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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Virginia Young Van Dongen, 1999

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Object ID: WV0015.5.001

Description: Documents Virginia "Ginny" Young Van Dongen’s early life in Rochester, New York; her service with the U.S. Coast Guard SPARs (Semper Paratus—Always Ready) from 1943 to 1945; and her family life after World War II.

Summary:

Van Dongen recalls her decision to leave Eastman Kodak Company to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard and the reactions of her mother and her fiancé to it. She describes the living conditions, daily routine, and social activities at all of her duty stations. Other significant topics include basic training at the Biltmore Hotel in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1943; classes at the radio school in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1943; and her communications work at Port Angeles with the teletype and Morse code in 1944 and 1945.

Personal topics include her marriage and eight children and her continued friendships with fellow SPARs.

Creator: Virginia Young Van Dongen

Biographical Info: Virginia "Ginny" Young Van Dongen of Rochester, New York, was a U.S. Coast Guard SPAR (Semper Paratus—Always Ready) from 1943 to 1945.

Collection: Virginia Van Dongen 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:

EE:

This is Eric Elliott, and I'm with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and this is an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University. Today I am—is Connestee Falls a formal town?

VV:

No, it's a complex.

EE:

It's a complex. So it's still Brevard?

VV:

It's outside of Brevard.

EE:

Outside of Brevard. Well, I am at the home this morning of Virginia Van Dongen, and I appreciate you're having me here this morning. We're going to talk about your service in the military, and a little bit about your life before and afterwards. The question that I start everybody out with, which I hope is not a difficult one, is where were you born and where did you grow up?

VV:

I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Little town of Dormott, really. We then moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. Grew up in Rochester, New York, moved there when I was five. We lived many years in Rochester.

EE:

So Rochester is where you graduated from high school?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

What did your folks do for a living?

VV:

My father was in the grocery business. Van Dyke's Tea and Coffee was an upscale grocery store. My mother didn't work; she had seven children. But she did have room and boarders, which a lot of women did in those days, I believe, to make ends meet.

EE:

The seven—how many brothers, how many sisters, and where were you?

VV:

Well, one [older] brother died [at seven] before I was around. Three brothers and two sisters. I was the youngest. They called me the baby. My older brother called me “the baby” after I had all [eight] of my children, I was still the baby.

EE:

No matter how old you are, you're still the baby. Well, there are some advantages with that. What was the name of the high school that you graduated from in Rochester?

VV:

John Marshall High.

EE:

Were you somebody who liked school growing up?

VV:

Not especially. In fact, I left after three years, and in those days, Eastman Kodak hired me, before I'd even graduated. I was seventeen. And I finished—I only needed English, at night school, got my diploma, and then and took a few courses in college.

EE:

When did you start working for Eastman Kodak? What year was that?

VV:

Well, let me think. I was seventeen, and I'm seventy-six now.

EE:

You're going to make me do math, too. Okay.

EE:

Well, if I'm rounding the numbers, and you're seventy-seven, when you're really seventy-six, sixty years ago is '39.

EE:

And that's when you were seventy-seven. Seventy-six now.

VV:

It must have been '40, though, right? It must have been '40.

EE:

Right, right. Take away one. So you were still living at the house and working at Eastman?

VV:

I was.

EE:

What kind of work did you do at Eastman?

VV:

I was a keypunch operator, tabulating department.

EE:

So that was their central business operations for all their different laboratory work?

VV:

Yes, it was Kodak office, a tall building. There's all different kinds of buildings for Kodak.

EE:

You worked in '40. I guess you were doing that job when Pearl Harbor came around?

VV:

Yes, right.

EE:

Which would have been, I guess you'd have been at home that Sunday, or where were you Pearl Harbor day?

VV:

I'm trying to think. It was on a Sunday. I was home. I was home, but I can't remember exactly what happened. I really can't. On Pearl Harbor. I don't recall.

EE:

Most folks when they're teenagers don't really concern themselves with world events, no matter what's going on in the world. Were you thinking about anything? A war had broken out in Europe in '39. Did you give any thought about the war in Europe? Were operations different at the Kodak plant because of the war starting?

VV:

I don't believe so, not that I can recall. No.

EE:

You were doing that job and when exactly did you join the SPARs?

VV:

Let's see, I was eighteen then. I think I was twenty, so then two years later.

EE:

So '43?

VV:

Yes, I think that would have been it. I've got all that info, exactly the dates, but I don't have it out here with me.

EE:

I think in most services you had to be twenty-one to join, unless you had a parent's signature. Did you get a signature?

VV:

I had my mother's permission. She didn't like it at first because she was losing my room and board, but I made her a partial dependent and that worked out for her.

EE:

That she would continue to get some funds?

VV:

She would get money from me through the service and she also rented my room, so she got ahead of the game.

EE:

So she made money by having you leave home?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

Okay, well most parents have found that out.

VV:

Then it was okay. No, not in our day. We used to pay quite a bit of room and board, so she was upset at first.

EE:

When you joined, were any of your siblings in the service?

