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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Mary Williams Elder, 1999

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Object ID: WV0029.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Mary Frances Williams Elder’s service with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from 1942 to 1945, and her life after World War II.

Summary:

Elder recalls her life before World War II, including her year at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). However, most of the interview is focused on her experiences during World War II. Elder discusses her decision to enlist and memories of basic training in Daytona Beach, especially inspections, drilling, and her quarters. She briefly describes her training at Camp Polk, Fort Devens, and Camp Shanks, as well as a memorable day with the WACs in New Orleans and her visit with an elderly socialite in Boston.

Elder discusses crossing the Atlantic on the troop ship Aquitania, the social life and quarters on board, the presence of journalist Doris Fleeson, and rumors of the ship’s sinking. She also speaks at length about her years in Norwich, England, where she was quartered at Old Catton and Ketteringham Hall, near Hethel Air Force Base. Elder describes working for Col. Charles B. Westover, Gen. James Pratt Hodges, and Gen. Francis Griswold; activities of Allied and German bombers in the area; blackouts; and her experiences on D-Day and during the Battle of the Bulge.

Elder also provides many anecdotes, including stories about Jimmy Stewart; a night she went AWOL in a plane that was mistaken for an enemy craft with a drunk and unconscious pilot; being the subject of an address by Lord Haw-Haw; the story of a Jewish WAC friend who went AWOL to meet the pope; and the difficulty of having to tell a friend that her father had died. She also briefly discusses her return stateside to attend OCS and working in the Pentagon for Gen. Hodges in the spring of 1945.

Elder’s personal postwar experiences include her marriage to Delos Elder; attending Elon College on the GI Bill; and her work for Burlington Industries, Wachovia Bank, and Glen Raven Mills. She also briefly describes the military careers of her husband, brothers, and son, and lists her grandchildren.

Creator: Mary Frances Williams Elder

Biographical Info: Mary Frances Williams Elder (1919-1999) of Burlington, North Carolina, served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from 1942 to 1945, and was a longtime secretarial worker in the local textile industry.

Collection: Mary Williams Elder 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 February 2, 1999. I'm at the home of Mrs. Mary Elder in Burlington, North Carolina, to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection.

Mrs. Elder, thank you so much for seeing me today. I really appreciate it.

ME:

It's a pleasure.

HT:

Could you tell me briefly about your early days before you went to Woman's College [of the University of North Carolina, in Greensboro], about where you were born, if you worked prior to that time, where you grew up and where you went to high school, and that sort of thing?

ME:

Well, I was born in Davidson County, Lexington, North Carolina, and if you want the age, I don't mind. It's 1919. [chuckling] And from there, during the Depression—when the Depression hit, I should say—we moved to Bristol, Tennessee, and we lived on the Tennessee side. I didn't graduate from Bristol High School—or Bristol, Tennessee, High School—but we moved to Shelby [North Carolina] when I guess I was about a freshman—no, a sophomore, I'm sorry—and went all the way through until the middle of my senior year, which was 1937, and we moved to Burlington [North Carolina], and I graduated from Burlington High School with just a half a year in that school.

But anyway, after that I went to what was then called Woman's College. I graduated from the secretarial school in 1938 at Woman's College. And the main thing I remember about Woman's College, as I see now the difference between how I went to school and how my grandchildren or even my daughter went to school, we were not allowed to get in a car unless we had written permission from our parents, and then the driver or the people in the car had to come in and speak to the housemother, and then we could get—Otherwise it was walk to town. And when we walked to town we wore hose, dresses, hats, and gloves. [chuckling] As you can see, there is a considerable difference in what they do now.

But the school itself was excellent, as far as the secretarial work was concerned, and when I graduated in '38 I went to work for what was at that time “old” May Hosiery Mill, M-a-y, May Hosiery Mill, who made the old-time seamed-back stockings. And I went as a secretary to Mr. L. D. Tucker, that's T-u-c-k-e-r, which was pretty good coming right out of school. Then, when Mr. Tucker's real secretary came back from a leave of absence, they kept me on as a payroll clerk, which I'll have to say I enjoyed a whole lot more, working with figures. But anyway, I did have the experience of the secretarial work. And I was what then? About twenty, I suppose.

So then in 1941, I guess everybody remembers where they were when they heard the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, Mother and Daddy and my younger brother and I were returning from Cary, North Carolina, where we had been to meet our—Well, she would be my new sister-in-law, my older brother's fianc, and her mother—her father had died. And we were coming back, and Daddy turned on the radio, and that was the first thing we heard. And he ran off the road. The only time I ever saw Daddy lose control of a car.

But anyway, my older brother was already in the service. He was in the first group of draftees that were taken from Alamance County. His name was James Edward Williams Jr. He was a graduate of [The University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill, Phi Beta Kappa, and he went in as a buck private in the draft and he came out as a major. There's his picture up there. He's the top one.

But anyway, of course, that changed the world completely, and I continued to work down at May Hosiery Mill for a while, and then the WAACs [Women's Army Auxiliary Corps] were formed. I've got an article in here you might want to see. So I didn't tell my mother and father that I was going to join the WAACs. I took a day off from work and went down to Fort Bragg, [North Carolina] on—I guess it was in November of '42, and I joined the WAACs. [chuckling] And then I came home and told Mother and Daddy what I'd done. To put it mildly, they weren't very happy, but they got over it, and they were very proud, very supportive and everything. But right at first it was sure not the happiest family then. My younger brother keeps telling me this. He was ten years old at the time I did this.

I went in the service in January of '43, active duty. And I'll never forget the train. I almost didn't make it to Daytona Beach, [Florida]—that was where the basic training was—because the—I had a military pass and the conductor wouldn't accept it. And I told him, “I'm in the army. I wouldn't have this if I didn't.” So it ended up that he went on up further into the train. And there were some other girls in there too that were going to Daytona Beach, had the same type of transportation pass that I had, and I thought, boy, it would be real cute if he'd throw me off the train before I ever got to basic training. But anyway he didn't.

So we got to Daytona Beach. And I'll never forget the first time I really saw an army truck, and we had to get in the back of it. Now, of course we had on skirts, hose, everything like that.

HT:

Just regular civilian clothes?

ME:

Regular civilian clothes. And these, you had to step up three feet even to get your foot in the first hook down there to get into it. [chuckling] Oh, we were so careful. All of us were. We tucked our skirts in, and we were so worried about it, you know? I busted a pair of nylon hose—I've never forgotten that—and they were very rare back then. Anyway, we got on down to Daytona Beach. We were out on the beachfront, not in the town. We were on the waterfront. And the majority of the girls were put in a great big hotel—it was an old hotel—but the 3rd Platoon, which I always seemed to get into, was put in what they called Ethan Allen Apartments. E-t-h-a-n A-l-l-e-n Apartments. One day I'm going back there and see whether that place is still standing. Let's see, it had a kitchenette downstairs—No, it was on one floor. It had two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room, you might say. They had three girls [each] in the two bedrooms, they had three girls in the living room, and they had three girls in the kitchen. Three, six, nine, twelve girls and one bathroom. Life got real interesting.

We had what they called coil spring bunks. Well, we didn't have any mattresses. We had an extra blanket that they graciously allowed us, and we put those things—put the blanket first, then a sheet, then another sheet, and then another blanket. This was January and it was cold. And I'll never to my dying day forget the first morning when I finally went to sleep and then woke up. I found out that we all had the circles. So we spent the whole six weeks of basic training comparing circles. [chuckling]

HT:

So you never had decent mattresses at all?

ME:

Never had a mattress during the whole time of basic training. And they always picked Saturday morning to give you your shots. And that was one in each shoulder, you know. So we got everything that the boys got, as far as that was concerned. And we were still in civilian clothes. Our uniforms hadn't come at all. So we were marching around in Daytona Beach, eating our meals in a Methodist church basement. I guess the ladies did it. I remember the meals were very good. But that was our mess hall, was the basement of a Methodist church in Daytona Beach. Well, after we got through that, there were some experiences during that too that you might want. Can you stop that thing a minute?

HT:

Sure.

