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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Anna Jean Coomes Woods, 1999

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Object ID: WV0019.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Anna Jean Coomes Woods' experiences in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1943 to 1946, including basic training in New York and her duty stations in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. Also briefly describes her childhood in the mountains, pre-war experiences, and civilian life following discharge.

Summary:

Woods details her reasons for joining the WAVES; convincing her parents to let her join; trying to gain weight to pass her navy physical; taking her first train ride; basic training, including her injuries and illnesses; a free weekend in New York City; special treatment given to WAVES by civilians; social life in the WAVES, including dances, music, and sightseeing; her patriotism and pride in the military; taking buses to dances at Fort Meade, Maryland; camaraderie between men and women in the military; celebrations at the end of World War II; testing to become a third class petty officer; and her sadness at leaving the navy.

Other topics include Woods’s long-time friends from the navy; her twenty-first birthday; her opinion of the Roosevelts; her fascination with airplanes; discrimination against women in civilian life; experiences as a teacher; her world travels; her opinion of women in combat positions; and volunteering with her local WAVES National unit and the Women in Military Service to America Memorial (WIMSA).

Creator: Anna Jean Coomes Woods

Biographical Info: Anna Jean Coomes Woods, a longtime teacher, served in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from November 1943 until July 1946.

Collection: Anna Jean Coomes Woods 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 21, 1999. I'm at the home of Mrs. Jean Woods to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection. Mrs. Woods, thank you so much for seeing me today. I really appreciate it. Could you tell me something about your life before you joined the military?

JW:

I have two brothers and two sisters, and we lived in the mountains of North Carolina. Every day we'd go to school, and I would have to go down the mountain and in the afternoon come back up. Sometimes I could sit in my classroom and see it snow upon the mountain, and there it would be just raining. During high school I was just nuts for sports. I played basketball, I went out for track, high jumping, and everything else that we had in that little old mountain school. My parents were very adamant about us getting a good education. My mother had been a teacher. She had taught seven years, and she helped us with our lessons. After I finished high school, the war was on, and I didn't want to go to regular college then. I wanted to go somewhere where I could get a job and work. I went to Charlotte, [North Carolina], and attended business school.

After I finished there I worked at a radio station, and then I started working for a stockbroker. It was while I was working for the stockbroker that I really decided I wanted to go in the navy. We had a military base just outside of town and I would see planes go over. And half the time, if I wasn't really busy, I would go up to the window and look. I would think about all those people working so hard to keep freedom for us, and what was I doing? Nothing. So I decided I would like to go into the military. I talked to my boss about it. He was finding it very hard to find employees at that time, and he promised me a big raise if I would stay. Finally, I told him I'd stay with him. He tried to get me the raise, but the War Labor Board wouldn't let me have but just a little bit more. So anyway I kept my part of the bargain, I would not go in. One day after work was done a big group of planes flew over, and I ran to the window and I stood there and I watched. My boss came over and said, “Do you still think about going in the navy or in service?” And I said, “I think about it all the time, but I gave you my word.” And he said, “Right now, as of today, you are released from that commitment to me and you may go.” So I went straight to the recruiting office and got my application. I wasn't old enough to enlist and I had to have my parents' signature.

I went home, which was a little over a hundred miles from Charlotte, to Galax—this was Galax, Virginia. When I got home I started telling my parents about what I wanted to do. They just listened but they didn't say much. After talking all weekend, they finally said, “Sometimes you change your mind about what you want, so I don't think I'll sign now.” A few weeks later I went home again—and I kept going home. Finally, I said, “When I get twenty-one I'm going, and no one will stop me.” Dad and Mother said, “Are you that serious?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” They signed the paper, I went back to Charlotte and told my boss. I said, “I'm going."

I had to go to Raleigh, [North Carolina], for my physical. I was underweight. I was five-seven and I weighed about 115 pounds, which was a little bit less than what the charts had said we should weigh. I heard someone say if you'll just eat bananas and drink milk shakes or milk you'll put on the weight really fast. With the war on it was hard to get bananas, but I had a little friend that worked in a grocery store so he saved some bananas for me. I got the bananas and some milk and I went to Raleigh, and all the way up on the bus I ate bananas. That night for dinner I had bananas and milk. The next morning for breakfast, bananas and milk. Then I went for my physical. I only gained a pound from all that torture. After I returned to my hotel room, you talk about getting sick. I was one sick person. I had to stay an extra day in Raleigh because I was too sick to travel back to Charlotte. After I got back to Charlotte I resigned, and then I came back to Greensboro to stay with my mother and daddy for a week or two before I was actually called in.

