On The Map: Bea McPherson Charted Course of Women Mapmakers
As the United States entered WWII, trailblazing women like Bea McPherson, BS ’43, took on the task of providing essential handmade maps for the war effort—and charted the course for today’s women mapmakers.
By Jan Senn
Bea (Shaheen) McPherson, BS ’43, remembers many things about her long, eventful life. Like where she was at Kent State on December 7, 1941. Just seven days before her 20th birthday, she was listening to the radio while sitting on the porch swing of the off-campus house she lived at on Lincoln St., when she heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The event that led to the United States entering WWII would change the course of her life, as it did for so many of her generation. But on that Sunday afternoon, sophomore Bea Shaheen had no idea of the path she was about to take—or what it would mean to her many years later.
From ages 8 to 18, she had worked to help support her family during the Great Depression—selling magazines, working in a market, operating an elevator at a store—with time for little else. Coming to Kent State (after completing freshman courses at her high school in Canton) had opened up a different world for her—one that included opportunities for fun.
She hadn’t been allowed to date in high school, but at Kent State she met the man she would eventually marry, James W. “Bill” McPherson Jr., at a Wednesday night dance at Willis Gym. “He had on a kelly-green sweater with black patent-leather elbow patches, and he asked me to dance,” she recalls. “He was a pretty good dancer. He walked me home.”
Like many at the start of the war, she wanted to serve her country, but her mother, a widow with nine children, wouldn’t allow her to join the military. She planned to be a schoolteacher, so she majored in elementary education with a minor in geography. When her geography professor, Edna Eisen, told her about a military mapmaking course for women that she was supervising at Kent State starting in February 1943, she applied and was accepted, along with 19 other female seniors. “If I couldn’t join the military, I decided I was going to help the war effort as a civilian.”
“If I couldn’t join the military, I decided I was going to help the war effort as a civilian.”
The 60-hour, non-credit course had been developed by Edith Parker, a geography professor from the University of Chicago, to train civilian women in military cartography. As the war accelerated, the Army Map Service (AMS), established under the U.S. Corps of Engineers, was losing much of its largely male workforce to the armed forces. They had an urgent need to recruit and train skilled workers who could meet the ever-increasing demand for current maps that could be distributed quickly to soldiers at the fronts.
Kent State was one of the colleges and universities selected to offer the inaugural course, approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Service Commission in 1942. Eventually, the military mapmaking instruction was expanded to 22 universities.
Bea Shaheen took the course her senior year, along with a full schedule of education classes, and graduated in March 1943. She worked as a teacher for three months to earn money before heading off to Washington, D.C., with 15 other women from Kent State. They joined approximately 200 women from campuses across the East and Midwest who had completed the course, passed a background check and were employed by the Army Map Service. The pay was excellent and the work essential.
She initially lived at barracks in Arlington, Virginia, while the federal government completed construction of McLean Gardens—housing for defense workers being built on the grounds of the former McLean mansion (once home to heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, the last private owner of the Hope Diamond) in northwest Washington, D.C. There she roomed with another Kent State graduate, the late Geraldine (Skora) Newman, BS ’43—“the Kent State girls stuck together”—and they paid $37.50 a month for their two-bed dorm room.
After taking a four-week “in service” training course to get practical experience and allow the AMS to evaluate their new employees’ skills, she was assigned to the project drafting department. Because of the top-secret work, the building she worked in was camouflaged to avoid detection from enemy aircraft and isolated from the other buildings.
For nearly three years, the group of women—informally dubbed the “Military Mapping Maidens” or “3Ms”— worked 70 hours a week in two shifts to meet deadlines that were built around upcoming battles. Each new map required approximately 600 hours of cartographic labor.
They studied foreign maps, aerial photographs and any other information that was available to create the maps—using protractors, contour pens and India ink to chart strategic locations, churches, schools, land contours, bodies of water and roads. Accuracy was a priority; for the safety of the troops, the women spent tedious hours cross-checking the maps.
Despite the demanding deadlines, the women cartographers also spent time together on their off hours—canoeing down the Potomac River, horseback riding along Rock Creek Park, trying out local restaurants and going to tea dances on Saturday afternoons. “We formed our own softball team called The Contours. I was the catcher,” she says. “We also helped with the USO at Fort Belvoir. We had the time of our lives!”
While a Kent State student, Bea Shaheen poses on a tree in front of Rockwell Hall.
In the spring of 1944, things became busier than normal, and they knew a big operation was being planned. “Generals and colonels kept coming into the cartography room,” she recalls. “We were told to drop what we were doing, and work on this special project. We worked round the clock. After they landed [on D-Day], we heard about the invasion [of Normandy] on the radio, and they told us we’d been working on [maps of] the Utah and Omaha beaches.”
According to “The WWII History of the Army Map Service,” during 1944 the AMS prepared approximately 3,000 different maps and produced a total of 70 million sheets just for the Normandy invasion. (Throughout the war, the AMS employed more than 3,500 persons, and supplemented its workforce with other government agencies and commercial contractors, enabling it to prepare more than 30,000 different maps of all types, and to produce 500 million sheets.)
