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“What the hell are we supposed to do with them?” thundered one American army major in 1942, an all-too-typical reaction to the unprecedented flood of tens of thousands of women eager to serve their country in wartime. “Young girls away from home for the first time and thrown in here with all these horny enlisted men? It’s going to be a goddamned mess!”

But it wasn’t a mess. The army and navy soon found plenty of things to “do” with the young women, who showed they could take care of themselves, and whom, even in the roughest war zones, those lonely enlisted men treated with kid gloves, grateful for the gentle reminder of home and the chance to engage once again in a bit of innocent flirtation or big-brotherly protectiveness.

In 1944 Mimi Korach, recently graduated from art school, had just traded a job in a war plant for a coveted spot at a commercial art agency in New York City. Several evenings a week she volunteered at a merchant seamen’s club sketching portraits of the servicemen who wandered in looking to fill a few lonely hours while waiting for their next perilous voyage across the U-boat-filled Atlantic. A USO official who came by one evening was impressed by the way Korach handled the boys: one part flattery, one part one-of-the-boys New York wise guy. She was confident, funny, and had a knack for bringing her subjects out of their shells. The USO man asked her if she’d like to apply her artistic talents to a tougher problem: morale building. A group of artists went once a week to sketch the patients at veterans’ hospitals. “This,” she later recalled with studied understatement, “was a different story.”

These were men with devastating wounds. The first time she entered a ward of men awaiting plastic surgery, her nerve failed her. But the ice was broken when one GI, his face half gone, approached her “with bravado,” Korach recalled, and demanded to know what she was going to do to sketch him. Taking up the challenge, she posed him with his good side facing her and said she would do a portrait he could send back to his family to show what he would look like when the doctors were finished. “This opened up a stream of eager, brave, sad men,” Korach recalled. Their initial incredulity that an artist would want to sketch them gave way to a wave of banter as the buddies of each sitter in turn became instant art critics, usually teasing that she was making her subject too handsome. Her touch of New York smart-ass went over well. “Camouflage this bum arm, Sis,” a patient told her another time. “Okay, I’ll draw trees on it,” she shot back.

She’d done scores of these portraits when the USO told her they’d like her to head to Europe to do the same at evacuation hospitals there. “Twenty-two years old, single, healthy, and eager for adventure,” as she put it, she phoned her mother to tell her the news. “Sit down, Mom,” she began, and ended by saying, “…and I’m going.” There was silence on the other end. Finally her mother said, “That’s wonderful, darling. Don’t get shot.”

After three weeks downing banana splits—army regulations required that females weigh one hundred pounds, and Korach was five pounds shy—she flew to Paris on an army transport, her first time in an airplane. She teamed up with another artist, a tall blond girl named Ann. It was soon apparent, though, that the most seriously injured GIs had already been evacuated. (This was “brought home,” Korach said, when she was sketching a young soldier whose leg was in a cast and she asked what had happened to him. “Well,” said the GI, “it was like this. I was upstairs in this house and I heard the MPs coming in the front door. So I jumped out the window and broke my leg.”) Korach suggested the army just send them to small posts that didn’t get the big USO shows. So began a hectic six-month tour of the war-torn continent. Sometimes they put up a poster announcing, “Blondie and Blackie are coming to sketch you.” Sometimes they kidded the men into coming to the base rec hall by telling them that Ann would do a fan dance and Mimi a bubble dance; when the men showed up “there was a moment’s disappointment,” but vanity always “won out” and the men would line up to be drawn. Hundreds of families wrote to thank Korach for the portraits of their loved ones.

But often the soldiers would just stand up and cheer when they arrived, not knowing or caring who they were or why they were there. “No one ever hassled us,” Korach remembered. They were just “so happy to see American girls.”


Originally published in the July 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.