By Sophie Olson
This year marks the first time in United States history when all military positions and occupations are open to women. As we mark this significant moment, let us not forget the many women who have selflessly served their country in the past. This WWII American Red Cross jacket was once worn by Mary Ellen Higbee Cameron, an American Red Cross worker who served in post-WWII occupied Japan.
Mary Higbee graduated from Central High School in the class of 1933. She then went on to study at Carleton College, as well as La Crosse State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse), where she attended the La Crosse State Teachers College Training School. In her mid-twenties, Higbee attended the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, graduating with a degree in Costume Design. By the time she was 30, Mary Higbee had joined the Red Cross and was stationed in the Phillippines, awaiting a transfer to Japan.
Mary Higbee joined the Red Cross in 1946, right after WWII had ended. She served primarily in Japan, where the Allies had begun their occupation. While we do not know exactly what Mary witnessed herself during her time in Japan, we do know that the war’s end did not signal an end to the Red Cross’s service to soldiers waiting to return home, as well as to the many who remained injured or wounded in military hospitals.
The main role of most Red Cross workers was to keep up morale among the troops. This included a broad range of duties, the most common of which were: hosting parties and dances, operating clubs and “clubmobiles”, making doughnuts and coffee, visiting with the wounded, and comforting the homesick. While it may sound lighthearted, the duties of a Red Cross worker were exhausting and relentless. Most Red Cross women worked 12 to 14 hour days. The work did not come without risk either. During the war years, a total of 86 Red Cross workers, 34 men and 52 women, lost their lives.
After her service, Mary Higbee returned to La Crosse where she married Alex Cameron, a lawyer. Mary continued to pursue her passion for art, working as an art teacher at Logan High School for many years, as well as instructing several local art clubs. She died in 1991, at the age of 75.
Mary Higbee’s jacket represents not only her individual story, but the story of all the women of the Red Cross who served their country in WWII. The war was not only physically scarring, but was also a mentally scarring experience. Without women like Mary Higbee Cameron to provide care and comfort, many soldiers may not have survived to return home.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.