[recorder paused]

ME:

One of the things in basic training, we learned what it meant to have a white glove inspection. That's quite a deal. We had one girl in our particular room who was just a beauty, she really was. She was a beautiful girl, inwards and outwards, but she had a fetish for perfume. And she was in the top bunk and I was in the bottom. And as we were trying to get everything set up and settled, she dropped this bottle of perfume and it broke. And the officers were coming in the door as we had all this mess on the floor to get—And the odor would have knocked you flat. Well, we finally got the glass up and got the rest of it halfway mopped up, and actually threw the towels out the window. It was the only place we had to go with them! We wrapped up the glass and everything in these towels and threw them out the window. So there we were, standing at attention, and here come these officers in this room with their—literally—white gloves on. They took one breath and it almost knocked them down! [chuckling] So they did a very swift inspection of our room, and I'll never forget it as long as I live, and I never ever want to smell that particular perfume again either. But I said, “Well, that's one way of getting out of a white-glove inspection, but I don't think I'd care for it too long.” [chuckling]

Well, after we finished basic training we were sent to—We were broken up, of course, and I had been asked if I wanted to go overseas. Well, I hadn't really thought about going overseas. So, anyway, I thought about it a little while and I said, “Sure.” This is a twenty-two-year-old talking, during the war, and I'm going overseas. Well, anyway, I did. And I was signed up in what was called, and you'll find it in these papers, the 1st Separate Battalion. S-e-p-a-r-a-t-e. [chuckling] My father corrected me on that every time I'd write home. But the 1st Separate Battalion became a group of girls from every training station in the United States. At that time I think we had four, I'm not sure, and we all were brought together at—Where were we? Camp Polk, Louisiana. It was a camp then, now it's Fort Polk. We were at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and we were issued winter uniforms. Well, everybody else in the whole United States Army was being issued summer clothes, unless they were going overseas. So, of course, everybody—We were supposed to be well-hidden, but everybody knew where we were.

Well, to be a little risqué, we got down to Camp Polk and we were checking all the facilities, you know, and we walked into the latrine. And there was a row—I don't know how to say it any other way, there was a row of latrines that looked like it went a half a mile, and not a partition between any of them. Well, one girl was standing behind me, and she looked at that and she punched me and she said, “Boy, there's going to be a lot of constipated WAACs around here.” [laughter] I thought I would—They did put some breakers in between us, but of course we had the bull showers like the boys had. You know, you got to the place where you didn't see anything. You didn't even notice whether anybody else was in there or not. I'm not right sure it could have been a male and we wouldn't have paid any attention to him. You just didn't see because you restricted yourself. But we did get some screens in the other areas, which was nice.

But Camp Polk, the area we were in, as I said, was going to be a Japanese concentration camp, and we were given the joyful job of cleaning all the windows and everything, which I didn't think—I thought, let them clean them. But anyway we cleaned them. Mud! I give you my word, that was the reddest, stickiest mud that anybody ever walked through in their lives! And my understanding is—I don't know who was in charge of Camp Polk at that time, but he was very, very strict about maintenance. And if somebody dropped a cigarette butt on the ground, they dug a hole six feet long, six feet deep, a foot and a half wide, and they buried that cigarette. That was his principle of keeping the grounds clean. I would have eaten one before I'd have done that. [chuckling] But anyway, that was just one of the things at Camp Polk.

And from there, from Camp Polk we went to—Where did we go? We went to—Oh dear, it's in Massachusetts. Well, it'll come to me, I reckon. But anyway we went up on a troop train. Now there were two sets of us going up. There was the 1st Separate Battalion and then there were the rest of the girls going—Fort Devens, Massachusetts—and we were given the delightful idea—We had our cooks, and so they cooked in a freight car, literally, and we ate in our mess kits. Everybody else ate in the dining car—I mean other than the 1st Separate Battalion. We ate in our mess kits. Maybe they were breaking us in for something.

But we kind of got a little bit over that, because when we got to New Orleans—You know, the government trains rode on government railroads, they didn't go on ones that had been built by a railroad company. They went, no matter how—We even went up into Canada and came back down to get to Fort Devens. But we got to New Orleans, and we had about a day there for some reason or other, switching the railroad tracks or whatever. So our colonel, who was Colonel Halloran, H-a-l-l-o-r-a-n, who is still working in the WACs today, told us that if we wanted to go into New Orleans we would march from the railroad station all the way up—What is that main street in New Orleans? I know it as well as I know my own name. I can't think now. But anyway we marched up that street, in uniform, and all three platoons of us. We got to the hotel, and Colonel Halloran told us, “Now you are to be back here at three o'clock. No excuses accepted.” She was about five-foot-four, a little bitty thing. [chuckling] Boy, she knew what she was saying.

Anyway, we broke out from formation, and we all wanted to go to the French Quarter, of course. That was about the only place I'd ever heard of in New Orleans. So a bunch of us went down through there. And I heard a comment as we walked by the door of the hotel. I heard some officer, a male, comment on the fact that, “She'll never get 'em back here.” [chuckling] That was just the general opinion. There weren't many WAACs in service then. So, came three o'clock—We had a good time walking around. We didn't have any money but we walked around a lot. And three o'clock, every single girl in that 1st Separate Battalion was there, and there on time, with the exception of one. And we were really mad at that girl, because where was she, you know? Well, Captain Halloran announced to all of us that the one girl we were missing had had an emergency appendectomy and was in the hospital. That was the reason she wasn't there. So we were relieved at that.

And it was so funny to watch the GIs down there, the boys. We formed up to march back to the train, and you would see these GIs getting up as close to the brick walls of the buildings as they could. If they could have disappeared they'd have tried to. And we were good at marching, believe me. So we started out, and pretty soon you'd see them coming out—from hiding, you might say—coming out to the sidewalk so that they could watch us all the way down to the train. Most of them went down there with us, cheering for us, which we all appreciated, you know. WAACs were not, right at first, were not really accepted.

HT:

Do you know why they were not accepted?

ME:

Well, no, not really, except I think they thought that all of us were camp followers or something like that: that's all we were going in for were the men. Which was not true. We had Ph.D.s and everything else in there as buck privates, and eventually most of those with those qualifications ended up as officers. I didn't have a Ph.D., but I did end up as an officer. But I don't know, it was just the idea, I think. All women, other than nurses, had always been camp followers, and they had the reputation of being camp followers. And I guess that's the way they thought about them—until they actually saw us in action.

One of the other things in Fort Devens, Massachusetts—while we were there Mother's Day came along, the Sunday for Mother's Day, and I'd been away from home then about six months. So I went into town. I was supposed to meet another friend in there at the service center. Well, she didn't show up.

[recorder paused]

ME:

Well, I went on into Boston to the service center. And as I said, the girl that I was looking for never did show up. And I noticed a WAVE [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—Navy]. Now, the newspapers had tried to get up a battle between the WAVES and the WAACs, and that was absolutely untrue. And I saw a girl standing there, and she came over and she sat down beside me and she said, “Did you get stood up, too?” I said, “Yes.” About that time a man came in dressed in a chauffeur's uniform, and of course we were just watching him. And he went up to the desk, and later on I found out he told the woman at the desk that the lady who he had worked for a number of years had a son who was in service. But she lived alone, other than her servants, and she would like to have two girls, servicewomen, to come and eat lunch with her. So they had seen us sitting over there, you know, kind of waiting around, so they came over and asked June and I if we would like to go with this man, that they guaranteed that it was all right, you know.

So we got in this plush—well, back then it wasn't a stretch job, it was an open-air type of thing, and we went up on Nob Hill. So when we walked in, you talk about red velvet and all that stuff! The dining room was on what we call the second floor. So we went up there. A delightful little lady! She was just a real charmer. And we had lunch in one of the bay windows, you know, in the dining room, and I guess we talked until it was time for us to go back to camp. The chauffeur took us back to the area and we caught the bus, and, you know, I've never seen or heard nothing from that girl again. But we had a delightful time. Her son was already in the European theater, and she said she wanted to do something but she was half-afraid to take a young man or even two young men into her home when there was no male living in the home. Well, I could understand that. So she was very, very thoughtful and very nice. A beautiful home! When I told her my mother belonged to the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], I could have had the house. [chuckling] But I didn't really want it.

So, let's see, from Fort Devens we had quite a bit of training and lectures and all that good stuff about what we were going into, and then we were sent to Camp Shanks, New Jersey, which was a port of embarkation, a POE. And we were there for about six weeks, because they were going to send us over on a single ship rather than in a convoy. And they did. It was the Aquitania, and it zig-zagged this way across the Atlantic. You'll read in this, [Woman's Home Companion correspondent] Doris Fleeson's—She was on the ship with us, and she was talking about the big fight they had about if we could come out of the fatigues and get into what they called our exercise outfit, which was bloomers and a dress that went to about a little above your knee. We finally got into the bloomers and the dress. If my children could have seen me in that, I think they would have disowned me. [chuckling] I would have disowned myself if everybody else hadn't already been in it.

