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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Virginia Gilbert Mattson, 1999

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Object ID: WV0014.5.001

Description: Documents Virginia “Ginny” Gilbert Mattson's early life; her service with the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1944 to 1946; and her involvement in WAVES National beginning in the late 1980s.

Summary:

Mattson recalls her decision to enlist in the WAVES, her family’s proud reaction, and her concern about sending a man into combat. She describes her daily life and social activities at both Hunter College and in Cedar Falls, Iowa, during her basic and yeoman training. Mattson also reflects on her work in personnel at the Naval Supply Depot in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, where she updated the records of men being transferred to the South Pacific.

Mattson briefly reflects on her adjustment to civilian life after World War II and her return to her pre-war job. She also discusses her involvement with the WAVES National veterans’ organization starting in the late 1980s.

Creator: Virginia Gilbert Mattson

Biographical Info: Virginia “Ginny” Gilbert Mattson (1922-2003) of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, served with the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1944 to 1946.

Collection: Virginia Gilbert Mattson Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

HT:

Today is January 9, 1999, I'm at the home of Ginny Mattson to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection.

Ginny, thank you so much for meeting with me today. Could you please tell me something about your biographical background, such as your name, your hometown, your family, the date you entered the military service, about the age that you entered the service, and your rank?

VM:

Okay, I grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, graduated from high school there, two years of junior college—I have an Associate of Arts degree—and was working in a women's apparel store when the war was going on, and decided that taking a first aid course was not enough to do for the country, so I just decided on a lunch hour to go up and enlist in the navy, which I did. Didn't tell anybody, didn't ask anybody, just did it, and then broke the news to my family, who were very happy about it. And I was twenty-three at the time, and spent twenty-six months in the service.

HT:

So your parents did not have to sign for you at all?

VM:

No.

HT:

And you say your parents were quite happy about you joining?

VM:

Yes. [chuckling]

HT:

They didn't feel anything negative about it?

VM:

My mother had wanted to be in the navy in the First World War, and her mother wouldn't let her, so the closest she got to being in the service was going down to the railroad station and passing out coffee and doughnuts to the soldiers as they came through on the train. And my father had been in the army in World War I, and didn't have a son to send, so he was happy that I enlisted.

HT:

Did you have any siblings who were in the military?

VM:

No.

HT:

Do you recall what the climate of the country was during World War II? What I'm talking about, was everyone very patriotic and that sort of thing?

VM:

Very patriotic. Everybody wanted to do something, and I think especially the women. That's why some of them became Rosie the Riveter, joined the service— I think everybody felt as if they just wanted to help the country.

HT:

And was there any particular reason why you chose the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] as opposed to one of the other services?

VM:

No, not really. I guess I had seen the posters around town that said “Release A Man to Go to Sea,” and that kind of appealed to me, and I thought I could do the same paperwork that they were doing. And I guess I liked their uniforms. [chuckling]

HT:

Were any of your friends in the military, women friends, men friends?

VM:

Yes, a lot of men friends. And four women left the same day I did from Williamsport, and three of them were good friends of mine. We never saw each other again after that day, but they were good friends. We didn't know each other was signing up either.

HT:

That's interesting. Where did you enter the service?

VM:

In Philadelphia.

HT:

And do you remember what your first day was like?

VM:

At boot camp? At Hunter College, [Bronx, New York]. I don't remember a whole lot about Hunter, to tell you the truth, except marching from 9:00 to 5:00 every day, rain or shine. And we didn't have our uniforms and raincoats for about two weeks, so we used to come in with our clothes sopping wet every night. The first day, I think we registered and got our rooms assigned and got fitted for our uniforms, which were tailored by Mainbocher and really fit nicely, [chuckling] not like the poor girls are wearing now in boot camp. That's all I remember about the first day.

HT:

Can you tell us something about where Hunter was?

VM:

It's in the Bronx, New York, right outside of New York City, and we were there for six weeks and had one weekend that we could be out till nine o'clock. My mother and two friends came down to visit me that weekend and we went into New York for dinner, and I had to be back at Hunter by 9:00 [p.m.], so we didn't have a whole lot of time to do any sightseeing.

HT:

Was this the first time you had been away from home for any period of time?

VM:

Yes, it was the first time I had ever been away from home.

HT:

And I'm sure that was quite exciting.

VM:

[chuckling] It was exciting the day I left to go to boot camp. I thought I had made a big mistake, and I didn't want to leave home, but after I got there I was okay.

HT:

And how long were you in the military, all totaled?

VM:

Twenty-six months.

HT:

Do you remember the dates that you went in?

VM:

Yes, June 15, 1944, and I was discharged, I think, on August 15, 1946. I could have gotten out in '45 when the war was over, when the atom bomb was dropped and the war was over, but I chose to stay an extra year.

HT:

Did you ever think about making it a career?

VM:

I didn't. I didn't. I don't know why exactly, but I didn't.

HT:

So you weren't encouraged by your parents or your friends to stay in?

VM:

At Mechanicsburg, [Pennsylvania], the last place I served at Naval Supply Depot, they asked us if we wanted to reenlist, and I said no. And I don't know why, except that from there we were going to be transferred to Philadelphia Navy Yard for a while, and for some reason I didn't want to go to Philadelphia Navy Yard, so I decided to go home.

HT:

And where were you stationed for your tour of duty?

VM:

Mostly at Naval Supply Depot, Mechanicsburg. After boot camp I went to Cedar Falls, Iowa, for three months of yeoman training.

HT:

Can you tell us something about your yeoman training days?

VM:

Well, we took classes most of the day. Again we spent part of the day marching around the campus. I don't know why we did all this marching, we were never going to do it again, but we marched, and sang all the time we were marching, which was fun. And every Sunday afternoon, my roommate and I used to go down to the USO [United Service Organizations] to write letters back home. When we were walking back to the campus, several times people in the town would pick us up and take us home for cookies and milk. And they were very friendly, even though we took over their college. I never knew where the students went from the teachers college in Cedar Falls, Iowa. We just took it over, and the students weren't there. I don't know what they did with them.

HT:

I think that was quite common, from what I've read, that many colleges were taken over for various training purposes and that sort of thing.

VM:

Apparently. Hunter, we took over Hunter College.

HT:

After you left Cedar Falls, you went to Mechanicsburg?

VM:

Went to Naval Supply Depot, Mechanicsburg, PA, which is near Harrisburg.

HT:

And what type of work did you do there?

VM:

I did personnel work, and I was what they called the transfer yeoman in the personnel office. What I had to do when any sailor was being transferred from our base to anyplace, and most of them went to the South Pacific, was to bring their service records up to date, put in there what they had done at Mechanicsburg, arrange their transportation, get their paycheck for them, arrange for their physicals, and give them a little lecture before they went off. They didn't know where they were going, and I knew they were going to the Pacific, but their orders read California. But I felt so sorry for them, and it got to the point I finally went down to the station to see them off—they said no other transfer yeoman had ever done that anyplace they were—and kissed them goodbye. [chuckling]

HT:

Oh, that's very interesting. Do you feel you made a positive contribution to the war effort?

VM:

I do. I do, because I actually released a man for active duty to go to the Pacific.

HT:

How did you feel about that? Did you have any negative feelings that you might send a man into combat?

VM:

I did. I thought I'd sent him off to die. But two years later he called back to the base and said, “I'm home in New Orleans,” and I said, “Dave, I've never been so glad to hear anybody's voice in all my life.” And so he made it back, and I was glad about that.

HT:

That's wonderful, yes. It sounds like you really enjoyed your work.

VM:

I did, I loved it. I loved it. I didn't have to take shorthand. [chuckling] I had to take a lot of that at yeoman school, but I didn't care for that a whole lot, so I didn't have to do that.

HT:

Do you think you were treated equally with the men who had had the same position as you before?

VM:

Yes.

HT:

Did you encounter any discrimination?

VM:

No, I didn't. No harassment or discrimination or anything like that.

HT:

Do you think you received any kind of special treatment?

VM:

No, I don't think so.

HT:

And were you singled out in any way for any kind of preferential treatment or any kind of negative treatment, that you can recall?

VM:

I had a little bit of preferential treatment. When I first got to Mechanicsburg, our highest-ranking woman officer's secretary had not arrived yet, and she was a chief yeoman, so I was asked to be her secretary for about two or three months till her chief got there. And before I left, I had become yeoman first class. I went from seaman first class to yeoman third class, yeoman second class, and yeoman first class. And the next step would have been chief, but I didn't stay long enough for that.

HT:

Well, what was the hardest thing that you ever had to do, physically?

VM:

Physically? Go through the regimental reviews every Saturday morning at Hunter College. We had to stand for hours, at attention, and we all had just had a whole bunch of shots for everything. Even though we weren't going overseas, we had shots for everything. You could stand there at attention and see out of the corner of your eye people dropping like flies all over the place, and the first aid people would come by and pick them up on stretchers and carry them out. And we had to just stand there for hours while the officers were reviewing our regiments one by one. I think that was the hardest physical thing I ever had to do.

