Making WAVES, and proud of it: Morristown author Nancy Lynch Castellano remembers her Navy days in World War II

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By Marie Pfeifer

For former WAVES trainer and Morris County teacher Nancy Lynch Castellano, a visit to Lehman College earlier this month was filled with nostalgia.

As part of the 80th-anniversary celebration at Lehman (formerly Hunter College in the Bronx, N.Y.) and Military History Month, Castellano returned to the campus to give a talk based on her book, Looking Back at the WAVES: A Chronicle of the 90,000 Navy Women of World War II.

The former Nancy Lynch was a 20-year-old education student at Montclair State College when she signed up to join the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. She claims it was the white uniformed young women on a poster that attracted her. “The Brass” wanted people with teaching degrees to become trainers and suggested she complete her teaching program and then return to serve. She did, serving as a trainer from 1943 through 1945.

Castellano, 87, said she loved training the new recruits and discovered that, although the Navy didn’t really want women in “this man’s Navy,” the neighbors welcomed the WAVES. She recounted her recruits’ experiences marching through the streets of the Bronx.

“We sang as we marched and were known as the ‘Singing Platoon.” The neighbors would salute and applaud us and the men would take their hats off,” said the Morristown resident. “It was gratifying.”

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The Lehman campus began in 1931 as the home of Hunter-in-the-Bronx, the uptown branch of Hunter College in Manhattan that became the WAVES training station. In 1942, four women were instrumental in starting the WAVES, which relieved Navy men of their shore-side duties for off-shore duty during World War II.

The four women were Joy Bright Hancock (later a lieutenant commander), daughter of an admiral at Lakehurst Naval Air Station; Dean Virginia Gildersleeve at Barnard College, champion of women’s rights (later the first female delegate to the United Nations appointed by President Harry S. Truman); Elizabeth Raynard, Barnard College professor of English, (later a lieutenant and the originator of the acronym WAVES); and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, (civil rights and women’s rights proponent).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into the bill establishing the Women’s Reserve of the United States Navy on July 30, 1942. The Bronx campus was chosen as the WAVES training station and commissioned the USS Hunter.

At the May 5 program at which Castellano spoke, Dr. Ricardo R. Fernandez, president of Lehman College, welcomed her to the campus and gave a brief history of the college and the WAVES. Student Dorcedious Davis, a 2011 Woman’s Veteran of the Year award recipient and Legion of Veterans Student Club member, introduced Castellano.

In her opening remarks she said, “It is because of pioneering women like Castellano who paved the way that I was able to pursue an Army career as a full member of the military and not an auxiliary member.”

During the day, Janet Munch, associate professor of the Lehman Library Archives and Special Collections and author of a paper, Making Waves in the Bronx, took Castellano on a tour of the campus. This included a library exhibit of archive photos and memorabilia from the time the WAVES were at the training station.

“I am so happy to have this opportunity to revisit Lehman and relive the experiences I had here with my recruits,” Castellano said.

After an honorable discharge from the WAVES in 1946, Castellano taught language arts for 43 years to junior high school and middle school students in the Morris School District. Retirement gave her an opportunity to reflect upon her WAVES career, and she decided to write a book about the organization’s history and her experiences.

She self-published the book in 2007. She donates all of the proceeds to a scholarship fund sponsored by the Retired Teachers Association, of which she is a member, for students studying to be educators. For more information, visit this website (www.lookingbackatthewaves.com) or call Nancy Castellano 973-539-1131.

poster for nancy lynch castellano talk
Poster shows scenes from Navy WAVES training in World War II, the subject of a book by Morristown resident Nancy Lynch Castellano.
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