Betty White's shoulder bag is a time capsule of World War II

On December 31, 2021, the beloved actress Betty Marion White Ludden (1922–2021) passed away at 99 years old, weeks shy of her hundredth birthday. Countless tributes and condolences from around the country poured in, honoring her and remembering her vast legacy. Even the U.S. Army tweeted about her passing, noting how Betty White had served as a member of the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS) during World War II.

This past year, our museum acquired White’s AWVS uniform, which she had kept all these years. The uniform’s accompanying shoulder bag arrived in the museum filled with artifacts of White’s wartime experience. The bag and its contents are a perfect time capsule, providing insight into life on the home front for White, fellow AWVS members, and the young servicemen White encountered before becoming a famous entertainer.

Large blue shoulder bag decorated with World War II pins and insignia.
Both the interior and exterior of Betty White’s shoulder bag chronicle her experiences during World War II. Like many others, White collected badges and souvenirs from the people she met during her time in service. (2022.0099)

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, White resided in Southern California. The only child of Horace and Tess White, she was born in Oak Park, Illinois on January 17, 1922. In 1923, before the age of two, she moved with family to California and grew up in Los Angeles. The year before White graduated from Beverly Hills High School, in 1938, Stella Isaacs founded the Women’s Voluntary Services (WVS) in Great Britain. This organization sought to recruit and organize British women for the nation’s Air Raid Precautions services, to prepare women and their families for possible enemy air raids so that they might assist authorities in the event of war.

Black-and-white photograph of ten women in a line, standing on the bottom step of a building’s staircase wearing the various uniforms of the American Women’s Voluntary Services.
Members of the American Women’s Voluntary Services wearing the various uniforms of the organization. Courtesy of Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111174)

The British organization and its growing success shortly inspired an American equivalent. In January 1940 Alice T. McLean founded the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS), directly modeled on the WVS. Early AWVS volunteers learned to drive ambulances and to provide emergency aid should American cities be bombed. In time the AWVS mission evolved to include work with the Red Cross and Civilian Defense, with members involved in motor transport, hospital aid, scrap drives, clerical work, training schools in health and nutrition, and other elements of home-front support. By 1943 the AWVS numbered approximately 350,000 members.

Black-and-white photograph of a young Betty White wearing her American Women’s Voluntary Services uniform, complete with shoulder bag, while standing outdoors.
Betty White in her American Women’s Voluntary Services uniform. Courtesy of Betty White Ludden Trust

When America found itself at war in December 1941, White put her dreams of show business on hold and joined the AWVS. Assigned to motor transport services, White became a driver for the entirety of the war until 1945. In her 1995 book, Here We Go Again, White wrote how she “drove a PX [post exchange] truck, carrying toothpaste, soap, candy, etc., to the various gun emplacement outfits that had been set up in the hills of Hollywood and Santa Monica.” Wearing her blue AWVS uniform, White spent her evenings at various recreation halls in the San Fernando Valley where she would play board games and cards, or dance or chat with servicemen on leave. “Ever hear of the age of innocence? Believe me, that was it,” recalled White, adding how during these social events she “met some very nice boys, and […] corresponded with several after they were shipped out.”

Two photos of a woman’s blue American Women’s Voluntary Services uniform jacket and shirt posed on a mannequin torso. In the second image, the uniform includes a large shoulder bag decorated with badges and pins.
In addition to a shoulder bag, Betty White's American Women’s Voluntary Services uniform is now preserved as part of the museum's collection. (2022.0099)

White’s shoulder bag, which presumably accompanied her to many a nightly outing while she was in uniform, showcases the countless young lives caught up in the war. She evidently had an interest in collecting souvenirs and saving small tokens of appreciation from the servicemen she met. The bag’s exterior is festooned with 29 separate pieces of military insignia from the U.S. Army, Navy, Army Air Forces, and Marine Corps. Two pins, distinctive insignia for the 213th Air Defense Artillery Regiment and the 137th Infantry Regiment, offer clues to the services, units, and nationalities of the servicemen who White met, but little else.

Inside the shoulder bag were even more souvenirs and pieces of wartime paraphernalia. The bag contained a plethora of items one might need for life on the home front, including blank V-mail letters, gasoline ration stamps, Office of Price Administration red food ration tokens, War Ration books with stamps for White and her parents, and unused booklets for War Savings and Defense Savings bonds. White was also prepared for her recreational evenings, having packed a square makeup compact with the AWVS logo embossed on the lid, along with two AWVS patches, two pins from the Red Cross, and green dice.

