Even before women served widely in the U.S. military, an estimated 400,000 American women served in non-combat roles during World War II. Approximately 500 — including five who attended UCLA, three of them pilots — gave their lives.
By 1945, the UCLA Alumni Association had tallied 5,702 Bruins involved in the war, including hundreds of women serving in the Marines, the Army Nurse Corps, the Women’s Army Corps, the Navy’s WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, and more.
While thousands became veterans, hundreds died, including the five Bruin women who died serving their country.
Among them were Marilyn Weeks, who studied microscopic pathogens and assisted in malaria research at UCLA before graduating in 1944 with a degree in bacteriology. She joined the Navy later that year, and worked as a hospital apprentice in Seattle. For nearly a year she served at the naval hospital where injured soldiers had been shipped home to recover. In February of 1945, Weeks became a patient in the hospital. A strep throat infection had required the removal of three of her teeth, but during the procedure she contracted a septic infection.
“She died a few days later, despite desperate attempts to save her,” said historian Bill Beigel, a UCLA graduate who specializes in researching the deaths of people who served in WWII. “Tragically, Marilyn Weeks’ life was taken at the age of 22 by a microorganism she had passionately studied and an infection which, perhaps, she hoped to someday help cure.”
Beigel uses his expertise and UCLA history degree to help families learn about their relatives’ service in WWII. He scours undigitized records scattered across multiple states, submitting Freedom of Information Act requests and decrypting countless acronyms to piece together the individual stories. With Beigel’s help, UCLA’s list of roughly 200 alumni who served and died in WWII grew more complete when Beigel located records for 80 additional alumni casualties — work that is ongoing.
He also learned about Edith Keene, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1942 before taking to the skies as one of the fewer than 2,000 women accepted into the Women’s Airforce Service Pilot program. In 1944 at age 23, she went on active duty with the WASPs, flying military planes in non-combat situations to free up male pilots for battle. Keene died in a plane crash in Texas less than two months into her service when a fellow pilot invited her to join him as an observer on his flight. The left wing came off the plane as he attempted to pull out of a dive.
The Air Corps interviewed her colleagues following the accident, including fellow WASP Gwendolyn Scales, who had met her the year before and praised Keene’s skills.
“She was a capable pilot,” Scales said, “and in my opinion, one of the better Service pilots of the Women’s Airforce Service.”
Like Keene, two other alumnae died while serving in the selective Women’s Airforce Service Pilot program. Less than 10 percent of women were accepted among the 25,000 applicants.
Dorothy Nichols, then a member of UCLA’s Alpha Xi Delta sorority, which still exists today, graduated in 1938 with a degree in history. She joined the WASPs in 1942, earned her flight credentials and helped move planes where they were needed. She died in a crash in 1944 while delivering a P-39 fighter plane to Montana when the engine quit during takeoff.
Margie Davis studied physical education at UCLA from 1941–1942, and joined the WASPs in June 1944 at the age of 21. Four months into her service, she apparently became lost on a navigation training flight, and after an hour-and-a-half of circling, crashed in Mississippi during an attempted landing.
Finally, Ruby Robillard, whose maiden name was Maxfield, majored in English, wrote poetry for various school publications, and graduated in February 1943. She then joined the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, earning her commission as an ensign in June 1943 and marrying in September. She was promoted to lieutenant junior grade and assigned to the recruiting office in Detroit before dying in September 1944 after a short, unspecified illness at age 23.
It’s difficult to track, but as only about 500 servicewomen died during WWII, Beigel considers it likely that UCLA lost more active-duty alumnae to WWII than any other university in the United States.
“I learn such intimate details of people’s lives, at their most heroic and their most vulnerable, so I feel very close to everyone that I research,” Beigel said. “Even though there are nearly 300 of them, I could go on for hours about individual Bruins.”