Mt. Pleasant Township woman, 102, joined the first WAVES of Navy veterans
Melva Simon met some initial resistance from her parents, John and Sadie Dolan, when she decided to sign up for military service.
“My mother wasn’t too anxious for me to go,” she said. But, at age 25, “she couldn’t keep me at home forever.”
Simon was quick to join the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), enrolling in October 1942. That was just months after the corps was established July 30, enlisting women for World War II duties on shore so men could be freed up for deployment at sea.
Simon, 102, who grew up in the Mt. Pleasant Township village of Bridgeport, was the first woman from her area to join the new auxiliary Navy service, according to a local newspaper item.
Several of Simon’s older brothers already were serving in other military branches — the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard.
“I thought, ‘Well, nobody was in the Navy. This is a good opportunity for me to get out and do something,’” she said.
To serve her country, Simon left a secretarial job at Hurst High School in Norvelt, where she had graduated in 1935. She was awarded a rating of petty officer third class after completing training at a naval station in Stillwater, Okla., and was assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Simon and about 20 other WAVES members were billeted on the fourth floor of Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Hotel and rode by bus to and from the yard. In addition to handling office work, Simon often was called upon as a military chauffeur.
Since she’d been licensed to drive her family car at home, “when somebody wanted to go somewhere, they called me to take them,” she said. “I took these big shots, the officers, to where they wanted to go. They didn’t want to walk too far.”
In the process, she said, “I got to know Philadelphia real well. It was a big city, but I was able to get around.”
During her three years of service, Simon advanced to chief petty officer and was placed in charge of the WAVES’ fourth-floor accommodations, which were off-limits to male officers.
“When people got off the elevator, you had to make sure you knew who they were,” Simon said. If not, “you told them, ‘Stand right there until the elevator comes up, and you can go right back down.’ ”
She also was responsible for enforcing a curfew.
“I had to make sure everybody was in by 9 o’ clock,” she said. “There was no excuse for being late.”
After finishing at the yard at 5 p.m., the women had to pick an early screening time if they wanted to go out to see the latest flick.
“You thought that you may as well see the first movie,” said Simon. “When it’s over, it’s time to go to bed.”
In a departure from her military routine, Simon was recruited to model the latest spring couture at a Philadelphia fashion show.
Thanks to Simon, the Dolans were the first family in her community to have a telephone in their home. Otherwise, Bridgeport residents headed to one of two local stores to place a call.
Since the Navy was covering her room and board in Philadelphia, Simon decided to dip into her military pay and splurge on a phone for her parents. After a day of paperwork in the office, she said, it was easier to phone home than to write a letter.
“If you called from the hotel, they knew who was calling,” she said.
She also kept in touch with her future husband, Joe Simon, who taught agriculture at Hurst High School. They recited their wedding vows in July 1945, and Melva Simon ended her stint with the WAVES the following month.
The couple purchased a 22-acre farm along Route 819 in Mt. Pleasant Township, where they established an apple orchard that the family continues to operate.
Melva helped her husband lay the bricks of the home there where she raised their three children and has continued to live, following his death in 2004.
Until recent years, when she was slowed by a hip replacement, she helped harvest the apples and sell them at the orchard shop. She also enjoyed making chocolate candy.
She has outlived one of her children and many of the women she befriended in the WAVES. But she’s set a strong example for her eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Following in her footsteps, granddaughter Elizabeth Musgrove, 34, is a staff sergeant with the Army National Guard in Texas.
“I liked every bit of it,” Simon said of her time in the WAVES. “It was a wonderful experience. I would do it all again.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .