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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Northampton, Mass.: the setting for By Your Leave, Sir - The Story of a Wave


Smith College - Capen School Faunce House, 1914 postcard

During World War II, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, was a training camp for WAVES.  The story of female midshipmen is recounted by one of its graduates, Lieutenant (J.G.) Helen Hull Jacobs in By Your Leave, Sir – The Story of a Wave.

The book is actually a novel, published in 1943, but as Lt. Jacobs was then in the Public Relations Office of the Naval Reserve Training School in the Bronx, one may assume that writing this book based on her own experience was likely part of her duties in public relations for the WAVES.  Though it tells of a troubled young woman named Becky McLeod, who loses her fianc√© in a London air raid and seeks a place in the war effort, recounts her challenges and new friendships made, the book serves as a concise outline of the requirements for a woman to serve in the Navy and what she might expect to encounter in Midshipman’s School.  WAVES is an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and was part of the U.S. Navy Reserves.

Smith College Assembly Hall and buildings, postcard, c. 1905

Smith College, one of the preeminent women’s colleges in the country, became figuratively the Navy’s U.S.S. Northampton, and the women were trained in military history, military courtesy, discipline, physical training, and classroom education in many subjects.  When they graduated, they would be officers, the first branch of the military in which women would receive full military status. 

Smith College, Capen House, postcard c. 1905

The notion of women serving in the military was a controversial one, but the book’s title, By Your Leave, Sir, is a reference to the purpose of establishing this branch of military service for women: to relieve male sailors and officers for sea duty.  The women were assigned to replace men in clerical positions, but also served as aviation instructors, intelligence agents, scientists, and engineers. Over 100,000 WAVES served in World War II. 

Faunce House, Capen's School, postcard 1907

In the novel, we follow Becky and the other midshipmen through locations familiar to those living in western Massachusetts: on the grounds of Smith College and in Northampton.  They attend classes at Faunce Hall, are billeted at Capen House and the Hotel Northampton, and Wiggins Tavern is frequented on their off hours.  Filene’s in Boston tailors their uniforms, and there are trips to The Whale Inn in Goshen, and they go to a Red Cross Rally at the Springfield Auditorium.  Though most of the characters in the story are fictitious, real-life figures such as Lt. Elizabeth Crandall also appear in the story.

Hotel Northampton and Wiggins Tavern postcard c. 1920s

The novel is an interesting look at the life of women in Navy training at this time, and also for a glimpse at Northampton as it served this unique position in America’s war effort.

The author, Helen Hull Jacobs, had her own interesting story.  This was one of several books, both fiction and non-fiction she wrote, after having had a very successful career as a professional tennis player in the 1930s and 1940s.  She won several U.S. National championships, Wimbledon, and nine Grand Slam titles.  She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1962.  She was a farmer, designed sportswear, and her Naval career culminated by achieving the rank of commander while serving in United States Navy intelligence in World War II, one of only five women in the Navy to achieve the rank of commander during the war.


Asal, Alex. "Learning to be Navy," Campus Life, June 11, 2019, Smith College website. 

Jacobs, Helen Hull.  By Your Leave, Sir - The Story of a Wave. (NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1943)

New York Times, "Helen Jacobs, Tennis Champion in the 1930's, Dies at 88" obituary by Susan B. Adams, June 4, 1997.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of The Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Massachusetts - A Northern Factory Town's Perspective on the Civil War;   Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain: 70 Years of Summer Theatre on Mt. Tom, HolyokeMassachusetts;   States of Mind: New England; as well as books on classic films and several novels. Her latest book is Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.


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