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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Rachel Summers McGee, 1999

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Object ID: WV0016.5.001

Description: Documents Rachel Leuella Summers McGee’s early life; her service with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) from 1942 to 1943; and her life after World War II.

Summary: McGee discusses her decision to join the army and people’s reaction to women in the military at great length. She comments on her reasons for enlisting in the army; her patriotism; how men and civilians perceived and judged women in the military; the responsibility she felt to succeed in her job; and why she left the army in 1943. McGee also describes her basic training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa and her work in the communications center at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Topics pertaining to basic training in November 1942 include the weather; WAAC uniforms; KP duty; drilling; and the notion that early WAACs were guinea pigs. Subjects related to the communications center in Fort Knox include McGee’s social life; her relationship with her male coworkers; her desire to prove herself as a capable worker; and working with American soldiers who had been AWOL and were then assigned to clean army buildings. McGee also notes that she served in an honor guard at the Kentucky Derby with several WAACs and that her picture was on the cover of Army Life magazine. Personal topics include McGee’s work with Western Union and the difficult transition to civilian lifefor the McGees.

Creator: Rachel Leuella Summers McGee

Biographical Info: Rachel Leuella Summers McGee (1920-2007) of Greensboro, North Carolina, was a teletype operator in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) from 1942 to 1943.

Collection: Rachel Summers McGee 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:

[My name is Hermann Trojanowski], and today is January 13, 1999. I'm at the home of Rachel McGee to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection.

Mrs. McGee, thank you so much for talking with me today. And to start with, could you give me some basic biographical information about yourself, such as your name, your hometown, a little bit about your family, the dates you were in the military service, the age that you entered, and your rank?

RM:

I'm originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, believe it or not, and I'm one of five children.

[Interview interrupted]

And when I joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps—WAAC—people, civilians particularly, people in the military, they thought it was terrible that a woman would go into service.

HT:

I've read about that.

RM:

Yes! And I got lots of talk about why was I going to do this? People back then, they were so different from what they are now. They were very, very patriotic, and they kept saying, “If you go into service, you will release a man to go overseas and it'll give us more men.”

[Interview interrupted]

So when I went into the service, even the men that I was in service with, they weren't too happy to see women in service either. So we had a lot of things to do to get people to realize that we were really doing a good job.

So when I went into service—let's see, I went in 1942, that was early—they did not have a lot of women at that time. In fact, I went in with a lady that was a French teacher at Woman's College [of the University of North Carolina, now UNCG].

HT:

Do you remember her name, by any chance?

RM:

Yes, Ruth Shaver. I'll never forget her name.

HT:

Yes.

RM:

Did you know her?

HT:

No, but I've seen her in various archival collections that I've worked on.

RM:

But I enjoyed her so much. We got on the bus and went from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and we both were inducted into the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. And when we left there, they told us that they would send us orders as to when we would report and where. So they gave me orders, and I reported to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and that's where I had my basic training. And you talk about cold! It was one of the coldest places I had ever been in my whole life. Twenty below zero when we were out on the drill field. Because, see, we were guinea pigs. They didn't have any women. They wanted to show that we really could take any conditions that existed. We were out there, and of course it was so cold, and you could get frostbitten pretty easily. So when we finished our marching outside, we were put into a classroom that wasn't heated, and we had our classes in this unheated classroom. And when we finished our basic training there, they sent me to a college there. It was called—I don't remember what the college was, but I stayed there for about four weeks with some special training that they had. And then they decided that they were going to send them out to different bases, and they took two girls from North Carolina out of the group. One of them I still know and [have] contact with, she's from Statesville, North Carolina. They sent two of us to Fort Knox, Kentucky, but that was to form a company. They took all the different states to form this company, and I went to Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was assigned to the COMM Center, because that was what I was trained to do.

HT:

Could you explain what the COMM Center is, Mrs. McGee?

RM:

The COMM Center is where all your communications are carried on. It's got the radio room and the teletype machines and all that type of thing. At Fort Knox they also had places where the servicemen could come and get money orders and messages, which was unusual, because it was thirty-five miles into Louisville, Kentucky, and it was too inconvenient for them. So I was in the COMM Center and I was the only WAAC that was in the COMM Center. And because I'd had all this training and didn't need any training, they immediately made me a sergeant. [chuckling] So that was lucky. Anyway, the guys that I worked with in there, in the Communications Center, didn't like it because I outranked them. But I told them I was just in there and had a job to do, and that's what they gave me and I was going to take it, you know, [chuckling] wasn't going to refuse it.

