Women who died in the line of duty during World War II matter to Doug Mansfield.
And as a result, he and his wife, Cheryl, have amassed the most extensive collection of women’s war memorabilia in the Southeast.
They have it on display at the GI Museum in Gautier on Wednesdays and every other Sunday.
The museum is in a field next to their house not far off Mississippi 57. between Interstate 10 and U.S. 90. Follow the brown signs with white lettering.
It’s a little museum not out to make money, Cheryl Mansfield said.
“That’s not what we’re about,” she said. “It’s here to make sure we don’t forget.”
The museum, with all its many donated and collected military history items, has become noted for its women’s collection.
“Most museums go for the guns, tanks, books, airplanes and bullets,” Doug Mansfield said. “The women, well, some think they’re not as cool. But you have to remember their contribution to the war effort was extreme.”
“When they were killed, the government didn’t even send their bodies home. The women had to take up a collection to do so.”
The government and men in the military didn’t want them in the war to the point that sometimes their equipment was sabotaged, Mansfield said. But he said he doesn’t focus on that. Mansfield rattles off examples of why these women were real heroes — they flew planes, worked as air traffic controllers, were photographers and journalists, welded in the shipyards, held bond drives and dances, drove ambulances for the Red Cross. The list goes on.
“The women’s service was silent. They just went and did their job. It took courage,” he said. “You have to remember that before the war in the 1940s, women didn’t work outside the home.”
He said their effort has been documented somewhat, but not like the big battles or the heroics of Audie Murphy, a Medal of Honor recipient who became a film and TV actor after the war.
“The guys won the war, no doubt,” Mansfield said. “But the women helped. That’s why I wanted to put the emphasis on them. It’s an aspect of the war that people don’t know about and don’t want to spend the time to research.”
He has 19 women’s uniforms in the museum from different branches of the military and an assortment of 1940s hose, shoes, hats and other items specific to their service.
The WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots – are Doug Mansfield’s favorite.
“I admire all of the women,” he said. “But good God, can you imagine the courage to be a WASP? Many of them couldn’t even get through the training.”
They flew U.S. military aircraft. There were only 1,074 of them and 38 died flying during World War II.
That’s a high percentage of deaths for the number flying, Mansfield said. They were considered contract civilian employees.
As an aside, he said the flight surgeons required them to report when they had their menstrual cycles, because the military was afraid flying would affect them somehow. The women didn’t report, Mansfield said, because they didn’t like missing out on that much flying time.
After the war, the military came up with a report that warned against letting women fly because they believed it stopped their menstrual cycles and they wouldn’t be able to procreate, Mansfield said.
Women’s World War II uniforms are rare and expensive.
“They only made 1,200 sets of them, when there were millions of other uniforms,” Mansfield said. “That’s why you don’t see WASPs in many museums.”
The Smithsonian Institution has one on display and also has an extensive collection of women’s articles and clothing from the war, he said.
“But when you check with other museums, they don’t have much,” he said. “It’s not part of their message. It doesn’t fit their genre.”
The Mansfields sold Cheryl’s MG sports car to buy the WASP uniform they have at the museum. It belonged to Mary Beecham of Florida. It’s a blue dress uniform, fully documented with pictures of her wearing it, news clippings of her training, her pilot instrument certificate and her discharge papers. They also have her flight suit, Ike jacket and gray overcoat, pants and barrette.
Doug Mansfield made sure she was entered in the WASP archives in Texas.
The Mansfields acquired Beecham’s uniform from an airline pilot, also form Florida, who had befriended Beecham. She left all her WASP collection to him, and when he died, his wife sold it.
WASPs flew B-17s, Mansfield said. In fact, they were trained to do touch-and-goes in the temperamental B-29 that male pilots were refusing to fly. The commander trained two WASPs in a B-29, then lined the airfield with male pilots, had them watch three touch-and-goes and then asked if they wanted to know who was flying the plane, Mansfield said.
“They came out of the planes and pulled their helmets off and all that hair fell down,” Mansfield laughed.
Mansfield consulted his book on WASPs and showed their connection to Mississippi. They were stationed at airfields in Greenwood, Greenville, Columbus, Jackson and Meridian. There were none at Keesler or Gulfport.
They ferried, engineered or repaired aircraft from one place to another. One was killed in October 1944 in Walnut, Mississippi, near the Tennessee line, he said.
She was flying an advanced trainer, AT-6, on a cross-country training from Maxwell Field near Montgomery, Alabama, to Little Rock and developed engine trouble.
“It was getting dark and she was trying to land in an athletic field,” Mansfield said. “The towns folk surrounded the field with their cars and used the headlights to light the field and help her. But she clipped a power line on the way down.”
The GI Museum has something the Smithsonian has been interested in. In fact, the Smithsonian helped document it.
As far as Mansfield knows, its a one of a kind — the embroidered letters WDCA on a woman’s uniform.
After Mansfield hired research help, he found it stood for Women’s Defense Corps of America, a group that functioned mainly in the Northeast.
He has the uniform and a picture of Jacqueline Novak of Chicago wearing it with her fiance.
The uniform was tailor-made for her.
“No one has seen one of these,” he said.
Women’s contributions to the war, he said, “you can’t ignore it, it’s so important.”
As a footnote, Mansfield said President Jimmy Carter made the WASPs an official part of the military in 1977 and recognized their service to the country.
“And only then did the ones still alive get benefits,” Mansfield said.
The GI Museum
- 5796 Ritcher Road, Ocean Springs 39564
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the first and third Sundays