[Tape paused]

JW:

My orders came to report to Hunter College in New York for boot camp. I talked to Mother and Daddy about a train, what was a train like on the inside, because I had never been on one. They told me just to keep my eyes open and my mouth closed and just watch and see what other people did, and then I would make it fine. On the way up to New York, I happened to meet a sailor who came in and sat down beside of me on the train. I told him what I was doing. I said, “I get to New York and then I don't know what.” So he said, “I'll help you find where you go.” Bless his heart, he took me right straight to the person who was waiting for all the new recruits to come in. After we got our bags and assembled we went by bus, I think it was, out to Hunter College and was assigned our room. From that day on, I mean I was so happy to be there. I didn't mind getting up early, much earlier than I was used to. I didn't mind getting in formation and being told what to do because I was just happy to be there. We trained, we marched, we took tests, we studied, we went to class, and then we marched some more. We would sing while we marched.

I was in a room with five other girls, and one night we were cutting up. I was on the top bunk, and I laughed and I went forward, and right off my bunk I came. As I tumbled off, and my arm struck a chair. And I could not move my arm. I couldn't straighten it and I couldn't bend it. It just had frozen in a curved position. The next day I got up, started to go to work, and I take calisthenics, but I couldn't do pushups. I was falling all over the place. My arm soon got okay.

Then we got shots. The day after we got all those shots, I got up and I was so sick. After muster, I went back in my room and I said, “I'm not going to breakfast, I'm going back to bed.” And I did. I stayed in bed about two hours. I finally dressed and got back in with my unit. Luckily, I don't think anybody ever missed me. [chuckling]

Finally, after having a lot of fun, a lot of work, a lot of study, a lot of marching, we finished boot camp. On our last weekend in boot camp we had a free weekend in New York. One of the things that I wanted to do was to go to the Waldorf Astoria and have dinner. About five or six of us were together, and we got in line to go into the Waldorf. The maitre d' or someone came out and said, “Hey, we have a lot of little WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] boots here. We can't let them stand in line. Come on, girls.” He took us into the dining room and seated us. We were in one of the most beautiful dining rooms, with a violinist playing and walking around to each table. He came over to our table and said, “What would you like to hear?” I think he spent more time playing for us than he did all the rest of the people in the restaurant. Of course, that experience in New York City was—it was just a lot of fun. Liberty in New York City was an exciting end to our boot camp days. I was assigned to an outgoing unit.

[Tape paused]

JW:

While I was in this outgoing unit, which lasted for two weeks, I was assigned to Shore Patrol. Oh, it was so cold in New York in January. I had on a fur-lined suit because I had to stand out for two hours at one of the gates at Hunter College. They had asked me where I wanted to be stationed. I said, “Anywhere except Norfolk, [Virginia], or Washington, D.C.” Of course, I got Washington.

I was really unhappy for a few days. After I arrived in Washington my duty assignment was in communications. That's as far as much as I can say about it because my work was classified. The first thing that we were told was, “You are never to tell anything about what you're doing.”

[Tape paused]

JW:

While I was stationed in Washington, we were taken on many sightseeing trips. We toured the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the FBI Building, all the different churches, the Washington Monument, all of the other monuments. Then I got to thinking, “How lucky I am to be in Washington, right in the center of where everything is happening.” For instance, [General Dwight D.] Eisenhower came after the war. As he rode down the street in the parade, I was so close I could have touched him. There were so many things that I got to do in Washington that I wouldn't have been able to do anywhere else in the country.

Of course, when we first got to Washington we were just awed by the city and everything. We were stationed out at WAVES Quarters D, and it was just really on the edge of Washington at that time. One night we all decided we wanted to go into town. I think it was the first night we went into town, and there were, I think five of us, four or five. We were waiting for the bus. And while we were waiting, this gentleman came and asked us if we would like a ride into town. And of course that was not surprising, because if people had cars they were very willing to share them with the military people. So we, all five of us, got in there, and we told him we wanted to go where we could have some music, maybe dance. Everybody wanted a real nice place. And he took us to a real nice place. He took us to the Shoreham Hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels in Washington. They were having a big presidential ball there that night. We walked in and were given a seat, and we looked around. We were the only enlisted people in the place. Everybody else—and you've never seen so much gold braid on the officers, and their ladies with their evening dresses. And of course we were very well dressed, we had on our uniform. Well, we stayed a while and then we got a taxi back into town and went to the USO [United Service Organizations] where we could listen to some music and dance ourselves. There were so many exciting things that happened to us while we were in Washington. And the only place that we couldn't go was to the White House, inside the White House, or to climb the stairs to the Washington Monument. I wanted to do that, but it was closed. When I would walk down the street, or when I was in a parade, or just we were having a drill, sometimes when I'd pass by the flag and they'd say “eyes right,” I would just be so proud. I didn't know whether the buttons would hold on my jacket or not because I was so proud to be an American and to be in the navy and to be a part of it.