So the captain that was in charge of this Communications Center, they worked alternating shifts. Sometimes you would work from 12:00 midnight to seven o'clock in the morning. The captain didn't particularly want me to work hours like that, but I told him no, I was there, I was going to work just like they did. So I worked. I just wanted to show them that I would do it. Because they said, “Well, we don't think it's safe. We have POWs, prisoners of war, that come and clean up the building.” And I said, “Well, I don't mind. I'll take care of that.” So the captain gave me a big iron pipe to put up under the counter there. Because if somebody would come in, he said, “You can conk them on the head.” So, anyway, when they saw that I really would do it, they said they didn't want me to do it anymore.

So, anyway, I enjoyed being there at Fort Knox. In fact, they had the Kentucky Derby, and they chose fifty WAACs for the honor guard there at the Kentucky Derby. So I happened to be one of them that got in on that.

But it was really a nice, nice assignment. We would go to Chicago on weekends. We'd get the train and go up there. And when you'd get there, everything was free to people in service. They had a YWCA [Young Women's Christian Association] hotel for women, fifty cents a night. Can you imagine this? You went into theaters, that was free. And none of them up there hardly had seen any women in the military, and when you'd walk into a restaurant you could hear everybody just put their silver down and start looking. And before you left that restaurant, somebody had paid for your meal.

HT:

How wonderful.

RM:

It was a wonderful assignment, and the people were so nice up there to you. It's unbelievable! But during World War II, you know, people were different. They were very, very patriotic, and if they saw anybody in service, they treated them very, very nice.

HT:

So it didn't matter if you were a man or a woman, as long as you were in the service and had a uniform on.

RM:

No. If you had that uniform on, they treated you just as nice as—But it was, it was a nice assignment. But one day these guys up there called me in the radio room and they said, “Hmm, do you know where you're going?” I said, “No.” “Africa.” Africa! So at that time when I went into the military, I had been working at Western Union for five years. And I learned all the things there was to know about Western Union and the communication field, and I was well-qualified for any job they wanted to assign me to. So when I heard I was going to Africa, mmm! And I talked to a girl that was over there, and she said it was just like being in a prison camp. She said they escort you to the barracks and then they escort you back. Because, see, most of these men over there hadn't seen women in years and years, and they wanted to make sure you were safe. [chuckling]

So Western Union had told me at the time I went into the military that they would not let me go anywhere, that I had to stay right in Greensboro. Well, some of those gossips there in Fort Knox, you know when they'd come in to get money orders and so forth, they'd be lined up, you know, near payday, and I'd hear them saying, “I bet she just came in here to get herself a husband,” you know, and all that kind of stuff. And I thought to myself, there's more military men here in Greensboro, if you'd go downtown shopping they'd follow you in the stores.

HT:

Because we had ORD [Overseas Replacement Depot] out here, so there were a lot of military guys here.

RM:

Yeah! Oh, there were just all kinds of guys here. And I just sort of shirked and just said, “You just don't know what you're talking about.” [chuckling] I didn't say anything. But anyway, when I found out that I was going to Africa, I told them I was going to take a fifteen-day leave. And so I came back to Western Union and I told them that I wanted to go to California. If they wanted me to come back to work for Western Union, I would if they'd let me go to California. And they said, “They wouldn't send you to California.” I said, “I know they would. I've already found out.” So, before I could even get home, they called and wanted to know when I was leaving, when I wanted to leave for California. So I worked a year out there in California. Because, see, people out there then, they could make so much more money working in those airplane factories than they could working at Western Union, and of course all wages were frozen. And Western Union told us that whenever the wages—“When we can give you a raise, we will. We'll compensate you for this time that you were underpaid.” So they just needed help so bad out there. So a girl from Greensboro went with me and we stayed a year.

HT:

Now, you were still in the army?

RM:

No, I got out.

HT:

Oh, you had gotten out of the army by this time?

RM:

I got out because I didn't want to go to Africa. [chuckling] I didn't want to go to Africa.

HT:

Oh, I see. Do you recall how long you were in the service?

RM:

I was in there approximately a year. Approximately a year.

HT:

So that was about 1942 to '43, because you went in real early.

RM:

Yes, '42 to '43. At that time, when you went into the service then, you had to be twenty-one. You had to be twenty-one. And that was a good thing, because later on they started taking them at eighteen, and they were not mature enough to be in the military. And I think that was a mistake. They should have been twenty-one. [chuckling] But it was a good experience for me.

HT:

It sounds like a wonderful experience.

RM:

You know, nobody could tell you about being in the military until you were in there yourself. Boy, you find out a lot of things about the military.

