Providing books in an effort to boost the morale of American soldiers serving during World War II was carried out by the Army Library Service. The number of professional librarians employed between 1941 and 1946 was estimated to be about 1200 worldwide, with as many as 600 involved at any one time. Mary Delores Walther, a native Midwesterner who later called South Carolina home, was one of those select few.
Mary Walther was born in LeSueur, Minnesota, on 8 December 1910. Mary grew up in LeSueur and attended the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) where she received an undergraduate degree in English in 1931. She returned to the University of Minnesota during the summer of 1935 and began working toward a degree in Library Science, later pursuing additional studies at the University of Washington (Seattle) and the University of Illinois (Urbana), from which she was awarded her library degree. Between her studies, Mary taught school in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.
In 1943 the thirty-three-year-old single school teacher patriotically took a job as librarian at the newly constructed Alliance Army Air Field located in Alliance, Nebraska. She had considered joining the WACs but felt that she was afforded more flexibility by becoming a civilian employee of the Army. After about a year at Alliance, where American paratroopers were being prepared for the invasion of Europe, Walther accepted a transfer to a similar position in the Hawaiian Islands. The reserved, diminutive Midwesterner quickly discovered that life as one of the few women among hundreds of men away from home could be socially demanding and very exciting. Her days, which revolved around libraries and bookmobiles, were balanced by nightly parties, dances, and dinners at various officers’ clubs, with the biggest decision of the day sometimes being the selection of her escort for the evening.
Mary volunteered for transfer to Guam as soon as it was deemed reasonably safe for female civilian Army employees to go there. Her determination to endure the risks of the transfer (not all Japanese had been removed from the island), the hardships of the job (establishing libraries for 70,000 troops preparing for the invasion of Japan) and the unpleasantness of daily life (huts, cots, latrines, heat and humidity, and lots of Spam) surprised Mary and those who knew her best.
The multitude of friendships Mary developed at Alliance, the Hawaiian Islands, and Guam were all just temporary. As pointed out in a letter of 10 October 1944, connections were constantly being made or lost. Death, transfer, and discharge from service made wartime relationships transitory. “The worst part of this war business is that the people you really like and respect are always moved out. Guess they are usually the real leaders, tho, and are needed farther out.” Mary’s own adventure of a lifetime came to an end in mid-1946 when she decided to return to the States to appease her mother rather than transfer to Manila or Tokyo as had been requested.
Mary’s writings provide a window through which is revealed a woman’s view of the Second World War in the Pacific, as recounted in some two hundred three letters received and preserved by her mother and sisters Cyrilla and Margaret during these years.
The stint at Alliance, Nebraska, offered Mary Walther new opportunities and friendships. Alliance Army Air Base had been constructed in early 1942 for parachute and ammunition training. The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment was trained there before later being attached to the Eighty-second Airborne Division. While landing in France shortly before the invasion of Normandy, the 507th suffered heavy casualties as a result of missing the planned Drop Zone.
Among her special friends from the Alliance days were C.E. Mayo, who wrote from England on 22 May 1944, “Having to say good-bye to people I have met, and learned to appreciate has been one of the darkest parts of my army life....there will never be a more perfect crowd than our gang at Alliance”; paratrooper James O’Rourke, to whom Mary wrote on 20 June 1944 noting that she had “thought of you often since D Day,” only to have her letter returned a year later with the envelope, which had been marked variously “Hospitalized,” “no record,” “missing in action,” “deceased,” bespeaking the fate of her friend; and Bogdan Baynert, a talented young artist with a penchant for bowling, books, art museums, and classical music. The pages of several of this Michigan native’s letters to Walther are illustrated with cartoons caricaturing GI’s. From Camp Mackall in North Carolina, Corporal Baynert wrote on 4 March 1944 expressing amazement at Mary’s determination to go to Hawaii. “Why you want to leave the good old United States is something I can’t understand.” While he admitted that “Alliance is not the garden spot of the world,” he feared she would soon find that “Hawaii is not the playground of the world.” After all, he added, “there are no bowling alleys in Hawaii - isn’t that a good enough reason for not going there!” Baynert seemed even less impressed with his own luck. “There are no bowling alleys down south. The southerners don’t believe in such violent exercise. They much prefer lynching negroes or telling Roosevelt how to run the country.”