[Tape paused]

JW:

There were several other military bases near, Marines and some [U.S.] Army bases up in Maryland, and sometimes they would invite us—In fact, Fort Meade, [Maryland], was one of the bases. They would send a bus to our barracks, to get a group of WAVES to come up to dance with the soldiers. Sometimes a big band would come and they would send a bus down, or two or three buses down, and maybe bring a hundred or more of us WAVES up to the Fort Meade to dance with the guys there. And of course we just always had just a really good time. And all of the soldiers, sailors or Marines that I met, at the dances and just everywhere I went, were just fine people. I didn't meet, I would say, more than two or three that was not just really an ideal person. For instance, sometimes some of the girls could be in a club or something like that, and somebody might try to start giving them a hard time. And the first thing you'd know, here would be a sailor or two standing there and they'd say, “All right, buddy, move on. You're bothering my sisters, my little sisters.” And we just found an awful lot of camaraderie with the people in the military, even other branches and even people we didn't know. It was just the uniform brought us all together as one.

And then finally the war ended and there was shouting. I came out of a movie, and somebody grabbed me and kissed me, andI thought, “What in the world is going on?” Everybody was laughing and hollering and hugging and kissing. Then I said, “What's the matter?” And they said, “The war is over! The war is over!” And of course I and everybody else did the screaming, and we just marched the streets. The streets had been closed so we could celebrate.

They started mustering people out of the service. I hadn't been in too long and I didn't want to get out. I got a chance to extend my enlistment and I was sent to Patuxent River Naval Air Station [Maryland]. That is about seventy-five miles southeast of Washington, right on the Chesapeake Bay. This was the beginning of the jet age. Patuxent was a test center where different kinds of jet engines were tested. I was sent to personnel, and I was a rating yeoman. One nice thing about the extension was if we would sign up for another year, they would advance our rating one grade. This gave me a rating of petty officer second class.

[Tape paused]

JW:

On the peninsula was a little tiny town called Saint Mary's. It only had a few thousand people there, if that, and we were really isolated.

One thing that I remember so well was how military people at that time worked so well together. I don't think you would ever see it in civilian life. On the Fourth of July the navy built a dance floor. We had the band, and a big all-base picnic, you might say, right down on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. When I heard about it, I was really excited because I thought it would be a lot of fun. When the duty list came, my luck was I had the duty, twenty-four-hour duty that day. So I went to the office that day depressed because everybody else was going off to have a good time. There was no one in the building except me and the officer of the day. We didn't have anything much to do, but we had to be there. So I stayed around and really, I guess, moped a little bit. About ten o'clock, one of the fellows that worked in the same office that I was in came up and he said, “Jean, I have a driver out here. Run to the barracks and get your bathing suit on and go to the party.”

[Tape paused]

JW:

He said, “I'm going to take your shift for the next two hours,” and then he named over someone else that was going to come for two hours, and then someone else for the next two hours, for the entire day. So I got my bathing suit and went down to the party, and I stayed the whole time. Now, I don't think you would find anywhere except maybe in the military where you would have friends that would come in and take over your duty so you could have some of the enjoyment too. And I never have forgotten those people who came up and worked their two-hour shift so I would not have to do it. And not only that, one of the guys put his name in to be called if anything happened during the night and someone was needed at the office. That happened many times when I would have the duty, or the other girls, that one of the men would call and take a duty for us. And I just thought that that was just almost above—beyond friendship. It was wonderful for the people to be that gracious. Patuxent was one of the bases that I enjoyed so much, because we were isolated and we really had to get along and enjoy it as much as possible because we could go into town just every so often, maybe every few weeks. And sometimes on weekends when a plane was going to Washington, we would call and see if we could get a ride on one of the planes. That happened a few times, and we were able to do it.

While I was in Patuxent, it was on, as I said, the peninsula right around the Chesapeake Bay, and I developed rheumatism in my knees, and I had a really hard time with it. After I went home and got back into a drier climate, I didn't have any more trouble with it.

Then it came time for me to be discharged, and they took us to Washington. That's where we were being relieved from duty. We took two days to go through the process, and the night that I stayed there in Washington I cried, I cried, and I cried. I did not want to get out because I just loved the navy. But I had a little problem. All the nice girls who were staying in were married. And I thought, gosh, who will be my friends? I wouldn't have any. So I went ahead and got out, because I guess it was time that I got out and started thinking about the rest of my life and going back to school.

[Tape paused]

JW:

Then, the next day when I had to have an eye test, I was afraid I wasn't going to get out that day at all because my eye—I couldn't see. I couldn't even read the chart. My eyes were swollen from all of the crying. They gave me another test in the afternoon. My vision had improved a little bit by then. One of the last things they did before I was discharged was they took me into a room and they made me raise my right hand and swear that I would never reveal what I did when I worked in communications, subject to a fine of ten thousand dollars and/or ten years in prison or both. And that just really upset me. So when I got home my dad said, “Now that the war is over, tell us what you did.” So I told him that I could not tell or I'd have to go to jail for ten years and pay maybe ten thousand dollars, which I didn't have. So he said, “Well, I'll never ask you again.” And he never did. Now I have pretty much forgotten what I did, because after the war I just decided I would never think about it anymore. And I didn't, and so now I don't remember.