HT:

And about other people as well.

RM:

Other people. And it's good training. I think every high school kid that they're having problems with, they should put them in the service—just tell them what it's all about, you know? [chuckling]

HT:

Well, speaking of high school, could you tell us a little something about—You went to high school locally, I assume?

RM:

Yes. You probably never heard of Bessemer High School.

HT:

I have.

RM:

I went to Bessemer High School and graduated there. Right after graduation, I went to work for Western Union because my dad worked there. And I loved those teletype machines. They were just like music to my ear. And of course I didn't even have typing out there at Bessemer School at that time, so I persuaded him to let me go up to King's Business School and take typing. And I said, “I can learn to type within a month,” which I did. I learned to type, and really could type on those teletype machines. It was really a really great job. I worked there for thirty-nine years at Western Union, and it was a wonderful job and I enjoyed every minute of it because I liked those teletype machines so much, you know. So as I kept working there, I began to get different assignments, you know, and all this. I always went to all the presidential conventions, no matter where they were, Chicago or Los Angeles or what, and worked in the press room. I had lots and lots of good opportunities with Western Union. And that's why I really wanted [chuckling] to get out of the military and go back for Western Union. But I did enjoy the year I spent in the service. It was a great experience, and you couldn't get it anywhere else.

HT:

That is so true. Speaking about the military service, did your parents have to sign when you—

RM:

Yes. See, I was twenty-one.

HT:

You were already twenty-one by that time.

RM:

Twenty-one, so they did not have to sign for me. But they weren't too happy about this. They said, “Why would you give up a job at Western Union and go into the military?” They weren't much in favor of it, but since I was twenty-one and I was kind of headstrong anyway— [chuckling]

HT:

And what did your friends and coworkers think about this?

RM:

Oh, they thought, what in the world would you do something like this for?! They thought it was terrible. But when I got out there and I started that drilling on the field and all that kind of stuff, I thought to myself, Boy, I would never let anybody know anything about this, because I'm telling them it's just great, it's wonderful. [chuckling] But you know they must have thought that they were going to have giants in there. I was 5'1"” and they issued us our clothes, and those overcoats they gave us came down to my ankles. And I was thrilled to death with it because it helped me to keep warm. I had on everything they issued me, the cotton stockings, the galoshes [wet-weather boots], the socks, and then we had those utility coats that had the hoods over them, you know? I put on everything they issued me. [chuckling]

HT:

Ginny Mattson told me that the WAVE [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—Navy] uniforms were designed by a famous New York fashion designer called Mainbocher, I think is how she pronounced it. Were your uniforms designed by anyone famous, or do you know?

RM:

Well, I really don't know. I know that [Oveta Culp] Hobby was in charge of the WAACs when I went in, but I don't know who designed the uniforms. But anyway, that olive drab color, I thought, If I ever get out of here, I'm never going to wear anything olive drab. [chuckling] But the uniforms were quite nice, really. They really were. We didn't object to them, because they were strictly the thing that the military people wore. But it really opened lots of doors with you with that uniform on. You could get on the trains and go anywhere you wanted to with that uniform on. I was one that liked to fly, but I would get sort of sick, motion sickness. And I would go out to base operations there in Louisville and ask them where—And of course they were thrilled to death to have a woman on board one of those airplanes, you know. They had the pilot and the co-pilot, and then had this little jump seat in the middle, and I would sit on the little jump seat and go. A lot of times I'd come down to Pope Air Force Base down here, fly down here, and get a three-day pass and stuff like that. But I really had wonderful experiences with the military, I'll have to say that. It was quite an experience.

HT:

It really sounds like it was wonderful.

RM:

It really was.

HT:

Do you know any particular reason why you joined the military service? Can you recall why?

RM:

Yes, because people were so patriotic, that we felt like that if we could release a man to go overseas, that that would certainly be a big help to the military.

HT:

Ginny Mattson mentioned that as well. That was one of her reasons she did it.

RM:

Yes. I don't know, you just felt like you were really doing something, and that's why I joined. And I didn't regret it either, especially as it worked out. I signed up for the duration, and six months into the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps—But as it turned out, whenever they made it Women's Army Corps [WAC], they gave us the choice: We could either get out or stay in. So when I told Western Union that I wasn't coming back to Greensboro, they were quite agreeable for me to go to California. So that made up my mind right there. I'd take California to Africa. [chuckling]

HT:

I would imagine so. Do you recall why you decided to join the WAACs as opposed to the WAVES or one of the other branches?