VV:

No. My one brother had sugar diabetes. He tried to join and they found out he had sugar. The other brother did join, was drafted, but he also didn't stay in very long. My third brother was in the army. He was in Paris and all around that area. In fact, he drove a jeep for [Douglas] MacArthur. He was in Europe quite a long time.

EE:

All those folks, all your brothers had joined or had applied before you made the decision to join?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

What was it that led you to pick the Coast Guard, as opposed to any of the other branches that were out there?

VV:

I don't know. I guess I wanted to be a little different. It was new and I just got an idea in my head. I'm quite independent. Nobody persuaded me for one thing or another, and my brothers were not in the Coast Guard, or even the [U.S.] Navy. They were in the army.

EE:

How did you even find out about it? [Were] there advertisements on the radio or in the paper?

VV:

Yes, yes. There must have been.

EE:

You didn't have any friends who were joining the service?

VV:

No, I didn't. I didn't know anybody that was in it.

EE:

In any of the branches of the service?

VV:

No, no. Not up in the Kodak office, no.

EE:

What did your supervisor think about that?

VV:

Oh, they were great. I had a wonderful boss. He took me to all the branches and different buildings. He wanted me to know all about Kodak and all about the keypunching operations. He spent a lot of time with me. He was very good. But then when I got in, I didn't continue with the keypunching. I wanted some fun. I wanted something different.

EE:

And they were supportive of your decision to go off?

VV:

Yes. I was a good employee, though. They liked me, and I did go back afterwards.

EE:

I was going to say, did they give you an offer? Did they say, “Well, when you're through, come on back. We've got a job for you.”

VV:

Oh, I think they had to do that in those days. I think they had to promise you your job.

EE:

If you were leaving to join the military, they had to hold the job for you?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

Comforting to know, when you thought, just a few years ago, it was very hard to find a job. Seemed like I recall reading in Mr. McDermott's synopsis of your career that you had met a young gentleman by the time that you made a decision to join the service.

VV:

Yes. Chuck, my husband, lived in our town, and we became engaged before I joined.

EE:

Did he have an opinion on your joining the service?

VV:

Well, men in those days thought that women were pretty loose and wild that joined, you know, and I really, truly was anything but. I was very square. In fact, on my personal life, that I saw somewhere, they said how I was overprotected and how I hadn't been around. I never did get around in that way, but I still had a good time.

EE:

Was he concerned about your being exposed to things that he didn't want you being exposed to?

VV:

I think so. Men.

EE:

So you were already engaged when you joined?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

And I guess had you been—if you had been married, you would have had—would you have had to have your husband's permission to join?

VV:

I don't think they took married women, did they, in those days?

EE:

I think you're right, because I think once you got married, they asked you to leave, didn't they?

VV:

Yes, and especially if you were pregnant, they didn't keep you.

EE:

Well, yes, pregnant was a different thing altogether.

VV:

I think so.

EE:

I think most of the women I've talked to who got married, were out within six months. They were probably all asked to leave sooner than that, but some just took a while to get out. You're in Rochester, you're not at the beach. I guess, where did you go to sign up for—were you freeing a man to fight, by the way?

VV:

Pardon me?

EE:

Did the Coast Guard use that phrase, “free a man to fight?”

VV:

Not that I recall.

EE:

Did they tell you the kind of work that you would be doing?

VV:

No, they didn't. They put me immediately into keypunching. I went to West Palm Beach, for boot, and from there, I was very disappointed to be sent to Washington, D.C., to the tabulating department. I was living off base with several girls that were not my type. I wasn't happy. I was supposed to be working trick work, which I had never done at Eastman Kodak, and I was working with civilians who were getting big pay for this.

When I read the sign up for radio school, I had no experience in that at all. You were supposed to have had some experience. But I am pretty determined. I remember walking down the hall to one of the officers to apply, and saying that I didn't have experience, but I wasn't going to stay here and do keypunching. I didn't come in the service for that.

EE:

Well, you know, what's amazing is that most people I've talked to, when they joined the military, they assigned them something they have had no experience in, they might have a mini knowledge in, but you got assigned doing what you had been doing but you didn't want to do that.

VV:

No, and I didn't—Washington wasn't exciting to me, although I liked it, but I didn't like the style of living. I was only there nine days, and just said, “You know, you're not going to get any work out of me,” which wasn't very nice. So they decided they better let me go.

EE:

Where did you sign up in Rochester? Was it at the post office, or did they have a recruiting station that you visited? Do you remember?

VV:

Yes, it was Rochester. I went to Buffalo for something, but I think that was on our way down to boot camp. I know I went to Buffalo.

EE:

Did you have to take a physical or testing?

VV:

Yes, you have to take a physical, and I did take some testing, some written work. Boy, you're trying to make me recall a long ways back here.

EE:

Yes, I am. Not that I expect you to, but I can ask.

VV:

I'm wondering if I went to Buffalo to sign up. We went to Buffalo for something, but I think that was on our way down to Palm Beach, we stopped over.

EE:

So your train left from Buffalo, maybe.

VV:

That might have been it, yes.

EE:

Was that your first ride? Did you guys just go in a Pullman, or what did you—

EE:

Was it a troop train that you were headed down in?

