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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Grace Swank Alexander, 1999

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Object ID: WV0018.5.001

Description: Documents Grace Alexander’s early life; her service with the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1951 to 1953; her following years of reserve and Special Services duty operating clubs and teaching school at bases in Europe and Asia; and the impact of her military career on the rest of her life.

Summary:

Alexander recalls her early life in rural New Jersey. She describes her early education and the hardships of the World War II home front.

Alexander primarily discusses her military service during the Korean War. She explains why she joined the navy and discusses her training in Newport, Rhode Island. Specific topics include navy uniforms; training curriculum and courses; living arrangements in the barracks; and being company commander for a day. Alexander also discusses her communications work at the Pentagon and her life in Washington, D.C. She describes her work decoding messages for the chief of naval operations; living in the capital; and the politics of the country in the early 1950s, particularly the 1952 presidential election.

Other significant subjects include Alexander’s reserve duty and her service with the Special Services operating clubs in Wurzburg and Bamberg, Germany, for two years in the mid-fifties and teaching school at air force bases in Fairford, England; Yokota, Japan; and the Philippines for four years in the early sixties. Alexander provides a detailed description of several reserve duty stations and of the parties held at the special services clubs in Germany.

Alexander also discusses her desire to travel; how she was treated in the military; the reputation of women in the armed forces; women as role models and pioneers; the impact her military service had on the rest of her life; and her graduate education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) in the late 1970s.

Creator: Grace Swank Alexander

Biographical Info: Grace Swank Alexander (b. 1927?) of Sewell, New Jersey, performed classified communications work while in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Service) from 1951 to 1953, and then operated service clubs and taught school at bases in Europe and Asia for nine years in the reserves.

Collection: Grace Alexander Oral History

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 20,] 1999. I'm at the home of Mrs. Grace Alexander to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection.

Mrs. Alexander, thank you so much for seeing me today. I really appreciate it so much. Could you tell me something about your life before joining the military in the early 1950s?

GA:

All right. I joined the military, the navy, took a direct commission, in 1951, October of 1951. Before that time, I had taught school for one year and I had attended—I got my teaching degree from Glassboro State Teachers' College in New Jersey, and was there from 1946 to 1950. And before that time, of course, [chuckling] I was a schoolgirl and it was wartime. And all of those things that were happening during the war, all of the rationing of food, the lack of transportation, the fact that my senior high class-in 1945 I was graduated-did not have a class dance, we were not given our yearbooks on time, and it was just a time when people in the United States were suffering the war, and doing it with great gratitude that we were able to do something. I did, as a teenager at sixteen, I did work at the Campbell Soup factory. We used to lift cans from great big baskets onto conveyor belts. That was the closest that I really felt that I got to the war effort, other than picking beans one summer, string beans on a farm in South Jersey, and I did it because I wanted to get out of taking an exam. But that was the payoff [laughter]. Those were hard times but people did it graciously. I remember all the ration stamps. In fact, I may even have a copy of a ration stamp. We bought war bonds, we did whatever we could. I had a brother who was in the navy, had joined the navy in 1942, and he was an older brother who then was in the Pacific somewhere all that time. And my father worked in the United States Navy Shipyard at Philadelphia, so we were kind of a navy family. Later on, after I joined and accepted a commission, direct commission as an ensign in the Naval Reserve, my younger brother also was faced with the draft and also joined the [U.S.] Navy, and then a third brother did the same thing, but with the Coast Guard. So before the war we were all kind of tied into the war effort. And all of the ration stamps, that's really one of those things I do remember.

HT:

And you say you attended—

GA:

Glassboro State Teachers' College.

HT:

Glassboro Teachers' College, right.

GA:

State Teachers' College, New Jersey.

HT:

Right. Where did you attend high school?

GA:

I attended high school at Woodbury High School, that's in Woodbury, New Jersey. We lived in Sewell, [New Jersey], in sort of like a rural community, and were bused to Woodbury High School. I had a brother that was born during the war, so you know we were really kind of—it was kind of a tight time.

HT:

After you graduated from high school, did you go directly to college or did you work?

GA:

No, I didn't. I did work. I worked one year at Dairy Associates, which was a lab. I always wanted to go into labs. I loved my high school teacher, Thelma Voss, V-o-s-s, who was a chemistry teacher and had some contact and touch with DuPont Chemical, and I always thought that's what I really would like to do, other than going into the nurses corps, which was also a thing that I belonged to at my high school, a club. I thought I would like to be a nurse. But anyway, after high school I took a job with Dairy Labs, and I filled pills, capsules. The lab worked with research on allergies. They were predigesting, in these great big vats, predigesting food and even plants, like ivy, the poison ivy. They predigested that and then dried this material and put some filler in, and I filled these capsules for people. And it worked. That whole idea worked, so— [chuckling]

HT:

That's very, very interesting. And then you went on to Glassboro Teachers' College. I'm assuming that was a four-year program.

GA:

Yes, it was a four-year program. In 1946 my brother came home from serving, and of course all the veterans and so forth—and my father urged me to go to college down there, and it was within busing distance. My brother and I attended for a while together and then I continued on. He went to another school, Beaver College in [Beaver Falls], Pennsylvania. That's where he received his degree. And we both matriculated through and graduated in 1950.

HT:

And then after you graduated you taught?

GA:

I taught one year, yeah. I taught one year in Pennsville, [New Jersey]. Let me see, and in Pennsville I was actually attracted there because, of course, the pay was better. Pennsville is near the bridge to Delaware. But anyway, at Pennsville the superintendent of schools was Pauline Peterson, and Pauline—you know, this was sort of unique that she was a female—superintendent of schools for that particular school district. New Jersey had a lot of small—they still do—small school districts, run by a small group of administrators. But anyway I was attracted to that, and taught one full year there. Well, I taught longer than that because during the summer after that first year, a friend of mine, who was also a fellow teacher, we decided to go up—since the war effort, you know, in 1950 there was all this—the Korean War became one of those issues, and it seemed like it was going on and on again, and a lot of the veterans that I knew were being recalled in. So anyway, during that summer of 1951, my friend—Marge Geiger—we went up and decided that we would take some tests, the examinations to apply for a direct commission in the navy. And it was kind of an interesting thing to do, but also, as a result, I was accepted, having passed, and my friend was not. They found some kind of physical arthritic kind of problem with her and so she never was offered a commission. Anyway, it was a decision to make and I thought, “Why not?” The adventure was there.

HT:

What did your parents and friends and family think of your joining the navy?

GA:

You know, I have to say one wonderful thing about my mother and father, they were always urging—not urging, not directing me, but they were very allowing, you know, anything, the things that I wanted to do. I remember the only thing that my father, and this is earlier on when I was sixteen, I bought a pair of shoes with two-inch heels, and he absolutely—that was the one thing that he just told me—I could not keep those shoes. But other than that, they were very trusting of me, and whatever I trusted to do, they would go along with.

After my time in the service I said to my mother, “Well, I have about two months before I think I'm going to Europe.” Which she said, “Oh, okay.” “But in that time,” I said, “I think I want to drive my car across the country.” This was in 1953 and it was about October and November, and I said, “I'll get the car pretty well taken care of and I'll go off and visit a few friends,” because a lot of my friends had gotten out of the service by that time. And the one thing I remember her doing is when I was getting ready to get into the car she said a prayer over me and then she handed me a blackjack [nightstick]. I don't know where she got it, but it had this leather thong and she said, “Put it under your seat.” [chuckling] But that's the only really cautionary thing that she did.

You know, all that navy time I did a lot of traveling. But since my job was in communications in the Navy Cryptographic Section of the [Office of the] Chief of Naval Operations [CNO] at the Pentagon, we were on a watch schedule the whole two years. That was really very consuming of your time, of your energy, but we were always—you were always either on evening watch, midwatch, or day watch, and then you had your seventy-two hours off. So that was the closest we came to any kind of regimentation in that particular assignment, but it was cryptographic and it had a lot of responsibility connected with it, and it was in the Chief of Naval Operations. But anyway, after all of that was over I just wanted to do something freeing, so I took my car and went, and had a wonderful trip. I ran out of money in El Paso, [Texas], and had to telegraph home for money to get back. That was the only thing that was a little scary. And then I went to Europe with Special Services, which was sort of a fun time. I have a lot of fun pictures from that time in my life, when we did crazy things in the service clubs.

But the navy experience was a sobering kind of an experience, very serious, and handling all the top secret and whatever. And being officers, in our office we associated only with chiefs, the chiefs in the navy, very proficient in doing their work, and ourselves. And that was an assignment that a lot of the young navy ensigns—women—women navy ensigns got at that time. We found our own places to live in Washington, D.C.

One place where we lived was the—we sublet from a lady who wanted to go back to New Hampshire. Her husband had been a representative from New Hampshire and we sublet from her. I can't remember her name. But in the same building, Dean Acheson, who was the secretary of state, his mother lived stories above us and he would come and visit her. Also, across Connecticut Avenue in another high-rise apartment building, Alban Barkley, who was the vice president to [President] Harry Truman way back then, he lived, and we would see the limousines come in and out. That was sort of our touch with greatness. [chuckling]

Otherwise our lives were concentrated on trying to get a good parking space at the Pentagon, [chuckling] which had its own kind of fun connected to it. Because when we would work the midnight shift, which was 11:00 [p.m.] to 7:00 [a.m.], we would park right up there on the [Naitonal] Mall, you know, where the offices for the joint chiefs [of staff] were up there, and we would enter in there. You know, that's just our claim to greatness.

HT:

You mentioned the Pentagon. Did you actually work at the Pentagon?

GA:

Yes, we worked at the Pentagon, in the middle of that—communications offices are in the center. I don't remember, or I'd give you the wrong address, but it was in the “C“ area.

HT:

Could you explain a little bit about the type of work you did at the Pentagon?

GA:

Well, you know, it was top secret. Earlier, I think during World War II, if people were in communications, women who were in communications were doing strip kind of decoding, you know, decoding one character for another character on a strip board. But by the time the Korean War came along, they had secret rotary decoding machines. Those were our secret weapon for decoding. And you know, interesting enough, later on as a reserve officer doing reserve duty—you know, going off for two weeks here and there doing reserve duty—which I did for an additional seven years, or got that credit for that, I saw these enormous decoding machines, which were, you know, they're just great big. Well, you see them on television, you know, the computerized kind of thing. Who knows where it's going. Now of course it's all satellite, but in those times it was that we received messages over teletype machines and they were encrypted and we would decode them and print them and disseminate them for CNO because we were an arm of the Chief of Naval Operations there in the Pentagon.