Anyway, that was some trip. We were not allowed to go on deck when they had the drills. We did the first time, and I got to see the Statue of Liberty going out. But after that we had to sit in the dining room, because it was a British ship and the captain says, “Women are females, and females go to the main dining room and sit until somebody comes after them.” Well, I sat, but I sat close to a door, because I figured that was about the best place I could be.

They had really stripped that ship of everything. In fact, there were four of us in our particular room. I won't call it a stateroom, it was a bathroom.

HT:

Literally a bathroom?

ME:

But they had ripped out the fixtures. Guess where my head was. It wasn't very good sleeping. The army didn't give me good places to sleep, but anyway it was better than no mattress, I'll tell you that.

HT:

Was this a troop ship, and you were—

ME:

It was a troop ship. Half of them were men on the far—What's the front?

HT:

The bow.

ME:

The bow, and we were on the stern. I guess that's right. Anyway, they kept us pretty well segregated, but they couldn't keep us from throwing notes attached to string. [chuckling]

HT:

Well, how did you occupy your time aboard the ship, and how long—

ME:

Well, I was the company clerk and so I was kept busy typing, not only for our company but for anybody else's that happened to need somebody. They had exercises, they had PT—at least that's what we called it—physical training, and things like that. Everybody still had duties, to a degree. You had to clean up your own area. And we were not allowed to work in the kitchen, although we had our own cooks, but they wouldn't let us. It was a British ship.

HT:

Well, did you do anything for fun, like play bridge or watch movies or dance?

ME:

Oh yes, some of them did. We didn't have movies and we didn't have—Yes, we did dance. I had completely forgotten that. We did have dances, yeah, and the boys got to come up from, as they called it, their dungeon. We had dances. But the main thing was that it took so many shifts to feed everybody. You spent half your life in a line because—And I got deathly sick the first morning. When I walked in that mess hall and I looked at the plate, it had those sausages, you know, that puff out at the ends—

[recorder paused]

ME:

I was going into the mess hall and saw those sausages. Oh! They weren't the most appetizing—looking things in the world. And dried eggs, which were not my favorite either. And I got up and I started out. Well, I'm five-foot-eight, which is a fair size for a woman, and this British sailor stopped me before I got to the door, and he looked at me, he looked down at me, and he said, “Missy, you go back and you eat toast and marmalade”—they didn't use jelly, marmalade. “Don't drink anything, just eat toast and marmalade.” I was scared to fight him or argue with him, he was too big. So I went back down there and I sat there and I ate toast and marmalade. And I didn't get sick anymore. But I swear I ate enough toast and orange marmalade. They're not my favorite foods right now. [chuckling]

And then we had—I think the boys did it on purpose, the gunners. We had a machine gun thing right over our—what you might call cabin, and every so often they'd fire that thing. Of course, you'd come straight up! [chuckling] I mean, your whole body came up at one time. But I think they did it on purpose a lot of times. Then we'd get the British papers. I don't know how they sent them to the ship, but they did, and of course the Aquitania had been sunk with all the WAACs on it, you know, and this, that, and the other. I had one, for years I saved it, and then I can't find it to save my life. I don't know where it is, but I had one that said “Aquitania Sunk!”

HT:

Which was untrue, of course.

ME:

Of course it was! [chuckling] It was finally sold for scrap after World War II—and that was really all it was fit for anyway. But we got to England—Well, we docked in Scotland, and when we got off the—Well, we got off the ship, and of course everybody in this little town in Scotland was up there to greet us—not necessarily to greet us, to look at us. But we got on a train and we went into Stowe, S-t-o-w-e, Scotland. It's funny how those things come back. But anyway, we got on there and we got into the train station, and we were met by a Scottish bagpipe band—in an enclosed railroad station. You have never heard such. Do you know Scottish bagpipes? Well, that was our first introduction to a Scottish bagpipe. Boy, it was an introduction.

But anyway, after that we were taken to a departure area and we spent the night there. Well, yeah, I'm sure we did, and kind of got our land legs back again. Then we were told—The first platoon in our outfit was going to London, and they were to be stationed in three Mayflower Hotels. That was their rooming thing. The second platoon was going to somewhere on the west coast of England where the B-17s were stationed, most of them, and they were going to be put up in some former girls' schools, dormitory-type affairs. And then they got to the third platoon, which was me. We were what they call a communications group. We had more telephone operators and teletype operators and radio girls that were familiar with radio, and of course we had the secretarial section. So they told us, “You're going to the second most bombed place in England.” And you know, like a bunch of idiots, we cheered. [chuckling] I mean, isn't that like a bunch of kids? That's all we were anyhow. And we got there, and darned if it wasn't! There was no roof to the railroad station at all! And the city itself was practically—Later on I found out it looked like London.

HT:

Do you recall what the name of the city was?

ME:

Oh yes. Norwich. I think that's right. And it's in Norfolk County. And it was the B-24 Liberator, whatever you call them. The [B-]17s were on the west side. If you look at England, and here's the English Channel where my thumb is, this is the west coast of England over here, this is the east, we were right out here on this thumb. Flat as a flounder. I mean, there wasn't a hill in sight. [chuckling] And they used to say that Norwich was Hitler's proving ground for his new bombardiers. I don't know how true that was, but we had them, I'll tell you that.

Well, when we first got there and we got a little bit settled, we were at what they called Old Catton, C-a-t-t-o-n, which was a former RAF [Royal Air Force] billet, and it was kind of in a circle, had trees in the center, had its own kitchen and latrine and everything, you know, and separate barracks all around the circle, had its own guard station down at the entrance—And the boys that manned those guns had a great time scaring us to death by just turning one on enough to get us out of bed. [chuckling] We paid them back though, don't worry. I guess the first couple of nights we were down there.

Now, we had issue pajamas. They were flannel, they were blue and white checked, and one night, we hadn't been over there more than three nights I don't reckon, we heard a plane going over, and it sounded like the engine was missing—you know, it would click as it would go along. What we didn't know, all German planes sound like that, at least the ones that came over England. We found that out later. And oh, we were standing out there in our blue and white pajamas, and here was this plane going over, practically at treetop, and we were saying, “Oh, we hope he gets back to his base.” [chuckling] It turns out he was German. And the next day, Lord Haw Haw [Nazi radio broadcaster] welcomed the WAACs to Old Catton and that their pilot had enjoyed seeing their light-colored nightwear. So we learned fast and furious not to get out there. He could have machine-gunned everyone of us. We would never have known it.

Well, let me see, where am I now? We were at Old Catton. Well, I was company clerk there, but I wasn't using any of the skills that I had as a secretary. All I was doing was typing, which was all right, but I had wanted to do a little bit more than that. So the chief of staff's secretary went home to OCS [Officer Candidate School] and a friend of mine was in the office. She was the general's secretary. Her name was Val Conroy. So she asked me, she said, “Willie, do you think you can handle Colonel Westover?” I said, “Well, I don't know if maybe he could handle me.” So, in any event, I started working for Colonel Westover. Oh, he was so nice. He was from Greensboro, or his wife was from Greensboro, and I think she was living in Greensboro during the war to be near her parents. I'm not positive on that. But he was the nicest fellow to work for. Of course, we didn't have any regular hours. I mean, we were supposed to be there at eight o'clock in the morning, but you went home when your work was through. And if they had a bombing raid and the boys came in late, you stayed until it was over.

We did have some hair-raising experiences during that time because that was before the fighters could go out with the bombers very far. As soon as they got to the far side of the English Channel, they had to turn around because they didn't have enough gas. Well, the bombers really took a beating! And not only the B-24s but the 17s too. And the RAF, who were out at night, they did the night bombing, we did the day bombing.

HT:

What month and year was this that you first got over to England?

ME:

Forty-two. I mean, I didn't stay in the United States but six months, and then I was already overseas. We had instances where the boys would come in late, the fliers would come in late, and they would have to cut out the shore defenses because they were afraid the Germans had mixed in. I remember vividly, because our barracks wasn't much further from here to the street out there from the end of the runway at Hethel Air Force Base. That's H-e-t-h-e-l, Hethel. And I can remember standing back there and watching those planes come in. [chuckling] As I say, I don't think we were real bright sometimes. But in any event, we did. And if they turned on the lights, the Germans would come in and shoot everything up. If they left them off, our planes couldn't come in. Oh, they were shooting off red flares. It was really one of the most frightening and yet fascinating things I've ever been through. And I know we were up all night watching those. Later on, I dated a boy that was in that particular group that came in on that. I never dated a boy on combat. I found out just from listening that it wasn't a good thing to do, so I dated boys after they had done their missions. And then a lot of them were kept over there for—Bill was an engineer, so he was kept over for that. And several of the others, radio operators were used in what they called the Signal Corps.

