93-year-old served as WAVES aircraft mechanic
LaVonne Olberg has what they call a mechanic’s hand.
That’s what the 93-year-old veteran and Robbinsdale resident says she learned about her hands long ago. Hands that once set points on sparkplugs, refueled Piper Cubs, and maintained fleets of company planes for the U.S. Navy. As she displays her palm, she runs the fingers of her opposite hand across her thumb joint, the spot which, according to lore, can make or break one’s technical capabilities. “They say some hands are too narrow here for it. But mine have this arch.”
Before she discovered she had a literal touch for all things mechanical, she knew she had a strong aptitude, so she had no qualms with being assigned as an airplane mechanic when she enlisted in the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program toward the end of World War II, even though it wasn’t her first choice of roles.
“I had wanted to be in the recreation department, but it was always full,” she said.
Olberg was determined to enlist in spite of women joining the military being a very unpopular notion at the time.
“I had a lot of people trying to persuade me not to, but there was nothing that was going to stop me.” She eagerly signed on as soon as she turned 20 (WAVES recruited women aged 20-49), leaving St. Olaf College in Northfield after two years of studying physical education.
Because Olberg was sent to a home in Northfield at age 2, along with her seven siblings, after their mother was institutionalized, she grew up a ward of the state. Since her name didn’t appear on her birth certificate, she needed someone who shared her last name to sign off on some paperwork verifying her identity. It took some convincing to get her brother, who was home from a tour with the Air Force, to sign the documents so she could enlist.
“He wouldn’t do it at first. It was common then for men to say things like, ‘I wouldn’t want MY sister joining,’” she said. Her brother finally agreed to sign, and Olberg enlisted immediately.
The military sent her to Norman, Oklahoma, to study plane machinery and systems for three months before she spent a year at an air station in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she worked in a spark plug shop.
“We had to take them apart, put them through a wash, set their points,” she said. She was also responsible for the maintenance of company planes.
At the end of the year of service in Atlantic City, WAVES members had the choice of getting stationed for another year in either Alaska or Hawaii.
“You know which one I picked,” Olberg joked. She soon set off on a luxury liner as a part of Ship’s Company with 30 other WAVES and an entire quarter filled with sailors toward Hawaii’s Ford Island, the naval base in the middle of Pearl Harbor that had been bombed nearly two years earlier.
Olberg fondly remembers that journey, although it didn’t always go smoothly. Embarking from the coast of California, the ship went underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and hit ground swells that rocked the boat. “You didn’t see too many people standing up then – they were either sitting or with their heads out the portholes.” At another point, the liner was actually chased by a Japanese ship. Olberg didn’t flinch as she recalled the incident. “The thing about luxury liners is they’re the fastest thing on the water,” she said.
She said one particularly stunning image is burned into her memory from that expedition: a bioluminescent glow on the ocean at night. “I don’t know what caused it, exactly, but they said it was somehow coming from phosphorus.”
Olberg described Ford Island as being approximately 3 miles in circumference with an airstrip running down the center of the island, where jets would take off directly over the barracks in which she lived.
“They were testing jets there for the first time. All the planes had run on radio engines before, and they were working on jet propulsion engines,” she said.
Fighter jets would practice touching down on ship surfaces using that air strip, a nimble feat only a jet-assisted engine could handle. Olberg described watching test pilots practice JATOs, an acronymn for jet-assisted takeoff. “They were testing underneath fireplanes a very, very small new plane performing JATOs. That plane came forward, then straight up on a dime – and that was the creation of the jet,” she said.
Ford Island is where Olberg says destroyers, cruisers, and battleships were birthed. The base also contained aircraft, which was an integral part of the U.S. staying afloat after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“That’s why we didn’t lose the war; we still had air power. Also, it helps they didn’t bomb the oil tanks, so we still had fuel,” she explained.
For the first time, women were being allowed to perform military jobs men once held, partly because so many men were being recruited for the battlefield. Olberg said she and the women she worked with faced harassment from men, who she said “threw everything” they could think of in comments at the women as they walked past each other going to the cafeteria.
“We couldn’t do anything about it, but it was there. It was always there … it was implied. A lot of the girls wouldn’t even go to chow. They’d just go to the ship stores instead,” Olberg said, noting that she didn’t let the comments get to her, and the other women stood strong as well because they knew they were there serving their country.
Olberg said that even though men often expressed doubt about her abilities, she loved what she did and performed her work with pride. “They’d say, ‘Oh, a woman can’t be a mechanic,’” she said.
Never shaken by that glaring difference of opinion, Olberg’s strength of conviction and will to serve her country are robust, like any other hero of American military service. Her two years in the Navy earned her both American Campaign and Pacific Theater ribbons. None of what she took away from the experience can be overshadowed by doubts from others.
“When you look back on things, you realize they were much better than you thought they were,” she said.
Contact Laci Gagliano at [email protected]