GREENWICH, Conn. – On Thanksgiving morning, 1942, six women boarded a New York train bound for Bremerton, Wash. They were young with a patriotic drive that led them to enlist in the Navy during the height of World War II.
At Bremerton, the women would serve as IBM programmers, punching paper cards that would be fed into the computational machines to crunch the numbers the Navy needed for everything from gun trajectories to mass logistics.
Most of the women have since passed, but the legacy of their service is now kept alive by Winona Mullis.
Mullis turned 100 this past week, nearly 81 years since she boarded the Bremerton-bound train. As a Specialist I 3rd Class, Mullis served in the Navy for 26 months and 26 days as a member of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).
Mullis says her memory is spotty, but she recalls the day the president came to visit her shop as if it had happened last week. She especially can remember the food. It was bad.
On Friday, she looked at a picture of herself in her Navy uniform with long, auburn hair coiffed into a bun and asked if she carried any resemblance to the young woman. Mullis’ hair is gray now and kept in a short bob. Her smile and eyes still match her photo.
Mullis was a freshman in college at Indiana State Teachers College when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States officially entered World War II. Rumors of war colored her senior year of high school. Now it was here.
When Mullis returned home for summer break, typists and stenographers were in demand. Mullis grew up in Seward, Pa., a small town about an hour from Pittsburgh. The town was so small that Mullis traveled to Johnstown, Pa., to attend high school. She followed her sister almost 200 miles away to Baltimore, Md., where there were more jobs available.
Baltimore, where Mullis worked for the Social Security Administration, was a patriotic city, she said. Shipyards up and down the Patapsco River helped the war efforts, and sailors were a constant presence on the streets of Charm City. Mullis had cousins in other services but it was the look of the sharp blue skirts and jackets of the Navy uniform that convinced Mullis to join the sea service. She was never particularly good at swimming – it was the only class she failed in college – but when she enlisted in the WAVES, that was not a requirement, she said.
She asked her parents’ permission, she said. They were none too happy about their daughter leaving home, but they ultimately agreed.
Mullis arrived on Sept. 26, 1942, in New York. The 19-year-old was a strong typist – 75 words per minute – and during basic training, Mullis was selected to be an IBM programmer.
While her job was ashore, Mullis had to go through basic Navy training like any sailor. She learned to march at the WAVES basic training site at Hunter College in the Bronx. She studied ship terminology, and once the women arrived at Bremerton, they would go on different ships so they could learn how each functioned. She remembers seeing ships coming with battle damage, some with holes due to torpedoes, she said.
An IBM machinist came out to Bremerton to teach the women how to use punch cards, a system where they would type out a line of code using a machine that would physically punch holes into a card so it could be read by a sorting machine, Mullis remembered. Each day, Mullis would be handed a program that needed to be punched out. She would use the punching machine to type out the lines of code onto cards before sorting them and wiring them.
The Navy’s discipline came easy to Mullis.
Growing up, Mullis’ parents were strict, she said, and she was obedient. Life in the Navy was not much of an adjustment, except when it came to her hair. Mullis recalled getting disciplined multiple times because her hair would brush her collar, even when she wore it up or had it cut.
Mullis also recalled when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to visit the Bremerton naval station. At the time, his polio was not public. When the curtain opened, he was at a podium, standing, gripping either side to support himself, she said.
When the war ended, some of the Bremerton ladies left, but Mullis and another one of the original six stayed on through March to close up, she said.
After the war, Mullis went back to college and became a teacher. She ultimately ended up in the Detroit area before moving to Greenwich, Conn., about an hour north from where she boarded her train to start her naval career. She’s been a resident of the city for 22 years. She’s been an active community member, serving with Republican committees and teaching English to those learning it as a second language.
Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo designated Aug. 31 as Winona Mullis Day to honor the Navy veteran’s legacy. On Sept. 2, at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, friends, family and members of the community gathered to celebrate as she starts her next century.
The New York Council of the Navy League presented her with a challenge coin and certificate, while local sea cadets presented the colors in front of Mullis.
She inspires everyone, her daughter, Samantha Mullis, said during a toast to her mother. She was a teacher, a volunteer and a sailor.
Now, Mullis is a centenarian, a veteran and a memory keeper.