Iris Carney Hamby Harrison was born December 12, 1922 and died May 29, 1993. She was the daughter of Robert Wesley Hamby and Sarah Belle Andrews Hamby of Purlear, NC.
It wasn’t until her death that her family learned of her contribution to the war effort. Miss Hamby planned to go to nursing school, but the war changed that plan. She signed up like so many proud Americans. She chose the Navy in part because of the nice WAVES uniforms (plus passing the IQ and/or aptitude test in a good way).
Benjamin A. Harrison, Iris' husband, was also a veteran in WWII. His story is included in this archive.
Wilkes woman take secrets of WWII service to her grave
By HEATHER DEAN
They are called “the Greatest Generation on Earth”- those who lived and fought during World War II.
It’s hard not to meet anyone who has had a family member tell stories of rationing, victory gardens, war bonds, or Rosie the Riveters - women who went into the work force to keep America running while the men were off protecting our great nation.
Sometimes those family members were the Rosies.
Barbara Pendry’s mother, Iris Hamby, was one of those women that served her nation in wartime.
“We knew Mom had served in the Navy, was stationed in D.C., and worked in a machine shop like many of the women did, but that was all that was ever said,” Pendry said. “She and several of her girlfriends, who worked in the shop with her, kept in touch over the years. They would meet up, talk on the phone, and send Christmas cards. Mom was just a girl from Purlear, a good country wife - she canned, made our clothes, fed the animals - she was just ‘Mom’ and she was proud of her service She always stayed active in the VFW groups in Lansing.”
Turns out Iris was not “just Mom.” At her funeral in 1993, women from the VFW and American Legion lined up as her casket came out of the building and gave her a final salute, before being buried with military honors. It was then that Pendry and her sister, Sarah, met Jerry Lafferety, retired Navy commander, and learned the secret that Iris had taken to her grave. You see, Iris was not just a Rosie, she was part of the Navy WAVES - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
Iris was a military intelligence code breaker.
In a handwritten letter from Lafferty, the importance of her service as Specialist Q, Second Class, in WAVES Quarter D was explained:
“What Iris did during World War II was a tremendous asset to the war effort against the Germans and Japanese.
“She worked hard as a WAVE to help the war effort at what was known then as the Navy Communications Annex on Nebraska Avenue, in Washington D.C.
“From what I understand she worked in the International Business Machine (IBM) Department of the U.S. Navy Communications Annex,” “This department processed communication intelligence from World War II enemies, to assist analysts in determining courses of action for military, particularly the Navy, to pursue in progress for the war by means of IBM computers.”
“Those machines could sort, analyze, and distribute intelligence to appropriate, and other concerned offices for analysis. Information was collected from a variety of sources, but was collected, collated, assigned, stored, and distributed to other departments by Iris, in her duties as a WAVE. What she did was an extreme COG in winning World War II. (COG Definition: Center of Gravity: the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act; the source of strength.).”
Lafferty asked to have her uniform, with insignia, to put in the museum, to “enshrine Iris and what she did to help win WW II.”
Iris kept her military secret, and even her husband, Ben, whom she married in 1945, and who served as an Army Engineer, had no clue the extent to which Iris had served. They had no idea where to even look for her medals. Pendry recalled that her mother had a lovely navy blue suit that she would wear.
“Apparently she had taken all of her insignia off of her uniform, so it just looked like normal,” she said.
Her secret was hidden in plain sight.
In fact, the only clue of the now growing mystery they found among Iris’s belongings was buried in her scrapbook. In-between postcards, autographs from the Rockettes, pictures of ballgames, race outings, beach days, even a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt. There was also a patch that had a quill with a lightning bolt, indicating Military Intelligence. “Specialist Q” were communications specialists, cryptologists, cryptanalysts, radio intelligence techs, and registered publications clerks.
“I wish I could tell you more” Pendry said “But she never spoke about it. I just knew she went to Hunter College in the Bronx for basic training in 1943, and then worked in D.C. I remember meeting some of her friends when I was younger, and when I asked what they did. The response I got was ‘I worked with your mom in the shop, working on machines.’ Now I know that they were all working on state of the art enemy code breaking machines.”
Pendry found out that these women took an oath to never tell anyone who they were, or what they did – and that meant until death. They were not allowed to go anywhere alone - usually they were accompanied by a male soldier chaperone, because of the knowledge they possessed. All correspondence was checked and double checked. Requirements included having an IQ of 125 or above, good at math, and crossword puzzles.
As the greatest generation fades away, more and more are finding out the wartime secrets that their mothers have kept, as they sort through belongings. There is a book called “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy that was written about her mother, and others like her. But just as in Pendry’s case, they know very little and are piecing things together. Even though these women served their country, and kept their oath, they were not afforded the same recognition as men.