VV:

No, it wasn't a troop train. It was a regular train, but it wasn't a luxury train or anything. The trains weren't so good in the war days. As everyone has told you, we all sat on our suitcases and all that, and the trains were dirty and sooty, but it was fun. I was all excited.

EE:

Was that your first big train trip?

VV:

Yes, it really was. I remember playing cards on the way down. The first time I'd been away and I just loved it. I don't know why.

EE:

Well, you were the right age to go away and have a good time, at twenty then.

VV:

I guess so, yes.

EE:

You were down at Palm Beach. Now, that was—

VV:

I believe it was West Palm Beach.

EE:

West Palm Beach. And that's where they had the hotel that they have—

VV:

It was the Biltmore Hotel. It was a big pink building that, of course, wasn't fancy inside. I don't know if they've redone that. I think they may have. It had been a nice resort hotel.

EE:

How many of you all were in a room? That's one thing about the Coast Guard, as opposed to being in a barracks with forty, you at least have a little bit more privacy.

VV:

I remember in radio school how many I had, and let's see if I remember the other one in Port Angeles. But at boot camp, I believe it was like a small barracks. I believe there were maybe ten in a room. They were big rooms, and I think we may have had something like that. I was back visiting that room, after fifty years, on one of our trips cross country, but of course, it was different. It's a helicopter place now, in Port Angeles. We had PBYs and PBMs [seaplanes] [during the war]. I went up to my room. It was a big room, so I would imagine we had about ten in there, if I recall.

EE:

What was basic like for someone going through the Coast Guard training? What was it like?

VV:

Basic training?

EE:

Yes.

VV:

It was hard, very hard.

EE:

Physically?

VV:

Yes. It was very hot down there and muggy. I've never liked Florida since. We were up on a high floor and I thought I wasn't going to be able to breathe. We scrubbed floors and stairs and we marched down to the ocean, and we marched around in that area. I don't think they were real easy on us. We couldn't travel very far when we had time off, but I was a little devil. Used to call me “Satan Minor.”A few of the girls and I thought, “Gee, we're this far, we might as well go down to Miami on our day off.” I wasn't very scared, I guess, as a rule.

EE:

You were the instigator.

VV:

Yes, I was bad.

EE:

Everybody's fears are coming through already, in basic.

VV:

Right.

EE:

Were most of your instructors men or women?

VV:

They were men.

EE:

Forty-three—was it springtime, fall? What time of year did you join?

VV:

It was May, I believe, down there, because I remember how hot it was.

EE:

Hot, but not as hot it was going to be, in August.

VV:

No, no. Muggy, muggy.

EE:

I guess your day starts out like everybody else's, with drill in the morning, and classes following and then—how does it work? Isn't there a little parade ground right there by the lake that you all drilled by?

VV:

Yes. We walked through the streets.

EE:

Classes were held where the gift shops used to be.

VV:

I'm trying to think of classes, what we had for classes, because I don't remember any classes. You're really sticking me. I can't remember.

EE:

Well, the thing is, is the questions—and this is why, even though some of the information is there, the questions will be of different—there are going to be some different things in there that help see if there's some other things to remember. I'm always amazed at what people can remember from fifty years ago, frankly. I can't remember two weeks ago.

One of the things that, by asking about that, is that several people are at these basic—basic training is one spot where usually everybody funnels through one or two places, so you get, from different recollections, a fuller picture of what actually was happening. Did they tell you what you could—were there like job choices that you could pick from? I guess when you get out of basic, you're what, a yeoman? What are you when you come out of basic?

VV:

Seaman, I guess.

EE:

Do they tell you that you have certain kinds of work, that as a SPAR you're eligible to do? Like, whether it's office work or cook and bakers kind of thing?

VV:

I don't remember that, no, because I wouldn't have put down keypunching, and that's what I got. I know they let us have a choice of areas where we'd like to be.

EE:

Did you pick Washington?

VV:

No way, no. I didn't.

EE:

What did you pick? Whatever was farthest away from home?

VV:

Farthest away. Yes, because I wanted experience, I probably did.

EE:

And in '43, they weren't even letting you all go to Alaska or Hawaii then, were they?

VV:

No, but they did while I was in, and I did apply. Again, I was under my mother's influence. She didn't want me to go to Hawaii, but she consented to Alaska. So I put in for Alaska.

EE:

Because it's too cold to do anything that gets you in trouble, right?

VV:

Yes. I put in for Alaska, but the war was over before I got to go there.

EE:

You said you were all of nine days in Washington, and then you applied to this radio school. Was your CO [commanding officer], when you were doing just that short time in the keypunch work, was that with an all-women office, or were there women and men working together?

VV:

They were mostly men, that I recall.

EE:

So your immediate supervisor was a man?

VV:

A man, yes.

EE:

Was he in the Coast Guard or in the [U.S.] Navy or a civilian?

VV:

I think he was a Coast Guard man. He wasn't a civilian.

EE:

When you requested this assignment—and Mr. McDermott's book recalls that you apparently had to put up some little fight for it.

VV:

Yes, I did.

EE:

And it wasn't because you were a woman, but because simply, you had no experience.

VV:

I had no experience, right. And they wanted me in the keypunch. That was what they needed and wanted, really.

