Always a Marine
May 12, 2014 10:43AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Ninety-six-year old Helen Wahlberg Fritz grasps her walker as she comes to the door of her Chestertown home. The paneled walls of the home she’s lived in for more than 30 years are lined with stunning black-and-white photographs taken by her late husband, Laurens Fritz, to whom she was married for more than 40 years.
She adjusts her hearing aid, settles herself into her easy chair, and begins to talk about her life. World War I was over when she was born in 1917, but World War II and her eight years of active and reserve duty in the United States Marine Corps are forever etched in her memory.
“They were the last service branch to admit women,” she says. “For years they didn’t want women at all.” That irrelevant fact, however, didn’t bother her.
Born to Swedish immigrants, Helen grew up on a 26-acre citrus farm in Largo, Fla., where the family struggled to make a living during the Great Depression. This became even more challenging during Helen’s adolescence, when her mother discovered that she had breast cancer. During Helen’s senior year in high school in 1933, her father died and her mother took over the farm.
After high school, she was determined to enroll in Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee. “Many girls only completed high school at that time,” she says, “but I believed education was the thing to have.”
Hardship intervened again when her mother’s breast cancer recurred during Helen’s senior year at Florida State. While her mother spent three months in the hospital, Helen dropped out to spend the rest of the year managing the farm. After her mother passed away in 1938, she went to Chicago to live with her sister and to obtain a bachelor’s degree in home economics at the University of Illinois.
She first taught in St. Petersburg, Fla., and then a few years in Illinois. But Helen wanted more money and more of a challenge.
In January 1942, after answering a newspaper ad for an engineering home economist, she landed a job in Chicago at Hotpoint, a division of General Electric Corporation. Here she helped design electric ranges, which were rapidly replacing the old wood and kerosene stoves as power lines spread across the country.
Meanwhile, after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American men were marching to war. Helen pushes back her short gray hair as she muses, “No one in the Midwest anticipated Hitler’s strength. We all thought the war would end soon, but it didn’t.”
Foodstuffs were rationed and consumers could no longer buy new appliances since military products were being manufactured instead. At Hotpoint, Helen had little to do except maintain a test kitchen for postwar use.
She discussed her situation with the vice president of the engineering department, who advised her to consider military service because of the manpower shortage—giving rise to the slogan “Free a man to fight.”
Helen decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, which for the first time in its history, began to admit women in February 1943.“What’s the world coming to?” many scoffed.
Women recruits were sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C. At first, the women’s barracks still had group shower rooms, and urinals and bathroom stalls without doors because the Marines hadn’t had time to reconfigure them.
Helen reported to Camp Lejeune for basic training in June 1943. “We were issued seersucker uniforms with skirts and we never had to worry about what to wear. Boot camp was exhausting and busy. We dealt with the heat and voracious mosquitoes and learned how to perform the many non-combat jobs.”
After attending Cooks and Bakers’ School for a few weeks, Helen was sent to Officers Training School. “We started out with 100 women and by the end, we had 50 left. I would lie in my bunk at night and wonder, ‘Am I going to last?’ If you didn’t, you went back to the enlisted ranks.”
But last she did. After OCS, Helen reported to the WR Battalion at the sprawling Camp Lejeune as a second lieutenant, where she supervised the meals for about 1,600 women at Mess Hall #54. The heavy 4,000-calorie-a-day diet meant for active men was making the women chubby, Helen observed, so she asked the colonel if she could create a lighter menu for them.
“Hell no; you women eat what the men eat,” he barked. Fritz later convinced him to let the women eat lighter meals, which also saved money that was returned to the commissary.
In early 1945, Helen was promoted to first lieutenant and served as a station mess supervisor at Santa Barbara Air Station in California. “Aviation won the war,” she says. “The pilots were the stars and they had looser regulations. I was accountable for the inventory and I quickly learned how to adjust to a situation.”
By August 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated and Helen Fritz was soon discharged from active duty. “We knew when the atom bomb dropped it would be the end.”
She stands up and pushes her walker towards her office—determined to show me the framed discharge certificates hanging on the wall. She points to the active duty certificate dated September 14th, 1945.
Her discharge certificate from the Marine Reserves is dated March 12th, 1951. “When they called me up to serve during the Korean War, I told them I was eight months pregnant,” she says laughing. “That took care of that.”
After her discharge, she resumed her career at Hotpoint, and was later promoted to the sales department. After meeting her future husband, they teamed up to begin their own advertising business in suburban Philadelphia, where they specialized in food photography and recipe development. Their clients included Hershey’s and Campbell’s Meat Catalogue. Meanwhile, they raised five children.
Her daughter, Linda Bell, remembers those hectic days. One steamy summer day, the Fritzes were photographing ice cream in their home studio as their anxious clients bent over a freezer chest to ensure the ice cream would be scooped up and melted just right before the strobe lights flashed.
Meanwhile, the kids were making an unholy racket upstairs. “The Marine got us back in line,” Bell laughs. “As kids, we sort of knew she was a Marine officer, but we didn’t realize until much later how her Marine experience must have helped her with endurance during those long, full days when the going got really tough.”
Retired for 30 years, this grandmother of 12 was active until recently in the Kent County Historical Society. “When I think of Helen Fritz, I just smile,” says Board Director Diane Daniels. “She’s one of my heroes. As our board secretary, she’d listen to everyone talk at our meetings and then she’d explain the bottom line.”
Cherilyn Widdell, a friend and fellow board member says, “You think of her as a quiet, sweet lady, but she’s a dynamo in disguise.” Widdell recounts the interesting dinner parties Fritz often gave, where her entrees were enhanced by the stimulating conversations of her varied guests.
As a member of the preservation society Port of Chester Questers, Fritz is currently helping to preserve the Cliff School—the last remaining one-room schoolhouse in Kent County. And at 96, one of WWII’s last living Marines still attends her American Legion meetings in Centreville.