And then after we were in Old Catton prior to what I just told you about Hethel, they moved us out to Ketteringham Hall. That's K-e-t-t-e-r-i-n-g-h-a-m, Ketteringham Hall, and it was an enormously big old British home, and the officers, or General [James P.] Hodges' officer corps, lived in the hall and we had offices on the first and second floor. The third floor were the officers. On one wing the officers were, in the other wing Lady—I can't think of her name.

HT:

And you were still working for Colonel Westover at this time?

ME:

Yes, at this time.

HT:

And doing secretarial work and clerical-type work?

ME:

Secretarial work, yeah.

HT:

And you were still an enlisted person at this time?

ME:

Oh yeah. I got to be a staff sergeant. I'm as proud of those stripes as I am of my bars. But anyway life went on, and you never knew from one day to the next what was going to come next. Jimmy Stewart, the actor, was in our outfit. In fact he was based at Hethel, which, as I say, was right close to Ketteringham Hall. And one day Colonel Westover called me in there, in his office, and he said, “Willie, take down this bomb report.”

So I picked up the phone and I said, “Go ahead, sir.” And this very familiar voice came over the phone. And I kept thinking, you know how you do, the shorthand is almost automatic, and you're thinking to yourself, I've heard that voice before. Where did I hear that voice from? And when he got through, I said, “What name shall I sign to this report, sir?”

He says, “Jimmy Stewart.”

[chuckling] I nearly dropped the phone! I looked at Colonel Westover and I said, “Why didn't you tell me that was Jimmy Stewart?”

And he started laughing and he said, “Willie, you'd have never gotten the first word down.” Boy, he was pretty near right! You had some wild experiences.

General Timberlake was one of our wing commanders, and he never wore his emblems of office or anything. The only way you could tell he was an officer, he wore an officer's cap with the big eagle up here, as opposed to the boys who also wore a little round circle up here. I always did the mail for us. They'd put it on this big long table right at the door. And I came in one morning, and here sat this—I knew he was an officer, messing in our mail. And I looked at him and I said, “Sir, you've got no business doing that. You're not supposed to be looking at any of that mail.” Fortunately, he hadn't opened any. And I just gave him a real hoedown. I thought he was a second-lieutenant showing off. [laughts] Anyhow, when he turned around—He had his back to me when I was doing all that fussing. He turned around and looked at me, and I recognized him as General Timberlake. I hunted a hole in the floor! And he was so nice. He was so nice, just nice as he could be. But, oh boy! When you've cussed out a general officer and you're a staff sergeant—

HT:

Did you ever find out why he was going through the mail?

ME:

Just didn't have anything else to do. [chuckling] He didn't mean anything by it. Anyway, gosh, I've gone over a lot.

The blackout, of course, was total, and that was interesting. I have night blindness, I've had it all my life, and when you just walk—I felt like I was walking into a cloth of black velvet. So somebody always had me by the elbows so I wouldn't go wandering off in a ditch or something. And that was bad, but you got accustomed to it. And of course in England they were on double daylight savings time, which meant where we go up one hour they went up two. Well, you went to sleep—At bedtime you'd go to sleep at, say, eleven o'clock, it wasn't hardly but seven or eight. And it was still light! You had to pull the blackout curtains to go to sleep. And then you'd get up and it would be black as pitch. So anyway that was just one of the things.

Our food was good. I can't complain on the food. The showers were—they finally put us in stalls when we got over to Ketteringham Hall, and so we had stalls, but they weren't very well built. And we had a little old British fellow, a little old tiny type fellow who cleaned up, maintenance. And one day I was taking a shower, and it was cold as whiz! And so I looked out the crack in the wall, which was about that wide, and there he was. He'd done it any number of times, but I guess maybe I just wasn't thrilled with the idea. I had my helmet in there—you always kept your helmet handy—and I filled it with water and I turned around and I threw it in that crack. [chuckling] And he got soaked all the way. But there for a while he didn't do any more Peeping Tom. But I don't think he meant anything bad by it, but he was just aggravation.

HT:

If we could just stop a second—?

ME:

Sure.

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

ME:

Most all of the girls that I ran into were clean, decent, nice girls, with possibly one or two exceptions, but most of us had been together long enough we could spot them. And we had one girl, her name was Sally Allen. I don't know why I remember that, but she—She had a still across the creek and into the next field. You know what a still is, don't you?

HT:

Oh yes.

ME:

Well, we kept wondering how could she stay high all the time? All we had was beer. I don't like beer to begin with, and it was a rare time you ever got whiskey, much less corn liquor, which is what she had. I was talking to one of the girls in the telephone barracks and I said, “How does Sally get all that stuff?” I don't know what it even takes to make hard liquor, but she said, “Oh, we bring her potatoes from the mess hall.” [chuckling] I said, “What does she do, give you a bottle every now and then?” She said, “Sure!”

Well, Sally Allen was not clean, let me put it that way, and I think she was mentally disturbed too. We never figured out how she got overseas. She was in about the last batch that came over. So one night we gave her a bath—literally—with a brush. In a couple of days she asked for a transfer.

HT:

I had a roommate that happened to him as well.

ME:

Well, believe me, they need it. And it sure made a definite impact on her. In fact, our captain called me in. See, I was one of the first groups over there. Actually, our master sergeant, who had the same stripes that I had of a staff sergeant, but her name was [Master Sergeant Beatrice] Puch, which starts with a P, and mine was Williams, which starts with a W, so when they listed us she outranked me. [chuckling] That's what she said, anyhow. But she was a doll. But we kind of got rid of Sally Allen.

We had a lot of instances with bombings. And when the buzz bombs came, they were quite an experience. I remember we didn't have anyplace to go. We didn't even have a slit trench. We had a brick wall. We were supposed to go out there and lay up against that brick wall. Well, you'd be laying in the snow in the wintertime, and I wasn't interested in that in the least. Neither was anybody else. I never saw anybody actually go out there. Anyway, one particular night we had—they were V-2s [rockets] that were going over. And as long as you could hear them, you knew they were passing over. But boy, when one cut out, you headed for whatever you could find. Well, we got so immune to them that when we'd hear them we would pull our mattress down, put it on the cement floor, throw our pillow down, get down under our beds. Now that was a whole lot of protection, but that's what we did. Well, one night Puch slept over here and I slept catty-cornered to her, and the buzz bomb, we finally heard it way off in the distance go off. I don't know where it hit. But I got back and got in the bed, and I was laying there and I kept hearing somebody snoring. And I thought, who is that? It came from the wrong place. You know what I mean? It came from the wrong area, and I thought, who is that?! Finally I got my flashlight and I started shining it around. And there was Puch, still on the floor, sound asleep, snoring on the cement floor. [chuckling] Cold as whiz! So I woke her up.

But one other time we had some girls who had gotten three-tier bunks, because then that gave them some extra room. Well, that was fine for them but I didn't want to get up on the third tier of any bunk. And the bottom tier couldn't have been this far off the floor and still stay in the barracks, because they were Nissen huts. And Earline Embry, she's such a sweet girl. She was from Coldwater, Mississippi. I'll never forget Earline. Anyway, this particular night, it was another time with the V-2s, and after everything had—Actually, it went off close enough we could hear the explosion. I found out later it was the 65th General Hospital, one of our units which was attached to the B-24 command down below us at Ipswich. I don't know how to spell Ipswich. [chuckling]

Oh, my husband-to-be was stationed down there at the 65th General. It was a Duke [University Hospital] unit. Most of the doctors came from Duke. A lot of them came from Burlington, and Greensboro. Dr. Joe Stevens was one of the doctors from Greensboro. I don't know whether he's still alive or not. And Harold Kernodle, Dr. Harold Kernodle, was one from Burlington—that's Senior—both in the 65th General. Delos [Elder, ME's husband] was in administration. He was not a doctor, my husband. That's D-e-l-o-s. Anyway, after everybody had gone to bed, or we thought they'd gone to bed, we kept hearing this little voice coming out, “Help! Help!” And we couldn't figure out where it was coming from to save our life. So we got our flashlights out and we were going around looking. We thought maybe somebody was hurt. You could get hurt like that. Earline was under that three-tiered bed. And I swear to you there wasn't six inches of floor space down there, but she was under it. How she got under it I will never know, but I know it took six of us to lift that thing so she could get out. But that was so funny, Earline laying down there, “Help! Help!” [chuckling] That was something else. You always had something, most times, to laugh about.