HT:

That was sort of like a parade?

VM:

Yes, except we just stood, we didn't march. We marched in, but then we just stood to be reviewed.

HT:

And what was the hardest thing you ever had to do, emotionally?

VM:

I guess sending the sailors to the Pacific, because I knew they were going right where the action was.

HT:

I'm sure that was very difficult.

VM:

It was. It was. I just wonder how many of them came back.

HT:

I'm assuming that you did not keep in contact with any of these guys who went overseas?

VM:

Just a couple, and they did get back. But I sent out, oh goodness, batches of twenty and twenty-five at a time, so there were hundreds that I sent out over the couple of years.

HT:

Do you recall any embarrassing moments?

VM:

Oh, I'm sure there were some. One I can remember. I always had to give these boys a little talk of instructions before they left our base and what they were to do when they got to the next place. And one morning I woke up very early in the morning with no voice, and I went straight to the sick bay. They had me breathing in a paper bag and giving me all this stuff to get my voice back, but I never did, and I had all these sailors in the office, and my assistant finally had to give my little speech to them. I couldn't get a word out. That was kind of embarrassing. But otherwise I don't remember anything really embarrassing.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid?

VM:

No. No.

HT:

Do you feel like you were ever in any physical danger?

VM:

No.

HT:

Can you tell us something about your social life? What'd you do for fun? You mentioned going to the USO on Sundays, I believe it was?

VM:

Yeah, that was out in Cedar Falls. They didn't have a lot going on there. But after we got to Mechanicsburg, that was right near Harrisburg and Hershey, and Hershey had a big band come every Wednesday night, so we did a lot of dancing. And we went to the hockey games at Hershey, and we had a lot of parties at the Petty Officers Club. It was open every night. We were there quite often.

HT:

Do you recall what your hours were?

VM:

Working?

HT:

Yes.

VM:

I think they were about 8:00 to 5:00. We had to catch a bus in Harrisburg. There were no barracks at Mechanicsburg, so my roommate and I had an apartment, and we had to catch a bus at seven o'clock in the morning. Everybody slept all the way to the base, because it took about an hour to get there. And I think we started at 8:00 and worked till 5:00.

HT:

And so your evenings were free to do what you wanted to do?

VM:

Yes.

HT:

And did you ever have reviews, parades, and that sort of thing, have duties afterwards?

VM:

We did have to march in a couple parades in Harrisburg. I think it might have been Memorial Day, and at that time called Armistice Day, in November, that's now called Veterans Day. But we didn't have to do a lot of it.

HT:

The forties were a great time for many of my personal favorite movies and songs and that sort of thing. Do you recall any of your favorite movies and songs and dances from that period?

VM:

All of the Glenn Miller songs. [chuckling] And movies? I don't think I went to many movies while I was in the navy. I don't remember the movies. I don't think we had time to do that.

HT:

As you mentioned earlier, this was really the first time you'd ever been away for any extended period of time. How did you feel about being away from home, from your parents and from your friends and your neighbors?

VM:

I was homesick, very homesick, until I got back to Mechanicsburg, and then I came home a lot of weekends.

HT:

So Mechanicsburg was close enough to Williamsport?

VM:

It was about a hundred miles from home, so I came home a lot, [chuckling] and was glad to get back to Pennsylvania.

HT:

What did you think of Franklin D. Roosevelt?

VM:

I thought he did a lot of good. The NRA [National Recovery Administration] and the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps], I think, especially was good for the young men at that time. And some of those places that he had built at that time are still standing.

HT:

And what did you think of Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt?

VM:

I admired her. I thought she was a fine person.

HT:

And who were your heroes?

VM:

I guess the generals and the admirals who finally got this war stopped.

HT:

And who were your heroines?

VM:

Hmm, good question. [chuckling] Good question. Hermann, I don't know. I don't know if I thought much about that.

HT:

Well, if you think of it later on, we can put it in.

VM:

Okay. I can't think of any.

HT:

Do you recall where you were when you heard about VE Day [Victory in Europe Day]?

VM:

I think I was at the office working, and it exploded [chuckling] with shouting and crying, laughing. And the same thing with VJ Day [Victory in Japan Day]. I think I was in the office, and a lot of people were saying, “Oh, we can go home now, we can go home now.” Sailors particularly. It was very emotional, too, in the office.