RM:

Well, to tell you the truth, I hadn't heard of any other branches except the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps at that time.

HT:

Was it the first one, do you recall? It may have been.

RM:

I think it was, really.

HT:

It probably was.

RM:

In fact, I had a brother that was in the navy for twenty-some years, and then I had another brother that was in the navy. But they didn't have anything in the navy that a woman could join. So I just heard about this, and I'd go by this recruiting station, you know, going to lunch and back, and I'd see all these big things about women going in service, you know, and I thought, That sure would be a good thing to do.

HT:

Do you remember your first day in basic training?

RM:

Yes. In fact, then you had to—before you got your rank or anything like that, you had to go on KP [kitchen patrol].

HT:

Oh yes.

RM:

KP!

HT:

Kitchen police.

RM:

Yes! And so whenever they assigned me to KP, those pots were so big that I looked at those things and thought, What am I going to do with them? Fortunately, some of the men came to my rescue and they helped me with those pots. [chuckling] But it was terrible. But I didn't stay on that KP too long because my captain said, “You have other duties to do. You're not going to be on KP.”

HT:

Can you tell us any more about your basic training days? I know you mentioned it briefly earlier. Do you have any interesting tales or—?

RM:

Well, to tell you the truth, they had ladies in there from every state, every state, and I'd say most of the girls that were there from down South—you know, way down South—they got pneumonia, and I never heard the likes of it. They were on sick leave 90 percent of the time because that weather was so bad up there. But I thought I was really pretty healthy for twenty-one, you know, never had been sick or anything like that, and even if I felt bad, I wouldn't let anybody know it. [chuckling] But it was rough, I'll tell you, being out there in that 20-below-zero weather marching, and when your feet would hit the ground, you wouldn't even know you had feet. You couldn't even feel it!

HT:

What month was this again?

RM:

It was in November. November and December.

HT:

November 1942?

RM:

Yes, right. Boy, the weather sounded a great deal like what they're having in Chicago right now. But then may be worse because—And it snowed all the time. Snowed all the time. When I got there it was snowing. In October, snowing. And I couldn't believe it, you know, because it was beautiful here. [chuckling]

HT:

What a change for you.

RM:

What a change for the weather.

HT:

Did you ever think about making the military a career when you were in that one year?

RM:

No, not really. After Western Union had decided that they were going to just send me wherever I wanted to go, you know, that suited me fine. So I thought, well, I can sort of control this. But when you get in the military, you go where they tell you to go. [chuckling] That sort of changed my mind a little bit, especially with that Africa.

HT:

Do you feel you made a contribution to the war effort in the year that you were in?

RM:

Yes, I do, because I worked real hard, and I mean we were busy. We were busy all the time, just busy all the time. And I know my first day in the communications department, I was sitting there at the teletype machine, and here come some guys and they said they had instructions they were supposed to make my picture. You know, when we'd leave we had to be in uniform. We couldn't wear one of these sleeveless sweaters and stuff like that. But I left this one day and had on a sleeveless sweater. And when I was sitting back at the machine I said, “No, I can't have my picture made today because I'm out of uniform.” They said, “Well, we've got instructions. We're going to make it.” So, anyway, the guys were over there in the corner and they said, “Boy, I've been here for a year. There ain't any of them come by to ask about taking my picture.” So I just took that sweater and slung it off in the corner and said, “Just make the picture.” So, about a month after that, would you believe that it appeared on the front of Army Life? [chuckling]

HT:

Do you by any chance have a copy of that?

RM:

It's out there at the college. I gave them a copy of that. And boy, oh boy, that really got them then. They said, “Now if this don't beat all I have ever heard in my life.” And a lot of the girls that were in there with me had a picture of it, and it was in their hometown newspaper, saying they had trained a WAAC to be in communications. And I had the training before I got in there, but that's what they said, you know. What a pie assignment it was. [chuckling]

HT:

We mentioned this earlier about the recruiting posters saying that if women would join a particular branch of the service it would free men up for combat. And I think you mentioned that you felt that way.

RM:

I did. In fact, I had the little brochure that I got from the recruiting office, and I sent it out there.

HT:

Right. Did you ever have any guilty feelings about perhaps sending a man that you had freed up to go to combat, [that] either they might be killed or injured or—

RM:

Well, not really, because I figured they were going to send them where they wanted to anyway. And if that would be the story, that would just happen to be their luck.

HT:

Well, it really sounds like you enjoyed your year in the service.

RM:

Oh, I did, I did.

HT:

Do you think you were treated equally with the men?

RM:

Yes, indeed so. Absolutely.

