As we commemorate Veterans Day, we want to thank all of the veterans who have served our country throughout the years. Today’s historic spotlight is on National Archives employee Eunice Whyte, who served in the U.S. Navy in both World Wars.
Only two women served in the U.S. Naval Reserves during both World War I and World War II—one was Joy Bright Hancock, and the other was National Archives employee Eunice Whyte.
Ethel Eunice Whyte, who went by “Eunice,” was a native Washingtonian. Born in 1893, she grew up in northwest DC and went to high school at the now defunct Hamilton School near Lafayette Square.
While a student at the George Washington University in 1918, she enlisted in the Navy during World War I. She was assigned to the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation, where she worked for then-Commander John S. McCain, Sr. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he was late Senator John McCain’s father.
In an interview, Whyte talked about her time in WWI. She said was classified as a “Yeoman (F),” which was popularly known as “Yeomanette.” She recalled the long skirt, high-collared blouse, and stiff sailor hat she was required to wear during her first enlistment. According to Whyte, the Navy wasn’t completely on board with a Women’s Reserve at that time, so she did not get any training for positions like a mechanic or a specialist. She, and her female colleagues, held enlisted ranks and served in support positions—mainly secretarial—and almost all served stateside in government or naval offices, at defense companies, or in hospitals.
She, and other members of the Women’s Reserve, did not live in barracks, and unlike their male counterparts, she was allowed to wear civilian clothes when off duty. Whyte said the women were good sailors nonetheless.
She was released from the Navy in 1919, but she continued to work as a civilian with the Department of the Navy. She also finished her A.B. and later earned an M.A. in history from the George Washington University.
Whyte left her civilian position with the Navy in 1923 and worked in a number of government agencies before coming to the National Archives on July 22, 1935. She was one of the very earliest staff to be hired at the National Archives, and even though she had an M.A., she was put in the secretarial series.
Whyte started as a stenographer but soon became secretary to Dorsey Hyde, the Director of Archival Services. She then quickly made her way into the professional series, eventually becoming an associate archivist working with, appropriately, veterans records.
In a letter to Whyte in 1938, Hyde commented that “It has not been my good fortune in the past ever to have had an assistant with qualifications equal to yours and I want hereby to record the fact that your services were of greatest value to me in executing the duties devolving upon this office.”
We get a rare glimpse into her day-to-day responsibilities in 1940 after her boss, Thomas Owen, Chief of the Division of Veterans’ Administration Archives, directed his staff to give him a 150-word description of their duties. Her handwritten memo outlined her responsibilities for answering reference requests on pension case files.
In February 1943, she left the National Archives and enlisted in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as the “WAVES.” This was the Navy’s Reserve Women’s branch, which had just been established the previous July. During her second stint in the Navy, she first attended two months of officer training in Northampton, Massachusetts. Lieutenant Whyte then spent the bulk of the remainder of World War II at the Naval Air Station in New York.
When asked why she enlisted in the Navy a second time, she said she enjoyed her time in the Navy “more than anything else” in her life and wanted to help more.
When World War II ended, she left the service and became a civilian employee for the Navy once again, this time working in New York City. Among her responsibilities was records management work.
Whyte retired in 1953 and died of cancer on May 2, 1956, in New York City at age 62. She’s buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, DC.
She was just one of the many National Archives staff members to serve our country in the U.S. Armed Forces. You can read more stories from our very own veterans who were interviewed in 2017 as part of the National Archives oral history project.
And we want to give a big thank you to Corey Stewart from the National Archives at St. Louis for her assistance with this blog.