MARCO ISLAND — The woman in the famous photograph of a sailor on V-J Day kissing a nurse in New York’s Times Square isn’t her, said Rachael Klein. But it could have been.
Sitting in her beachfront condo at Hideaway Beach, the 90-year-old remembered clearly the day World War II was declared over. Well, she remembers some of it clearly, she said.
Rachael Petrini, as she was then named, was in New York City that August day in 1945, stationed at the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Third Naval District, and along with a host of others, she went to Times Square to celebrate when the news was announced.
The Yeoman 3rd Class had been working for the Navy almost since the war began, going to Washington D.C. as a civilian employee of the Navy Dept. within two months of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She worked as secretary to the admiral who commanded the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance, in charge of the business end of the Navy’s delivery of munitions against the enemy, and remembers taking dictation from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.
“They weren’t ready for the war,” remembered Klein. “And I wasn’t ready – I was a girl just out of high school.” But she answered the call, and also worked in an ammunition factory back at her home in Bridgeport, Ct., when she had to return to take care of her mother.
Once the WAVES were established, making it possible for women to actually serve in the Navy, Rachael joined, and became an actual member of the U.S. Armed Forces. She still feels an intense patriotism, and wore an American flag cap and shirt to speak with a reporter.
“I want to get these dates right,” said Rachael, pulling out her original enlistment and discharge papers. “I enlisted on November 27, 1943, and was assigned to the Navy Training School in Cedar Rapids Iowa” – a long way from the sea, and the war, she said.
She was reassigned to an officers’ training school in New Jersey, where she started dating a Navy doctor.
“We weren’t allowed to date officers, but I did,” she said.” We had to go out of town, or we would have been court martialed.”
The Third Naval District, said Klein, had its HQ at 90 Church St., downtown near where the World Trade Center would later be built. But she lived in the Theater District.
“I was housed in the Navy Barracks at 76 Broadway,” she said. When the word came that the war had ended, she changed into civilian clothing before heading out to celebrate, she said.
“I got into trouble. I took my uniform off.” In retrospect, she said, she should have been wearing it proudly.
“We all went down to Times Square. There were a lot of people. Everybody was hollering and raising hell,” said Klein. “Of course we were excited. We all got drunk. Everybody in New York went crazy that day.”
When she joined the WAVES, short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, Rachael weighed only 92 pounds, and her boss said she was just a “ripple,” and the nickname stuck, she said. As the organization’s name implies, the intent was to have women in the Navy only for the war’s duration, but in 1948, they were fully integrated into the Armed Forces.
By that time, though, Rachael Petrini had gotten her discharge, in 1946. She went from secretary to certified orthoptist, and embarked on a career that took her to Atlanta, Seattle, and Monterey, California, before settling on Marco Island, where she now lives with her boyfriend Jerry Gerolamo, 96.
“I’m going to a veterans’ gathering Saturday morning at the Hilton in Naples. It’s open to all vets, but it’s free for World War II vets,” said the sprightly nonagenarian. “Nobody believes I’m 90. I remember VJ Day like it was yesterday.”