HT:

Do you recall what the mood of the country was like during the early fifties, during the start of the Korean War, what the attitude of the people was? I know the ladies I have spoken with about what the mood or the climate was during World War II was everybody was very, very patriotic and wanted to do their part, no matter what it was, to help win the war. Was it like that during the Korean War period?

GA:

I think so. I think there were enough young men who—you know, the influence of the draft is something that—it weighed in for those times, because men were being—every young man at age eighteen had to sign for the draft, and that always was hanging over their heads. And having four brothers, that was always something that hung over—and three of my brothers all served in either the [U.S.] Navy or the Coast Guard. So I would say there was nothing—I think it was in the sixties when the Vietnam thing—that was certainly a shock.

But as far as the early fifties, no, we were kind of concerned with—well, if you remember, [General] Douglas MacArthur, who felt that the army should take action by crossing the border in Korea, and of course President Truman firing him. I mean, that was quite a major thing. But we felt—I felt—I felt Truman was right, because he was the commander in chief, and military people should have to obey as well. And of course MacArthur came back with a ticker tape parade. And Truman ran against a very popular general, General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, who won, won against Truman [sic—Adlai Stevenson]. But there was also—I think people were worried about the cold war. The cold war was another issue.

And spying. The spies, the Rosenbergs [Julius and Ethel] and—what was it, Klaus Fuchs [German atomic spy] and [Whittaker] Chambers [Time magazine editor and anti-Communist], all of that, the “Pumpkin Papers” [microfilmed documents hidden on Chambers' farm in a hollowed-out pumpkin] and all that, that all came up during that time. And I do believe that Truman was—in fact, I heard on television just recently that Truman was never told about the spies that were in the government. And that's really the issue, it seems to me, in the 1952 election. That was very prominent, that 1952 election, that there happened to be spies. I think probably this was all left over from the [Joseph] McCarthy hearings and that sort of thing.

HT:

Do you recall why you chose the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] as opposed to the WACs [Women's Army Corps] or one of the other branches?

GA:

Oh, don't you know? [laughter] My father working for the navy shipyard for twenty—five, thirty years—you know, he retired from there—and maybe our being across the Delaware River from where we kind of lived, and of course my brother going in, older brother. And maybe a little—kind of like sibling rivalry, too. When I took all these tests and decided I was going to do this thing about going into the navy, accepting a direct commission, you know, that was really kind of important. I was going to be a sixty—day wonder, really.

HT:

Could you explain what you mean by a direct commission, please?

GA:

Well, when I was sworn in, I was sworn in as an ensign. You know, right with my hand on the Bible I was sworn in as an ensign, and then I took my training to become an officer at Newport, Rhode Island, the general line school there. Other women or other men navy officers came in through the Reserve Officer Candidate School, but the women in my class all had a college education and above, and had worked, or whatever. And they had all qualified through—well, physical aptitude tests and intelligence tests.

HT:

Well, do you recall your first day at Newport, Rhode Island, when you started training? What was that like?

GA:

The first day, the only thing I can remember of the first day is standing in that line and having our pictures taken for the local paper. I should have that picture somewhere, but I'm going to have to sort out things. But we stood in line to get these wonderful uniforms. The navy uniform was a WAVES uniform. It fit well and it was designed by one of the foremost designers. I don't know who now, I'd have to look that up, but it was just the best-fitting and best-feeling uniform. Not the summer uniform, I'm talking about the blues. And I guess we all complained about them being too long or too short or whatever, but for me and for people that I remember, it sort of spoiled me for dressing for the rest of my life, I think. Everything that I wear looks like a uniform. I think. [chuckling] It all has to be tight in the middle. You know, it has to sort of conform to that sort of neat look. And we all looked neat. It was really terrific.

HT:

What type of training did you have to go through, do you recall?

GA:

Oh yes. Let me look—where is that? [sound of pages turning] Well, we had a curriculum, we went every day, and we had a course in communications, in naval history, in ships, aircraft, and weapons. We did learn to identify some of those. We had physical education, military drill, hygiene and first aid, and I became a company commander for a day, you know, and took my unit from the WAVES—where we had our rooms in the barracks, to our classrooms. I did that. And what else? Oh yes, we had personnel administration and general administration. So I guess you know where we were—we were all headed toward communications. Because most of us were, when we graduated, were sent into communications. But we had watch duty.

We lived about three to a room. Meliz Pettit was above me, and myself, I had the bunk below. We had to be inspected, [sound of pages turning] and I still have something in here about being inspected. We had to stand outside the door and then they would come in and inspect. And Meliz—we all pinned these striped—you know, we all had like these cots, and we pinned those stripes so that they were just right. But Meliz slept on the floor before the Saturday morning inspection because she was not going to damage her bed. [laughter]

And then there were always, say, stories about going in the wrong room. Our officer in charge had a room that we weren't supposed to disturb, but somebody always seemed to do something wrong there. Or people were staying up late at night and you had to chase them [out]. You know, it was just girl stuff, just living in a dorm again.