Mary Walther left San Francisco 13 May 1944 on board a hospital ship destined for the Hawaiian Islands. She wrote to Cyrilla on 28 May 1944 to report that she had not received any mail yet and to fill her in on her activities since her arrival. “So far I've just wasted time. All the librarians here have been new - I’m the first transfer, and the month’s training was devised for new people. I really haven’t learned anything yet....It is a nice vacation. The organization is highly centralized, and it looks as tho we will be supervised to death.... We spent Monday and Tuesday in Honolulu. After we had finished filling out papers, we went shopping, and I bought two pairs of shoes - they aren’t rationed here. Tuesday afternoon we got caught in an air raid alarm. June and I didn't know where to go - they kept telling us to go to the hills, but we didn’t know where that was. Before we knew it, we were caught in tear gas that spread to get the people out of congested districts. We surely had beautifully red eyes for the rest of the day.”
Part of Mary’s time was spent on Oahu, where bookmobile service provided ample sightseeing opportunities. In a letter of 14 August 1944, she exclaimed, “each time we go out with our books, it is like taking a vacation.” Trips around the island were not without incident, however, including one where she and her driver had two flat tires but only one spare. “We had the first near a Coast Guard outfit, but since we were army, they didn’t help much,” she told Margaret on 21 August 1944. “Luckily we were close to a camp when we had the second flat, and the fellows there patched our tires for us.” By 24 September 1944 Walther had a new bookmobile, a half-ton truck, “with shelves built on the back facing out. It hauls over three hundred books, and several portable libraries.” The more remote camps, she explained, were supplied with “portable libraries with 50 books which we change every four weeks.”
As discussed in a letter of 29 October 1944, Mary was sometimes called upon to handle more demanding challenges, including that of setting up “a field station in a prisoner of war camp here.” She found the prospects intriguing but wondered how she was going “to figure out what kind of books I can give to Koreans who can’t speak English.” Her time in Hawaii was not all business, however, nor was it without its social pleasures. Her letters abound with details of dinners, dances, and parties, descriptions of her clothes and bouquets for each of those occasions, and banter about the seemingly limitless possibilities of escorts. One such soiree, she noted 4 December 1944, was hosted by an officer at his private home and attended by Major League baseball players Johnny Vander Meer and “Schoolboy” Rowe.
By April 1945 Mary Walther began to talk about the likelihood of transferring to an advance location but she was not always at liberty to share many details with her family. “Sorry I can’t tell you more about what I’m going to do, but at present it can’t be written,” she confided on 22 April 1945. Within a month librarians were finally permitted to enter other islands in the Central Pacific area, and Mary and two others were assigned to Guam. Not all Japanese had surrendered on Guam, and fugitive bands were still at large even as late as 1946. Conditions on the island were extremely primitive. “They tell us that living conditions there won’t be luxurious,” she had told Cyrilla on 5 April 1945, “and there will be things we will miss, but it will be safe, and there are no tropical diseases....In case you should ever need to get me in a hurry, be sure you do it thru the Red Cross. It really won’t take me more than about three days to get home, even if I do go further out.”
The transfer from Hawaii to Guam was discussed more in a 12 May 1945 letter to sister Margaret. “This Island isn’t so bad - only part of it was destroyed by the fighting, and there are still plenty of jungle and native villages left....It’s amazing to see how fast the service is building things up. Where there is heavy military traffic all highways are paved and four lanes paved.... Libraries are to become an essential feature in demobilization.... I’m quite sure I won’t want to stay long once this thing is over, however, and so when the Japs quit, expect me home.... V-E Day didn’t cause much excitement out here. I was much surprised but no one had much desire to celebrate.”
Living conditions on Guam were primitive at best. Mary reported on 24 May 1945 that she had not “managed to find even an orange crate to supplement my two pieces of furniture - a bed and an ironing board,” which doubled as a writing table until a packing box could be fashioned into combination dressing table and writing table, further noting that “the girls on the other islands that we have just visited live in Quonsets but have no plumbing, and half the time they have no water. There is a guard in front of their door, and the minute they step outside after dark, he follows them around like a shadow.”