When General Hodges, James Pratt Hodges, was called back to Washington to head up the Air Intelligence Division, he and Colonel Westover, who was his chief of staff and my boss, both went together along with General Hodges' aides, and we got General Kepner, K-e-p-n-e-r, and I can't think of his first name either. He was the commanding general, and I got General Francis, with an I, Griswold, G-r-i-s-w-o-l-d, Francis Griswold. Oh, he was so nice. Well, both of them were. But General Kepner was a fighter pilot. Now don't ask me how he got to be commanding general of a bomber squadron. I don't know, but he did. But feisty! Phew! [whistling] Boy! He came to about my ear. But I mean to tell you, oh, he was eight feet tall. And he didn't pull any punches on anybody. You did something wrong, you stood up in front of him and he racked you back. Because my desk was, say, right here, his office was right there, I could see everything that went on in there, if he left the door open, and generally he did. And you couldn't help but listen!

But anyway, one time we were talking about Jimmy Stewart—One time the bombers were coming back, and we were standing at these long windows—you know how the British homes are—and we were standing at those windows watching the planes come back. And you'd see them shooting off red flares, and that mean wounded aboard. So, one particular plane was late coming back, and I thought he was going to take the chimneys off of Ketteringham Hall, he was that low, shooting red flares like crazy. General Kepner came out of that room tearing down the hall. And we weren't but six minutes from Hethel if you were a general and could get by the gates that fast. But he went on over there, and I guess in about an hour or two hours he came back. When he walked in he looked at us and he said, “You girls like Jimmy Stewart?” And my heart just sank to my feet. I thought he's been hit. And I said, “Sure we do!” He said, “Do you remember that plane that was coming in so low? That was Jimmy Stewart, and he brought every single one of his men home.” Dead or alive he brought them home. And everybody over there was crazy about Jimmy Stewart.

I'll never forget—As I said, the boy I was dating at the time, his name was Bill and he was with the flight section. This was after he'd had his thirty German runs—and he was cleaning my skirt for me one day because I had gotten some grease on it. I had no way to clean it. He was standing there dipping it up and down in airplane gasoline, you know, high-tech. He said he was holding it up like this, looking at it, and he heard a wolf whistle behind him. [chuckling] He said he turned around and looked, and it was Colonel Stewart. He said I got a wolf whistle for my skirt. I wasn't in it, but I got a wolf whistle. But he was very well liked and very much admired, and he did all his things.

But talking about Bill and the flight section, the flight section would fly the planes' recorders, both film and verbal, down to London at night after the planes got in. We had done it any number of times and never had any problem, Bill and I, and I know others had done it too. This particular night, though, they would come all the way down to the end of the runway to pick me up. They did the other girls too, to pick us up, but actually that night there wasn't but the two of us. And they'd pick me up and then take off and go down to London. It was still daylight. So we would land in London, or at—What's the name of that field? I can't think right now. Anyway, we would land down there and then we went into town. First of all, we were in the Soho District [London], which was off-limits. We were in a Russian cafe, which was off-limits, and that night I looked at Bill and I said, "What else can we do that—We're AWOL [absent without leave] on top of everything else, what else can we do to really louse things up here?"

He said, “Well, I hope whatever it is we don't get caught at it.” [chuckling]

So, later on we went on back to the base and looked for our pilot. We found him. He was dead drunk. And I looked at Bill and he looked at me, I said, “Where do we go from here?”

He said, “We get that jerk sober enough to take off.” He said, “I can fly the plane, but I can't take off and I can't land.”

I said, “Well, what do you think we're going to do when we get back to Hethel?”

He said, “Well, he'll be sobered up by then.”

I'll tell you, that was the scariest night I ever put in in my life. We got on the plane—Finally got him sober enough to take off, and he did, and then he passed out. And Bill said, “Get him out of here and lay him in the back of the plane.” I looked at Bill and I said, “Who's going to fly?” He says, “I am, and you're going to sit there in the co-pilot's seat.” Now a lot of good I would have done, that's for sure. Anyway, we got the pilot out and Bill sat down. He was doing fine, and I finally stopped trembling, and all of a sudden over the radio we heard this voice saying, “Identify yourself! Identify yourself!” The radio was broken. We could hear, we couldn't send. And I thought to myself, this is all we need. It was the RAF Liberators [B-24 bombers]—not Liberators, but they looked like Liberators—they had the split-tail. They were going out on their night missions, fully loaded with bombs. We were going up the coast this way, they were going this way. And by the time they had the radio saying, “Identify yourself,” we were near them because we were in a little Cessna. I looked at Bill and I said, “Where do we go from here?”

He said, “Well, I don't know, but go back in the back and see if you can find any parachutes.”

I thought this is really a night I shouldn't have come. Anyway, I went back in the back and I hunted that entire area of the cabin back there. I found one parachute. I went back in the front and I said, “Bill, there's only one parachute in this whole plane!” He says, “Well, put it on.” Well, I don't know if you're old enough to remember or not, we didn't have pantyhose then. We had regular hose with garter belts, not the most becoming things you ever saw. And the skirts, because we didn't have the slacks like the army finally gave in and gave to the WAACs. I looked at him and I said, “You're out of your mind. I'm not putting that thing on.” He said, “Put it on.”

Well, I did. And pulling those straps up like this and fastening them back here, I'll tell you the honest truth, I thought to myself, I don't think I've ever gone through anything like this before! [chuckling] All the time, we would hear this voice coming across us saying, “Identify yourself! If you don't identify yourself, we are going to have to shoot you down!” I looked at Bill and I said, “What'll we do now?” He said, “Well, if they start shooting, you and I are going out on that parachute.” I said, “What about the pilot?” He said, “As far as I'm concerned, he can go down with the plane.” [chuckling]

Well, by this time, I guess it was the answer to the prayers, anyway, we had gotten close enough to Hethel that whoever was above us could tell that's where we were headed. And about the time we got to make an approach, and I was wondering how we were supposed to get down, or else were we going to jump, but the pilot came staggering in. “What in the hell is going on?” Well, Bill didn't even give him a chance to answer. He told me, “Get out of that seat and let him in there.” I did, and I went on back in the back. I took off that parachute, too. I don't even know the pilot's name, the boy landed the plane. Bill said, “You take this plane all the way down to the end of the runway and slow down.” And he looked at me and he said, “Willie, you roll out.”

Now I could do that then. Now, I'd break every bone in my body. “You roll out and get in the jeep.” And I did. And I waited. I know it seemed like half the night, and Bill finally came back and he said, “Willie?” I was under a rug in the back seat [chuckling] and I told him, “I'm here. Let's go home!” So he went on through the gate, and the guard was there, and he knew both of us were in that jeep. He says, “Where's Willie?” Bill said, “Oh, she went the shortcut across the field.” You know I was going to do that in pitch-black dark. Yeah, I didn't, but it was so funny. [chuckling] We got back safe. And the girls had made up my bunk to look like somebody was sleeping in it, so nobody ever heard about it.

But we did get a letter. Being in the general's office had its perks. Because it ended up that we got a letter from the RAF saying, “An unidentified plane of yours—” and such and so on about what had happened. And it went on to say something about “came within about five minutes of being shot down, until they dropped down to land in Hethel and we knew where they were.” That letter never got to the general. Believe me, it got lost! And as far as I know, when I left to go to OCS it was still lost. But that was just one of our experiences, and we had some wild ones.

After the war I came home to OCS, with the understanding that I was going back to my unit. General Griswold—Well, nowadays I guess it's about the same. An enlisted person could not travel with an officer. And General Griswold wanted me to stay with him as his secretary, but I couldn't do it as a GI. So he sent me home to OCS. Well, while I was in OCS the war ended, the England war. And so General Hodges found out I was there, and he was in Air Intelligence in Washington in the Pentagon. In fact, he was heading it. So he asked for me and I went up there, and I didn't like Washington one darned bit, but I had a good job. I had a very interesting job.

HT:

This was at the Pentagon?

ME:

At the Pentagon in the Air Intelligence Division, and we had to sign in and sign out all the secret papers, and all this, that, and the other, you know.

HT:

So this would have been what, mid-1945? Because the war was over in Europe.

ME:

Forty-four.

HT:

Oh, '44?

ME:

Yes, the latter part of '44. Well, wait a minute. Let's see, I graduated in May, so it would have been in the summer of '44. And I've forgotten when—When was VE [Victory in Europe] Day?