EE:

When I hear “radio” I think of like a ham radio operator, or somebody doing the communications or running a communications center. Was that the kind of work that you would be doing? Is that what they were training people for?

VV:

Most of our training was with Morse code. That was almost all of it. We did teletype also.

EE:

Do you remember much of the Morse code?

VV:

No, I don't. Di-di-dit. Da-da-da. Di-di-dit.

EE:

I think “SOS” is about all I can remember from my Cub Scout days.

VV:

Yes, right, right, I know. Well, I did well in school there, but I can't remember it at all.

EE:

You left after nine days then, to go into that school? Was that school in Washington or where did they have that school?

VV:

No, it was in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Right on the boardwalk—well, right off the boardwalk.

EE:

Not the worst place in the world to go for training, I would think.

VV:

No, it was very, very nice. Terrible old hotel, though. Should have been condemned. It was awful. And I remember, there were just two in a room, but the rooms were real tiny.

EE:

This was a coed school? This was men and women?

VV:

Oh, they were almost all men, yes. Almost all men. Very few women in comparison. It was a huge school, very large. I don't know if in the thousands of men or not, but very few women. I think there were like thirty or forty women.

EE:

How long did this training last?

VV:

Five months.

EE:

That's a long time. You had signed on for the duration, I guess, when you signed on, right?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

What did your intended think when you wrote him a note that said, “By the way, I'm in a radio school with 99 percent men.”

VV:

Well, I don't think he worried too much, actually.

EE:

He was stationed in New Guinea? Is that correct?

VV:

Yes. Well, first he went to California, but I believe when I joined, he was already in New Guinea.

EE:

He was in the Seabees.

VV:

Yes. He never saw me in uniform. He never wanted to, I don't think.

EE:

He just didn't want to imagine you in that environment?

VV:

No, no.

EE:

What about your children? Did they ever see you in uniform? Did you keep your uniform to show them?

VV:

They've seen pictures, that's all. I wouldn't fit into my uniform.

EE:

This school was for five months, and it's—are you learning about the machinery, the science of how the radio works? What are you learning about?

VV:

It was very intensive, it was very hard, but it was mostly Morse code. Lots of drills, drills, drills on Morse code. And some on the teletype, but mainly the Morse code.

EE:

So you had to be able to interpret. They would have an oral exam, pop quiz, and you had to—

VV:

We had the earphones on and we'd have to write down what we heard.

EE:

What did you do for a social life during those five months? Did you have one or did you have to stay—the school was in the hotel?

VV:

Yes, in this awful old hotel. During time off I was on the boardwalk, just down the corner, and the steel pier, the old steel pier, and another pier. All kinds of goings-on. And I loved the ocean. I spent a lot of time, any time off, in the ocean, when the weather was good.

We had a hurricane while stationed there that destroyed the steel pier and we were all very busy helping out on that. I remember walking with telegrams. You had to walk when the water went down. The water was so high, it was up to like the second story of our hotel. The fellows were diving off the railings into the water. It was really severe. That kept us busy. And no, I didn't go out. I didn't have any social life. But I just enjoyed the girls I was with. We had fun.

EE:

So you did hang out with the other women who were there?

VV:

Oh, yes.

EE:

A lot of folks I've talked with, that's sort of what they did. They would just kind of go in groups out together and do what-not.

VV:

Yes. We did a lot on the boardwalk, because there was a lot of entertainment out there.

EE:

Were you there through Christmas of '43, in Atlantic City?

VV:

Oh, heavens. Let me think.

EE:

That would have been your first Christmas away from home.

VV:

Well, it was five months. I went in around May. So I must have been gone to Port Angeles. Christmases were big at home, but I wasn't homesick. I'm trying to think if I got home after boot camp. I must have but it wouldn't have been Christmas time. I put in that book, how actually, I'm not all that religious, but being Catholic, they used to have Latin masses, and wherever I was, I felt at home at church, because it was always the same. And that one time, the only time I was homesick, was the one time we had a storm on Christmas day. They don't get much snow in Port Angeles, Washington. They get rain. But it snowed and nothing moved. We couldn't get to church. That's the only bad experience I can remember in the service.

EE:

Was that the first year you were out there, or the second? You spent two—

VV:

I was only in the service twenty months. So that was the only Christmas I was away.

EE:

When did you exit the service?

VV:

Just before Christmas of—

EE:

Forty-four?

VV:

Of the other—no, we were married in '46, so it must have been '45. Forty-five, I did. And we were married in '46, soon after my husband got home. He got home—I got home before Christmas, he got home after Christmas, and then we were married that following May, which was '46. So I might have my date wrong, '43. I was only in twenty months.

EE:

So it would have been '44?

VV:

Forty-four, yes.

EE:

Let me ask you this, do you remember D-Day, and where you were when D-Day was announced? Were you at basic then?

VV:

I don't remember VJ Day.

EE:

Where were you?

VV:

In Port Angeles. Yes, that was wonderful. We all piled in jeeps and went right through the gate, they didn't stop us, and into town we were falling out of the jeeps, we were so— yelling and screaming. I remember that real well. I don't know why I don't remember VJ.