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

GA:

—while we're still on this navy orientation and all these courses and things like that and traveling from here to there. The one thing I remember, I was that company commander or unit commander for one day. There were two of us, two of our units that would march from our billets over to the classrooms. And so I said, “I think we'll go another way.” We were behind the first [unit]. We were going to follow them. I said, “Let's go the other way. Let's go behind these barracks,” the navy barracks, and—the street was here and the other group went that way. I said, “I'm going to give you this command.” So I gave the command, “To the right march,” and they all did it [audio malfunction]. But then I had to give them another command to get them back in that direction, so it was kind of going that way. We did it all perfectly. I had them stop at the street where the other group didn't see us anymore because we were taking this other diversion. Nobody else ever did that. But anyway, the other [unit], they all were so surprised [chuckling] when here we are. And we were giggling, you know. So we were standing there waiting for them and they're coming around. But that was a big moment in my life. But you're kind of put into such narrow traces. You know, you're supposed to go that and you don't deviate. So we deviated for that moment.

HT:

I suppose you did not have much free time while you were undergoing what I call basic training. I can remember with my basic training we had one Saturday off in the entire six weeks.

GA:

Well, yeah, we did have a little more, I think, than that because there were—you know, we went out on a few dates and went to a local restaurant, a seafood restaurant. You know, there were a few times. It was two months, eight weeks. That isn't too long a period of time, and we had a lot of studying to do. So we did, yeah. And they got us up early, of course, I think seven o'clock, and we were supposed to be over at the mess. And we ate at the officer's club. Breakfast was at 6:30 to 8:30 weekdays, so you had to get in there and get into the mess. After our studies were over, it seems like you could do what you wanted to do. We were pretty much free. And I think it's because we were older women, you know, been through college, been through all this kind of stuff, and knew what to expect and knew where we could bend the rules. [chuckling]

HT:

After you left what I call basic training, where was your first assignment?

GA:

At the Pentagon.

HT:

At the Pentagon?

GA:

Yes. We had to find our own living quarters. That was really the hardest thing because the navy didn't provide any quarters for navy women officers. They did for the enlisted. They gave us an allotment and we were to find our own place. So two of my ensign friends, Frances Malone and Janet MacKay, we all kind of teamed up and went to the YWCA [Young Women's Christian Association] out on Seventeenth and K [Streets] and stayed for about a week while we looked for a place. We had to go to our duty stations, but we also had to find a place to live. That was kind of a hard thing. We did sublet from a lady in Fairlington [neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia]. It was over there by Shirlington, right up on the highway, the Shirley Highway. Actually, she was doing it illegally, but we stayed there a few months and then took this other apartment in Washington, D.C., out on Connecticut Boulevard. That was kind of a fun place to be.

HT:

And how long did you remain in the WAVES?

GA:

Well, two years active duty, and then I did reserve duty for about a total of nine years. I have nine years. I thought maybe I could survive twenty, but I was traveling in and out of the country, and then I married. I married in 1964.

HT:

So you did think about making it a career at one time?

GA:

No, never did. In 1953 when the war was pretty much over—you know, it still isn't over, the Korean War—but the fighting, the cease—fire worked out by President Eisenhower, that happened in '53, so we were about ready to come out. And not only that, but at that time every member, women and men, who had wanted to make the navy a career were finding it difficult because the navy was downsizing. There was always this up and down with the services, it seems to me, over the—you know, you have downsizing, then you have buildup. Now we're going to build up right at this time, if President [Bill] Clinton can get it done. They'll build up the armed forces, which they should do because they're in bad trouble now, I think. But anyway it's up and down. But that's what was happening then, so it really wasn't a place that I really thought—and I really didn't think women would stay as a force. I was wrong, because they were able to—some women were able to stay.

But you have to remember in those times, World War II veterans will tell you, and Korean War, even up through the mid—sixties, women who married were cashiered out. And women even in the later 1960s who had children or had stepchildren—see, I was married in 1964 when I was in Venezuela to my husband, and we have two stepchildren—but I raised them—and I was in the reserves then and trying to do something. And if I had mentioned that I was married—I could be married, but if I were married and had children, then they would have transferred my name right in the retired list. [chuckling] As it was, they gave me twenty years credit before they retired my name over to the retired officers list. It didn't matter a thing to me, but you know that's the way it goes.

HT:

What was the highest rank you achieved before—

GA:

I worked hard, I achieved lieutenant commander, the rank of lieutenant commander. Which to me was pretty good because—I was going to tell you about this sibling rivalry with my brother. My brother went in as an ensign, I went in as an ensign. And it turned out that his date of rank was earlier than mine, which means that he made his ranks sooner than I would. But—this is the great but—he was so busy with a career and all that after and couldn't do his reserve duty and whatever. He still has the rank of lieutenant and I am a lieutenant commander. So I—you know, [chuckling] I did it.

HT:

What is a lieutenant commander equivalent to in the army or the air force?

GA:

Major.

HT:

Major, okay. And while you were in the reserves, what type of work did you do in the reserves?

GA:

In reserves you're constantly training, and so reserve for me, in getting my ranks, I took a lot of correspondence courses. The points accumulate from that. And I served in units. I have served in a unit in Bremerton, Washington, and took courses. You know, it was all prep. And courses in Camden, New Jersey.

