engine.

Vocke worked on the Boeing Stearman Model 75, the Navy’s biplane trainer, and the C-46, a military transport aircraft.

Ironically, when the Korean War came along, the Navy decided the work was too heavy for women. Vocke shifted to storekeeper and retired as chief storekeeper in 1962.

Following retirement, Vocke joined her husband in Chester and they opened Frank’s, a roadside café where she finally learned to cook.

Vocke became a year-round resident of Chester in 1999, seven years after Frank died.

Vocke is actively involved as adjutant in the American Legion’s Harry Doble Post 664. She’s a great walker and gardener and lends a helping hand for whatever comes up.

Proud of her service, she recommends the Navy to young people: “They teach you everything.”

All these years later, Vocke still loves the Navy. “I got to see the world and got paid,” she said.

For certain, Ruby the Riveter has earned her place in history.

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