Some of the items found inside the bag are clearly mementos from servicemen White met. Measuring twelve by seven and a half inches by two inches in size, the bag held a remarkable amount of uniform insignia. The bulk of these items are patches; shoulder patches from the First, Second, and Fourth Armies join with patches for Army service forces and Navy rating badges for Yeoman and Photographer’s Mates. Even insignia from allied nations appear, including a Free France breast badge, a Soviet Red Army hat badge, and a British Army officer’s rank star or “pip.” A small note in the bag, presumably from White, lists the names of those who gave her some of the insignia. Corporal Archie Coloni is credited with the Fourth Army patch, Private George Newton the 35th Infantry Division patch, and Sergeant Gordon Goslin with the Army General Headquarters patch.

Assorted items belonging to Betty White, including her blue uniform cap, various military shoulder sleeve patches, war ration tokens and ration stamp book, playing dice, and makeup compact. 
Betty White’s shoulder bag contained a huge range of artifacts, some of which are featured in this photo. Moving clockwise from the top, this object collage includes White’s uniform cap; shoulder sleeve patches for the U.S. Army Air Forces, U.S. Army Services of Supply, Second U.S. Army, and U.S. Army Ground Forces General Headquarters; four Red One Point Office of Price Administration (OPA) food ration tokens; playing dice; a Free France breast badge; an AWVS makeup compact; the insignia of the 23th Fighter Group; and White’s war ration stamp book. In the center is a hand-painted leather patch for the 97th Fighter Squadron.

Accompanying the military insignia are other aspects of the global reach of the war. A group of unused postcards from French North Africa depict men and women in native dress. Two Japanese banknotes for 10 yen and 50 sen, two Vichy France coins, a Mexican one centavo, and a well-worn English penny minted in 1919 reflect the global reach of the war. Some enterprising servicemember also obtained and gave White a small stamp album with 129 postage stamps from Nazi Germany, France, South Africa, the Netherlands, Poland, Bulgaria, Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. 

At the bottom of the bag were personal items connected to White’s wartime loves. Three items—an envelope, small note, and patch for the Army Ground Forces—were given to White by her fiancé, Army Captain Paul M. Popple (1920–1994) of Chicago, Illinois. White broke off their engagement with a “Dear Paul” letter in 1944 after two years of writing to him every night. Popple survived the war, joined the Foreign Service with posts around the world, and served a stint in the White House during the Johnson Administration. Eventually he married an Italian woman and spent his last days with his family in Italy while White charmed Hollywood and the world

One year later, White married, for the first time, to a different Army officer. Multiple items in the bag pertain to White’s first husband, former P-38 fighter pilot Frederick R. “Dick” Barker (1921–1990) of Belle Center, Ohio. With one aerial kill to his credit and 50 combat missions in the skies over North Africa in 1943, Barker received ten Air Medals for his service with the 97th Fighter Squadron, 82nd Fighter Group. He ended the war as an instructor pilot in California. He and White met at a dance and fell deeply in love. Married in July 1945, they divorced that December after discovering their postwar plans badly misaligned. In addition to his ration book, the bag held an unused 97th Fighter Squadron patch, a pair of pilot wings, captain’s bars, and Barker’s engraved wrist bracelet. The bag also contained a small silver ring engraved “Tunis 1943”—possibly the first ring given by Barker to White, and one we know she kept.

Most curious of the items in the bag is a small bifold with two black-and-white portraits of a rather dapper Army Air Forces captain. One of the photos is signed “Betty—I love you—for always. Wayne.” A little research identified “Wayne” as Captain Wayne L. Daniel (1921–1998) of Paducah, Kentucky. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force for two years, Daniel joined the Army Air Forces in March 1942. As a member of the 352nd Bomb Squadron, 301st Bombardment Group, he flew 53 combat missions over Europe as the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber for which he received 10 Air Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Silver Star. He returned to the United States on leave in April 1944 and transitioned to become a B-29 Superfortress bomber instructor pilot.

A small carrying case with two black-and-white photographs of a young officer wearing his military uniform, one with and the other without his hat.
A pair of photographs of Army Air Forces Captain Wayne L. Daniel given to White and kept by her in her shoulder bag.  Daniel, a native of Paducah, Kentucky, was the pilot of a B-17 heavy bomber and met White at some point in the war.

What was Daniel and White’s relationship? Did they ever reconnect or remember each other over the ensuing decades? This detail will likely remain lost to the official record. After the conclusion of the war White went on to her career in show business and eventual marriage to television personality Allen Ludden. Daniel married Phyllis Dotzler, served in Korea and Vietnam, and retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel before flying for United Airlines. As with the artifacts of Barker, Popple, and countless other servicemen whose names are lost to record, Daniel’s photographs will now forever be part of the wartime memories of youth and innocence saved by the late, great Betty White; a testament, perhaps, to the many men and women who briefly crossed paths during their service, often not knowing if they would meet again.

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Political and Military History.