It is always interesting when my husband shows his American passport as we go through customs. He was born in Biloxi, Mississippi and that always gets comments.
His parents, Arline Raebeck and William Baker were northerners from Belle Harbor, Long Island and Dedham, Massachusetts, so to have their son born in the deep south was unusual but it was wartime and they were both in the US Army.
Arline graduated from Brooklyn Friends School and Centenary College. She decided against a job at the Stock Exchange as typing with a dictaphone jack in her ear wasn’t for her. Wearing her white gloves and hat, as she learned at college, she got a job at the Personnel Finance Company on Long Island, then later at the Head Office of J.P. Penney’s in New York. All the young men around her were joining the military. She was getting restless and none of these jobs, “were the real me,” so one day she went to the recruiting office and signed up. She needed her birth certificate and had to ask her father, for it. William Raebeck thought she wanted to get married but she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).
She traveled down to Daytona, Florida by train to attend basic training and Administration School. The Army wasn’t ready for the women. They had no uniforms, no barracks and so slept eight to a room in little nothing hotels. They were right on the ocean but, “it just wasn’t perfect!”
After their training, Arline and over a hundred other WAACs boarded a train to Keesler Field, an Army Flight Corp base in Biloxi, Mississippi. The base already had some women, nurses and civilian secretaries but the Base Commander sent a letter to all officers saying, “these WAACs were not going to ruin our field’s reputation.” He expected these 100 or so women to lead the 40,000 – 60,000 men down the road to ruin. They initially had guards around them everywhere they went. There was to be no fraternization and special permits were required to meet with individual soldiers.
Arline was posted to the Classification office where the recruits received their postings. Here she had her first contact with William Perry Baker. Bill Baker had graduated from Harvard and worked in several jobs including administering aptitude tests before signing up as a conscientious objector. He refused an officer’s commission and was a Master Sargent. It was only a three-person office and Arline had more in common with the office Sargent than with Bill.
All the squadrons had parties to keep up morale. At one event in a small hotel on the gulf, Arline couldn’t reach the refreshments on the table and asked the man in front of her for a piece of celery. It was Bill. Later, while she was dancing with her date he came and tapped him on the shoulder. He offered Arline stalks of celery and had the salt and pepper shakers in his back pocket. That was the beginning but according to Arline, “It was a little more complicated. It didn’t happen as easily as all that!”
While she dated Bill a few times she also visited two soldiers she knew from home, one in Florida and one in Dallas but, “The whole thing was a mess.” After her Dallas visit, Bill came by and while leaning against a tree outside her barracks said to Arline, “Consider yourself engaged!” She wasn’t sure of this proposal and asked one of her friends, “What kind of a husband do you think Sargent Baker would make?” The answer must have been good as two months later they were married. Only Mildred Raebeck, Arline’s mother came down from Belle Harbor for the wedding. She liked Bill the first moment she saw him. Her husband didn’t come. He didn’t like travel or the hot humid weather in Mississippi so Major Harrison in his white dress uniform, gave Arline away.
They only took a weekend for their honeymoon. They drove a few miles west in a borrowed car to Pass Christian and stayed at a closed golf course. Her mother wanted to get home but most seats were reserved for servicemen. She did manage to board a train and then the soldiers were nice to her and made sure she had a room.
Arline, then a corporal, continued to work after their marriage but had to resign when she became pregnant. William Perry Baker Junior was born September 20, 1945, in Biloxi Mississippi. Bill hadn’t yet been discharged although the war had ended.
The one item my husband wished he got when his mother downsized was her celery dish. His father won the little oval glass dish at a penny arcade.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) began May 15, 1942, as an auxiliary Army unit and on July 1, 1943, became an active unit, Women’s Army Corp (WAC). Everyone had to sign up again. Arline said it was like being asked after six months of camp, do you want to go home or do you want to stay. She took a long time to sign again because she was worried about her parents being home alone and what if something happened.
Arline Baker Wahn interviewed by her son Jonathan W Baker, March 19, 2010, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Video of Arline Wahn at Thanksgiving dinner by William Baker, November 24, 2011, in Sudbury Massachusetts.
Arline Raebeck Baker Wahn 1921- 2016.
William Perry Baker 1914 – 1963.
2 thoughts on “Born in Biloxi”
Great write up on Bill and Arline. You captured some details that either I didn’t know or have long since forgotten. Good job.
Pleased you enjoyed the story, Jon. Much of the information came from dinner videos and your long interviews with your mother.