And also when I requested active duty, a couple of interesting things I did were—well, I worked on a manual, a training manual, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. That was one time, for two weeks, and that was kind of interesting. I took pictures at the Seattle Air Station. I took pictures of women who were doing work, because they were preparing a pamphlet or a brochure or something of women in the service. Now, that was in the early 1960s.

And I requested communications, a billet for two weeks at Yokota, Japan [Yokota Air Force Base]. When I was teaching in Japan, I requested two weeks down there. And that was kind of interesting because I was put in my same old thing, navy crypto. In order to get to it, you had to drive through a tunnel and into a mountain. It had been the Japanese command post. That's where the Japanese during World War II had their command post, but now it was a very secure place for the communications, a secret kind of office for cryptographic information to pass through for the fleet that was stationed out there in the Pacific.

HT:

While you were on active duty, did you feel you made a positive contribution toward the Korean War effort?

GA:

Well, I guess they could have done without me and—[chuckling] filled my seat with somebody else, but I really felt proud of the work that I did. You know, I belonged to a watch group. We called it a watch, navy cryptographic watch, and we cleared messages, we did whatever we had to do. We handled the traffic, we did whatever, and we all worked together. And I don't think anybody thought I was an airhead. We did have all these chiefs who knew their job. We respected them, I believe they respected us, and they treated us well. But everybody had his own work to do. We all came in, did our work, and then left to our own lives.

HT:

So you never encountered any sort of discrimination because you were a woman, or that sort of thing?

GA:

Oh, no. Well, not that I knew of. I wasn't fighting the discrimination battle then. We just did our duty. You know, the word “discrimination” is pretty powerful. So I would say there were some jobs, some things that women were sent to do, and we just did them because—we didn't aspire to go up the chain of command. I don't think anybody thought they might want to be chief of naval operations. We just knew that chief of naval operations had to be a flag-and-operations individual. We were all general line, you know, to start. But no, I wouldn't—

HT:

It sounds like you really enjoyed your work very much. Getting back to this discrimination we talked about a bit earlier, do you think that you were treated equally with men in the same position?

GA:

Yes. I think being treated equally with men, yes. I do know that—let's see, Charlie Halleck, that name comes to me, Charlie Halleck is now a judge. Maybe he's retired now, but he got to be a judge in the Washington, D.C., area. But he was the son of Senator Halleck from Illinois. He was a son of a son of a—you know? But he was able to get a different—he didn't like the job that he was assigned to in the office, and he really didn't want to be in navy crypto. He didn't want to spend his two years or whatever there, so he moved himself out. And we thought, “Well, hey, he's got pull.” But we called it pull. We didn't call it discrimination or that we would want to do—I think most women in the service were there and we did what we did. It was two years, it didn't seem like a long time.

HT:

Do you recall any kind of special treatment that you might have received because you were a woman?

GA:

Oh, special treatment? You know, [chuckling] you're a woman. You're a woman because you're a woman, and you use your charm. We all use our charm and whatever we—however we can do it, we do it. But as far as, say—I think nowadays it's so proscribed, I hate to say, opening doors and stuff like that. I do know that I had to salute first if I saw that admiral coming down the hall. Not in the Pentagon, because nobody saluted over there. But over at the main navy building, which was a separate building over on Independence [Avenue], if you saw him you had to—you'd better do something like that and say, “Good morning,” you know, to take the initiative.

HT:

Do you recall the hardest thing you ever had to do physically?

GA:

[chuckling] We did not have any heavy lifting.

HT:

What about emotionally? What was the hardest thing you ever had to do emotionally?

GA:

Emotionally? Oh, that was a carefree time. I didn't have any emotional things. I mean, I imagine emotional things would be if you had to decide that you were going to get married and then you would be out. See, that would be an emotional—but we were all kind of carefree and fun-loving.

HT:

Did you have any embarrassing moments, that you can recall?

GA:

No, I didn't have any embarrassing moments. It was just a lot of fun. I know that my friends and I, what we wanted to do was we wanted to get out to Andrews Air Force Base, [Washington, D.C.], and try and get a free flight somewhere, space available, you know? And we did. Janet [MacKay] and I went down to Jacksonville, [Florida]. I don't know how we ever got back, but we did get down there for one weekend. And she and Frances [Malone], when they were available, they went somewhere else. I don't know where that was. But another ensign from my office, Bert Surett, and I got a space available flight to Europe. It was to Germany, and then we got another free flight on the Military Air Attaché, his plane. We got that one to Paris, and we spent about a week in Paris and then did get a flight—I got a flight straight back. Bert did not get a flight straight back. But I was a mail officer, in charge of the mail, and then I had to sign for two bodies, two deceased service people who were being brought back, so I did get myself back that way. But, you know, life was simple [chuckling].

HT:

Do you recall any of the interesting people you met while you were in the military?

GA:

Oh, interesting people? Well, I think all of the women that I met were interesting. I mean, they had lived a little bit. They'd all been graduated—Meliz Pettit was kind of an interesting—she's the ensign that slept on the bunk above me. But she was six feet tall and absolutely a beautiful girl, and she was a twin. But she and her twin used to do diving expeditions, and she told crazy stories, which I don't believe now, but she told one about diving off of the Delaware Bridge. And I can't believe that, even now [chuckling]. Oh, let's see, you mean during those times? Oh, I don't know. No, we didn't. No, I guess I can't really say that I met anybody or shook anybody's hand.

