For Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, we are going to highlight two members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) who served right here in Hampton Roads during World War II: Corporal Bernalda N. Paragoso and Corporal Edwina Cluney. Both women were from Honolulu, Hawaii, and after basic training were stationed together at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation. Fortunately for us, the Honolulu Star Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser reported regular updates about their “Island Girls” who had joined the military, so we know a bit about their lives!
While the Women’s Army Corps was founded on May 15, 1942 (then the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) they did not recruit women living in Hawaii until October of 1944. This was because Hawaii was technically still a territory, and did not become a state until 1959. All women from Hawaii were recruited to the WACs from October-December of 1944, and trained together in one unit at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Because Hawaii was already quite diverse, this made the Hawaii unit possibly the most diverse training unit in the WAC, with women of Japanese, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Irish, and English descent. Both Corporal Bernalda N. Paragoso and Corporal Edwina Cluney trained in this unit as privates.
Corporal Cluney was featured a few times in the local newspaper during enlistment, including a picture of her with her father, who was a Detective Lieutenant of the local Police force. This image shows her with her father and the police Chief, on her day of enlistment. Edwina’s father was from New England, and her mother was Native Hawaiian.
Corporal Paragoso was Filipino, and the first Filipino woman from Hawaii to join the WACs. During training, Paragoso was pronounced the WAC with the best posture. She was also known for her love of dancing, and spending all her free time with friends dancing the jitterbug at local USO clubs.
Cpl. Cluney and Cpl. Paragoso were stationed at HRPE together, and were initially assigned to clerical work. As they progressed and were promoted, they were both assigned to the debarkation and embarkation department which handles all troop movements. This included keeping track of records of all military personnel moving through the port, and helping recently returned soldiers contact their families.
One issue of the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that Cluney and Paragoso spent a three day pass vacation together, staying at the Hotel Leon de Ponce in Roanoke, VA. It reported that while the WACs enjoyed seeing snow for the first time, they did have some difficulty adjusting to the winter weather in Virginia. Cluney and Paragoso also spent Christmas together at the camp, where a Christmas tree party was held in the barracks day room.
It’s important to remember that many of those who served in the military were otherwise normal people, who felt a sense of patriotic duty and wanted to help end the war sooner. It is also important to remember that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, like Cpl. Cluney and Cpl. Paragoso fought against both racism and sexism in order to serve their county. Their path wasn’t easy, but they forged the way for many women, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders today. And for that, we thank them!