HT:

Well, VE Day was in 1945.

ME:

Was it? Well, it was 1945 then. Yeah, it was, because I was in England for almost three years. It was '45. I got my years mixed up. Anyhow, as I said, I was in the Air Intelligence Division and I met some of the nicest people you ever met in the world, and most of them were general officers, and here I was as a second lieutenant. General Vanderbilt one time—one time, I had to go up to his office and ask his aide if he would please get some papers that General Vanderbilt had, because I couldn't leave until I had everything locked up. He said, “Go in there and ask him for them.” So I went in there and asked him for them. The handsomest man you ever saw in your life! And I asked him for them and he said, “What do you need them for?”

I said, “I can't go home until I lock them up.”

“Well,” he said, “what are you in such a rush about?”

I said, “Sir, I've got a date.”

He hands me the papers and off I went. Just as nice as he could be. So, anyway, it was really funny.

General Hodges would call me to come up and have lunch with him in the generals' mess up there, and there I am a second-lieutenant sitting with generals and colonels and all this good stuff, you know. I don't even remember half of them's names now. But after I came home from—Yeah, it was January of '45. That's when it was. And then they had, after I got out of—When I was in the Pentagon, we had VJ—?

HT:

VJ [Victory in Japan] Day.

ME:

Oh, that was a wild and wooly night trying to get home. Now, some of the girls—We have reunions every year, and some of the girls would tell about some of the things they did. And this particular girl, her name was Evelyn Cohen, and she was a telephone operator, a switchboard operator, and she was a character if there ever was in this world. She still is. She's the head of the 2nd—Well, not the head, but she is the membership and you might say guardian angel of the 2nd Air Division Association. We lost six thousand three hundred young men in planes while we were over there, and so we have the only living memorial of any war that the United States has fought, in that we had a room in the Norwich library when they rebuilt it after the war, and it's stocked completely with American books about America, good news or bad news or whatever. And I know 100 percent of them have been donated by the people that are logged in the 2nd Air Division. At one time we had eight thousand one hundred dues-paying members, which is not too bad.

Then, I've forgotten what year it was, it hasn't been that long ago now, they had a fire in the Norwich library and the whole thing—It was electrical, and the whole thing was just swept clean, just completely. And we had really built—another bigger and better room now than the original. So we are still well-known in Norwich, the 2nd Air. Now, you said you were with a B-24 unit? All right then, we have meetings over here that the British—We have a board of directors, a board of trustees, and they come over and have meetings over here, and then the next year ours will go over there and meet with them. And if I can find a couple, I'll give you a couple of the—Four times a year we get a magazine. And I hunted for some of them, but I didn't get to any. Which gives us—Each bomb wing has a vice president, and I was vice president of the headquarters group, the only woman that's ever been one. [chuckling] Which is all right with me. But I'm not now, which is all right with me. It's restored now and known as the 2nd Air Division Association Library Room. I've got some pictures of the old one, and a lot of them are the same. Now what did I do with them? Anyhow, I know they're here.

To go back to when they broke up the 2nd Air Division, the Liberators, a great number of them they sent straight to Japan because a Liberator could fly longer—further, I should say—and longer than the B-17s because they carried more gasoline. So they took them to Japan and they used them over there. The girls were taken to France. Don't ask me why, I don't know. And so were the clerical personnel of the other—the men.

See, I was in Washington at this time, but I have heard them tell tales, and you'll enjoy this one. This particular girl, Evelyn Cohen, and Puch, my first sergeant, and Marie Cizek, C-i-z-e-k, decided to go to Rome. Evelyn said she had never met the pope and she wanted to. Now you know with a name like Cohen she was not a Catholic. [chuckling] Puch was. I don't know about Marie, what she was. Anyway, they got to Rome on a Friday. They found out the pope only had audiences on Monday. Monday they would have been AWOL because they only had a three-day pass. What you did was hook a ride with a plane that happened to be going that way, and we could always get flights some way. Even from Washington to New York, nothing to it, you know. Just walk out there, “Where are you going?” “I want to go to New York.” “Get in.”

But Puch and Cohen and Marie all were in Rome. They were staying at the WAAC barracks because they knew they were going to have WAACs coming in from all over and they just kept a specific area for them. So the second night they were there, Puch and Marie decided they had to go back. They were not going to get lost in Rome somewhere. Cohen says, “I'm going to meet the pope.” So they gave her all the money that they had and then they left and got on one of the planes. They went on back to the base. They were in Marseilles, France. So those two went on back, and there was Cohen. Well, that night she spent the night in the—I guess you'd call it a WAAC center, and the next morning there she was at the Sistine Chapel. Well, the pope, as you probably know better than I do, comes in upon a—being carried in his chair. Now this was Pope Pius. Who was the one during the war? Was it Pius or Paul?

HT:

I think it was Pius XII.

ME:

Pius XII. This was Pope Pius XII, who was not noted for his friendship with Jews. And Evelyn was the epitome of a Jewish girl. She had the nose, she had the black hair, she had the build. I mean there is something—You can't hardly—I'm not being ugly in any sense of the word because Evelyn and I have been friends for fifty, sixty years now, but she looked Jewish. You could tell. He rides around on the shoulders of his—whatever they are. They put him down, he comes around. This is Evelyn telling this. She said he comes around, and she could tell—she was in the front row, and knowing Evelyn she was in the front row—that he was heading for her. And he was! And he came up to her and he looked at her and he said, “Sister, why are you here?” And he says, “You are Jewish.”

She said, “Yes, sir, I am Jewish.”

And then he said, “Why are you here then?”

She said, “I wanted to see the pope.”

And he says, “Well, here I am.” [chuckling]

HT:

This is a true story?

ME:

This is a true story, so help me. He held out his arms and he turned all the way around so she could see him, you know, with his big hat on and his flowing garments, you might say. And she had—what do you call them? Crosses? Crucifixes? Both arms, all the way. He looked down and he said, “Well, sister, what are you doing with those crucifixes? Being Jewish, what are you doing with those crucifixes?” She looked at him and she says, “Well, sir, I have a lot of Catholic friends, and they would love to have a crucifix that's been blessed by the pope.” Would you believe he stood there and blessed those crucifixes? Well, he did. He told her, “I hope you have a safe journey home, and you'll be in my prayers.” I thought, well, Evelyn, you can't get any higher than that, that I know of. [laughter] I thought I would die. She was telling us this, and she was just as serious as she could be. Now, this was after the war and we were at one of the reunions. This is when things come out that you don't really expect to come out. And Evelyn was always into something.

But a couple of the other girls, they took their own life in their own hands. They got tired of being in the camp, so they walked through a field to a French village down the road. And they didn't go by the road, they went in the field. And they said the people in that village were jumping up and down, hollering at them, screaming, yelling. They didn't know what was going on. It seems that that was a field of land mines.

HT:

Oh, my!

ME:

So they took them back up the road, back to the camp. [chuckling] I'll tell you, you remember some of the funny things and you remember some that weren't so funny and were sad. And we had them too, just as everybody else did. I remember, and you don't have to put this in if you don't want to, one girl—We'd get mail call. And if it was pretty, we'd usually be sitting on the steps of the barracks waiting to get the mail. This one girl—in fact she was from South Carolina—I can't think of her name—and she was sitting on the steps. I can still see it. Sitting on the steps, and this real good friend of hers and I were standing behind her. And there were a couple of others down on the ground evidently. She got two letters. The girl from South Carolina got two letters, one from her father and one from the ladies of the church. Well, she just hands this ladies of the church envelope to her friend that get any mail that day and says, “Open this while I read Daddy's letter.” So the girl opened it and she read it. I was standing there reading one of mine, and she punched me like this and I looked at her. And she was as white as a sheet. And I looked and said, “What's the matter with you?” She said, “Ssh!” and handed me the letter. The ladies of the church had written this girl about how sorry they were to hear of her father's death. And she was sitting there reading a letter from her father. And her mother had died years and years ago, so she had been raised by her father, you know. She had two brothers down there, and all three of them were in service. And no indication from the Red Cross. Nobody had notified anybody.