HT:

Do you remember why you chose the WAVES as opposed to one of the other branches of the service to go into?

JW:

This sounds kind of vain, I guess, but it was really the Coast Guard or the WAVES. That blue uniform with my blonde hair and blue eyes was going to do better than the others. [chuckling] But I loved that uniform. So I think that was the main reason why I chose one of those. But then the reason I chose the WAVES, they had it seemed like so many more opportunities to do things. Now what I wanted to do, after I had read brochures and things about the WAVES, was to be a control tower operator. That was my number one choice. And when I put that down on the form, an officer said, “A control tower operator with that southern accent?” She said, “I'm sorry, but I don't think you can do that.”

HT:

Do you remember anything about your first day in boot camp that sticks out in your mind?

JW:

Not really, because—I can't remember really what we did. One thing we had to do was go get our uniforms, and just having people talking with us and getting the assignment to where we were supposed to stay, and then somebody taking us everywhere, like to the mess hall and things like that. But it was just kind of a—It was just all mixed up now because there were so many things happening. It was hard to keep up with them.

HT:

I can imagine so. And do you recall how long you were in the military, and what the dates were that you entered and got out?

JW:

I went in the last of November 1943, and I was discharged in July of '46.

HT:

Did you ever think about making it a career?

JW:

Well, I would have liked to have stayed in. But then after my husband and I got married, he also had been in the navy, we talked about going back, both of us did. Of course, the Korean War was on, and so I didn't push it at all. Because I might not have had to go and gotten right in the middle of it, but he would. And I thought, well, if I push it and then something happened to him, I would feel really guilty. So I didn't do it.

HT:

Well, do you feel you made a positive contribution to the war effort in the line of work you did?

JW:

Yes, I do, whenever—I mean, it was so important it was secret. I feel like I did. I have always been one that I wanted to do a good job at whatever I did. And I was really a hard worker.

[Tape paused]

JW:

I've always been a hard worker. When we left boot camp, we were then a seaman first class and went to Washington. And after I had been working just a short time, I hadn't even gotten all my seaman first-class patches sewn on my clothes, one of the officers came to me one day and said, “Jean, your record says that you can type.”

And I said, “I can.”

So she said, “Well, I have something I want you to type.” And she took me to this little office that was so small I could sit at my desk and touch all the walls, it was so little, and it had nothing in there except a little desk, a chair, and a typewriter. It was an electric typewriter, and that's the first one I had ever seen, and so when I touched those keys they'd just fly. [chuckling] So she gave me some material and she said, “I want you to cut a stencil and type this.” It was a chapter out of a—it looked like a textbook. So I typed it, and it was on electricity and magnets and things of that sort. So I started typing it. And as I said, I am very conscientious about my work, and I was going to make sure there was no mistake in it. When I started typing it, every little bit I would stop and I would proofread it, and then I would type some more, and before I took it out of the typewriter I would proofread it again. This was, I think, Monday, and she said, “I think within about five days you can finish it, so I'd like to have it, if possible—” I think it would have been on a Friday.

So, on Wednesday I took all the material to her and I said, “I have finished with these stencils.”

She said, “Already?”

And I said, “Yes.”

So anyway I went on back then to my regular duties, and she came to me one day and she says, “I couldn't find a mistake in those stencils.”

And I just told the officer, “I know it, I proofread them,” and I knew there was no mistake in it.

A few days later one of these girls came in and said, “Jean, your name is on the list to try out for third-class petty officer.” And I thought, well, gee, I've hardly been in any time. Of course, I think it was three months that you had to serve between first class seaman and third class petty officer. And I was the only woman who came in at the time that I did who was recommended for third class. Well, I saw the test material we were given to study and it was what I had typed. So, after typing it and proofreading it and proofreading it and proofreading it, I thought, I know this material real well. I took the test and I was just elated when the officer told me, “You made a 4.0.” She said, “I graded yours twice because I have never had a perfect paper.” But she added, “I could not find a mistake.” And I knew she couldn't find a mistake, because I knew every bit of that material. I got my third-class petty officer just as fast as I could from the time periods that had to be between ratings.

HT:

That's a wonderful story. Many of the recruiting posters at that time said that when a woman would join the service that it might free up a man for combat. Did you view your enlistment in this way at all?

JW:

That bothered me in a way, because I thought, “If I replace somebody and they get killed, I'm partially responsible.” But then they wouldn't let me go do it. I wanted to go overseas. In fact, when I was talking to Mother and Daddy about signing for me, as soon as they said okay, I said, “Yippee! The first thing I'm going to do is request to go overseas, especially to Hawaii.” Hawaii was not a state then, only a territory. So Daddy put the pen down and he said, “Now, WAVES don't have to go overseas. And if you're going to volunteer to go, I'm not going to sign it.” And so I said, “Okay, I won't volunteer.” I never did get to go, and of course I was never assigned because they didn't assign them then.