Despite such meager circumstances, provisions had been made for the entertainment of military personnel by touring VIPs. American stage and film actress “Gertrude Lawrence and her USO troupe group stayed in the same Special Services quarters while we were visiting,” Mary stated on 24 May 1945. “We became well acquainted. She’s very sweet.”
Ever in demand socially, Mary spoke often of the constant struggle to keep clean in the heat and dirt and primitive conditions. When the damp climate and rainy season necessitated, she improvised an electric light in her wardrobe and kept it burning to prevent mildew. “...the only animals out here are the men, commonly referred to as wolves,” she quipped on 2 June 1945. “It is funny how all the girls out here go thru it,” she added while speaking of one colleague who “fell hard for a lieutenant colonel who is married and has two children” and had requested a transfer to the Philippines so that she could be near him. “I had mine early... and so learned to accept the others as married men even when they tried to deny it. The wives should hear some of the good stories they can tell.”
Instituting library facilities and services demanded much of Walther’s attention, and these responsibilities increased steadily over time. When she wrote to Cyrilla on 7 June 1945 she told about establishing a large basic library at the army transport department. “We put it in a dayroom which they had built themselves from scraps of lumber and woven bamboo mats. Six of them went into the jungle and braved ambush by Japs everyday for three weeks to cut the bamboo, which some of the natives wove for them.”
By 25 July 1945, as she wrote home to thank her mother for a recent care package of clothes and food, even though Mary complained that “the food here is terrible, and they say we will have to eat C rations for the next six weeks,” she proudly told of having put in “another library...for the bombardment group. The fellows had just come in from a mission to Tokyo, and the place was jammed right after we opened it. We didn’t have half enough books.... Our library buildings are just about up now, and soon we will be moving. I’ll be glad because right now we are in an area by ourselves and have to be guarded all day. The boys carry guns all the time. The other area is quite well populated.”
Mary Walther’s professional experiences on Guam are summed up in a lengthy three-page typewritten retrospective account she submitted after the war to John Alden Jamieson, author of Books for the Army; the Army Library Service in the Second World War (New York, Columbia University Press, 1950). The narrative, which dates from 18 November 1948, addresses a whole range of issues related to efforts to partner with the military in initiating library services and securing adequate facilities:
When we first arrived on the Island, our position was unique. Nurses and Red Cross personnel had preceded us, but their jobs were such that they could be confined to an area. Librarians were a shocking problem to the Commanding Officers. Their work compelled them to travel all over the island and into areas where men didn’t expect to find ladies....At first we had an armed guard at all times, even when working in the library. We never saw the necessity of it unless it was when some G.I. spotted a white woman in our jeep or truck and in amazement stopped all traffic while he stopped his vehicle to look. Gradually, we became acclimated to the Army as it existed on an island in the Pacific, and they became adjusted to us and our visits.
...everything we did on Guam was directly or indirectly for the fellows who bombed Japan. All the Army there existed to keep the B-29’s going out nite and day, and all our books and libraries were governed by that purpose.... We had good patronage, especially when we gave twenty-four hour service just before the end of the war. Many of the raids went out at night or in early morning. The trip was a long one...and the boys liked to read in the long hours it took to get to and from the objective. We always hated to lose a book from our meagre supply, but we never minded when we were told it was left in a plane after a raid when the borrower was too tired to remember he had started the trip with it. The boys in the Service Groups needed the nite and day library hours, too. Many went on duty at odd hours of the nite after sleeping during the day. The library was their only source of recreation just before time to start servicing planes or going on guard.
I don’t mean...to infer that we had well organized libraries from the beginning...or that we were ever satisfied that our service was complete, reaching all groups and operating smoothly. At first we did well to set up a few portable boxes here and there in the few dry spots we could find....Our books were also scarce...and...we begged books from all sources. We even started a “Share Your Book” campaign, made posters coaxing the fellows to let us circulate their gifts from home after they had finished with them. We did quite well and with books sent to us in small packages from the Mainland....Gifts kept coming even after we had a fair supply, too. Sometimes they were sent for sentimental reasons, as those we got from a Mother whose son had been lost on a bombing raid over Germany. She specifically requested that his library be placed where boys on missions to Japan could use them.