EE:

I've talked to a lot of people, that they said, the orders were, “Come back to base,” and it was lock-down for VJ Day. They were so terrified, I think, that people were going to party uncontrollably.

VV:

Port Angeles was a real little town in those days. You couldn't do much partying.

EE:

Do you remember where you were when President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt passed away? I guess you were at Port Angeles?

VV:

Yes. I must have been.

EE:

Were you working that day?

VV:

I don't remember. I remember being very sad about it, but I don't remember where I was or what I was doing.

EE:

What did you think of President Roosevelt, and Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt, for that matter?

VV:

I liked them both.

EE:

She got no small amount of flak for being an outspoken First Lady, and doing things that other First Ladies had never done before and traveling around the country.

VV:

Yes, I thought she was a good, strong person.

EE:

I think you placed third in this particular class of radio?

VV:

Yes, I did well. I did good in radio school.

EE:

So did they ask you again where you'd like to go for an assignment, at that stage?

VV:

They may have given us a choice, yes, of areas.

EE:

And it sounds like maybe this time they listened to you a little bit better than the first time.

VV:

Yes, right.

EE:

At Port Angeles, what are your housing accommodations? Is there a dormitory for women?

VV:

Yes, yes. We had our own dorm. It was a very nice one, actually. It was a nice building. We had like a living room downstairs to greet men if we had a date or anything, and it was nice. It wasn't crummy like the Atlantic City hotel. It was just a two-story, small dorm, for the few of us that were there.

EE:

Was Port Angeles, where you were at, was it a military base before the war, or just something for wartime? Do you remember?

VV:

I would think that would have already been there, because it wasn't that brand new.

EE:

It was a pretty strategic location, I would think, right there.

VV:

Yes, it was five miles out, on a little strip.

EE:

And of course, the property values out there now would be just through the roof, I'm sure.

VV:

I guess. I don't know. It wasn't swimming area, though. I was always looking for swimming places. It wasn't water to swim in.

EE:

Too cold, too strong a current?

VV:

Both. Yes, rocks. It just wasn't presentable for swimming or I'd have been in.

EE:

I talked with one woman who was in the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service], and she never knew how to swim but she joined the WAVES, and she had to protest that, you know, well, “They won't let me do anything but sit at a desk. I'm not going to be on a ship.”

VV:

No, that's right.

EE:

What was your day-to-day work like when you were at Port Angeles? What was a typical day like for you?

VV:

Well, I went to the, I guess, you'd call the office, and we donned our headphones. We listened to planes and ships and we did a lot of teletyping, sent messages through the teletype.

EE:

Was your work then primarily monitoring, as opposed to communicating with people?

VV:

We did both, actually. We communicated.

EE:

Were you steering traffic through the area into the port?

VV:

No, we were getting messages from the planes and from the ships, sending them on with teletype or with Morse code.

EE:

I don't remember when the Aleutians were freed, although that wasn't too far from where the Aleutians were under contest. Was that port a resupply place for—was it Coast Guard and [U.S.] Navy ships or just Coast Guard?

VV:

We had one submarine come in. We didn't have many ships come in, really. Submarine was a big deal for us, to have that in port. It was mostly the planes, the PBYs, the PBMs, that was their main duties.

EE:

And most of the communication with the planes is by Morse code or by radio, voice—

VV:

By Morse code.

EE:

Did you work eight-hour shifts, twelve-hour shifts?

VV:

Eight hours.

EE:

Five days a week, six? What was it?

VV:

I don't remember if it was five or six. I know we had Sunday off. I think we probably only worked five. It wasn't too grueling at all.

EE:

Okay. So you were pleased with it. And I guess giving reports to folks back home and overseas with V-Mail and whatever you could communicate with. You were at Port Angeles then till the time that you left the service, just before Christmas in '45.

VV:

No, I had one stint in Empire, Oregon. There was something going on down there and some of us were sent for, oh, maybe it was only three months, Empire, Oregon.

EE:

And then you went back to Port Angeles?

VV:

To Port Angeles, yes.

EE:

So that was just a temporary position?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

And Empire, was that also a Coast Guard base?

VV:

Oh, yes.

EE:

And similar kind of work you were doing there?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

There were only 10,000 SPARs in the whole country. How many women were stationed with you at Port Angeles?

VV:

Port Angeles, I would guess only between—it's the same number I said for the radio school. Just about thirty.

EE:

Were you doing work before the war, men would have done? Were you all freeing men to fight?

VV:

I would have thought so, yes. I mean, they called us “radiomen.” They couldn't do that today.

EE:

Radiopersons, I guess.

VV:

Right, right.

EE:

The people who were working with you, did you ever—I know some folks who were in jobs that literally freed folks to fight, they were not welcomed with opened arms, because what that meant is that another woman might come and take their job, and send them off to the front. Did you have any resistance or anybody say anything to you?

VV:

Not that I saw or heard, no. The men were very friendly on base, anyhow.

EE:

Treated you with professional courtesy?

VV:

Yes. They were very good. We never got any—the little while I was in, I didn't get any negative feeling from people.

EE:

You got married after your husband-to-be came home in '46. When you were at the base, what did you all do for social life? Was there a town that you went into, or was there dances and things?