HT:

So women—

JW:

WAVES did not go overseas.

HT:

Women could go. They could go to Hawaii, but they could not go to Europe or the South Pacific at that time.

JW:

I really don't know about that because Hawaii was where I wanted to go. But they would not be sent overseas unless they did request, but of course now it's different.

HT:

Did you enjoy your work when you worked in communications?

JW:

I enjoyed everything. I enjoyed it all.

HT:

Do you feel that you were treated equally with men who had the same position as you?

JW:

Well, there was no men doing the work I was doing. It was all WAVES.

HT:

There were no men at all?

JW:

We were working at WAVES Quarters D, and the only men there were the guards. We had to wear our picture identification all the time we were in the building, and Marine guards had to check everything.

HT:

Did you ever encounter any kind of discrmination?

JW:

At Patuxent, I could not see a bit. I mean, I swabbed decks and did the same work that the other guys did who were working in the personnel office. No, I couldn't see any difference. And that has bothered me ever since, because now I see discrimination, and especially when I finished college. I mean, I couldn't get a job doing anything except teaching, secretarial or nursing. In 1949 when I received my degree, that was all you could do in a profession—unless you had pull, and I didn't have any. [chuckling]

HT:

Do you recall that you ever received any kind of special treatment because you were a woman in the navy?

JW:

No.

HT:

So you were never singled out in any kind of way, that you recall?

JW:

No.

HT:

What was the hardest thing you ever had to do physically while you were in the military?

JW:

Those pushups.

HT:

Oh? During physical training?

JW:

Those pushups were the hardest thing that I had to do in the physical line. [chuckling]

HT:

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

JW:

You know, I can't think of anything, really.

HT:

What kind of hours did you keep and days did you have? Did you have to work so many days and then you were off a few days, or—

JW:

I think we worked about either five or six and then be off a day. I don't remember, really. But I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed all of it. I was as happy as a lark. [chuckling]

HT:

Do you ever recall any kind of embarrassing moments you might have had?

JW:

No, I don't remember any.

HT:

Were you ever afraid or in any kind of physical danger?

JW:

No.

HT:

Did you ever meet any interesting people while you were on duty?

JW:

Oh, yes, a lot of them. I mean, they were just average people, but I found a lot of them fascinating—in fact, most of them—because they were from so many different sections of the country.

For instance, this one guy worked in our office, and I said, “While I'm here this far, I want to go to Niagara Falls.” He said, “Well, I'm going to get out in a couple of weeks. Wait till I get out and then come and stay at our house.” And so there was another girl in that office, a real good friend that had already gotten out. He invited her, too. And so I went up to Niagara Falls and stayed about three or four days and stayed at his house. And for fifty years, exactly, I got a Christmas card from him until 1997, and it didn't come. And I had sent one, and so then right after Christmas I got a letter from his sister. He had passed away. And it just broke my heart because there for such a long time we had been friends. And this friend from Florida that I was in the navy with at Patuxent came up and spent about a week with me and we went to Washington for the dedication of the memorial. And they were the only two that I've just really kept in close contact with for the whole time since then. I met an awful lot of nice people. Almost every time I came home, I'd invite someone who lived a long distance away and couldn't go home on weekends to come home with me. We could leave Washington, say, at five o'clock on Friday, and we would get to Greensboro about 2:30 at night.

HT:

I guess you took the train down?

JW:

Yes.

HT:

Well, can you tell me something about your—I think you mentioned it a little bit earlier, but can you tell me some more about your social life and what you ladies did for fun when you weren't busy working?

JW:

Oh, well, I can tell you one of the silliest things but one of the funniest things I think we ever did. It was on my twenty-first birthday. I hadn't been in Washington long, and there were about ten of us WAVES and their dates, and we all went to a restaurant and had a birthday dinner for me. After dinner we were going to go to a movie, because that was about the only thing to do that we could afford. [chuckling] So one of the girls was dating a guy [who] I think must have been a drill sergeant, because he was calling cadence. And we were in line by twos marching up the street, and about twenty people make a pretty nice line. He continued calling cadence, and all of the people around were laughing and they thought we were funny. We got to a rather large intersection with a traffic island, and the guy who was calling cadence was leading. But this big limousine pulled up a little bit too far. The back doors were right at the walkway. Our leader continued calling cadence, opened the door, crawled through the car, and opened the other door and stood there, didn't even miss a beat, he was still, “Hup, two, three, four, your left.” And then his girlfriend followed and then all twenty of us crawl through that car. The driver turned around. He didn't know what in the world was going on, but he saw us coming in and getting out so he started laughing, too. We got over on the traffic island where we could wait. The light changed, but the driver just sat there and let us all go through that car. The people on the street were just doubling over laughing at us, and we were, too. We just thought it was the funniest thing. We just did a lot of dumb, crazy things like that. I mean it didn't hurt anyone, but they were kind of dumb things that we did. [chuckling]

HT:

I understand that money was rather scarce in those days, so you had to do things with friends.