HT:

Well, can you tell me something about your social life and what you ladies did for fun?

GA:

Well, I think I did tell you that we spent—or we tried to get out of town, and we tried to get out on an air—and for me, I lived so close to home, you know, three hours away by car, and you could get a ticket on the train, that I went home a lot. Because you'd have seventy-two hours. That meant you'd have two full days and then a little bit of time on the front and a little bit of time on the back. I drove up or I took the train and left my car at Pennsylvania Station. Can you imagine that? I mean Washington Station [Union Station], Washington. I would leave it right there at the station—there were no meters or anything—leave it right on that circle there, come back, and it was right there, and I'd step in and go on. I did drive back a lot, and I was really so exhausted, it seemed like. Those were exhausting days. But I spent a lot of time at home and with my family and friends and that kind of stuff. I remember too I came through Bainbridge, Maryland, on my way back, and I'd pick up sailors and Marines who were thumbing a ride, in my car, you know, a lone female. I never shuddered at that. I never thought about it. I just thought, well, that's my patriotic duty to give these guys a lift.

HT:

So you never thought you were in any kind of danger doing that?

GA:

No danger. No danger because I always had my uniform hanging in the back, in the back seat, you know. So they didn't touch you.

HT:

And those were different times.

GA:

They were different times, yes.

HT:

Do you recall what your favorite songs and movies were from that period?

GA:

Oh gosh, I can't even remember. Oh, well, all the forties songs, you know.

HT:

The big band and that sort of thing?

GA:

Yes, the big bands. Yeah, all those.

HT:

When you went away to the military, that was not the first time you'd been away from home, I assume, since you'd been away to college prior?

GA:

No, it was the first time.

HT:

It was?

GA:

Yes, it was the first time, because I commuted to college.

HT:

And was that a difficult adjustment for you?

GA:

To be away from home?

HT:

Yes.

GA:

Well, no, I don't think so. You know, everybody was sort of wanting to get back home or whatever. But I did come back—I did travel during my assignment in Washington. I would travel back home. Oh, my friends and I would go to New York and see some plays. We saw The King and I and a few others that were current at that time, and had fun doing that. But that was kind of unusual.

HT:

You had mentioned several people earlier, General Eisenhower, President Harry Truman, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and General Douglas MacArthur. Do you have any thoughts about any of those gentlemen other than what you've already expressed?

GA:

Well, I admired them all. You know, I did. I admired President Truman because he stood up and he did what he needed to do. You know, everybody talks about the bomb, but that saved lives whenever I look back on that. And General Eisenhower was a very kindly man, and it turns out that he was quite great, and a conservative kind of an individual. I remember his wife Mamie as being—[chuckling] Mamie and her bangs, but not much else, you know? I don't remember much else about them.

HT:

After you left the military service, could you describe your adjustment back to civilian life? Was it difficult for you?

GA:

Well, I never did go back to really civilian life because my next assignment was with Special Services in Europe. Now that was a great time. That was really a wonderful time because we were—well, we were women in uniform again, but it was sort of like a creative time because we ran service clubs. There were three, four of us at times, who ran that service club at Leighton Lighthouse at Wrzburg, [Germany], and then the Bamberg Club [in Bamberg, Germany], and everything on there, which was the photo lab and the craft shop and the sports rooms, and then these—we were all assigned to do programs that we wanted to do. Each one of us would have a special program. We did square dancing and brought in some of the German girls, the young girls—we [were] very protective of them—and music. There was always a lot of activity going on.

But what I remember is some of the crazy programs that we did. Around Halloween we did a—oh, what did we call it? Some kind of a Halloween—we didn't call it Halloween, but we did get a casket from down in Würzburg [chuckling]. And I have a picture that shows me rising out the casket [audio malfunction] some kind of skit going on. We also did a Freudian party, and that was—I read heads, phrenology. I was a phrenologist for that evening, and I would feel the bumps on the heads of these soldiers and then tell them crazy stories about that. The Freudian party was to “bring your own id.” We had fruit-and-nut punch, that kind of stuff. It was just crazy stuff.

One other thing which maybe I ought to tell here is we had a—I think we had a circus party. But I persuaded one of the schoolteachers to sit—We had these long windows in this old building, long windows, and they were high, and we had curtains, drapes that came across. I encouraged her to sit up there behind the curtains, and she would be our dancing legs. So she did all this ballet. You know, we'd program—“Now the dancing legs are going to do—” And the soldiers would come in and they couldn't believe that this was—some of them went out to look to see who was sitting behind there doing this dancing.

And we also went down to the Würzburg University—that's a prominent university—and somehow I asked if we could borrow some of their specimens in jars. They were really very nice to me. They took me down—I said we were going to have some kind of a scientific lecture and we needed a few specimens, and they gave us specimens of a brain, liver—I don't know, something else, but anyway about five of these jars, and that was going to be our sideshow. And we put them in there, [chuckling] and it was just kind of fun, crazy stuff like that. And we ran soldier shows just to make life a little bit more fun. But anyway, that was sort of a different style of life for two years, and it really wasn't adapting to civilian life.

HT:

And you did that right after you left the service?