So I told—what was that girl's name? Gretchen, I think. Anyhow I told her, “Go get Captain Marble now! Right now.” So she did. She went tearing out. And who was that girl? Aleen or Ayleen, something like that, looked at me and said, “Where is she going?” I said, “I think the latrine.” It was the only thing I could think of. But anyway she came back with Captain Marble. In the interim, Captain Marble had called the Red Cross wanting to know. They had had no notification in our Red Cross office of this death of her father. So Captain Marble said, “Come on, I've got something up here in the office I need for you to sign.” We were all trying to keep it low-key. And I kind of trailed along behind them because she was a friend of mine. She wasn't a close personal friend, but I'd been with her for three years, I felt pretty close, and I knew how she adored her father. So I kind of trailed along with Gretchen because she was very unhappy. So we kind of stood back, you know, and let Captain Marble—I found out in Officer Candidate School that's one thing you're trained to do is to give bad news. And Captain Marble did a good job on that. But that was one of the things that happened. And then you'd have another one where a brother who was in maybe one of the air forces or—After D-Day, you never knew who was going to get news like that. D-Day was a day to have been over there.

HT:

Now you were in England at D-Day?

ME:

Yes, and we stood out on the back of the barracks and watched the planes from Hethel. They would come in, reload, go straight—As far as formation was concerned, forget it. The whole sky, from one horizon to the other, was nothing but planes, every kind you can name! There were the British, the American B-24s, American B-17s, the fighters, British fighters and American fighters. I don't see how they kept from bumping into each other. But they did a good job. And we lost some, too. They'd still come in shooting red flares. Or they'd come in with half of a tail off and part of a wing, or something like that, and it was frightening.

HT:

Now you were still working for General—

ME:

General Griswold.

HT:

—Griswold by this time. Just sort of the personal aide to the general, I guess?

ME:

Well, secretary. What we would call nowadays administrative assistant. That's what I ended up—After Delos and I got married, which was in '46, and we had three children—we have three children, two boys and a girl—and then after a while I—I never was one just to sit around and play house. That was my problem, one of them. Anyway, I went back to work. I went back to work in the same office I went out of in 1942. Anyway, it was then Burlington Industries, but the same personnel were there. So I worked there for about five years, and then I went to Wachovia Bank as a supervisor of the proof transit and—There was another part of that department and I can't think of what it was. Anyhow—Then, as an officer of the bank, you had to stay until the bank was balanced. Well, with three children at home and a husband that, bless his heart, he just wasn't one that would go out and yell for the kids to come in and eat supper, even though I had a maid [had it made?]. He just wouldn't do it or didn't do it. So I decided, well, if I had three children to raise, I wasn't going to do a very good job if I'd stay at the office till nine o'clock.

So I heard of a vacancy at Glen Raven Mills, and it was for Roger Gant Jr., who was treasurer. And he and I were about the same age. He had been in World War II also. Anyway, I went out and interviewed and talked to him. He wanted to know why I was leaving the bank. I told him: because when five o'clock came, if I didn't have something really important to do, I went home. I thought, well, I've lost this job before I ever got it. But he agreed. He said that's the way it should be. So I worked with him for about a year, and then they decided to start the custom fabrics division, which is awning fabric. At that time, Cecil [“Chet”] Gant Jr., who was Roger's first cousin, they brought him in from New York. That's a family outfit up there. They brought him in from New York, and he didn't know the first thing in the world about running something like that. So the two of us started the custom fabrics division. Now the custom fabrics division is one of the biggest divisions of Glen Raven Mills. They just bought a plant in France that makes the same type, Sunbrella awning. You may have seen the ads on the trucks. And so I was teasing Allen [Gant] Jr., who's the president and who's the same age of my oldest son now, and I told him, “Allen, when are you going to send me to France to look over that new Sunbrella outfit you've got over there?” I said, “I'm the only one left living of the original crew.” There weren't but three of us. And he says, “Well, whenever you're ready.” I thought, oh, don't tempt me. [chuckling] But I haven't gotten there yet.

I've been back to England, though, oh, five or six times for various reunions and things like that, and have thoroughly enjoyed it. The last time I went was with a friend from up here. We rented a car and a driver. And if you're going to go, go that way. Don't drive over there on the left-hand side of the road. [chuckling] You can get killed. And those roundabouts are enough to do you in anyhow.

I've still got friends over there. One little girl—well, she's not little now. At the time, there was a couple. He was the chief inspector of the city police, and she was a policewoman, married, had a little four-year-old girl. They lived on the top flat of the town hall, which was on the highest hill in Norwich. And I've never yet figured out how they kept that thing from being bombed. But it wasn't. Anyway, Bunnie and Bernard Tester, T-e-s-t-e-r. That was my home away from home, that's for sure. They were so good to me. But I'll never forget one day, Betty [Tester] was four years old, that was their daughter, and I was walking her to her kindergarten class. Now you see a funny looking sight, you see a WAAC walking a four-year-old British girl down the street to her kindergarten class. And I got more peculiar looks than you can imagine. But the last time I saw Bernard, he was just as straight as an arrow, just as straight as he could possibly be. And Bunnie had died. Betty is now past retirement age. That kind of throws me. She was a nurse for premature babies. And I hear from her. In fact, I had a letter from her before Christmas, which I haven't answered yet.

It was a fascinating time, and the people in Norwich were so—They didn't have hardly anything left, but what they had they shared. And they were so good. I think every man and woman that was over there had a family that they could go and visit. Some of them were in the little villages around the—where the wings were stationed, some of them were further in. We were furthest from Norwich, but we didn't have any villages around, you know. A boy I was dating took me up to meet Bernard and Bunnie, that's how I got to know them, and from then on that was home sweet home. So it was just a real—And to hear them talking about, “Well, my family lives in so-and-so,” and of course when we got our rations or something, we would take the chocolate and all that stuff. Nine times out of ten they'd cook something. Do you ever remember Ping Bars? I don't think anybody remembers Ping Bars but me.

HT:

What are Ping Bars?

ME:

Ping Bars were kind of like a Milky Way, without nuts or anything. It just had kind of a cream filling and a chocolate coating, and they were called Ping Bars. Someday I'm going to find somebody that still remembers them besides me. I used to take them up to Bunnie and she would make pudding with them, you know. And they shared. I mean, if they had it they shared it, and if they didn't have it, that was all right. So I've kept up with them all these years. And when we would go—As I said, about every fourth year we have a reunion in England, and on D-Day, this last one, D-Day, we had a reunion over there and we marched from the city hall up to the cathedral. And I thought to myself, I'll never make it up. There's a slant up to the cathedral. I thought, I'll never make it. [chuckling] As sure as the world, I'll never make it.

HT:

So when is the next reunion?

ME:

Next May, in Texas, Austin, Texas.

HT:

Do you plan to go?

ME:

If I'm still able, I'll be going. I've been to a lot of them. I haven't been to nearly as many as I should have been, but then again, three children and working, it made it a little difficult.

Now, on those pictures, the top one is my older brother. He was in the South Pacific, and he was a financial officer. And after the war, we'd be sitting there looking at the paper or something, before television, and there would be a picture of a president of one of the islands or something down in there. He would say, “I paid that man over a million dollars in cash!—they wouldn't take paper money— sitting on top of a mountain, no receipt, no nothing.” He was one of the—what do they call them? Anyway, he had a gang, practically an army that he was working with, I think in the Philippines at that time. And then the second one's me, and the third one is my younger brother John, who's ten years younger than I am. He was in about the same time you were in the Vietnam War, but he was kind of like you, he didn't want to go in that either. So he was stationed at Lackland Field [in San Antonio, Texas]. And there are my medals down there. And I've got a medal that no man in the whole United States Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines—you name it—will never have.

HT:

Which one is that?

ME:

That's the green one with the little light stripe on either side. It's the WAAC, and it's the WAAC before WAC—Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, as opposed to the Women's Army Corps—which eventually evolved into just Air Force or whatever particular group you were stationed with and there was not a differentiation between them. I'll tell you one thing, now if I were twenty-two and looking for a place, from what I have read and what I have watched, I would go in the Marines. At least they keep their women separate. They don't sleep in the same barracks with the men, they don't have the same latrines as the men, and they have women officers, which—I don't care what any psychologist or anybody tells me, a woman cannot do some of the things that they expect of men. Carry an eighty-pound pack on your—

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

HT:

—Mrs. Elder, I've got a couple of specific questions I'd like to ask, if you don't mind. When you joined the service, do you recall why you particularly joined the WAACs, as opposed to one of the other services?

ME:

There weren't any other women's services, except the nurses, and I was not qualified for that.

HT:

Do you remember anything specific about your first day in the service?

ME:

The main thing I remember is I told you about the beds. And getting in the truck. By the way, when we left Daytona Beach to go out to Tent City to wait to go to Camp Polk, we climbed up on those trucks like we'd been doing it all our lives. [chuckling]

HT:

And I think you had mentioned earlier that your family was not very positive initially about you joining the service.