VV:

We went into Port Angeles. They didn't have dances for us. There was one little theater there. I'm an outdoor person. We went up into the mountains and hiked. I remember swimming across a lake and back, without any boat, which was stupid. Mixed groups, though. We went up into the mountains and had snow parties and yes, I went out at night. I went out, drank beer and danced and stuff.

EE:

Were they pretty good in keeping you informed of what was going on in the war? Did you get some sort of a regular newsletter or something about what's happening in different places?

VV:

No, I'm afraid they didn't, or I didn't see it. I mean, I was just really having a good time.

EE:

You were all of twenty-one.

VV:

I know. And I enjoyed it. I got letters from my husband-to-be all the time.

EE:

Were most of the people you were working with about your age, or were you young for that—

VV:

No, they were all young. My friends were young. All the ones I was with at Port Angeles, because I've remained friends with many of them and we're all about the same age.

EE:

Now, how old would your supervisors be? Late twenties, early thirties?

VV:

The men, let me think. Maybe a little older than that. Of course, when you're young, you think everybody's old.

EE:

That's right. If they're thirty, they're over the hill.

VV:

Yes, right. I'd say a little bit older than that.

EE:

Did you have women supervisors at your work at Port Angeles, or were your supervisors men?

VV:

We had a few women, but mostly men.

EE:

What rank were you when you left the service?

VV:

Third class.

EE:

Third class radioman?

VV:

Yes. I was studying for my second class, and I was almost there, but then the war was over and I was out.

EE:

So you never thought about making the military a career?

VV:

No, I didn't, because my husband didn't, you know. My boyfriend didn't think about it, We were anxious to get together and knew he was going to be home soon. All I wanted to do—we wanted to go to college, both of us.

EE:

They told you about the GI Bill, I guess, since you were in, didn't they?

VV:

Yes. And I couldn't afford college before it, and Chuck—my husband had had almost three years, so we wanted to go to college when we got out, and knew we could afford it then. But unfortunately, or fortunately, I got pregnant. In those days, you didn't continue on with college plans. Chuck never even finished, which was a shame. Our kids came fast and furious, we had a new home. In those days, the men buckled down and worked, the women took care of the children.

EE:

How many children did you all have?

VV:

We have eight.

EE:

Wonderful, wonderful.

VV:

And they came fast. I mean, the first one was eleven months after we were married, and then the next one was a year after that, and the next one was two years after that.

EE:

I guess, because in some sense, you all were planning a life together before you even went in, the transition out of the military was not a difficult one for you.

VV:

No, it wasn't. I went back to Eastman Kodak, and when I got pregnant, you kind of keep it a secret for a while, and then you leave, when the baby starts to show.

EE:

I did read that, later in life, you went back and got a degree yourself.

VV:

Yes, I finally did. I always wanted to.

EE:

That's wonderful.

VV:

Well, I just graduated in '90, so you see how old I was.

EE:

That's great. What was the hardest thing for you during your time in the service, either physically or emotionally?

VV:

I didn't have a hard time. Like I said, the only thing I can remember was not going to church on Christmas. That was the only thing that sticks in my mind. I enjoyed it very much. I thought boot camp was hard but it was fun. I made friends and I don't know, I just thought it was all—I feel guilty about it, because I thought—I was having a ball.

EE:

You're not the first person I've heard that from. They had too good a time, and they know other folks did not have.

VV:

Right.

EE:

Did you ever worry about Chuck and where he was, because I'm sure he didn't tell you where he was. He couldn't, could he?

VV:

Well, I knew he was in New Guinea, and he was building. He wasn't in a dangerous area. No, everyone knew about Chuck, and knew when I'd get a letter. That was no secret. But he didn't, wasn't very afraid of the war. He was close to it. He saw a little, not action, but he heard bombs and things like that, because they'd go in first and build airstrips and that type of thing.

EE:

But they would do that after the area was secured, then they build an infrastructure.

VV:

So he didn't have a too dangerous job.

EE:

You yourself, being far away from home—but you sound independent, so I don't get the sense that you were ever physically in danger or afraid during your time in the service, were you?

VV:

No, I wasn't.

EE:

When you think back, and you meet lots of interesting characters anytime you go into the service because you're mixing in people from all over, with all different backgrounds—ethnic, faith, geography. Are there some characters that stand out in your mind, that you encountered during your time in the service?

VV:

I can't remember any particular one.

EE:

That usually means you're the character.

VV:

Right. I was the character. We had just such a small amount of girls on base, and we got along. I mean, I don't remember anybody being a real character. The guys were real nice, too. They were very good to us.

EE:

Is there a Coast Guard song or something that's done—

VV:

Oh, yes. Semper Paratus.

EE:

What is the song? Can you hum a few bars?

VV:

[hums] Let's see if I can think of it. We marched to it enough. [hums] I can't think of it. “Semper Paratus is our name.” I'm sorry, I can't.

EE:

That's something that I can never get a reading, is what the tunes were. I had somebody sing WAVES of the Navy, and I haven't heard the Coast Guard song.