GA:

Yes. I took my car across the country and then came back, and in January I took the ship, the USNS Patch. But anyway, we [a group of twenty Army Special Services personnel] took it over to Bremerhaven, and then we went down to Nuremberg and stayed for one week training, and then were assigned out here to the service clubs all through Germany. And that was really a fun time because the people that I met, we'd meet up and we'd travel one place or another, you know, Venice, Rome, Florence, Spain, and all around Germany, Holland, Paris. You know, the world was right there. And that was the emphasis for those women. They wanted to travel, many of them. It was a fun time. Two years.

[End Tape 1, Side B—Begin Tape 2, Side A]

HT:

Mrs. Alexander, what impact do you think the military had on your life immediately after you were in the service, and in the long-term?

GA:

Well, I think that it opened me for a lot of experiences. It gave me a lot of confidence, and I always really look back when I'm thinking about doing something new, I'll say, “Well, hey, I was able to get through that, able to do that.” But it does give a lot of self-confidence. For me it did. You know, even when I went back to UNCG [University of North Carolina at Greensboro] to school, to tie that in, in 1979 to do a master's. I didn't go for a master's, but then I went to upgrade my credential, my teaching credential, and I hadn't been teaching. But anyway, the opportunity presented itself. It seems to me that it's all sort of guided me that way, to just do the opportunities as they present themselves and to be successful.

HT:

Can you tell us something about your master's degree and what you did with it after you received it?

GA:

Oh yes. My master's degree was in a new program in the School of Education, which was the certification for teaching exceptional children. At the time that I did it, I was in the first class, with a number of other people who started the master's program. If you remember Jack Barton and Nicholas Vacc, those are people who were instrumental in bringing that particular program—putting it together and offering it at that time, so that teachers could become certified in the cross-categorical/handicapping conditions: the mentally handicapped, the learning disabled, and the behavioral disabled. And I don't know if they've changed that, but for me it was just an extremely interesting thing to do. I took a course of introduction to special ed or exceptional children and a course in Egyptian history and art to get my course work, my six hours. And it became so interesting, the education course became so interesting, and hearing the fact that the School of Education was going to try to offer it, this cross-categorical certification, that it just sort of challenged me. And I've always wanted to know how people thought, I've always wanted to know how we process information in our brains, and it was because of that sort of interest in children, how they do it, how older people do it even now, it just became something that I wanted to do. And they accepted me.

See, I was pretty much beyond the educable [chuckling] time of my life, but—let's see, it was '79. I was fifty-two. I'm just telling you that, I don't want you to put it down. But anyway, I was about that age, you know, and doing this new thing. But I think having been in the service, having had a commission and doing things in leadership, it just formed me in a little different pattern. And also the fact that I didn't marry until I was in my mid-thirties, and I did all this traveling and changing of my life's work and just having a wonderful life.

HT:

It sounds like it was truly wonderful.

GA:

Yes.

HT:

And so you would do it again, I assume, join the military?

GA:

Yes, I would. I mean I wouldn't—these days? You mean in these times, if I were young and—

HT:

Right.

GA:

I'm not sure that I would, but—I'm not sure that I would, but there are all these opportunities to do something different.

HT:

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

GA:

Oh, I think it's a little bit of both. Yeah, I think it's a little bit of both. I think I was a little bit more independent because I had brothers, I didn't have a sister. I had very tolerant parents who allowed me—allowed me, maybe encouraged me, and just made me set it out that way, set myself. I never wanted to do anything that was illegal. I never wanted to do anything that would make my parents or anybody around me, my husband, ashamed of me, and I wouldn't want—

HT:

Do you consider yourself a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter?

GA:

No. [laughter] No.

HT:

Well, one more thing about—this has something to do with the women's movement. Do you consider yourself and other women who joined the military, not only during World War II but your period of time, the Korean War, as being sort of forerunners of the women's movement?

GA:

Oh yeah. Yeah, I do. I think anybody who—any young woman who wants to do something different probably looks to another time or another woman or another—you know, an opportunity, and says to herself, “If that person could do it, so can I.” And I didn't do anything of any great merit. I just accepted what was there and worked with the challenges that were there. I never aspired to fly an airplane or drive a tank or fix an engine. To me, that would be aspiring out of my—what I want to do.

HT:

I know during the Second World War many women who went into the military had unjustified bad reputations.

GA:

When?

HT:

During World War II. Did you run into any sort of thing like this during the Korean War? How did people—

GA:

A shady woman? [chuckling]

HT:

Well, not necessarily, but I was reading that in 1943 there was a slander campaign started within the army against the women who joined the army. And they had a very difficult time recruiting women at that time because I guess parents were reluctant to allow their daughters to go into the service and that sort of thing. By the time that you went in, in the early fifties, had that sort of died down? Or do you recall anything about women who went in the military had “bad reputations” or anything like that?

GA:

Well, I would say no, but there's always the back of your mind you want to—for myself, I always wanted to lead my life so that I wouldn't—you know, I wouldn't do anything that would be wrong or create a bad impression. But, you know, we used to have a common saying: “That's barracks talk.” So there must have been something out there, somebody out there saying things. I know in Special Services we said, “Oh, that's just another barracks story,” that somebody did this or that, some woman. But as far as in my Pentagon experience, we didn't. I think the ranks of our enlisted people, our chiefs, I mean they were impeccable. And they were all family men, and strong in themselves, and weren't messing around. It didn't seem to be that—I mean, why would a young ensign in her early twenties want to mess around with some old chief who's in his early thirties? [laughter] Who would really even want to even mess around with that? There was too many other things that you could do. But in Special Services where women—you're dealing with younger enlisted men there, they do fasten themselves on you. So you had to—we were all maybe a little older, not much, but enough so that we just didn't want to—I didn't want to mess with any of these young guys. But there was always barracks talk.