HT:

And did you ever encounter any kind of discrimination because you were a woman, while you were in the military?

RM:

No, not really, because I guess the people that I worked with, they saw that I could do the work and there was no problems there. And I worked harder than they did, too. And I worked harder in there than I did at Western Union, to tell you the truth, but I wanted to show them that we could do the job. And that helped tremendously.

HT:

I'll bet it did. Do you ever recall receiving any kind of special treatment because you were a woman?

RM:

No. Really and truly, we weren't under army rules and regulations. We were just serving with the military, but when they made it WACs, then you were under those rules and regulations. And there wasn't a whole lot that they could do. You know, if you didn't obey all those rules, they didn't do anything to them, you know. But we were never discriminated against, really. I wasn't. Because I guess I would just declare myself. [laughter]

HT:

Do you recall the hardest thing you ever had to do physically while you were in the military?

RM:

Doing on the drill field. That was the worst, the drill field. [chuckling] And you know, when we were out there marching—Now this is true. We were out there marching, and that ground was so slick and so much snow, when they would give us “to the rear march,” we'd fall flat on our face. Now that's how slick it was. Rear march, just fall, every one of them. You know, because you had to snap-to, you know, to turn around, and you'd just fall flat on your face. The whole works would. [chuckling]

HT:

That must have been quite a sight.

RM:

It was, it was a sight. And part of it was that we were on display all the time because, see, we were guinea pigs. We wanted to show them what we could do. So they put us through everything possible. And we endured it! [chuckling]

HT:

You must have been a bunch of tough ladies.

RM:

Well, I'll tell you, I wouldn't admit that it was rough. I know, because they'd tell me not to go in there, you know, and that would just confirm it to them. But I didn't want that.

HT:

Do you, by any chance, recall the hardest thing you ever had to do emotionally?

RM:

Let's see, I guess dealing—In this communications center they had a lot of civilians that worked in there, and they had this one lady, I can't recall her name, but she was in charge of all the civilians. And she called me up in her office one day and told me that I had gotten one of her worker's boyfriends. And you talk about mad. I said, “I made it a rule that I would not date any person that worked in this building here, because it's just not a good policy.” But the girl had told her that I just took her boyfriend away from her. Can you imagine calling a person up in there and reprimanding them for something that—I just—Oh! But that really irritated me.

HT:

I can imagine that would. It sounds like it might have been your most embarrassing moment as well.

RM:

It was. It really and truly was. It really was.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid? You mentioned something about an iron pipe earlier.

RM:

Well, when I worked that night shift from midnight till seven o'clock in the morning, I didn't know what to expect. I had no idea, and I felt a little leery of it, but I wanted to show them that I could do it. I would do it regardless of whatever happened. But fortunately these— what they called POWs [prisoners of war], they were just little kids. Some of them were sixteen and eighteen, you know, had just signed up for the military, and they'd been AWOL [absent without leave], on leave, just going home for leave and didn't come back on time. And they had them in there cleaning up that building.

HT:

Were these POWs Germans, or— ?

RM:

No, they were Americans.

HT:

They were American boys?

RM:

They were American soldiers that had gotten into the military and they went home on their leave and didn't come back on time. So they would put them into the brig for not being back on time from their leave. And so they were cleaning up that building, those little kids were, and they were the nicest kids, you know. I wasn't afraid of them, [chuckling] not little kids like that, seventeen and eighteen years old, you know?

HT:

So you never felt like you were in any sort of physical danger?

RM:

No, I did not. No, none whatsoever. But I did at first. I didn't know what to think. I might have got a great big bruiser in there, you know? I thought, well—

HT:

But I think you could take care of them.

RM:

I think that little iron pipe over there could. [chuckling] I could run fast then.

HT:

Can you tell me about some of the interesting people you met while you were in the military?

RM:

Well, you know, at that time the WAACs, I was in the enlisted people, a sergeant's enlisted, and you weren't supposed to date any officer or anything of that sort.

HT:

No fraternization.

RM:

None whatsoever. And of course I knew that I wasn't under army rules and regulations. You know, this is an odd thing. The thing that was beneath my dignity was saluting those officers. And it was only the uniform, but I took it that you were saluting the people. And I just didn't want to salute them. And sometimes if I knew them pretty good, and this wasn't good for the rest of them that was looking on, I'd say, “Consider yourself saluted,” and I'd just keep walking. [laughter] The things I did then! It was terrible. But I just didn't realize. I just [thought], well, that's just beneath my dignity saluting that one right there. [chuckling] And I wouldn't do it. But of course I wasn't under army rules and regulations, so they couldn't do anything with me.