JW:

Yes. I started off at fifty dollars a month, you know.

HT:

You mentioned something about going to the movies and that sort of thing. Do you recall what your favorite movies were from those days, and your favorite songs?

JW:

Well, all the big bands. I liked all the big bands. And of course the movies, most of the movies had kind of a military background. I mean the people, the actors, were in the army. June Allyson was one of my favorite actresses. In fact, I liked just about all of them who were kind and sweet people. I never have liked the macho type, the men or the movies. But I thought the movies were generally good back then—better than they are now.

HT:

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

JW:

When I finished high school I went to business school in Charlotte. I was there for about eighteen months, in school and working. When I went in the WAVES was the first time I'd ever missed a Christmas at home. But I had to miss Christmas and New Year's.

HT:

I imagine that was rather rough.

JW:

It was.

HT:

What did you think of [President] Franklin D. Roosevelt?

JW:

I liked him. You know, he had been president for a long time. In fact, he's the president that I can actually really remember. He was, of course, our commander-in-chief, and he gave everyone a testament. And I still have it, you know, with his signature on it. But I liked him. I wasn't very political then. Of course, you had to be twenty-one to vote and I had never voted when I went in the WAVES.

HT:

What about Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt?

JW:

I liked her, too. I like spunk. I like a woman with spunk. I don't like mousy women. [chuckling]

HT:

Do you recall who your heroes and heroines were from that period of time?

JW:

Probably Amelia Earhart was my biggest one. As I said, I wanted to be a control tower operator or a link trainer. I wanted anything to do with airplanes. Because when I was—I must have been two or three—we had a little grassy landing strip where planes would land about three miles from our house. And I can remember running in the house and saying, “Mamma, come and see if this is a buzzard or a flying machine.” That's what we called an airplane at that time. [chuckling] And I can remember that. I was fascinated by planes at an early age.

HT:

Did you ever try to get in one of the services where you could fly, because I think they had some—

JW:

Well, you had to know how. You see, you had to be a pilot to get in the WASP. My husband gave me a lesson one time for a Christmas present, and I went out and the flight instructor let me fly on the very first lesson. But being a schoolteacher, you don't have money for flying, [chuckling] and so I knew I wouldn't be able to take lessons. But I fly just every chance I get. Luckily I've been able to fly quite a bit.

HT:

Well, good.

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

HT:

Were you encouraged to return to the traditional female roles after you left the military?

JW:

Well, to a degree. I went to college, but when I got out of college, that's when it really hit, really hit when I started trying to get a job. People would say to me, “Miss Coomes, you have very good credentials, but I want a man for the job.” And you know, I had made good grades, I had studied hard, I was on the honor roll several semesters. I was actually in college for two years and nine months, and I did four years' work. One semester I was called into the dean's office because he said my load was heavier than was allowed. He said, “You're the only one on this campus with that load.” And then one semester when I was a freshman, I was taking—It was, I think, twenty-two hours, which is a heavy load. And I had studied hard. In the dorm I found an unfinished room. It had a subfloor and one light hanging down from the ceiling. There was an old sofa in there. I pulled that sofa underneath the light, and that's where I would go to study. I had found a skeleton key that would unlock the door. No one knew where I was because I never did tell anyone I found it. I just made that my inner sanctum. [chuckling] And I studied and studied, worked to get through, and I was real proud of my degree and what I had done.

When I was in college, I took teacher training to please my mother. I mean, really that's why I took it. She had been a teacher and she would say, “Honey, now be sure and get your teaching certificate.” She was very insistent. I guess she knew what I was going to face. And so I did. When I was a senior, they asked me to join the Future Teachers of America. And I can remember till this day what I said, was that “I hope to God I do not have to teach school.” I couldn't be a nurse, I couldn't stand the sight of blood, and I didn't care about being a secretary, although I had done a little bit of it. I had my teaching certificate, so I taught school. It was harder for me because I was going to do a good job or else. And it wasn't my favorite thing to do. I mean I liked the students, but it was all the politics and all the “Do this. It's got to be done this way,” and so forth. I mean, it was so cut-and-dried. Except when I'd get in my room with my students and shut my door. [chuckling]

HT:

How long did you teach?

JW:

Thirty-three years. [chuckling]

HT:

Do you think that being in the military had an impact on your life immediately after you got out?

JW:

It has ever since then. It has ever since then.

HT:

In what respect?

