Last week I wrote about my one of my dad’s older brothers, Uncle Frank, a medic in World War II. He served first in Panama and then at Mason General Hospital on Long Island, where he met a medical technician in the Women’s Army Corps who would become his wife.
She was Florence Prebe, known as “Dutchy.”
One of her experiences in the Army reflects a dark side of wartime America: virulent racism in the Deep South.
Dutchy, who grew up in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, got her nickname during the Depression, when her family spent a summer at a Lancaster County vegetable farm that her father’s family owned. When she returned to school in the city, someone told her, “You talk funny.” She said, “Yeah, I was in Dutch country.” People started calling her Dutchy.
She dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a 21-year-old working for a Philadelphia company that made tins for aviation fuel. When America declared war, she quit her job and joined what was then the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In January 1944, a train carried her and 200 other young women to Fort Oglethorpe in northern Georgia for training.On her first leave, she rode a packed bus, wearing her uniform and sitting up front next to a man. A black woman about eight months pregnant got on with a little girl. Dutchy got up and offered the woman her seat, saying, “You can sit here.” The bus driver immediately pulled over to the curb and stopped.
“Get off the bus, you white bitch,” the driver said. Dutchy looked around, wondering who the white bitch was, and quickly realized the driver was talking to her. “You don’t offer a front seat to any nigger on my bus,” he scolded her. “You can get off or I’ll throw you off.”
She got off, stung by the applause that broke out among the white riders.