HT:

Oh, so you never got in trouble for doing that?

RM:

No, because they never told it. My commanding officer, they didn't like her. She was real snippy. She was a pretty lady, but the officers, they didn't like her because she wouldn't even speak to them, and so they wouldn't dare report anything like that to her. [laughter] It was really like a three-ring circus.

HT:

Oh gosh, it sounds like it. Well, Mrs. McGee, would you mind telling me something about your social life? What did you ladies do for fun in those days?

RM:

Well, we'd go over to the field house and dance or do something like that. But we would go into Louisville, Kentucky, and we'd put on civilian clothes.

HT:

Was that legal?

RM:

No, it was not. We'd go to the different clubs with the officers, you know, which we were not supposed to do either. But one time we were walking down the street in Louisville, we looked up, and there was my commanding officer. And boy, we took an about-face and went in the other direction. We didn't get caught, but it was a risky thing. But, you know, like I say, Chicago, we'd go to Chicago. And like I say, everything was free, so we were eager to go to Chicago all the time. Every chance we got, we went to Chicago. We'd get the train and go to Chicago. So that was our social life. [chuckling]

HT:

Did you have weekends free and evenings free?

RM:

I did, most.

HT:

So your basic time at the office was like 8:00 to 5:00?

RM:

Yeah, 8:00 to 5:00. Normally that's what it was.

HT:

Do you recall what your favorite songs and movies and dances were in those days?

RM:

Oh, the jitterbug. We did the jitterbug. And all the good songs of Glenn Miller's, you know, and I'll Never Smile Again. In fact, one of the guys that I worked with some, he sang for NBC [National Broadcasting Company] in Chicago. So, when we would go up into Chicago, they recognized him in some of those clubs that we'd go in and he'd get up there and sing. He had a wonderful voice. And after I left Louisville, I don't know what ever happened to him, like some of the others. But we would go to some of the clubs, and we just had a wonderful time up there, dancing and different things, you know, going to the restaurants. They had wonderful restaurants in Chicago. We liked that. [chuckling]

HT:

Oh, good food, I guess.

RM:

Oh yeah, it was good.

HT:

During your military time, was that the first time you'd ever been away from home for any extended period of time?

RM:

No. Prior to that I had gone and worked for Western Union in different places, usually just in North Carolina and Georgia. That was this area here. I would go like up to Roanoke, Virginia. Maybe they needed help for a certain period of time. Or I might go down to Pensacola, Florida, and work, or something like that, and I'd be gone, say, several months, something like that. But I was used to being away from home. It didn't bother me.

HT:

Do you recall what you thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president at that time?

RM:

Well, at that time we thought he was number one. We really liked him very, very much. And you know while I was at Fort Knox, they had that—What was that real military man that was so strict? Oh, shoot, I can't think of his name. He was there for a while before they sent him overseas.

HT:

It wasn't General [George] Patton, was it?

RM:

Yeah, General Patton. General Patton was at Fort Knox when I was there, and one of our WAACs drove his staff car for him. And one morning I was going to work, and I saw her coming in the staff car, and he was in there, of course. And he had that cane, you know, in the back seat, and he knocked on the window like that, and she stopped the car and pulled it over to one side. And he motioned for this boy to come over there. And do you know what he got after him for? His tie was on crooked. That's how strict discipline he had, military discipline. But he evidently must have liked the WAACs, or I don't think he would have let this WAAC drive his staff car. He was very pleased that women were in the military.

HT:

That's great. And what did you think of Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt?

RM:

Oh, I liked her. Really, I did. I thought she was a smart woman, really. I liked her pretty much.

HT:

Do you recall who your heroes or heroines might have been during that time?

RM:

Let's see, well, there were several of the generals in the military that I—Let's see, who all was in there at that time? I can't remember their names now, but I really admired them because of the way they handled things, the military men that were in charge of different operations around. I thought they were doing a good job, a great job.

HT:

I know you had left the military by VE Day [Victory in Europe Day] and VJ Day [Victory in Japan Day]. Do you recall where you were on those days, by any chance?

RM:

Well, I was out in California when VJ Day came. But it was a happy moment, I'll tell you. [chuckling]

HT:

You were not married at that time, I assume?

