Maxine Taylor: On a Mission of War - With the Red Cross, she volunteered for service in World War II
Maxine was 23, a young college graduate, when she joined the Red Cross “to do her part” as an American. After a short period of training, she was deployed to duty to a destination unknown. Maxine wrote:
After thirty-one sea-sick days aboard the USS Admiral W.S. Benson and a six-day train trip from Bombay, I arrived at Howrah Station in Calcutta, India in February, 1945. I underwent immediate cultural shock when gangs of beggars surrounded me shouting “No mama, no papa, no per diem – give me baksheesh.” I spent a week in famine-ridden Calcutta, then boarded another train bound for a U.S. Army base near the village of Ondal in the state of Bengal.
She was a long way from Bokoshe, Okla., where she had been born in 1921. She grew up in Oklahoma, graduating from Spiro High School and then from the University of Arkansas. She was on campus when she heard the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. She had gone to work after graduation, without finding a great deal of inspiration in her jobs, before deciding to join the Red Cross.
“I was ready to go anywhere,” she recalled. After being ordered to San Pedro, Calif., she found herself aboard a ship that would zig-zag for a month, unescorted, across the Pacific. A souvenir card from the ship marks their location as “Secret,” en route to “a Mission of War.”
Her Red Cross mission, however, was to support American and Allied servicemen and women. Maxine had been sent to a U.S. Army air base serving the Pacific Theater of the war. Thousands of servicemen were stationed there, flying from the field to combat and repairing aircraft. The heat of India, Maxine recalled, was terrible, with temperatures regularly near 100 degrees with heavy humidity. “It affected morale,” she said. Every photo shows the servicemen drenched in sweat.
Their task was to run a recreational club, she explained. The Red Cross provided a library, kitchen, art and exhibits, athletic contests and dances. As she wrote in a short description of their mission, “the major challenge was how to contend with the malaise and boredom among the listless troops, enervated by extreme heat, high humidity, and tropical diseases.”
The soldiers requested a style show. “They wanted to see pretty girls in pretty dresses, to remind them of home,” she said. “Dumbfounded, we agreed.”
With the resourcefulness of a supply sergeant (and perhaps a base commander who allowed regulations to be stretched), the style show came off as a hit. Using parachutes, towels, mosquito netting, flight bags and other military-issue items combined with local sari fabric, the Red Cross women made dresses and evening gowns of rare design. “It was corny but a great success,” Maxine said.
The improvised style show was a high point of their time in India, which also included living in a primitive, thatched-roof dwelling with a burlap ceiling. Although Maxine remained healthy, some of her co-workers suffered from tropical illnesses. Their understaffed Red Cross unit of four or five people worked hard to man the rec club from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
She was too busy to have much contact with locals, except for an Indian “commander of the kitchen” who started each day with a fire ceremony, a formal tea with a local maharajah and a bracing encounter with a Ghurka on security patrol. When they could, they visited base hospitals.
Then the war was over, at last. After the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945, some Red Cross colleagues stayed on to volunteer in Calcutta and China, but Maxine was ready to come home. Red Cross and servicemen, all filled with relief and happiness, sailed (directly) back to San Francisco in early 1946 and, this time, she wasn’t seasick every day.
“We came in underneath the Golden Gate Bridge,” she said. A bus took them from the Oakland shipyards, she recalled, to a hotel. “Someone came and asked what we wanted to eat and we all said, ‘a cheeseburger!’”
She was soon to marry a B-25 pilot from Kansas who had been stationed at her base. He became a “30-year man” whose military career took Maxine and their daughter to U.S. bases in Texas, Georgia, Kansas and West Point, where he taught for four years; then overseas to England and Tripoli, Libya, she said. They were divorced after his retirement.
Maxine went to the University of Oklahoma for a doctorate and received a grant that sent her to France, where she researched scientific expeditions of the French navy. She made a wonderful, cultured friend in Paris of her French landlady and enjoyed traveling and touring with her in her friend’s Alfa Romeo sports car.
She became a professor of history at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., a town established in 1719 as part of French Louisiana.
Maxine returned to this area after her retirement to live near her sister, who had moved to Fort Smith from Spiro, and has enjoyed living here for about 15 years. “I love Fort Smith,” the well-traveled Maxine said. “It’s amazing that we have a symphony and our art center and the wonderful library here.”
Throughout her life, she has remained connected with the Red Cross through the American Red Cross Overseas Association, ARCOA, founded by her World War II colleagues. This club commissioned a bronze memorial to Red Cross workers who lost their lives while serving in that war. Installed at the Washington Red Cross headquarters, it was sculpted by Felix de Weldon, artist of the Iwo Jima monument, and depicts three Red Cross workers carrying a wounded soldier. Members meet annually in different cities and also hold a memorial observance in Washington, at which Maxine was recognized this year.
During the visit, 60 ARCOA members were feted at the White House in the Treaty Room. Maxine and four other World War II volunteers were individually recognized for their service.
Those five women also were special guests at the Red Cross chairman’s formal dinner for major donors and military members, which was held at the National Portrait Gallery.
Debby MacSwain, president of ARCOA and a Vietnam-era Red Cross volunteer, read aloud brief war memoirs of each of the five women as they were escorted by two military members in dress uniform to stand in a spotlight as their stories were told.
“Each of them had a standing ovation,” said MacSwain.
Along with the other honorees, Maxine was appreciative but a bit embarrassed by the fuss. They participated to honor the more than 78 Red Cross volunteers who died during the war. As she wrote in the short memoir that was read aloud that evening, “I wouldn't take anything for my Red Cross experience or for the privilege of working with, and for, American soldiers who served their country in World War II. If anyone deserves to be called the ‘Great Generation,’ they do.”
After a life of world travel, Maxine avows, “I’m not done yet!”
One of her 100-year-old friends also honored in Washington traveled there alone, which Maxine admires.“Isn’t that amazing?” she said.
Seeing Eastern Europe, which was closed off from the west by the Cold War for most her life, is still very intriguing to Maxine. She would love to return to Paris, she said. “Also, I have a niece living in London.”
Those destinations are a long way from Bokoshe, Okla., too – but that has never held back this adventurous, accomplished woman.
This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.