VV:

I'm thinking of it, because we used to sing it all the time, of course, and march to it. Can't even get any words out. I'm sorry. I don't know. If I got my album out, maybe—

EE:

Are there other songs or movies you see on AMC [American Movie Classics (TV station)] or something that when you hear or see, take you back to that time, whether it's your song or a song that reminds you of a place? Is there anything like that for you?

VV:

Oh, the only thing that reminds me of that era is the big band songs. We used to jitterbug and all that type of thing.

EE:

Did you swing and sway with Sammy Kaye?

VV:

Yes, right.

EE:

What was your most embarrassing moment? For some people that's—can you remember an embarrassing moment that someone else had?

VV:

No. I remember once riding around on a bike without my hat and they caught me out of uniform. I thought that was silly. During the war, what did they care if I had a hat on our not [on a bike]?

EE:

You're stateside and you're out in the community with a uniform on. What was the general reaction to a woman in uniform?

VV:

In Port Angeles? Oh, very good, very good. As I said, it was so small. It's a great, busy place now. We went back there and I would never have known it. But you asked what we did. I remember doing a lot of traveling, as much as we could. The fellows would take us up in the planes if we had some time off, one time they flew us to Mt. Ranier for a vacation. I flew almost every day on the base. The fellows would let us go up in their PBYs and PBMs or a trainer plane. I also took ferries to Victoria and Vancouver.

EE:

Butchart Gardens that are up there?

VV:

I know that I saw those. I don't think I saw them in the service. I saw them when we went back on a trip.

EE:

Yes, my folks went to see them and said they were great.

VV:

Beautiful, beautiful.

EE:

Was that base there a training station that they were teaching pilots?

[Tape recorder turned off. Answer to question was yes.]

VV:

I forgot about all the fun we had. Going up into the rain forest and the Olympic Mountains, etc. I didn't lack for things to do, but I was in a little difficulty because I didn't have much money. Sending partial [dependency money] to my mom left me—[very little money] but as I said, the fellows would fly us to where we were going, and a lot of the [fun] things I did didn't cost money.

EE:

If you're out there enjoying nature, it doesn't cost a lot to [?]. The reason I ask about what they did—I know some people were stationed at, I guess what were naval air stations, where they were training folks. Also, was this group doing—the flyers going out and doing coast patrol, where they were checking for enemies out on the coast, because there was always some concern about what the Japanese might be doing.

VV:

Gee, you'd think I'd have known what they were doing. It seems to me it was mostly training. Whether they were doing that type of thing, I'm not quite sure. I remember once—you asked about a bad moment. We had a crash in the mountains and I was on duty and could see the plane burning in the mountains. I kept wondering if they were trying to get a hold of me. I felt badly about that. Because we had mountains all around, but you see the flames from that, and that was bad. I never did learn about it.

EE:

Where you were, you didn't really have as much interaction with the war aspect, as far as suffering and pain, it sounds like. That was one of things that made it enjoyable for you, is that you were with good people who were doing good things. By being stateside, too, you probably have a better insight than some of our folks into what the mood of the country was like, being right there in a small town. Do you think that people were more patriotic back then?

VV:

Oh, yes, I think so. Yes, definitely.

EE:

By the time you joined in '44, the tide of war had turned in our favor, although I think at the Battle of the Bulge, people were still concerned what might happen. Do you think anybody was ever concerned, or did you hear anybody concerned, that we would not win the war?

VV:

No, I think people were more positive than that. Pearl Harbor scared everybody, I guess, didn't it? That they could do that.

EE:

And if the Japanese had known how much damage they did, they would have really scared us, because they didn't really monopolize—they had the army surpassed.

VV:

There was some unrest after that. People were worried after the Japs bombed. That was getting too close.

EE:

When you think back to that time, do you have any people who, for you, are heroes or heroines, from the war?

VV:

I guess I don't know my history very well. No, I can't think of anybody outstanding.

EE:

I'm just thinking of folks that you knew who did good things that were unusually—you came back and your husband had a career with Kodak. What was he?

VV:

He was a draftsman.

EE:

Draftsman for them.

[End Tape 1 Side A—Begin Tape 1, Side B]

EE:

You all moved back to Rochester and stayed in the Rochester area till he retired?

VV:

Yes, we did. Until we were sixty.

EE:

They have invested so much in that area, Kodak, and it's just wonderful, the benevolence they have in the community. And then you decided to come south, for some reason.

VV:

Well, we had done a lot of traveling, looking around, not especially wanting to relocate, but to see the country. We took some elder hostels to find out which area we liked, we went to Pinehurst, which is on the coast of North Carolina, we liked it there, but I didn't like the surrounding area. The complex was beautiful. It had lakes, trees and all, but the surrounding area was too flat. So the fellow we were staying with at the bed and breakfast said, “Sounds like you folks would like the mountains.” He had traveled a lot. So we took two elder hostels down in this area, looked around and liked this part of North Carolina.

EE:

Did any of your children ever join the military?

VV:

Yes. Our oldest son, we're real proud of him. He was in the ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps], and in his day—he's fifty-two now—in his day, the campuses were in unrest, you know. There were a lot of problems. He had to work his way through, like all our kids did. He wasn't causing any problems on campus. He was busy studying, getting his money's worth. He became an officer and made it a career.

