WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 25, 2013) — At 28 years old, Joan De Munbrun arrived for basic training wearing a fake mink coat, red hat and purple dress. The other women there had short hair and were dressed in men’s fatigues. The year was 1942.
“We are going to stay feminine, now, aren’t we girls?” De Munbrun said she remembered asking the other ladies.
Looking back now, De Munbrun describes the event as humorous. She was a hairdresser by trade, and had grown up in Minnesota. Later, when she was just 13, her mother died. So De Munbrun went to live with her aunt in Wisconsin.
At 15, she got her first job at a summer resort in Wisconsin. Over a month and a half, she earned just $90 — about a dollar a day.
“The $90 I took and hitchhiked alone back to Minneapolis … and started beauty school,” De Munbrun said. “That’s the only way you got around, you hitchhiked alone, because you didn’t have any money.”
By the time she was 20, De Munbrun had started her own beauty store under the marquee of a theater, two blocks from the “wealthy district” in Minneapolis.
“Those were the only people who could afford a hairdresser,” De Munbrun said.
She said at the time “I didn’t have more than an eighth-grade education.” Instead, she learned from her customers — most of them teachers, professors and other professionals. It wasn’t until later, while in the Army, that she would earn a high school diploma.
“On December 7, 1941, the whole world changed … that was the day the war began,” De Munbrun said, her voice dropping low. “My patrons all had husbands and
brothers, and they all left — all of them left.”
The fiancé of one of her friends left shortly after the war started. He was among the first casualties in the first two weeks of the war — two weeks before his wedding.
“After that, it was one after another. Most of the boys who went in first were casualties,” De Munbrun said. “You can imagine what that did to me. The girls were so upset that I just couldn’t take it. As soon as I heard that they were going to take women, I signed up.”
She was among the first women to do so.
For nine months, the women were taken as the Woman’s Auxiliary Army Corps. After that initial nine months, women were sworn in as part of the Army, where De Munbrun served for three years.
“I was never out of uniform, and I was only home once,” she said.
Her time in the service was not easy.
“The casualty list would come out — not only one or two, but 500 or 1,000 boys,” she said.
More than 410,000 American service members died in World War II. As a photographer for the Army during that time, De Munbrun said she was aware of many that did not make it home to their families.
World War II
De Munbrun was sent initially to Eagle Pass Army Airfield in Texas, near the Mexican border. She, unlike the other women, requested to work “in the field,” where she served as a photographer there for 18 months.
“We had to take the picture of the crashed planes, send the serial number to Washington so they could write the plane off. Then, when the boys were causalities — and there were many — we had taken their picture when they came on the field, and I’d have to go pull the picture, pull the negative, and develop it for their families,” she said. “Can you imagine what that meant?”
Nine men died every 13 weeks, De Munbrun said. “You felt a loss.”
After Texas, she was transferred to Denver, Colo., where for 18 months she taught the operation and mechanics of aerial cameras to service members.
“There, they sent us pictures of the war. I’d have to show the boys the gun cameras and the war pictures because that’s what I was training them on. So you see, I saw a lot more of the war than most people,” De Munbrun said.
Many died during World War II, and De Munbrun was an indirect witness to much of that through military photography. That knowledge took its toll on her, eventually.
“You can only feel so much pain,” she said, her voice sounding shaky. “You can only feel so much sorrow. It was sort of a numbing feeling. It was what was going on. You were there and you didn’t — you couldn’t — feel sad all the time.”
She was later moved to Texas for another 18 months, where she lived in a woman’s camp and worked with the men.
“Many of the women were assigned to our camp to keep books or something like that, but I was always assigned to the men because of my photography,” she said, adding the men were gentlemen. “[The male Soldiers] treated us like sisters.”
After the Army, she was sent home to Minneapolis. Perhaps the warmer weather in Texas had agreed with her, but she said after a month of sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, she decided to move elsewhere. “I moved to California.”
Out west, De Mundrun worked as a photographer part of the time, but said she couldn’t make a living. So she went to work in an office.
“Of course the women didn’t make as much as the men did, working right alongside them. Isn’t that something? It was a different world, but we made it,” De Munbrun said.
One of the things De Munbrun remembers most was having to adjust back to civilian life and learn to make her own decisions.
“Do you realize in the three years [I was in the Army], I never had a chance to think of anything for myself or anything personal?” she said, saying that the Army had told her what to wear, what to do, when to go to bed, and when to wake up.
“When I got out and when I got to Minneapolis, it was hard to think for myself,” she said. “When I got to Minneapolis, I didn’t know how to act hardly. I didn’t know how to think because everything, every move, had been directed for us.”
In Los Angeles, De Munbrun went to photography school for two years before joining the American Legion.
She served as a photographer for publications in New Mexico and the Denver Post. She was married for a short time and had one son. She now has two grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
On June 15, one day after the Army’s 238th birthday, she turned 100.
De Munbrun now lives by herself in veteran housing in Southern California, and though she has poor eyesight, she remains upbeat.
“I guess I feel so grateful,” she said. “I try to be with people who I can learn from. I think that’s why I know so many people.”
One thing she would tell current Soldiers to do is treat each other with respect.
“Anyone who has been in the service knows there is a different feeling — a feeling of being united and caring about each other and being proud of each other,” De Munbrun said. “And we help each other.”