RM:

Yes. My husband was in the military. When I got out and came back to Western Union, I worked here until we got married, and then he was stationed at La Junta, Colorado. I don't know if you've ever heard of that. It's 180 miles south of Denver, Colorado. After I left California I went to Denver and worked for three months, because he was 180 miles south of Denver, and then I came on back and worked for Western Union until we got married and went on out to California. That's where our son was born. He finally got transferred from La Junta, Colorado, to Santa Ana, California, which I was real happy that he did because I didn't particularly like Colorado. We lived there until he got his discharge from the military. Then I came back to Greensboro and he went up to Philadelphia, to his home. And I told him that I wasn't going to move in with his family because there wasn't any house big enough for two families. And then I had the baby too, you know, he was just about six months old, and that he could go on up to Philadelphia and get a job and find us a place to live, and I would come and live with my parents here, because they had a big house and an upstairs that was unoccupied. And then I would go back working for Western Union, because my furlough from Western Union was about up and I wanted to continue to keep my seniority. So I went back with Western Union and worked, and worked at night so that I could take care of him during the day, and my mother kept him at night.

So he looked around and looked around up there and he got a job with the post office, and he couldn't stand it. [chuckling] He couldn't stand that job with the post office. Well, he couldn't find a place to live. You know, after the war you just couldn't find anyplace to live. So he came down south here and looked and found a job here. Some officer in there told him that Toledo Scale Company was an excellent company to get a job with.

HT:

What was the name of that company again?

RM:

Toledo. Toledo Scale. You know, they are located in—their headquarters were in Toledo, Ohio, and that would be a good place to look for a job. They had really some good jobs there. And so he found out who the Toledo people were here, applied there, and the man that did the hiring wasn't there, and he had to go back like about three different Wednesdays. Then he finally got hired, and that was the best thing that ever happened because he worked for them for thirty-eight years out there at this J.A. King [Scales] Company. A lot of people, when they hear scales, they think it's just grocery store. But now this company has engineers that make different things up for the different companies. They do the truck scales and just—oh, it's a big business, this industrial scale is. That's what he was with. And the family that he got in with here just took us in like we were part of their family. They made him treasurer of the company and that type of thing. So he just really lucked out with this company here. It was really good.

HT:

That's very fortunate.

RM:

Very lucky.

HT:

Yes. Could you describe your adjustment to civilian life after you left the military?

RM:

Well, at first I was kind of like a duck out of water, you might say. [chuckling] I was so accustomed to the military rules and regulations that it was an adjustment. It really and truly was. It took me a little time to settle down and get civilian clothes on and that type of thing, you know. But I adjusted all right. Especially going out to California.

HT:

I imagine that was very nice. Where in California did you work?

RM:

In Los Angeles.

HT:

And do you think that the military had some long-lasting impact on your life?

RM:

Well, it did, really and truly. It made me realize that being in the military was not an easy job for these servicemen that were in there. They had my respect, I'll tell you they did, because I knew it wasn't easy being under those rules and regulations, telling you where to go and where not to go and this type of thing. So it was good experience. And it's something you couldn't get unless you were in there.

HT:

That's so true. Well, do you think your life has been different because you were in the military?

RM:

Well, I can't say it has really been that different because I wasn't in there except about a year. It wasn't long enough that I felt like that it had changed my life any.

HT:

Would you do it again?

RM:

Yeah, I think I would. [chuckling] I really would.

HT:

Would you consider yourself an independent person? And do you think the military made you that way, or do you think you were somewhat independent before you went into the military?

RM:

Oh, I was independent before then, because I was—No matter what, if I decided to do something, I was going to do it, you know. And I was very, very independent. Maybe too much so, but—[chuckling] I didn't have anybody to make up my mind for me. I made it up. ]

HT:

Do you consider yourself a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter? Because when you entered the military not many women were doing that, and looking back, do you think you were any of these?

RM:

Well, maybe a trailblazer. [chuckling] I didn't let anything bother me while I was in there, you know.

HT:

Do you consider yourself and other women who joined the military during the Second World War as being in the forefront of what we call the women's movement or feminism today?

RM:

Well, yes.

HT:

Back in the 1800s they had women suffragettes, and then women got the vote in 1920. And this was quite a step for a lot of women to do this.

RM:

Yes. Oh, and indeed it was, very much so. I thought that a lot of them didn't have the courage to do it. They just felt, Oh, I couldn't do this. But I felt like, Well, if anybody can do it, I'll do it. [chuckling]

HT:

Well, do you recall how women who joined the military were perceived by the general public and by their families and by men?

RM:

Well, I think at first they were a little critical of women being in there. But after the movement got going and they saw what these women were doing, they changed their mind. They really did. They just completely changed their mind. They thought, These women are really doing a good job.