After receiving a promotion as assistant to the supervisor of project drafting, Bea Shaheen became responsible for recruiting college students majoring in geography for work at the AMS in Washington, D.C. On orders from the Secretary of War, she traveled by train to courier maps to New York City and to recruit women from Kent State University.
The university continued to offer the military mapmaking course for several years. In 1945, Kent State’s department of geography and geology was approved as a depository for more than 25,000 publications, maps, pamphlets and other property of the Army Map Service (still at the Map Library in McGilvrey Hall).
Bea Shaheen moved to Los Angeles in 1945, where her future husband, Bill McPherson, was stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps, and she found work as a U.S. Army classification analyst, reviewing 16 military installations.
When the war ended, a few of the 3M girls remained with the Army Map Service, but most left to start careers and families in other locations. After the war, she moved back to Washington, D.C., and taught for several years while her husband-to-be completed his education at George Washington Law School.
They married in 1949, started a family and eventually moved back to Ohio, settling in Hartville. She taught third grade at the elementary school there, and after her third child was born in 1956, she worked as a legal assistant at her husband’s law firm for 35 years. They traveled extensively and were active in their community.
A lover of fashion—“I believe a person should look well-dressed when they go out; it makes you feel so much better”—Bea McPherson was a member of the board of the KSU Museum and School of Fashion Design and Merchandising for many years and served on other boards of civic organizations.
During all that time, she kept in touch with some of the women she’d worked with at the Army Map Service. And she initiated and organized reunions for the original Military Mapping Maidens in 1968, 1976 and 1993 in Washington, D.C., “to relive, briefly, one of the greatest experiences of our lives.” She put notices in The Washington Post and local papers and contacted the various college alumni associations to try to track the women down. As the years went on, she participated in panels, attended events honoring WWII veterans and gave interviews on her experience as a military mapmaker to various publications.
Then she read a brief notice in the AMS News—the newsletter of the Association of Mapping Seniors, whose motto is “Keeping in Touch and Having Fun”—encouraging members to submit remembrances for a 40th anniversary commemorative brochure in 2014. “I called and said, ‘Well, I can’t do 40 years; I can do 70!’”
She was soon contacted by Al Anderson, a member of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Alumni Association (the Army Map Service has changed names several times over the years and is now part of the NGA). He interviewed her for a story about the Military Mapping Maidens, which appeared in the winter 2014 issue of The NGA Pathfinder, a publication for employees of the Department of Defense.
She was also invited to come to the NGA headquarters in Springfield, Virginia—now housed in a building many times the size of the original one she worked at—in January 2014 to celebrate Women’s History Month and meet then-NGA director Letitia Long. Her scheduled 15-minute meeting with Ms. Long stretched to 30 minutes as the director pored over the scrapbook she’d brought chronicling her time at the Army Map Service during WWII. Ms. Long presented her with a NGA medallion, typically given only to dignitaries, and in a follow-up note the director wrote, “You were truly a pioneer who paved the way for women to enter the field of cartography.”
“It was quite an honor to be called a pioneer mapmaker,” Bea McPherson says. “Until then, I hadn’t realized that’s what I was!”
Two years later, she received a letter from the current NGA director, Robert Cardillo, informing her that the Military Mapping Maidens had been selected for induction into the Geospatial-Intelligence Hall of Fame.
He invited her and her family (she was widowed in 2008) to visit the NGA on October 4, 2016, to accept the honor on behalf of all the civilian women cartographers from the Army Map Service whose accomplishments helped support the war effort during World War II.
During her acceptance speech on behalf of the 3Ms, she said, “Our country was at the forefront of our minds. We believed in our country, we protected our country, and we wanted to do our part, our very best—our patriotic duty.” She received a standing ovation.
NGA Director Robert Cardillo presents military mapmakers Dina (Morelli) Kennedy and Bea McPherson with a plaque commemorating the induction of the Military Mapping Maidens into the Geospatial-Intelligence Hall of Fame. This commemorative photo includes an inscription from the director, who wrote “Congratulations, Bea—you stole the show —deservedly so!”
The next day, Ohio Congressman Bob Gibb’s office presented her with a Declaration that he had read into the Congressional Record, which concluded: “These women have been an inspiration to countless future generations. The selfless dedication to the mission by the Army Map Service civilian women cartographers has earned them great honor and respect as well as a distinguished place in the Geospatial-Intelligence Hall of Fame.”
“Those two days were one of the highlights of my life,” says Bea McPherson, looking over the letters, photos, plaques, medallions and pins pertaining to her NGA visit that she’s saved—objects that join all the others she’s collected over her long life, many of which she has put into scrapbooks.
“I’ve always been a packrat,” she says. “I save everything. I’ve got my memories all on paper here.” (Well, not quite all—she also has thousands of digital photos on her iPad and keeps in touch with family and friends through Facebook.)
The mementos serve as markers for many significant moments on her life’s journey. But her time as a mapmaker holds a special place in her heart. “As women, we were doing our part to serve our country. I’m very honored to have been part of that.”
Bea McPherson: Faces of Kent State
Bea McPherson donated her Army Map Service papers, as well as papers relating to the KSU Museum and Fashion School, to Kent State’s Special Collections and Archives (www.library.kent.edu/bea-mcpherson-papers).