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'An amazing woman' at 100: Former WAVE recalls WW II, meeting FBI's Hoover

Irba Bacon, now 100, recalls her parents didn’t want her to enlist, but she persevered and became a WAVE during World War II. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
Irba Bacon, now 100, recalls her parents didn’t want her to enlist, but she persevered and became a WAVE during World War II. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
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HIAWATHA — During her 100 years of life, Irba Bacon has been a very patriotic woman. She probably would have liked to have been part of an early Independence Day celebration last Thursday at the Hiawatha Care Center, where she resides.

It was an unforgettable sight. About 30 or so wheelchairs lined up in a hallway, mostly occupied by elderly Care Center residents.

Each resident was attired in some variation of red, white and blue clothing, waiting for the parade to begin.

Bacon had a special right to be in that parade. She was a WAVE for three years during World War II.

But she graciously chose to answer questions about her time in public service during World War II.

Bacon’s memory, understandably, is not as sharp now as it was a few years ago. On what she remembers, her answers often were firm and concise.

Asked if she thought Americans really appreciated women’s contributions during World War II, Bacon responded, “Probably not ... I don’t know.”

She then modified her answer, saying more appreciation has been shown in the past couple decades.

She was honored at last Memorial Day’s Voices of Hope concert in Cedar Rapids with a Quilt of Valor, noted Sheralee Gonder, of Cedar Rapids. Gonder and her husband, Carl, are longtime friends of Bacon’s, and hold her power of attorney.

Bacon wrote her life story in longhand some years ago, Sheralee said.

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Bacon is one of a dwindling number of WAVES, as the U.S. Naval Reserve — the Women’s Reserve — was known. The WAVES were begun July 30, 1942, with the idea of women filling various stateside jobs held by sailors, freeing more of them for overseas duty.

‘Too far from home’

Bacon was born on Oct. 6, 1917, on a farm near Lineville, in Wayne County.

After working in a Des Moines insurance office, Bacon decided in 1943 to join the WAVES, but her parents were against it.

“They didn’t like it. They thought it would take me too far away from home,” Irba recalled.

However, Naval officials persuaded her parents, and Bacon joined the Waves that November. She served until February 1946.

Bacon spent most of her service career in the Washington, D.C., area, at a Naval observatory where she worked as a Storekeeper 2nd Class. She kept inventory of and supplied parts for the Navy’s ships.

A secret trip to a new battleship, the USS Wisconsin, Bacon recalled, “inspired her to do an even better job.”

She also remembered coming to work one day to find one of the sailors stationed at her building being hauled away as a German spy.

“We didn’t know he was a spy. He kept to himself in the basement. We thought that was kind of strange,” she said.

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“Once in awhile I (had) talked to him. I was unsure of what he was doing. It was a big surprise. He covered it up good.”

Bacon wasn’t alone in the nation’s capital. Her sister, Arline Zimmerman, began working for the FBI there in 1942, fingerprinting people entering the military.

Zimmerman was with the FBI for 30 years, and in 1967 was honored by longtime agency director J. Edgar Hoover. Bacon recalled attending, where she met Hoover.

“I liked him,” she said, noting Hoover was very nice to her and Arline.

Gonder said Irba was known as “the Mayor of O Avenue NE,” where she lived for many years with her husband, Don Bacon, whom she met on the train ride home from Washington, D.C., in 1946.

The “mayor” in the title stems from Irba being such a people person, Gonder said.

“She just showed an interest in people. She is an incredibly kind and generous person,” Gonder said.

“She has sent greeting cards to thousands of people in her life. She’s an amazing woman.”

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