Sherbesman served in the Women’s Royal Air Force

Jean Sherbesman - Leslie Kelly
Jean Sherbesman
— image credit: Leslie Kelly

If you ask Jean Sherbesman about herself, she’d tell you that she doesn’t have a story. She’d tell you she’s had a good life, with two wonderful and loving husbands and two beautiful and talented daughters.

She’d tell you that she’s proud of her daughters and her five grandchildren and her one great-grandson. She’d say there’s been down sides and up sides and that overall, she’s been very fortunate and has few regrets.

And that would be all.

Unless you happened to ask a few more questions. That would be when you’d learn just how interesting her life has really been.

Sherbesman, who turns 92 this month, has lived in Silverdale since 1972. She ended up on the Kitsap Peninsula after she married a man named Bill from Seattle, who served in the U.S. Navy and was among the first Americans who landed at Nagasaki within 48 hours of the atomic bomb being dropped on Aug. 9, 1945. After the Navy, he worked as a civilian in the Navy supply yard and eventually ended up at Bremerton.

She hailed from a small rural village, Brixworth, in Northhampshire, England. She had a brother and two half-sisters and her family “had plenty” although she despises the term “upperclass.”

“I hate the very thought of classes,” she said, still with a bit of English accent to her voice. “Class doesn’t make an individual.”

Her childhood memories are mostly of the boarding school she attended. She lived at school, only coming home for two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, and six weeks in the summer. She had friends at school but felt distant from her family.

“I just didn’t see that much of them,” she said. “I don’t really think boarding school gave me much of anything. I would consider it a negative.”

But when she graduated in July of 1939, she returned home to be with her family and begin her adult life.

“I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do,” she said. “But it didn’t really matter much anyway. Because it wasn’t long before the war began.”

The following September, World War II was a reality for her.

“The tension and the fear … we were so hoping it wouldn’t happen,” she said. “England was a very small country and very unprepared for war.”

As did others, her family gathered around the radio and listened.

“I remember my dad crying,” she said. “That was the hardest thing for me to see.”

The war changed her plans. She had to grow up much faster than she wanted.

“It was a time in life when we thought we would be care free … young women just out of boarding school with life opening up to them — able to make whatever we wanted of our lives,” she said. “All of a sudden that was taken from us. There was nothing but the war.”

For a time, she tried nursing. She worked at a hospital in Oxford, but admitted that she was “a bit of a wimp.”

“In those days, nurses training meant cleaning the floors and the bed pans,” she said. “And I didn’t get along very well with the head matron.”

She recalled having to wear a calico dress that buttoned up the front and had buttons all the way down both sleeves. She wore a white apron over it and had starched cuffs and collar that had to be attached individually. And the white cap.

“It was dreadful,” she said. “And when the (air raid) sirens would go off in the night, we had to get up and put on all that before we could report to work.”

After six months, Sherbesman and the matron agreed that she should not be a nurse.

She returned home to her village and did her part for the war effort. She stood watch throughout the nights.

“I’d go on patrol in the streets of the village watching for planes above,” she said. “You could tell the difference between our planes and the German planes because the German planes had a different rhythm to the engines. They had a pulse to them.”

Although she had a gas mask, she remembered feeling very vulnerable because she didn’t have a tin hat like others on patrol.

“I put a cloth on my head and then I put one of my mother’s sauce pans on my head,” she said. “When the men in charge saw that, they all laughed at me.”

One night, she watched nearby Coventry light up with bomb fire.

“We saw it being bombed,” she said. “We saw the German planes fly over and then we saw them flying back.”

With love of her country in heart, she decided to join the land army.

“But my father wouldn’t hear of that,” she said. “He was very Victorian. So I joined the Women's Royal  Air Force.”

Like in the U.S., recruits went to boot camp.

“That was a eye-opener for me,” she said. “I’d been in all-girls schools that were very prudential,” she said. “In boot camp there were girls from all walks of life. The first night I sat up all night on my bed with my mouth and my eyes wide open. I heard things I never even knew existed. It was a real education.”

Much of the time was spent marching and drilling and doing chores. Because there was a paper shortage and very limited supply of toilet paper, one of her chores was to tear up magazine pages for use as toilet paper by the generals.

“Another girl and I tore it into two-inch by two-inch squares,” she said. “We thought we’d be punished for making them that small, but nobody ever said anything to us.”

Sherbesman’s assignment was to be a plotter, someone who stood at a table with a large grid and tracked enemy aircraft so that the controller who was above them could warn pilots to intercept them.

“It could be exciting, especially when you would hear the ‘tally-ho,’ and then victory calls,” she said. “It wasn’t so good when we lost a pilot.”

For a time she served on Isle of Mann. At one point Germany was expected to invade England via Isle of Mann.

“We had to practice our defense maneuvers,” she said. “We crawled through the ditches on our bellies. And we shot rifles. They kicked like a mule.”

When the war ended in mid-1945, Sherbesman returned home and promptly entered King’s College in London to study physical therapy. Following that she moved to Canada to work with polio patients.

“They were still rationing in England,” she said. “You couldn’t buy anything. I wanted to see the world. Canada had an outbreak of polio. So that was going to be my first stop.”

She was in Alberta and Saskatchewan for a year, before moving on to Seattle. She caught the eye of a patient named Bill and he asked her out. But she couldn’t date a patient.

“So he got well real fast and we began dating,” she said.

Eight years later in 1960, they married and began their life together. Their daughters, Susan and Karen, and their families live close by. Karen is a nurse practitioner and Susan has a career in law enforcement.

Sherbesman lost her husband Bill in 1988. Following that, she met a man named Bert and in 1992 they were married. Bert also was a Navy man, a flyer in the Navy Air Force serving in Guam and the Philippines. He died in 2010.

She never made it around the world, although she did visit Australia and New Zealand, two places that were on her list. Maybe that’s why she thinks she doesn’t have a story to tell.

Instead, she says she has just a few words of wisdom.

“I’ve learned not to put my values in things,” she said. “Things are replaceable, but you can lose them at any time.”

Instead, it’s the people you meet that really matter, she said.

“I remember the last time I saw my father, he had a message for me,” she recalled. “I’d gone to see him in 1960 and taken my new husband Bill with me. Father was so proud of this old bottle of brandy he had. It was a dusty old bottle that he brought out from the cellar. He insisted we all have some, even the housekeeper and her husband.

“He made a toast and said he had no regrets, he was proud of all his children and he’d had a wonderful life. I thought, ‘wow, that’s great to be able to say that at the end of your life.’”

Her father died six months later at age 86.

Sherbesman has spent the rest of her years in the U.S., being a wife and mother, working some as a physical therapist, outliving two husbands, and now, a Hospice volunteer when she can.

It’s not been the exciting life traveling the world that she planned. But just as her father was, she’s happy, proud of her children, thinks she’s had a great life, with few regrets.

And that is Jean Sherbesman’s story.


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