fb-pixel‘I was always one of the boys,’ 102-year-old Zecil Gravitz of Canton recalls her Navy service during WWII - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

‘I was always one of the boys,’ 102-year-old Zecil Gravitz of Canton recalls her Navy service during WWII

Zecil Gravitz sat for a portrait at her home at Orchard Cove, a retirement community in Canton, on April 30. The 102-year-old was recently honored by the town of Canton for her service in World War II. She was one of the first Jewish women accepted for a Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) officer position. After attending a training program at Smith College, she was assigned to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CANTON - At 102-years-old, Zecil Gravitz looks back on many Memorial Days, a time when the nation pauses to salute the fallen and reflect on centuries of men and women who served their country.

A Navy veteran of World War II, Gravitz enlisted at a time when there were no warm uniforms or antibiotics. Female and Jewish soldiers were even more sparse.

She was both.

Gravitz was recently honored with a commendation for exemplary service, dedication, and commitment during the war by the town’s Select Board.

“It felt odd for me because I’m not used to being commended,” Gravitz said, seated in her living room at Orchard Cove, a retirement community. “I call myself a plain woman, an ordinary woman. And that’s how it is.”


Gravitz, who on a chilly spring day wore a shiny silver brooch on a hot pink blazer, also embraced her role as a pioneer.

Born Zecil Kopeika, she was one of three-women on the pre-med track when she graduated in 1942 from the University of Pennsylvania in her native Philadelphia. She joked she was “one of the boys.”

Armed with a degree in chemistry, she went to work in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Her father encouraged her to go to medical school, but she had a different idea.

She learned the Navy was accepting applications for the Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVE, a branch of the reserve established to free up men or sea duty.

She enlisted and soon was enrolled in a nine-week naval officer training course at Smith College in Northampton.

“I learned what it’s like to be in the military, and I learned a lot about people,” said Gravitz. “I’m a social person, I like people, and I’ve always been friendly.”

A 1943 portrait of Zecil Gravitz is displayed at her home at Orchard Cove, a retirement community, in Canton.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

At one point in her training, Gravitz wrote home to tell her mother that the temperatures were well below freezing. The Navy hadn’t yet supplied officers with uniforms, and Gravitz said both women she rode to classes with also endured the freezing cold.


“The three of us were frostbitten,” said Gravitz, recalling her bleeding ankles and feet. “I still don’t feel my feet.”

Gravitz’s father mailed her an ointment that eased the pain, and the women were provided with warm socks. The weeks dragged on, but Gravitz was ultimately assigned to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

There, she said she was the academy’s only Jewish WAVE. She suffered more pain after a botched wisdom tooth extraction left her with Ludwig’s Disease, a bacterial infection that prevented her from opening her mouth.

Gravitz requested a transfer and was eventually relocated back to Philadelphia to work for the Office of Procurement and Material under the secretary of the Navy. She was responsible for sourcing things that the Navy needed “immediately, if not sooner,” and she made over 100 calls each day.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Yalta to meet with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1945, Gravitz was instructed to locate a square tub for the president’s plane and specific carpeting to line the ship where the men would meet.

“Nobody knew that Roosevelt was paralyzed,” said Gravitz. “It was odd that they should ask for certain things, but it was good to know that I was helping.”


That year, Gravitz was three months away from becoming a lieutenant commander. But the Navy didn’t allow enlisted women to marry. A dentist named Sidney Gravitz was waiting for her. So, she left the service in 1946 to marry and start a family.

“The only sad thing is when you think, ‘Where would I be if I stayed? How far could I go in rank?’” said Gravitz. “But I’m not one for power and influence, or I would have stayed.”

She raised her two children and volunteered for Hadassah in Pennsylvania and Florida. She and her husband moved to Canton in 2012 to be closer to her children. Sidney died in 2015, she said.

She will turn 103 in September. A month later, her eighth great-grandchild is due to be born, she said.

There’s no secret to living a long life, she said.

“I like people,” she said. “That’s where I am at the moment.”

At 102, WWII Navy Veteran Zecil Gravitz said there is no secret to living a long life. “I’m a social person, I like people, and I’ve always been friendly," she said.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Lila Hempel-Edgers can be reached at lila.hempeledgers@globe.com. Follow her on X @hempeledgers and on Instagram @lila_hempel_edgers.