Betty Bandel led a remarkable life that took her to an Arizona newspaper, the University of Vermont and the U.S. Army, where she rose to lieutenant colonel as deputy director of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.
She was born in Washington, D.C., in 1912, and moved with her family to Tucson, Ariz., in 1918. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1933 and became a reporter and women’s page editor for the Arizona Daily Star from 1935 to 1942.
Betty Bandel’s friend and archivist Sylvia Bugbee described what happened next:
In the summer of 1942, as the United States was gearing up for war, the call went out to American women to support the war effort by joining the newly-formed Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. As Bandel later recalls, a fellow reporter came into the newsroom and said: “‘Bandel, they’re creating a women’s army.’ ‘Who is?’ I said. And she said, ‘the United States.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s join.’ So we walked down the street and did.'” When asked why, Bandel replied, “That’s a funny question. What else would there have been for an unmarried woman except to be in the service one way or another? Everybody was in something. And so you naturally went in.”
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps had been organized in 1942, the first time women were formally integrated into the military. In 1943 it was integrated into the army as the Women’s Army Corps. Betty Bandel graduated from Officer Candidate School in July 1942 and was commissioned a first lieutenant, quickly rising to captain. She was chosen by WAC Director Lt. Col. Oveta Culp Hobby as her aide in Washington.
Betty Bandel accompanied Hobby to Europe and on most field trips, meeting VIPs including Eleanor Roosevelt, who she liked very much. She spent most of the war administering the WAC, and in 1944 developed a school for WAC Personnel Administration.
After the war she influenced generations of students at the University of Vermont, where she taught English and specialized in Shakespeare. She wrote a play about Justin Smith Morrill, the U.S. senator from Vermont who authored the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act.
On May 2, 1943, Betty Bandel wrote to her mother:
I am sitting in my room, surrounded by yellow roses (from my housemates): an empty champagne bottle, 1928 vintage (shared the eventful night — Friday – with the bunch here): my gorgeous orchid. It was wonderful to talk to you all yesterday. The L.C. asked me what you said, & I told her that you, Maw, didn’t like it because I was “leaving my Little Colonel.” She said “Don’t worry – you can’t do that.” And ‘tis true – I never can leave the Little Colonel spiritually, any more than I could leave Alexander, or Binda, or the Fullers.
Well, here is the latest chapeter in the dream: Friday morning old Virg. Bock came in & stood in front of me, while I was talking over the telephone to the head of her Division (Personnel), & began playing with the sign on my desk that says “Capt. Bandel,” pretending she was snipping off half the sign. I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “Congratulations, Major!” I yelled, “What!” And Jepson, who heard it all over the phone, said, “Is that Bock?” Tell her to come back here – I’ll speak to her!” Then it developed it was all to be a surprise because the boss wanted to tell me & to pin the leaves on. So I promised to look surprised again. Three other people found out abit it, wandered in, & broke the news again — & 3 more times I looked surprised. Finally the L.C. got free, called me in, & pinned on the leaves – I couldn’t look surprised again, but I suppose I looked enough what I felt to do. Then a photographer from the Bureau of Public Relations came in & took pictures of her pinning them on, & shaking hands with me. She said the gold leaf is so becoming she thinks she’ll have to freeze all promotions at this level. There will probably be several more majors in a few days – Jess Rice, I hope, & some others. When I went out into the other offices I was mobbed by Waacs who wanted to say, “Congratulations.” It seemed to fill them with such pride in the Corps & in the L.C. that one of their own number – plain old Betty Bandel from Arizona, with no more pull than anything – should have become the first major. Their kindness was, to me, the greatest thing about the promotion. I came home, & found the kids had been waiting up for hours, with excellent champagne & lovely roses. So we had another party.
Betty Bandel died July 8, 2008.
With thanks to An Officer and a Lady: The World War II Letters of Lt. Col. Betty Bandel, Women’s Army Corps, edited by Sylvia Bugbee.