The Female Camouflagers of World War I.


Marguerite Carmel Becht (later Wilson), artist and member of the Camouflage Reserve Corps. Image from her 1918 passport application.

The National Archives’ Unwritten Record blog highlights World War I’s Camouflage Reserve Corps of the National League for Women’s Service, including cool photos of the women in training and painting the U.S.S. Recruit (a recruitment station built in the shape of a ship in New York City’s Union Square). The 30 Nov 1918 issue of American Rifleman notes that four women from the corps visited the Navy rifle range in Caldwell, NJ, and “made good at whatever they tried. And they tried practically everything in the way of marksmanship that we had to offer—from the short course to the machine gun” (197).

For a closer look at the camouflaging of the U.S.S. Recruit, visit the blog Camoupedia. One corps member who worked on the Recruit was artist Marguerite Carmel Becht (later Wilson), who went on to serve for nine months in YMCA canteens in Great Britain and France before her assignment to the YMCA facility at Walter Reed in 1919.

Save the date! Helen Hagan grave marker ceremony.


Hagan in YMCA uniform

The ceremony to unveil the grave marker for composer-pianist Helen Hagan—the only black performing artist sent to World War I France—has been set for Thursday, September 29, at 2 p.m. at New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery.

“The Wounded Were Alive with Vermin”: Pauline Jordan (Rankin).


Pauline Jordan, ca. 1917

Born in Auburn, ME, in 1892, Pauline Jordan earned her nursing credentials from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses and sailed in October 1915 to serve with the American Ambulance Hospital at Neuilly, France (Dr. Hugh Auchincloss of Columbia University was involved in recruiting medical personnel for the hospital). In September 1916, she headed to Romania as anesthetist for a medical mission with French surgeon Alexis Carrel (who had pioneered with British chemist Henry Dakin a life-saving method for treating wounds). In April 1917 she wrote to Jane Delano, the head of Red Cross nursing, about the conditions she encountered:

During the six weeks that we were in the Roumanian Hospital at Jassy, we did most of the dressings under great difficulty. The dressing room was crowded with Sisters of Charity, boy scouts, medical students and many young girls. As we had over six hundred patients and about four sets of instruments and only one alcohol stove, the work was never completely finished.

There was no heat and the food was very poor. Our principal diet was corn meal mush and goats’ cheese, black bread, and occasionally beans. Once a day we had tea and twice a week meat. During the winter we cared for patients whose feet had been completely frozen while lying in bed.

[At another hospital] . . . . The wounded were alive with vermin and we had no supplies. When the severely wounded came in we had almost nothing to work with. They lay on straw mattresses without rubber sheets and the straw quickly became contaminated with pus and blood, but we had no fresh straw. A great many of them died from exposure and septic infection.

. . . .The Queen [Marie of Romania] sent us some rice, macaroni, sugar and tea and the American Legation has been very kind to us indeed so we have managed to live through the winter. The patients are all suffering from malnutrition.

No doubt you have read of the frightful typhus epidemic. . . . .People have died by the thousands and all the hospitals are overcrowded. . . .
(Qtd. in The History of American Red Cross Nursing, [1922], pp. 879–80)

According to an April 1917 article in the Harrisburg Telegraph, Jordan escaped the bombardment of Bucharest in December 1916, heading for Russian territory, but was imprisoned by the Germans in a basement with very little food. The Red Cross sent her to Italy in December 1917.

Jordan received five decorations for her war service, including the Order of the Cross of Queen Marie from the Romanian government.

In 1920 she set sail on the S.S. Amerika for assignments with Near East Relief in Constantinople and the Caucasus region. In 1923 Jordan worked for Near East Relief in Armenia and is credited with starting the first school for the blind in that country. She met Near East engineer Karl Lott Rankin and married him in 1925. Her husband joined the Foreign Commerce Service, and the Rankins journeyed to postings in Prague, Athens, Tirana, Albania,  Brussels, and Belgrade. The Rankins were en route to a posting in Egypt when the Japanese interned them in Manila (which lasted for 21 months). Thus Jordan was imprisoned during both world wars.

Karl Rankin later became the U.S. ambassador to Taiwan and Yugoslavia. Jordan died in 1976.