Involved as she was with the war effort and the interesting experiences she was having in the Pacific, Mary greeted news of the end of the war with joy but some measure of uncertainty as to her own future. On 12 August 1945 she shared her excitement about news of the surrender of Japan. “We have been waiting all day yesterday and today for news that the war is over. I surely hope it comes soon because the suspense is bad. Someone woke me up at twelve o’clock last Friday nite (Thursday to you) to say that the radio was broadcasting the news that Japan was ready for peace. Everyone went just wild - especially the patients. We could hear them cheering across the road.”
There was some talk of sending Mary and others on to Japan or Manila, but she seemed pleased by mid-September 1945 to speculate that if “all except regular army people are home in six months, that should mean that we can be too.” She remained busy with library openings and the completion of new buildings, and, with the hospital closing, some extra beds were becoming available. “Civilization is comfortable,” she noted on 21 September 1945, “when you have had to do without it for a while.” The sudden interruption of food shipments diverted to aid victims of Typhoon Louise, which hit Okinawa in early October of 1945, however, only emphasized the remoteness of her island home. Mary, who once again was forced to subsist on C rations, found herself yearning for fresh produce and milk.
Although she had submitted her name as a volunteer for transfer, possibly to Japan, by early 1946 letters indicate that Mary had determined to return to the United States. “I’ll start looking for ships out of here now,” she wrote Cyrilla on 9 March. But, she noted, “not many ships carry women.” Moreover, she confessed, “I fear that I will have a hard time adjusting to school library work after this active life.”
A month and a half and one typhoon later, she wrote on 20 April 1946, “This is developing into a real struggle - trying to get off the island. From all appearances I picked the lowest ebb in shipping since the war ended, and all I can do is sit and wait until something comes along to take me. The Cape Mendocino finally came in on the 18th, but it was infested with some kind of black pox which had been brought in from China, and now we are having to wait until it is completely fumigated and declared safe for passengers.” A note appended to the end of the same letter states simply, “Guess this is it. We board ship at 12:30 today. I’ll send you a cable when I reach Oahu.”
After reaching Hawaii, Walther wrote from Fort Shafter on 10 May to check in with her family. Two days later, she penned one last letter to Cyrilla. “I left Guam on the 18th of April,” she wrote, “and after a six day wait on Saipan and a twelve day trip on an old battered merchant marine ship arrived here on the 9th of May. I won’t repeat details of the trip - I’m a good sailor and in spite of crowded conditions managed to enjoy the sailing.” Even though Mary seemed anxious to return home and was enjoying the social activities on Oahu, there were lingering thoughts of the opportunities she had declined. “I am trying hard to be patient,” she declared, speaking of the idle time she was having while waiting on Oahu, “and I can’t see why I shouldn’t be, since I know I shall never earn a salary so easily again.”
The overall significance and research value of the World War II letters of Mary Walther is amplified by an auxiliary unit of approximately two hundred eighty-four photographs picturing Walther, her colleagues, and others, both in the Hawaiian Islands and on Guam. These many snapshots bring to life in a more immediate fashion the work of those who labored to make available books to the military through representative images of the interiors and exteriors of the libraries established in the Pacific, the GI’s who frequented them, both whites and African Americans, and the library outreach services extended via bookmobiles and visits to hospital wards.
After the war, Mary Walther married James Lawton Oswald, a native of Allendale, S.C. Both of them were employed at the time of their marriage in 1947 at Maxwell Air Force Base with the Air University Library. In 1952 Mary and James Oswald moved to Aiken, S.C., where Mary lived out the balance of her life. She was school librarian at Aiken Junior High School, Kennedy Middle School, and St. Angela Academy, and James worked as a technical librarian with DuPont’s Savannah River Site. The Oswalds came to enjoy a special relationship with the University of South Carolina Aiken, where they actively participated in the Academy for Lifelong Learning, frequently attended cultural events at the Etherredge Center, and served on a committee to develop an endowment fund to cover operating expenses for the performing arts center. Their common love of language and literature, developed during long careers as librarians, led them in 1994 to endow the James and Mary Oswald Distinguished Writers Series at USCA. Mary Walther Oswald died in 1996. James Oswald died in 2005.