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Washington, DC: At Home in the Nation’s Capital

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Color photo of the Washington Monument with cherry blossoms around.
Photograph of the Washington Monument through cherry blossoms, Washington, DC, April 1969. Edwin Trawczynski Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/76819.

In case you missed it, this past holiday season, we explored the meaning of home–how members of the military have missed home, returned home, and recreated a sense of home far away from loved ones.

All of this reflection got me thinking about my own definition of home and the specific places that I’ve called home. I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest will always be where my heart resides. However, I’ve lived in Washington, DC, for over ten years now, and while it’s a far cry from the pine trees and rainy climate that I grew up with, it too has come to represent home to me.

DC is not only my home, but has also been a location of service for many thousands of veterans. From World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of every branch of the military have served in Washington, DC, as well as in the surrounding area, at numerous military installations in Maryland and Virginia. Recently I passed through DC’s train station, Union Station, and realized that I was standing in the same spot where so many servicemembers had first arrived for duty in Washington. How did they go on to experience the District of Columbia, my adopted hometown?

Materials in the VHP help to answer this question. Like the tourists who continue to flock to the National Mall, some servicemembers were awestruck by the grand buildings of the federal city. In his memoir, Bernard Weisberger describes debarking at Union Station prior to his service at Arlington Hall (located just outside the District) during World War II:

What I do remember most vividly is walking into the vast and still mostly empty space of the waiting room (which I would get to know well in the next year) and seeing, through the front door, the dome of the Capitol by the light of the moon on a clear night. It took my breath away –I think I reacted like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with a kind of wonder and a surge of patriotic feeling (which time has long since seasoned with realism).

Black and white full length photo of man in military uniform standing outside.
Photograph of Norton Richardson posing in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC. Norton Richardson Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/93462.

Other servicemembers recall their experiences in DC’s varied neighborhoods. Norton Richardson, a communications specialist who transmitted radio communications from President Roosevelt’s motorcade, traveled around the globe during his service in World War II–but the photographs that he took with his wife near Dupont Circle convey their giddiness at setting up their first home in Washington.

In addition to Richardson, many of the servicemembers who moved to Washington during World War II were young women. Much like myself, many of these women arrived in DC fresh out of college–except they came to town to tackle critical (and sometimes top secret) war work. In their interviews, these women narrate not only their official duties, but also what it was like to be a young person living in Washington during the war. Of this time, Ann Caracristi recalls, “There was a sense of excitement and movement.” Caracristi, a civilian codebreaker who worked with the Signals Intelligence Service, describes the recreational opportunities the city offered to her and her colleagues–from sailing on the Potomac to seeing plays at the National Theater–which helped ease the tension of their intense work environment.

Ann Madeira, who served with the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Volunteer Service) in DC, echoes Caracristi’s sentiment, noting the sense of camaraderie shared by those stationed in DC, both male and female:

Washington was a lot of fun for a young single gal during the war. It sounds callous to say that, but along with listening to the radio or looking at the newspaper and seeing some of the terrible terrible news, and then some of it good news as well, there were always old friends or new friends coming through Washington.

Black and white photo (with blue cast) of two women pushing a bicycle outside.
Photograph of Edith Yantis and Ruth Goodnight pushing a bicycle with a basket of groceries, Washington, DC. Edith Yantis Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/19981.

Madeira also mentions the scarcity of housing in DC during the war; indeed, living conditions were of paramount importance to young female servicemembers. Another WAVE who served in DC, Edith May Crisman Yantis, recounts that there was no official housing for commissioned officers, so she and friends squeezed into a rented room on F Street. The photo at right, in which Yantis and a friend laughingly try to wheel a bicycle loaded with groceries up a set of stairs, conveys the off-duty challenges of life in DC–and the fun that Yantis and her fellow WAVES had in navigating these challenges and making their own way in the city.

For Caracristi, Madeira, Yantis, and other young female military members stationed in DC, the location of their service played a big role in shaping their service experience. Not only did they perform work previously fulfilled only by men, but life in DC provided another, different kind of experience and freedom.

The veterans profiled here are just a few of those who have served in Washington, DC. Curious about the military history of other cities? Use our online database to search for specific service locations.

This is the first in a series of posts exploring different places as they are represented in VHP collections. Where do you call home? Want to find out if there’s a VHP connection to your particular place in the world? Tell us in the comments below, and we might explore your hometown in a future blog post!

Comments (2)

  1. I nominate either Camp McCoy, Wisconsin or Ft Hood Tx..or both for it…….both were home to Combat Engineers.

    My (late) dad was a Combat Engineer in WWII in Europe and my (late) husband was a Combat Engineer in Vietnam. regards Maria Stanley

    • Great suggestion, Maria! Both locations would be fascinating to explore. If you are interested in participating in the Veterans History Project on behalf of your father and husband, we welcome collections of original items such as letters, photographs, diaries, and military papers relating to the service of deceased veterans. Find out more at Thank you again for your comment!

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