JW:

Well, people always want to hear about it. And I know my students, of course, they knew it. And when we'd walk to the lunchroom or anywhere in a group, the children would say, “Miss Woods, say that hup, two, three.” [chuckling] Sometimes I would, but I knew that if it got out that Miss Woods is teaching her children military drills, [chuckling] it wouldn't go over so big, because they were only ten or eleven years old. But it has always made an impact. Sometimes I think, and I have even said this, that if my life could be gone over and I could have a choice of being in the military like I was or going to college, I believe I would take the military. Because for life, I think, in a way does—I learned more. Because in college you study from the books and that [kind of] thing, but I didn't have anything like the interaction with people. And even when I taught school, as I said, I was going to do a good job. And I would work—I worked at least ten hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Friday I would relax, but then sometime during the week[end] I'd have about six to eight hours of work. Teachers have a lot of outside work to do.

HT:

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

JW:

Well, I was independent before, and I am—I am probably the most independent woman I know. My husband does not like to travel, and I go to Elderhostels and I get in my car and go. The year before last, in '96, I got in my car and I drove all the way to Minnesota, by myself, and I went up through Michigan and then across Wisconsin. I didn't take a short cut to Minnesota. Then I went on into North Dakota. I called my husband and I told him, “I'm going to head west when I leave the Elderhostel today because I've never been in North Dakota.” Then I will have been to all the states. And so I'm going to go to North Dakota for a day or two. [chuckling] I went over to North Dakota and before coming on home. I was gone twenty days. And I went to Europe by myself. I didn't know a soul when I got on the airplane.

HT:

Did you meet some interesting people on those trips?

JW:

Well, yes. After a few days in London. I was going with a British tour over on the Continent, and it was a tour of—Thirteen English-speaking nations were represented on that tour, and there were seven Americans, so of course I met many interesting people on that one.

HT:

Do you consider yourself a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter when you entered the service, in looking back?

JW:

Yes. Well, I didn't think about it then, but I do now.

HT:

Do you consider yourself and other women who joined the military to have been the forerunners of what we today call the women's movement?

JW:

Yes, I guess, and I have been in that ever since. I mean, I've stood out and given out pamphlets and what have you. [chuckling] Written letters, given money. And I'm still doing it.

HT:

Can you tell us something about that?

JW:

Well, I just think that human beings should not be divided by women, men, blacks, whites, Indians, Chinese, or what have you. People are people. And I think that every person, if they are willing to work to attain a goal, they should be allowed to do it. I've always said, that I think every human being alive should be given respect and dignity until they themselves do something to lose it. And I still think that. I know a lot of people do not agree, but that's what I think. And I think if a man wants to stay at home and take care of the kids, more power to him, because some men just love children. And I don't think there should be a man's job, a woman's job. It's who can do it. I mean, that's the way I feel, and I have felt that way for many years.

HT:

Even before you went into the military?

JW:

I don't remember about it then. I did things, and I shouldn't say this, I guess, but I always loved to beat a man because they always thought they could do everything. I used to race the bicycle when I was a kid. I mean, if I would be out and a guy would say, “Hey, Jean, I'll race you,” I was game. [chuckling] And I would pedal myself to death to beat him. [chuckling]

HT:

Can you tell me, or do you recall, how women who joined the military were perceived by the general public and by their families and by men during World War II?

JW:

While we were in, the guys in the service were always—I never did meet one that wasn't nice to me. And it was not like it was when—say, in Charlotte. I was eighteen or nineteen, and sometimes they were just, I thought, very rude. Sometimes I didn't think they had much self-respect or respect for anybody. But I never found that in the service. I remember one guy in college made some crack about me having been in the military, and I would say there was four or five guys sitting around who heard it. Oh, it just killed me the way he talked. And they said, “Jean, don't pay any attention to him. We know you, and just don't pay any attention to him. Some people are like that.”

But my mother and daddy—I remember one time when I came home there was a movie on that I said I wanted to see. Mother and Daddy took me to the movie. As we were walking from the car to the theater, I was walking—Daddy was on the outside, then Mother, and then me. And Daddy says, “Honey, come over here and walk in between us, because we both want to walk with you and show off your uniform.” I mean, they were so proud of me. I mean, every time I'd go somewhere, I could not wear civilian clothes. Because I could have and nobody would have ever known. We weren't supposed to during the war, but Mother and Daddy, lord, they wanted me to wear that uniform. [chuckling]

HT:

I think you said that you went to college under the GI Bill.

JW:

Yes, that was after I came out.

HT:

After you came out. What was college life like after the war, do you recall?

JW:

At first, there were three women from the military, and they were treating me—I was twenty-two, and they were treating me like an eighteen-year-old freshman. We had to have this, we had to have that—So the three of us went and talked to the vice president and told him that we wanted to get an education but we thought that those freshman rules were kind of tacky for us. He agreed and he said, “I'm going to give you senior privileges.” [chuckling]

HT:

Where did you go to college?

JW:

High Point University [in High Point, North Carolina].

HT:

High Point University, okay.

JW:

I'm still going over there often.

HT:

And were there many veterans, both men and women, in your classes?

JW:

There were three women on campus, but most of the guys were veterans. I was older than the other freshman girls. They'd come and ask me questions, ask me for advice. When we had an election for the dorm representative for our floor, I was the only one even nominated.

