Mary Lee Settle is best known as the author of a quintet of novels set in her native West Virginia. But her memoir All the Brave Promises: The Memories of Aircraftwoman Second Class 2146391, published in 1966, is set in another world. In 1942 Mary travelled to Britain to volunteer for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the RAF and the book is an account of her time in the WAAF. I first came across it in 1985 during events to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. I had never heard of the book or its author but I was intrigued to discover a war memoir that was not about combat but about women in the support services. Their experience appeared to be missing from the national story that was being presented. So an account like this seemed unusual if not unique.
Mary describes herself as being a ‘precious, innocent American anglophile snob’ when she arrived in England, and life in the WAAF came as a shock. The cold and damp of the Nissen huts made her want to cry and she never overcame her disgust at the sausage and mash, ‘marg’ and glutinous porridge of the canteens. Her previous British acquaintances had been on the cocktail circuit but now she was among the working class and could barely understand a word anyone said.
Tall and healthy ‘from protein, sport and sun’, she was working alongside younger girls who were products of ‘the dole, the war and slum life’. Her attitudes to cleanliness and underwear marked her out as different, and unexplained differences could be dangerous; not realizing she was American, some girls called her a ‘ten-bob tart from up West’. Before long, though, she and they adapted and she began to make friends. Nevertheless, as the only American on a big RAF station in England, her difference is a persistent theme.
She rejected the opportunity to become an officer, realizing that selection was based not so much on skills as on being ‘officer material’: me
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