Iris Hamby has a women’s wartime memorial registration in Arlington, Va. Her scrapbook was on loan as part of the “Girls that Code” program at the Wilkes County Library throughout the month of May. County Librarian Julia Turpin said “This program is near and dear to my heart, because I’ve always been a science and math girl. Anything we can do to show the girls of Wilkes that there is a future for them in the Math and science programs is important. Those jobs aren’t just for boys.”
History of the Navy WAVES:
Established on July 21, 1942, by the U.S. Congress, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The United States Naval Women’s Reserves, better known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) was the World War II women’s branch authorizing the U.S. Navy to accept women into the Naval Reserve as commissioned officers and at the enlisted level.
The purpose of the law was to release officers and men for sea duty and replace them with women in shore establishments.
It was apparent that women would eventually be allowed to serve, but the notion was not widely supported by Congress or the Navy, although some members did see the need for uniformed women during World War II.
Nevertheless the persistence due in large measure to the efforts of the Navy’s Women’s Advisory Council, Margaret Chung, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, women laid the groundwork for Public Law 689, allowing women to serve. The first Council to meet with Navy officials included Harriet Elliott, dean of women at the University of North Carolina. Others were Dr. Meta Glass of Sweet Briar College; Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, a national authority on efficiency in the workplace; Dr. Ada Comstock, President of Radcliffe College; Dean Alice Crocker Lloyd of the University of Michigan; Mrs. Malbone Graham, a noted lecturer from the West Coast; Marie Rogers Gates wife of Thomas Sovereign Gates, president of the University of Pennsylvania;
The WAVES’ peak strength was 86,291 members including African American women. Most enlisted recruits were trained at Hunter College, in the Bronx. After recruit training, some women attended specialized training on college campuses and at naval facilities. Many entered fields previously held by men, such as doctors and engineers. Enlisted women served in jobs from administrative and clerical to parachute riggers.
In creating the name, it was common sense to have W for women and V for volunteer, but because the Navy wanted to make it clear that this was voluntary not drafted service, the word “Emergency” was added to imply that women would only be around during the actual crisis, and then go home. Women were deprived of full military status and denied the benefits of their male counterparts.
The company even has a song. Elizabeth Ender and Betty St. Clair wrote WAVES of the Navy in 1943. It was written to harmonize with Anchors Aweigh.
WAVES of the Navy
WAVES of the Navy,
There’s a ship sailing down the bay
And she won’t slip into port again
Until that Victory Day.
Carry on for that gallant ship
And for every hero brave
Who will find ashore, his man-sized chore
Was done by a Navy WAVE
The following article was written by Ben and published in the Ashe County Heritage Book published in 1994.
Iris Hamby Harrison, Spec (Q), 2nd CL. U.S. Navy WWII
Benjamin A. Harrison, Sgt U.S. Army WWII
Iris Hamby Harrison and Ben Harrison served in the U.S. armed services during WWII. She, a native of Forsyth County and schooled in Wilkes County, in the Navy WAVES, and he s resident of Lansing, Ashe County, in the U.S. Army Engineers. Iris volunteered May 26, 1943 and received her preliminary training at Hunter College in New York, was qualified as a communication specialist and was stationed in Washington, D.C. until honorably discharged September 12, 1945. Her duties were very hush-hush and Iris was tight lipped about any details regarding her work.
Iris was a member of Jefferson United Methodist Church, Lansing American Legion Post 275, the Ladies Auxiliaries of Disabled American Veterans, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. She died May 29, 1993 and was buried at Ashelawn Cemetery with full military honors.
Ben was inducted into Federal Service September 16, 1940 with Company “A” 105th Engineers (Combat), North Wilkesboro National Guard, he was Company Clerk at the time. Ben took part in the North African invasion in November 1942 as sergeant in Company “D,” 175th Engineers, attached to the 3rd Division. He spent 26 months overseas building temporary bridges, repairing roads, detecting and de-activating mines and booby traps, sleeping in holes and on the ground. During this tenure his outfit was attached to British 8th Army Royal Engineers in Tunisia, U.S. 1st Division in Sicily, Free French Forces near Siena, Italy, and Brazilian Expeditionary Forces in the North Apennines. He received the European-African-Middle Eastern Medal with Four Bronze campaign stars, the American Defense Medal, and the Purple Heart for wounds incurred in the North Apennines area January 5, 1945, which resulted in the loss of his right leg below the knee. Ben was returned to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he renewed his friendship with Iris. They were married June 9, 1945, purchased land, and built their home in East Jefferson.
Source: Official records and personal knowledge