HT:

I was reading something earlier this morning about the history of the WACs, and one of the things that was mentioned in this book was there was a scandal campaign that was started in the spring of 1943 against WACs. And it was actually started within the army, and the assumption was it was by men, and the outcome was that many women received rather bad reputations because of this scandal—slanderous scandal, really. Do you recall anything about that?

RM:

Yes, I do. We had some women in the military with me when we were in the barracks that I wouldn't have been caught dead with, to tell you the truth. And the way it worked, they thought if one did something bad the whole works was guilty, you know. But that was the one thing that I didn't—You weren't judged as an individual, you were judged as a group of people.

HT:

So, if one person did something bad—

RM:

Did something bad, they thought every one of them did something bad. And I didn't particularly like that, but there wasn't anything you could do about it. Because we had some that were rough characters. Rough! I'm telling you, they really were. It was awful! How they'd come in the barracks at night, and some of the things they would do and carry on, drunk, and all this kind of stuff, you know? So I can see why some of them got a bad reputation. Because it wasn't fair, but that's the way it is. You know, you're not judged as an individual in there. It's just a group.

HT:

That's unfortunate. Have any of your children ever been in the military?

RM:

No. Oh yeah, my son was in the Marines. He was in college and he was up in Boone [North Carolina], up there, and it was snowing so much, and he didn't particularly like all that snow up there. He was in Justice Hall [dormitory at Appalachian State University]. Do you know where that is, in Boone?

HT:

I sure don't.

RM:

Anyway, you couldn't even see the steps, there was so much snow up there. And he decided that he would come home and live at home and go to GTCC [Guilford Technical Community College]. And when he did, he had signed up for about four different courses and they only offered two of them. So, if you weren't a full-time student you'd get drafted into the military. So he was about to get drafted, and he joined the Marines, the six-months reserve, and stayed in the Marines. That's a tough outfit, let me tell you!

HT:

Yes, that is.

RM:

I went down there on graduation to see some of the things that they went through, and it wasn't easy. But I'm glad he got to go and see what it was all about.

HT:

Was this during Vietnam?

RM:

Yes, and he stayed in there for six months, and then he had to have reserve duty for I think six years after that. He'd go two weeks in the summer, you know?

HT:

Well, do you think that your being in the military influenced him to perhaps go in?

RM:

No, his was a case of necessity. (laughter)

HT:

You don't have any daughters, do you?

RM:

No, just that one son.

HT:

No daughters? Just the one son?

RM:

Yes, just the one son.

HT:

So your daughters never got to join the service like you, like Mom did.

RM:

Like Mom did. They'd have had one to follow. I didn't have any daughters.

HT:

Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions, such as this past December there were women who flew combat missions in Iraq. Do you approve of this sort of thing?

RM:

Well, I think if they are capable they should be allowed to do it. I think if they can prove that they are capable of doing this, I see no reason why they shouldn't.

HT:

Is there anything else that you would like to add or tell us about your military service, that you can think of, that I haven't asked?

RM:

No, I think I've covered it all. [chuckling]

[Tape paused]

HT:

—your life since you left the military, the type of work you did when you got out?

RM:

Well, it was just a continuation of going back working for Western Union. As I say, I worked there for thirty-nine years. And I can truly say that I enjoyed every minute of the thirty-nine years that I was there because it was just exactly everything that I like to do, dealing with people—What I did, I was a service representative with Western Union, and I would go around to the—I had a 110-mile radius of Greensboro, North Carolina, and I would go to a customer's office that had Western Union's equipment and train them to use this equipment. When the military people finally got into computers, they sent me to all kinds of schools at military bases to learn their communication system for the military. And it was called Autodin. It meant automatic digital. And after that, after I had had all this training, I went down to Durham, North Carolina, and trained the people in Social Security to operate a system for it. And even I went to some of the military bases and checked some of their equipment and things like that for a while, but I didn't want to do it on a full-time basis because I didn't want to be going and spending the night. But I got a lot of training through—And one of the things they liked, when I was in the military I had top clearance, you know, to go to these bases. And of course, if a company has to do this, it costs quite a bit of money. So I told them, “This is one of the reasons why you want me to go to these bases and check this new equipment, because I've got top clearance to get into bases and all that kind of thing.”

HT:

So you kept that clearance after you left the service?

RM:

Yeah. And I needed it at Western Union for certain things that they did, you know. So it worked out good for them.

HT:

That's great. Well, Mrs. McGee, I think that's basically it. I really want to thank you so much.

RM:

Well, I've enjoyed meeting you. Ginny talks about you. You play bridge and—

[End of interview]