HT:

I can imagine it would be, yes. About the time that your tour of duty was over, were you encouraged to return to the female role that you had prior to joining the service?

VM:

I was, because the GI Bill would pay part of my salary—I went back to the same— assistant credit manager at this women's apparel store. And I wish that I had not done that and gone to college the last two years. But they were so persuasive at this place I worked that I went back, and I do regret that.

HT:

And what type of work did you do at the—you said it was an apparel store?

VM:

A women's apparel store. Assistant credit manager.

HT:

And could you describe for us your adjustment to civilian life?

VM:

I don't think I had much of an adjustment. I just sort of went back to the same place I had been. I saw the same friends at lunchtime, worked with the same people. It was just as if I'd been away a little while.

HT:

What impact did the military have on your life, immediately and then in the long term?

VM:

Well, [it] made me be on time for everything, and be very patriotic and take part in whatever holiday celebrations there are, memorial observances. I don't know what else to say about that.

HT:

Well, do you think your life has been different because of the military?

VM:

Yes, I think so. It taught me tolerance of my fellow man. When I had to be with five other people in the dorm at Hunter, it taught me to be tolerant. [chuckling] Because I had had a bedroom of my own, nobody to worry about, and here we had to clean our rooms, have white-glove inspections every Saturday, so we had to work and take care of that room. Five of us did it out of the six. She sat and looked and watched, and we all got very disturbed with that. So we had to be very tolerant of her.

HT:

Was this a typical college room?

VM:

Yeah, a regular dorm.

HT:

And I think you said earlier that when you were in Mechanicsburg you actually had an apartment with a friend.

VM:

Yes.

HT:

So that was more like civilian-type living?

VM:

Yes.

HT:

And just going to work every day in a military setting?

VM:

Yes.

HT:

And would you do it again, if you had the chance?

VM:

I'd do it in a minute. [chuckling] If they needed somebody to do paperwork now, I'd go. I hope it doesn't come to that, that they're that desperate, but I'd go in a minute.

HT:

Do you consider yourself to be an independent person? Did the military make you this way, or were you that type before you entered the military?

VM:

I think I was slightly independent before I went in. I think the military made me more independent, and I'm almost too independent now.

HT:

Would you consider yourself a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter when you entred the service?

VM:

I didn't think about that. But since I've heard it so much in the last six months, I have kind of reconsidered. I guess I do think we were trailblazers, as far as women after the war not staying home the way they had before, taking jobs and realizing they could do other things besides keeping house. And they went to work in offices and—well, all kinds of places. Since I've heard the term so much, I guess we were sort of trailblazers.

HT:

Have any of your children ever been in the military?

VM:

No.

HT:

How do you feel about women in combat positions? I know recently, in December of 1998, women flew combat missions over Iraq. Do you approve of this?

VM:

I've been torn about this question. I'm not sure. I would hate to see anybody who left a tiny baby at home go into combat and be killed. On the other hand, they signed up to do everything, and if they didn't want to do that, I think they shouldn't sign up. But it's a ticklish question.

HT:

It truly is.

VM:

I'm not sure how I feel about it.

HT:

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

VM:

I don't think so.

HT:

Ginny, I know you're very active in the local WAVES unit. Could you please tell me about the unit and what it does and what you do?

VM:

Well, there's this national group called WAVES National, which somehow I got involved in, and don't remember how, but I know that I've been getting their bimonthly newsletter for years and years. But in 1987, somebody moved to town and called me on the phone and said she'd been in a WAVES unit in Columbus, Ohio, and would I like to help start one in Greensboro. She had four names of former WAVES, and I said, “Well, I guess so,” and didn't know much about WAVES units at that time. But four of us got together and decided we'd like to recruit some other people. So we put a little two-line notice in the newspaper and gave the time of our next meeting, and six people came. We put another little notice in, and the next time eight people came. And we branched out from there until we had at one time thirty-three members. At the present time, we have twenty-three. And we take part in the veterans parade in High Point. One year we went to Charlotte to be in their veterans parade. We go to Forest Lawn Cemetery and take a wreath every Memorial Day, on whatever the Sunday is that's closest to Memorial Day, and meet monthly throughout the fall, winter, and spring, and just have social events in the summertime to get together. And we reminisce. None of us knew each other before we were in this unit, and I probably would not have met any of these people if it hadn't been for this WAVES unit, and I consider a lot of them my very good friends now. And I think everybody enjoys getting together.

HT:

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your military service that we haven't covered?

VM:

No, I think we've pretty well covered it.

End of interview