HT:

And what do you mean by “barracks talk,” because I've never heard that expression?

GA:

Well, barracks stories. You know.

HT:

Sort of rumors?

GA:

That's what you're referring to. You were referring to, say, a soiled reputation?

HT:

Right. Okay, I'd never heard that expression before.

GA:

Never? Where have you been? [laughter]

HT:

The air force. [chuckling]

GA:

Well, put it down in your lexicon. [chuckling]

HT:

Right. Have any of your children ever been in the military?

GA:

No. I tried to persuade Debbie when she went through UNCG. Richard did too, but Deborah was a Phi Beta Kappa and really interested in a degree in psychology. But she thought about it for a while, but I think she was afraid that she might not qualify. But her mother, who died when she was about eight, her mother had been an army nurse during World War II. Her name is Mariam Gault Alexander. And Mariam Gault Alexander served somewhere in Texas on an army base for a couple years, and then after the war she took a job with the Creole Corporation in their overseas Venezuelan—I don't know, dispensary, whatever they were doing down in Venezuela. Creole Corporation was Exxon, Esso. But anyway, and that's where she married my husband, and—well, anyway, that goes off on another thing. But I thought Debbie might be interested in that. I always liked to talk about my own, or at least refer to my own experience. But anyway, she went on another track. She wanted to be her own person.

HT:

Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions? You know, recently, I think it was in December of '98, women flew combat missions over Iraq. Do you approve of that sort of thing?

GA:

Well, in some aspects of it, but I really think—I think when you have, say—when they're flying in formation, highly skilled women. But I'm not so sure that women in combat, a foot soldier situation, is something that they can do. I just think that war gets to be a man's thing, a male thing. Maybe that's because my husband is so adamant that way. You know, he was not a foot soldier, he was in supply, but he was in combat. We've just finished this trip to Southeast Asia, and he was on the island of Luzon, [Philippines], when U.S. forces recovered the Philippines. And also in Okinawa, [Japan], during those times. So that sets you a little differently.

HT:

That's true. Well, Mrs. Alexander, I really thank you for talking with me today. Is there anything else you'd like to add about your military service that you can think of right now?

GA:

No, I can't remember. Well, I think when you're talking to the women that you talk to, you know, it's such a small segment of our lives, and it influences us, but the major part of our lives has been raising children and keeping house and maybe having a job. All that, that's really the big thing that most women would say is their accomplishment.

HT:

We've talked a great deal about your military service and a little bit about your Special Services career. Can you tell me something about your life since you left Special Services?

GA:

Oh, well, yeah. Actually, since I was single, I wanted to do some traveling, and I hadn't seen the Orient. So I figured since we had—some of the schoolteachers that were participating in our program, I thought to myself, well, I'll go back to school teaching for two years, and then I'll apply to the army or the air force—not to the navy because I didn't think they had the array of choice for me in schools, and I wanted to go to the Orient. So that's what I did. I taught school out in Bremerton, Washington, for two years, and then I applied to go to Japan. And both the army and the air force offered me a position, but I thought maybe the air force might have more of a choice, so I selected air force for four years. I taught at Yokota Air Base, which is in Japan. And then my mother passed away, so I came back. And then my next assignment was in Fairford, England, which is out in the Cotswolds region, for a year, and then I said, “Well, I guess I want to go back to Hong Kong.” So I took a teaching position at Clark Air Base, [in] the Philippines. So there's four years.

I wanted to go to South America, so I came back, and the air force did not have any assignments in Puerto Rico open for me, so I came back home. I saw an advertisement for a teaching job in Venezuela with Koppers Corporation. They were doing the procuring, it was really for the Venezuelan government, and I taught about three years there. But after the first year there I married my husband [chuckling], and that's another story altogether. There again though, that was 1964. I married him in 1964. I had gone in 1963 and had one class of children. That's a whole different story. But after that, there had been some. We lived out in the Orinoco [River] region [of Venezuela] in a—well, it's called Ciudad Guayana, but it was Puerto Ordaz then. The Venezuelan government provided us, my friend and I who went down there to teach originally, with an apartment. And later on, then my husband and I got married, so I resigned my position with the Orinoco Company. But as it turned out, some of the young women who went down there just couldn't take it, and so I would finish up years. So I had three years—

[Interview interrupted]

GA:

—several years. I taught until 1967 down there for CVG, which is the Corporacion Venezolana de Guyana, and then from then on—well, I didn't teach until 1982. I got a job with Guilford County Schools [in North Carolina]. I taught from 1982 to 1994. But I got that job because I had taken my master's at UNCG. And I have a lot of stories connected with all that stuff, but you don't want that on this tape. [chuckling]

HT:

Okay. All right, well, I think those are all the questions that I have, and I really do appreciate so much talking to you today. It's been wonderful listening to all these tales.

[End of interview]