Who’s That Girl Scout? Eleanor Ault

In the final days of World War II, the Girl Scouts of the USA dispatched six professional workers to war-torn Europe. Their official status was “on loan” to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).

Girl Scout worker Eleanor Ault

Two of the six women worked for the national organization. By far the best-known of the group, Catherine T. Hammett was a renowned expert in camping. She was joined by Katherine McCullough a GSUSA field adviser.

The other four women had been council executive directors: Eleanor Ault, (Albany, New York); Dorothy Donnell (Orange, New Jersey); Grace Hast (Lincoln, Nebraska); and Marion Sloan (Kansas City, Missouri).

Hammett became director of social services at a Greek refugee camp in Palestine. She wrote a lengthy article in the December 1944 issue of Leader, with vivid descriptions of the terrain, flora, and fauna. The author of Campcraft ABCs, Hammett also wrote about the tents, makeshift stoves, and more in the refugee camps.

Six Girl Scout professionals working with the UNRRA program. (Leader Magazine)

Ault, Donnell, and Hast took charge of welfare needs at smaller refugee camps, reporting to Hammett. McCullough and Sloan were posted to Yugoslav refugee camps in Egypt.

While international relief organizations set up schools, hospitals, sewing rooms, the Girl Scouts organized recreation and vocational training for refugee children. In time, they laid the groundwork for establishing Girl Scout and Boy Scout programs in the region.

On September 29, 1945, Eleanor Ault and 2nd Lt. Arlene Waldhaus of the US Public Health Service were aboard a 3,330-ton British ship, the Empire Patrol, accompanying 562 Greek refugees, including 200 children, across the Mediterranean Sea.

Around noon, as Eleanor locked the recreation room, she heard a commotion on a lower deck. She rushed to the scene to see flames sprouting from the starboard side of the ship.

The Empire Patrol begins to burn (http://www.empirepatrol.com)

Instead of paraphrasing the ensuing events, I will reprint the cable that UNRAA sent to GSUSA following the incident:

Immediately [Eleanor] began directing refugees in use of fire extinguishers. Flames starred coming from starboard side. Ault was one of those who prevented panic among refugees by calming, answering questions, distributing lifebelts, helping load lifeboats. Fire spread rapidly.

Captain asked Ault to accompany refugees in lifeboat and therein take charge. Line jammed on her boat as it was lowered, pulley had to be knocked off and boat dropped into sea. At this time whole ship was blazing.

At short distance from ship she picked up old man, young man and boy. Little farther off found several more and overtook another lifeboat overloaded with survivors. She transferred some, instructed others how to bail, get out oars. …

Altogether she rescued 35 — many been clinging defective rafts. Sea was very rough, consequently there was danger capsizing. At 4:oo P.M. Aircraft Carrier Trouncer arrived near burning ship; but as darkness fell lifeboats and rafts drifted apart, Ault being steadied by refugee men at oars.

As red distress lantern in boat failed, Ault improvised flare from kapok ripped out of life preserver which she soaked in kerosene and hung on boat hook which led plane circling overhead locating position of lifeboat. At 8:oo P.M. searchlights of Afghanistan picked out lifeboat and after Ault and man and boys climbed aboard, baskets were lowered for women and children. Afghanistan was one of first to reach Port Said [Egypt]

Leader (November 1945): 11.

Of the 913 passengers, only 57 perished.

Empire Patrol passengers scramble to safety (http://www.empirepatrol.com)

Wow. Let’s pause and take that in for a moment ….

Makes surviving cookie season pretty tame, doesn’t it?

The Girl Scouts were extremely proud of Eleanor, awarding her a citation reading “For distinguished service rendered in the saving of lives on the ill-fated “Empire Patrol.”

Born in Chicago in 1909, Eleanor graduated from De Pauw University. She became a Girl Scout professional in 1932. Following her stint with UNRRA, she moved to England, where she became one of the first participants in a US-UK trainer exchange program. During that time, she also attended the International Training Conference at Our Chalet, Switzerland.

Eleanor returned to the United States in 1947, taking a volunteer development post in Oklahoma. She eventually returned to Albany, New York, where she died in 1994.

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

Making New Friends in Crisis

The wrenching images of immigrant children separated from their parents reminded me of several articles about Girl Scout outreach programs. The Department of Homeland Security should take note:

Girl Scouts have a long tradition of welcoming newcomers. They have created innovative programs to welcome girls moving across the country or across town; girls moving into overcrowded boom towns, as well as refugees from all corners of the world.

They have established and operated Girl Scout troops in challenging, high-security settings, such as the Japanese internment camps of the early 1940s. Since 1992, the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program has formed troops in women’s prisons so that inmates can participate in troops with their daughters. They even sell cookies to prison staff!

Early in the Cold War, troops were encouraged to seek out Displaced Persons arriving in their communities.

Pages from GSL 1949-01 January

Item from January 1949 issue of Leader magazine.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Girl Scouts in the United States reached out to children in Europe and Korea, sending care packages and school supplies to communities ravaged by war.

MAR20AR02

Hugh M. Milton, II, Undersecretary of the Army (left) and Frank G. Millard, General Counsel of the Army, are presenting school kits to Vietnamese Girl Scouts on December 3, 1959, at CARE headquarters, Saigon. Thousands of kits donated by GSUSA troops (including 339 from Southern Maryland) were distributed in India, Vietnam, and Hong Kong between December 1959 and February 1960. (GSCNC Archives)

The Girl Scout way of Making New Friends continued in the 1980s. A February/March 1981 article in Leader magazine highlighted programs designed to help newcomers integrate into their new communities.

Leaders in the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida … visited Cuban mothers to assist them with grocery shopping, cooking and coping with the trials their new and confusing lives, while the Riverland Girl Scout Council in LaCrosse, WI, held a five-day cross-cultural “get acquainted” day camp with some of their new Cuban neighbors.

When community members in Fort Smith, Arkansas, were less than welcoming toward a group of Cuban refugees, Mount Magazine Council staff greeted the newcomers. The council CEO went on local television to challenge Girl Scouts to be friendly, prompting more residents to come forward with donations.

The article highlighted efforts in my own council, Nation’s Capital, to warmly welcome Vietnamese and Laotian families to the Washington region. Council staff first recruited high-school aged Vietnamese girls into Girl Scouting, then used their language skills to form multi-level troops for each community. The best sign of the program’s success—the girls soon were bringing more friends to the meetings.

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The current refugee crisis in the United States, with children desperate for friendship, attention, activities, and caring adults, provides a critical opportunity for the Girl Scouts to put decades of experience to work.  We have the skills and a proven track record—if we are allowed to use them.

© 2018 Ann Robertson