HT:

So you stayed on campus?

JW:

I stayed in the dorm.

HT:

Have any of your children ever been in the military?

JW:

I don't have any children.

HT:

Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions? For instance, in December of '98 women flew in combat missions over Iraq. Do you approve of this kind of thing?

JW:

Yeah. You knew I would.

HT:

Is there anything else you'd like to add about your military service that we haven't covered? Any interesting stories, people you've met, or anything like that?

JW:

Oh, I think maybe I've covered a lot of things, but I do remember how patriotic I was. I mean, this country was the greatest place on earth. And I still think that, but sometimes I get disillusioned with things now, the way our people are so divided. Well, naturally, I guess you would have it when you have 275 million people. But some of them are so hostile. And all of these survivalists and the skinheads, they are frightening to me. And sometimes I wonder, is that what we fought for? But I think America is the greatest of all.

And I can just remember—I think the one parade we had in boot camp, there were large groups of military people from foreign countries, and they were having a meeting and they came out and were in the grandstand when we paraded. And I think that was one of the proudest moments that I've ever had. It was when we were marching and I was trying to make sure that our lines were straight, you know, because I wanted us to really look good. And then whenever we passed them the leader said, “Eyes right,” and we all looked over at them. And they all stood, and they stood the whole time we were marching by them. Then they said how proud they were and how great we looked marching. We heard later that they had complimented us.

HT:

Can you tell me something about your life since you left the military? I know you went to college and then you taught. Can you tell me a little bit about where you taught and the classes you taught and that sort of thing?

JW:

Well, I started out in high school. I taught three years, and for three years I got stuck with basketball and the PE [physical education], all the PE for all of the girls. I wasn't trained for that. I'd played basketball, but the rules had even changed. And we didn't have a gym. Then I would have to go to the school, pick up the girls and take them to the game. Their parents would bring them to the school, then I'd have to deliver each one home after the game. I remember one night it was almost 2:30 at night when I got home. I had been driving all over Guilford County. Then I thought, well, I'm going to get out of high school and get in a junior high, because my certificate would let me teach junior high. I taught junior high for about eight years, and during that time I went back to school and got my elementary certificate. I taught fifth grade longer than anything else, I was at Sedgefield School. I taught there for about twenty-five years. Then my very last year they were going to tear our building down and build a new school building, and they sent all the fifth grades to Millis Road. There I had my first woman principal. She had been elected the Principal of the Year, and I had never known that a principal could be like her. She was really great. I wouldn't have retired then because I liked the kids, but school administration was going to have some self-studies that last all year—and you spend probably a hundred hours on them, sometimes till six o'clock at night after you started at 7:30 in the morning. And I said, “Well, I've got three years more than I need to retire, so I'm going to hang it up.” And so I did.

HT:

Well, Mrs. Woods, I don't have any more questions for you. Is there anything else you'd like to add about your military service or about the time afterwards?

JW:

No, but I will tell you something that I am very proud of.

HT:

Okay.

JW:

In 1990 I established a scholarship over at High Point University, and I have had probably twelve or fifteen students already to receive money from it. And I'm really proud of that.

HT:

Oh, that is wonderful.

JW:

They asked me last spring to be a speaker at the senior luncheon. I didn't know there was going to be about six hundred people there or I'd have said no, but they asked me if I would give a talk about the scholarship and I did. There were so many parents that came up afterwards and told me that scholarship really was going to help a lot of people. I just use the dividends from it, the principal stays intact, and so what I put in stays. And of course there's been some good years and it's really building up. But I think I'm the most proud of that, of anything that I have done since I got through school teaching, and that's been fifteen years, sixteen years ago that I retired.

HT:

And I know you are very active in the local WAVES unit. Is that correct?

JW:

Yes.

HT:

What type of work do you do with the local WAVES unit? What do you ladies do there?

JW:

We have been collecting things, and go to the veterans' hospital. And then we try to publicize the military. I was the field representative for the memorial [Women in Military Service for America Memorial]. I wrote letters. Anytime I could find anyone, even whether I knew them or not, who had been in the military, I'd write to them, send them a pamphlet and pictures of the memorial, and try to get them to become a charter member of the memorial.

HT:

You've mentioned [the] memorial several times. Can you explain what the memorial is?

JW:

It is a memorial to all the military women who have ever served from the Revolutionary War to the present and in the future. The memorial is a beautiful place. It's located at the entrance to Arlington Cemetery. It has a database, computer database, and it has information about each one of us that were charter members, and our picture.

HT:

When was the dedication?

JW:

It was in October of '97. One of my friends that worked with me at Patuxent came from Florida and we went to the dedication.

HT:

That's wonderful. Well, I don't have any more questions, as I mentioned a few minutes ago. So I thank you so much for talking with me today. It's just been wonderful.

[End of Interview]