When Joy Bright Handcock joined the Navy as a volunteer recruit in 1918, she gave her heart to the sea.

She was among thousands of women allowed to serve in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – aptly called, WAVES.

After falling in love with the work and her commitment to defend her country, Joy wanted to make this a permanent job. But this achievement turned out to be much harder than she thought.

It was soon obvious that Joy was a natural born leader after being born into a large family of six children in 1898.  She was confident and persuasive, having worked in her father’s real estate business at just 14 years of age.

Her father, William Bright, held many jobs – city clerk, commissioner, sheriff and mayor of Wildwood, New Jersey.  Under his watchful eye, these roles influenced her greatly.

William served in the state legislature for more than 12 years and his penchant for learning and making himself indispensable was a trait he passed on to his daughter, Joy.  Joy was mechanically inclined and could repair anything from bicycles to car tires. She was particularly good with numbers and became a statistician after high school.

When America entered the First World War, women were encouraged to volunteer their services so Joy jumped at the chance.  In 1918, during her first year as a volunteer in the shipping yards offices, she quickly rose to first class Yeoman (F); the ‘F’ denoting her status as a woman.

Experimentation with air travel was exploding at the time and the Navy was interested in seaplanes and big air balloons known as blimps.  Joy wanted to indulge her love of planes and applied for a transfer to the Bureau of Aeronautics at a nearby naval air station.  This placement seemed exciting until tragedy struck, not once, but several times in the next few years.

Shortly after her relocation, Joy met and married Lieutenant Charles Gray-Little in 1921. Charles died just months later when a hydrogen explosion from his airship sent him and all forty-five of his men to their death in a river close to their training site.

Joy recovered and married once again in 1924, but her second husband Lieutenant Commander Lewis Hancock was also killed in another airship crash in 1925.  The Shenandoah Airship broke apart and crashed to the ground.

Friends and family rallied to support Joy who did the unthinkable: she signed up for Foreign Service School.  Having lost two husbands to airplane tragedies, she became one of the few women in the U.S. to hold a pilot’s license.  She was more determined than ever and threw herself into her public affairs work.

While women certainly couldn’t fly in the Air Force, Joy realized they could learn the mechanics of assembling and disassembling plane engines.  This training was something Joy said she would help to make happen during the Second World War after she rejoined the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in 1930.

Using her knowledge of planes, Joy ascended the ranks despite the fact that her WAVES job was not considered permanent and could be dismissed at any time.  She spearheaded the General Information Section, writing articles about aeronautics and penning her first book, Airplanes in Action, in 1938.

Over the course of the Second World War, Joy would be an integral force in recruiting other women to join the force so the men could fight on the front lines.

America’s naval female volunteers went from 12,000 in WWI to 78,000 by the end of WWII! Joy had lobbied hard to have women naval reserves viewed as an important force ready to defend the U.S. at a moment’s notice.

Tomorrow WomanScape will share the second part of this story – what happened to Joy at the end of World War II.

Hint: according to Arlington’s National Cemetery website, “when Congress passed legislation in 1948 allowing women permanent standing in the regular navy, it was largely because of the untiring efforts of one woman – Captain Joy Bright Hancock.”

Rose McInerney

Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

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