He just retired about three years ago, as a lieutenant colonel. Now he has a civilian job. He was working as the housing director for the Aleutian Islands, and flying into those little islands. It was very dangerous, and he resigned from that. Then he took another position, 600 miles north of his home in Palmer, Alaska, up in Kotzebue, which I didn't like at all. He said he'd only work there a couple years. He been there two and a half, and just resigned, to be with his family. It was a big job, though.

EE:

So he's still in Alaska?

VV:

Yes. Oh, they have a home in Alaska and they have a home in Hawaii. They've had a good life in the service, very good life. He's got two nice children and a great wife. The only time they've ever been separated is when he took this job up in Kotzebue for big bucks and his three month service in the Gulf War.

EE:

This is the army he's in?

VV:

Yes.

EE:

Did any of your daughters ever think about joining?

VV:

No, I don't believe any of them even gave it a thought.

EE:

Would you have supported them if they wanted to join the military?

VV:

Oh, sure. I support them whatever they want to do.

EE:

You know, we now have—I guess this is the difference between—one of the big differences between World War II and now, with the military, is that women can do so many more things in the military. They're allowed to do more. Last December, for the first time, the United States sent a woman combat pilot into action, in Iraq. How do you feel about that? Are there some things in the military that women should not be allowed to do?

VV:

I'd hate to see one captured. That would be my thought. But otherwise, they could do all the work and all the jobs. I'm sure they can fly and all the rest of it. I just think about prisoners of war. I wouldn't like to see a woman in that position, or a man, for that matter.

EE:

Some folks have said that, as a society, that probably one of the big things that happened after World War II—the world changes a lot, but in our country, the fact that so many women were entering the workforce, side by side with men, like you there in the radio office, showed that women could do a lot more things than what they had been doing beforehand, in the workforce. Do you think that your kind of work helped, was a trailblazing kind of work, the fact that they would let women into those positions?

VV:

Well, probably all of the work that the women did in the service, that was different for them, helped. However, when the men came back, a lot of the women had to leave because they were taking their jobs. And the men, most of them, were guaranteed their work. So they came back and a lot of women got out of the factories at that point. They did their duty. But a lot of them [women] now are doing things like that, men's jobs.

EE:

When you look back—you were in for twenty months—how did your life change because of your time in the military?

VV:

It didn't change at all. We went right back to being engaged and getting married and working at Eastman Kodak.

EE:

It was for you a parentheses. It was a wonderful time—

VV:

It was.

EE:

—but it really didn't impact you.

VV:

My other friends at Kodak office, really, they were such an unhappy bunch of women. We'd go out to movies or something together, but half of them were crying over their husbands' or boyfriends' pictures and were very sad. I wasn't happy being alone, but I did something about it. That's the story of my life. If something's wrong, I try to do something about it. And that was it for me. I really hate to say I enjoyed the war years. I was concerned about death and all, but I think I contributed, being a radioman. In the meantime I was having a great time.

EE:

You talked about your husband was reluctant to see you in uniform. Have you shared with your—I guess your family knows a lot more about your time, thanks to Mr. McDermott's books and stuff. Were they interested in your service?

VV:

Well, I think they were, although I haven't—this article in here, I sent to the kids. I haven't bought anybody a book, nor have they asked. They're all pretty busy people, with their own families. Yes, they said that enlightened them. There were a lot of things I had never said before. So yes, they enjoyed reading it.

EE:

If you had it to do over again, would you?

VV:

Oh, yes, in a minute. Right. I would.

EE:

Well, I appreciate you letting me into the life of a SPAR.

VV:

It's not too exciting.

EE:

That's a strange title, isn't it? Semper Paratus. They didn't want to be an auxiliary so they named them something else.

VV:

I guess.

EE:

But that's good. Do you keep in contact with any of the other women who you served with?

VV:

I have, but unfortunately, some of them have died or are quite sick. Yes, we've taken four trips across country, and I don't know if it was the first or second trip, I stopped in to see several of them. One especially, was a really good friend of mine. I've seen her twice. In fact, I've seen a couple of them twice. But we never stayed. I'd always call after we got to a motel, but that's what I do when traveling. And they seemed really pleased, because we still keep in touch at Christmas. We all send to each other—not all, but the ones that I know. And so when I went cross country, I saw, oh, I can't tell you how many, but at least ten [ex-SPARs].

EE:

That's good. For most of the women who were in during World War II, unless they personally made an effort to keep in contact, there's been no organized effort to keep them connected with the service.

VV:

Well, they've had these reunions, which I'd never gone to. I almost went to one. I could never afford it, to tell you the truth, when I had the kids. With one of my best friends I almost made one, but I never did, so I think they [Coast Guard] made a little effort that way, with the reunions. But they are expensive. You'd go to Washington or something and the rooms would be over $100 a night and everything else, and I couldn't afford it.

EE:

Well, on behalf of the school, and myself, for a very enjoyable morning, I want to say thank you, and we'll be glad to get this back to you.

VV:

All right. Did you want to see the pictures?

EE:

Yes.

[End of interview]