"Flawed Film Making the Rounds Again"


One of the things that military folks find amusing is the way that Hollywood, and Hollywood North (Canada), really botch military movies - from ranks and uniforms to combat and strategy. We can spot the uniform mistakes right away especially when an Army officer is wearing Captain's bars and is being called a General. Filmmakers rarely bother to get the uniforms right, the brass in the right place or even the proper flag placement. Navy men are wearing Army brass, Marines have on Air Force hats and 48 star flags pop up in 1970s films.
It's annoying to say the least but not worth getting all pushed out of shape about - except when a serious distortion of the facts becomes too far fetched to ignore. Such is the case with a documentary about military women that has been aired several times on television. Memory is at best a reconstruction and we all exaggerate. Past experiences become much more embellished in the retelling - the fish that got away was bigger, the number of dates in college becomes larger, the first kiss much more eventful - and so on. Knowing this we forgive the "extras" that make the tale told by an older friend or relative much more interesting.
wac wac wac

However when a film is presented as a documentary one fully expects a finer degree of accuracy. This is not the case with "Free a Man to Fight" and after thorough and extensive research here are some of the facts about the film as investigated by Pat Jernigan, Lois Beck and Margaret Salm:

History Channel is showing Mindy Pomper's 1999 film "Free A Man to Fight: Women Soldiers of World War II" during March as part of Women’s History Month. The film can be seen on March 15th at 6 AM and March 24th at 8 AM. Unfortunately the film is seriously flawed. The experiences told by at least two of the women are almost completely false. Other discrepancies noted in the film include errors in chronological sequencing, factual errors, and omissions.

The first false interview segment shows Ruth Karstens Helbig In the film Helbig says: “I was going to be the First Sergeant in charge of the first detachment of WAC that went to New Guinea.” She continues: “...we were...planning on how we would go down the cargo nets and the rope on one side of the cargo net broke and about 20 of us slammed down against the side of the ship. I banged down into the landing craft and crushed both of my legs....six or seven girls...were killed....” Helbig says that she was immediately sent back to Rome, GA to Battey General Hospital where she spent a year while the doctors were trying to save her legs.

Helbig's Army records show that she was assigned only in the Continental United States. Most of her service was at Ft Oglethorpe, GA. She did serve several months at Ft Myer, VA before her discharge in January 1946. Helbig’s highest rank was Technician Fourth Grade (T-4), a junior enlisted rank. Technicians were not noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and she was too junior to have been selected for a senior leadership position as first sergeant.

Helbig's Army records show that she was hospitalized at least nine times intermittently for 190 days. Her pattern of hospitalizations shows that she had chronic health problems for which she was treated throughout her enlistment. A trauma as severe as crushed legs would have required a long period of continuous hospitalization.

The arrival of WACs in the Pacific Theater was well documented in press and newsreel coverage. While wartime censorship might have prevented full publication of such an accident, a record would have been made. The WAAC/WAC members who died in active service during World War II are known by name, rank, unit, and place and cause of death. No incident similar to the one described by Helbig is recorded.

In the second false segment "Johnnie" (Nell Louise) Phelps claims to have served as a medic in the South Pacific. She says: "You did what had to be done. Changed bandages. Gave medicine. As a medic you did everything. Go pick 'em up and bring 'em in if you had to....it was scary all the time."

A review of her Army record shows that Phelps served only in the Continental United States during the war. She was a radio mechanic assigned to Langley Field, VA. During World War II WAAC/WAC served in many medical specialties, but they did not serve as medics.

In a third false segment, Phelps states: "I was assigned to Headquarters Company in Frankfurt. I worked for Eisenhower. One morning...he called me in....President Truman had decided that there shouldn’t be any gays or lesbians in the military, so he signed an executive order to get rid of ‘em....he wanted me to go and find out who they were....I thought about it for two or three seconds and I said, "Sir! If the General pleases. I’ll be glad to get you this list, but...I'm going to be first on it." And this secretary that was taking his notes said: "Sir...Sergeant Phelps may be second on it, but I have to type it, and I'll be first." So he said "Forget the order." This conversation could not have occurred because General Eisenhower left Germany in November 1945. He became the Army Chief of Staff on December 1, 1945. He was based in Washington D.C. when Phelps was serving in Germany.

Phelps Army record shows that she arrived in Germany in October 1946, and served in the Army of Occupation; she was a clerk and light truck driver until she returned to the United States in February 1947. Phelps was not a sergeant. Her highest rank during two enlistments was corporal.

A review of executive orders issued by President Truman reveals no order that deals with gays and lesbians. However, President Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 “Security Requirements for Government Employment” in 1953. This order is well known, and is the subject of extensive reporting, especially in the gay and lesbian community.

There are other inconsistencies in the film as well. The film correctly identifies the WASPs as civilians, noting that they never received military status. The film fails to identify the fact that the WAAC did not have full military status nor did they receive the same pay or benefits as male soldiers. Because they were not full military members, the first WAAC to serve overseas went as volunteers. Army and Navy nurses also lacked full military status, and did not receive full pay or benefits prior to World War II.

Several people are listed at the end of the film as “scholars” with the implication that they contributed to the film. One "scholar," listed as "Maddie" Treadwell (her name is Mattie), was not contacted at all by any one of the production company.

We've recommended to the producer that either the film be changed or that an introduction be added to identify the shortfalls. No action has been taken to date. Despite the flaws "Free A Man to Fight" fills a gap in the film documentation of women's achievements. It portrays a variety of duties performed by military women during World War II. The women volunteered not only to do those tasks for which they were already qualified, but also to do many jobs that had previously been thought to be too tough or otherwise unsuitable for women.

This critique is a brief summary of research done by three former WACs. Sources used include records from the National Personnel Records Center, St Louis, MO; materials from the Pentagon and Eisenhower Libraries; the U.S. Army Center for Military History; the Army Women’s Museum; and the National Archives and Records Administration II, College Park, MD. Two particularly good references are recommended for further reading: U.S. Army in World War II, Special Studies: The Women’s Army Corps by Mattie Treadwell, published by the Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1954, and Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Revised Edition, Jeanne Holm, Presidio Press, Novato, CA: 1992.

We plan to write a full report giving all the details of our research and we hope to publish it in the near future.

Comments or questions are welcome.

Lois Beck, Pat Jernigan, Margaret Salm


To those of you who may be asking "Why did I post this? Why not let sleeping dogs lie so to speak. Why stir up old memories?" Quite honestly I had second thoughts - the film, while flawed, is otherwise well done. And it is a tribute to the women who served. Overall it isn't detrimental to the women of World War II who volunteered. But it continues to send a distorted message by including fantasized recollections. In my opinion this is not fair to the many women veterans of WWII who are rightfully upset by this issue. Filmmakers have an obligation to portray the truth in documentary films - otherwise call them fictional!

If you have comments about the research presented above let me know and I will forward them to the appropriate person.

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