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Latina Making WAVES in WW II

Rosemary Bordas Fagó

By Juana Bordas

Juana Bordas was the founding President/CEO of The National Hispana Leadership Institute (NHLI). She is the author of two award winning books Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age and The Power of Latino Leadership.

Juana Bordas was the founding President/CEO of The National Hispana Leadership Institute (NHLI). She is the author of two award winning books Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age and The Power of Latino Leadership.

My sister Rosemary Bordas Fagó was born on the Nicaraguan coast in 1922. The oldest daughter in a family of eight, she was a second mother to her younger brothers and sisters – responsible, loving, and very protective. In 1941, a hurricane wiped out Cabo, Gracias a Dios, where my family lived for generations. My father trucked his family to the Bonanza mining camp in the Nicaraguan jungle to work in the commissary. Rosemary was marrying age and many a young man wanted to pluck this beautiful tropical fruit and make her his own.­­

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rosemary, however, had different ideas, “I looked around, saw the lives of women, and said I am getting the hell out of here,” she expressed. Don’t get me wrong my sister was an elegant lady, but she was also strong, focused, and didn’t mince words. World War II was in full swing, and a Navy Ad in Life Magazine for the newly formed WAVES captured her attention. She wrote to them explaining her desire to support the war effort and the Navy sent someone to interview her and my parents.

Today we witness the battleground over immigration, but in the 1940s – because our grandfather had come from New Orleans and was an American citizen – so too his children and grandchildren could become citizens by registering at the U.S. Embassy. Rosemary was accepted by the Navy, saved money to go to New Orleans, and was sworn in.

Rosemary only attended grade school, but was smart, capable, and very personable. The Navy put her on a train to Hunter College in New York for a 10 week boot camp. Imagine how brave, determined, and independent she must have been.
The other women laughed and belittled her because she was an immigrant and didn’t want to room with her because she was “Spanish” and had an accent. Rosemary shrugged this off by saying, “I got over it, overcame it, and kept going. But it did give me an inferiority complex.” She had never taken a test before and was amazed when she was chosen with 15 other young women to attend Iowa State Teacher’s college to learn Navy intelligence.

Juana and her sister celebrating New Year’s in 2000.

Juana and her sister celebrating New Year’s in 2000.

During WW II, Miami was the center for international liaisons and intelligence for the Navy. Because she spoke Spanish and many military officers visited from South America, she became the Yeoman for Captain W.B. Howe who was in charge of this area. Her Spanish and background now became an asset distinguishing her from the other Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). The WAVES was established as a World War II division of the U.S. Navy on July 30, 1942 and consisted entirely of women.

Juana Bordas with her sister Rosemary attend the National Hispana Leadership Institute event.

Juana Bordas with her sister Rosemary attend the National Hispana Leadership Institute event.

Rosemary then became Captain Howe’s liaison. Her role included meeting with military dignitaries, including the Russians and the French when they came to Miami, translating the documents from their meetings, and making sure they were treated like dignitaries. Because of her role, she was privy to much of the Navy’s intelligence during the war. The most difficult task was carrying a gun in her purse when she had secret documents. “I had to be willing to say I would shoot to kill if someone wanted something I had. But I felt I was doing good for the country and I got pretty good with my gun,” she would say.

Rosemary faced other obstacles as a woman. “With all due respect,” she told Captain Howe one day, “Some of the South Americans tried to get a little fresh when I welcomed them and escorted them to the hotel.” I guess seeing a beautiful Nicaraguan woman in those days meant something different to them. From then on she was accompanied by a Marine in full regalia. The advances stopped and a victory was won for women everywhere.
Perhaps the most important contribution she made was going to Argentina – not an ally when their submarines were being surrendered. During her time in the WAVES she studied legal terms and translated the documents that verified the Argentinian surrender and were sent to Washington.

My sister left the WAVES after the war as a Yeoman First Class and was slated to become a Petty Officer, which I understand is the highest rank an enlisted sailor can reach. Like many of the young women after the war, she married right away, but always believed that the Navy made her a better person. A year later, Rosemary helped bring her mother and brothers and sister to America. In her characteristic giving manner, she used her G.I. Bill to buy us our first home. She started a small sewing business out of her home and went on to have a couture shop in Palm Beach where she sewed and designed clothes for Estée Lauder, Mrs. DuPont, and Rose Kennedy, who featured one of Rosemary’s creations in her book, Times to Remember. Perhaps since the WAVES uniforms were designed by Mainbocher, then editor of Paris Vogue, this was another legacy of her time in the Navy.

“I am so proud to be a U.S. citizen and to have served the country that I love,” she expressed when she was awarded the American Campaign Metal for her contributions to WW II. “I have a deep appreciation for all that has been done for us to have our freedom.”
My sister Rosemary passed away on November 13, 2013 at the age of 91. On a gray Saturday morning, four Navy cadets sounded the soulful taps as a grateful family accepted the flag of the country she loved so much.

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES): The WAVES was created in 1942 to allow women to volunteer in the U.S. navy to free men for combat duty within the Navy. Women worked in communications, air traffic control, naval air navigation, and clerical positions. 86,000 women volunteered for the WAVES during World War II.

Rosemary Bordas Fagó in Navy uniform.

Rosemary Bordas Fagó in Navy uniform.

Rosemary Bordas Fagó official military photo.

Rosemary Bordas Fagó official military photo.

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