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Women in War: Tarpon Springs WWII veteran shares her story

Helen Zirpiades served in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service division of the Navy — the WAVES.

TARPON SPRINGS — As one of four girls, Helen Zirpiades felt a little guilty that her family wasn’t going to be represented in World War II. So she quit her job as a dressmaker to work in a factory making filaments for Navy radios.

But she also saw the ads in the paper about the Navy asking women to join.

“I came from an old-fashioned Greek family,” Zirpiades said, “and Greek girls don’t join the Navy. They get married, and they make babies, and they make baklava.”

Zirpiades said she shocked her parents by serving in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service division of the Navy, also known as the WAVES, from 1943 to 1945.

Now 100 and living in Tarpon Springs with her Navy veteran husband, Zirpiades hopes more people recognize the key role women like her played in the global conflict.

“You very seldom hear anything about the WAVES or the Women’s Army Corps, and that’s really depressing,” she said.

On July 30, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Navy Women’s Reserve Act, thus creating the WAVES with the goal of freeing up male personnel for sea duty, according to a Department of Defense report.

In 1945, more than 104,000 women joined the WAVES, and women made up about 18 percent of the total Navy force ashore, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. They did everything from administrative duties, to working as pharmacists and aircraft mechanics.

Zirpiades trained in Memphis, learning about the parts of an airplane, including the engine. Later stationed in Pensacola, she rose to the rank of aviation machinist’s mate petty officer first class, overseeing a crew of 25 women in charge of airplane maintenance.

Aside from being able to serve her country, the WAVES offered Zirpiades unique bonding experiences. One time, she recalls she and her friends having to toss cameras, crackers and salami out the window when the master at arms announced a surprise captain’s inspection of their rooms. They later had to draw straws to see who would climb out the window to retrieve the goods.

The Army paved the way for women in service during WWII through the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which later became the Women’s Army Corps. The Navy WAVES offered women the unique opportunity to achieve the same rank and pay as men, with some women even outranking men, said Kathleen Ryan, associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In 2012, Ryan made a documentary about the WAVES after learning that her mother had served as a pharmacist in the division. Yet Ryan knew little about her mother’s service and the military contributions of other women at the time. She now runs a website cataloging oral histories of the Navy WAVES and has interviewed more than 50 such veterans.

Through these interviews, Ryan learned how serving in the WAVES helped women better advocate for themselves and even their daughters. She also hopes more attention can be given to these veterans and their work.

“The military isn’t just the frontline soldiers,” she said.

A picture of Helen Zirpiades (c1943) remains on the wall of her home on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, in Tarpon Springs.
A picture of Helen Zirpiades (c1943) remains on the wall of her home on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Zirpiades now spends her days trading war stories with her husband of 62 years, Charles Zirpiades, 92, who served as a Navy airman first class.

“I always tease him because I outrank him,” she said.

The veteran couple continue to serve their community through volunteer work at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey, said George Psetas, founding president of the church.

In 2017, the church asked Congressman Gus Bilirakis to present them an award acknowledging their military service.

“There is no greater example of heroism than those among us, both past and present, who have bravely answered the call to serve our nation,” Bilirakis said in an email this week.

In the end, Zirpiades said her father never really approved of her service, but her mother and sisters were very proud.

“I’m extremely proud of what I did,” Zirpiades said. “It was the best three years of my single life.”