ME:

True.

HT:

What about your friends and co-workers? How did they feel about it?

ME:

You mean then, or now?

HT:

Yes, then, right.

ME:

Then? They felt the same way probably that Mother and Daddy did, but they were amazed that I would do anything like that. I mean, nice girls don't do that, [chuckling] was the general consensus. But there were a bunch of nice girls in there! My granddaughters, for instance, now, two of them backpack. One has been to every country in Europe, I think, except Russia. I told her not to go there. The other one has just started. Corrie is twenty-one, Emily is nineteen, and they've both done backpacking. My oldest granddaughter, who is twenty-three, is in Australia as an intern for three months. They were all over here talking one day—they're so sweet about coming by—and I told them, I said, “Honey, do you know it took World War II to get me out of Burlington?” Because back then you didn't do those things! If anybody had said you were going—I said I was going backpacking in Europe, they would have really thought I was following the crowd, or whatever you want to call them, a camp follower.

HT:

Well, did your parents have to sign for you to join the WAACs?

ME:

No, I was over twenty-one.

HT:

You were over twenty-one, okay.

ME:

Just barely.

HT:

Do you recall seeing recruiting posters that said if you joined the WAACs you would free a man for combat duty?

ME:

Yes.

HT:

Was that one of your deciding factors perhaps to join?

ME:

Well, not a deciding factor. It was just the recruiting posters were very glamorous, and they didn't say you were going to wear your own one suit for six weeks and that type thing. But once you got in it, everybody was in the same boat. I mean, it was just as if, you know, everybody had one suit, a few pair of underwear, and there was no real competition, as far as clothing was concerned, because you wore what you had.

HT:

Do you recall why you didn't have army clothing right away?

ME:

They didn't have them made. [chuckling]

HT:

That's right. You were probably one of the first women to join.

ME:

Yep.

HT:

I can't remember if you told me earlier or not, but where were you actually inducted into the service?

ME:

Fort Bragg.

HT:

Fort Bragg, okay. Anything specific you remember about that day?

ME:

Yeah, I remember holding up my hand and saying, “I will” or “I do,” and thinking to myself, you're going to get killed when you get home. [chuckling] But I wasn't. They were very proud of me once I got home. See, I didn't see my family from the time I left until I came home to go to officer candidate school, which was three years. Didn't see them, didn't even talk to them on the phone.

HT:

But you did correspond?

ME:

Oh yeah, yeah! Mother typed with four fingers, and she had an old—it was an old typewriter, a manual, and she could fly on that thing. Well, my brother was in the South Pacific, my older brother, I was in England, my grandmother was in Bristol, Tennessee. Mother would make three copies and keep the original, and if she had anything personal to say to one of us she'd write it on the bottom. Everybody got the same news about the same time, so it worked out fine that way.

HT:

Was there anything particularly that you remember about your basic training days? I think you said it was in Daytona, Florida.

ME:

Yes.

HT:

Anything unusual that you can recall that you haven't discussed earlier?

ME:

We were already overseas when the WAAC, the auxiliary corps, was discontinued, and we were reinducted into the Women's Army Corps. And we had to have physicals. And if you didn't want to continue in, you would be sent home. With no slur attached, you just were sent home. We had two girls: one who had a mental condition and, and one who just flat wanted out. I remember I had bad feet. I had bunions on both feet, and I remember walking up the steps for the foot doctor to look at my feet. And he looked at me and he said, “How did you get through basic training?”

I said, “I cried on every sidewalk curb in the city of Daytona Beach.” [chuckling]

He laughed. He said, “Do you want to stay in?”

I said, “Yep.”

He says, “Go on.”

HT:

It sounds like you really enjoyed your work very much.

ME:

I did. There were times when life was not what you'd call—It was dull, at times. And sometimes you would run into somebody that was just dead-bent on making life miserable for everybody around them. Of course, we usually ended up getting rid of a few of those.

I won't forget we had the WAAC recreation center, which the boys helped build, and this was at Ketteringham Hall. And they even built us a bar with a circle in the middle and put a beer keg in there. But anyway, we were having a meeting in there one night, and we had just had an influx of new recruits, you might say, and one of the girls got up and said, “Well, I'll tell you, I just don't like this place. All you old-timers have got all the stripes.” And Puch looked at me and I looked at her, and I just stood up and I said, “Well, we've been here a few years longer than you have, and we've earned every single stripe that is on the arm of an old-timer.” We didn't hear much more about that. [chuckling]

HT:

Do you think you were treated equally with men who—

ME:

Oh, no. [chuckling] No. In one sense we were. We had all the facilities that anybody could ask for. But I would say 85 percent of the enlisted personnel who were, say, head of a—personnel, say, the department of personnel, would be a man. You rarely ever saw a woman back then that was head of any department or anything like that. But you didn't find them at home either.

HT:

So the army basically reflected what was out there in civilian life.

ME:

True.

HT:

Did you ever receive any special treatment because you were a woman, that you recall?

ME:

No. Well, we weren't required to do some of the things in—Like at Camp Shanks, which was preparing us to go overseas, we were not required to—We did the majority of the—oh, what do they call it, where you're jumping fence and you—

HT:

In basic training?

ME:

Well, this was not basic training, this was overseas training. We were not required to do some of the things that the boys were required to, although we did go under machine gun fire. You know, crawling under barbed wire? You get well acquainted with the buttons on your suit. Of course, everything was segregated back then for the women and the men, and I think it still should be, but I don't have any say—so in that. Because it's just not fair, I don't think, to the girls. And it's not fair to the men either to put them in that position, I don't think.

HT:

Do you recall what [was] the hardest thing you ever had to do physically?

ME:

Yes, it was in Camp Shanks, and we were going through—Obstacle course! That's what I was trying to think of. We were going through an obstacle course, and they had a fence, just a flat fence, no handholds, no nothing, and it was at least six and a half to seven feet high. And we were supposed to go up, jump up, catch the top of it, and swing over. I hit that fence like it was a fence, and I mean I flattened out on that thing. I wasn't the only one. That was just one thing that women are not equipped to do, is to jump that high, grab hold of the top of a fence, and throw yourself over. I tried it three times and I never got over it. And I didn't try it anymore. I just looked at Captain Marble and I said, “This is not made for women.” He said, “Go on around it, Willie.” And I did! [laughter]

HT:

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

ME:

This will sound real weird. I had a little dog at home, and Mother wrote me and told me that somebody on a motorcycle ran over my little dog and they killed her. And that's the only time I think I really cried. But I guess maybe it was just the—I'd had her for about six or seven years. And the fact that the boy who rode over her didn't even stop, that didn't help matters. I didn't get emotionally involved, tried not to get emotionally involved, with any of the men, especially anybody that was on flight duty, because you never knew when they weren't going to come back. And they didn't know either. I did see results of, “I may not be here tomorrow night.” And we made up some fake papers for some girls who got in that condition. But I just didn't—I was not going to get myself in that position. And I felt like if I got really emotionally involved with somebody that was on active duty, flying, it might happen. So I just dated boys that had finished their combat missions or were administrators on the post. And I didn't lack for dates, but—[chuckling]

HT:

I'm sure there were quite a few men in relationship to women, the numbers.

ME:

Oh, yes!

HT:

The ratio was quite large.

ME:

Five hundred to one, American, so you didn't have much argument about it.

HT:

Do you recall any embarrassing moments while you were in the service?

ME:

Quite a few. [chuckling] I think so. Those you try to forget. Well, being in the general's office, it wasn't really embarrassing, it could have been, but we had a meeting up in our headquarters because we were the furthest away from London of the 8th Air Force bomb groups, wings and whatevers, and we had generals up there the like of which you never saw. [General James “Jimmy”] Doolittle was up there, [Carl “Tooey”] Spaatz. Who were the others? They were all up from headquarters in London, and from the B-17s and B-24s.

But I remember General Doolittle vividly. I was standing up. I was a sergeant, and my cohort, she was a sergeant also. We were standing up. You don't sit down with that many stars floating around, you know. Or chicken colonels, either one. So I was standing there, and I guess I'd been standing for forty-five minutes. Now General Doolittle, he was short, and he walked up to me and he said, “Sergeant, are you tired?”

And I looked at him and I said, “Oh, no, Sir!”

And he says, “Sit down.”

And I sat. And he went over to [unclear] on the other side and he said, “Sergeant, sit down.” She saw me sitting so she sat. Well, I was sitting there, very much at attention sitting down, and General Griswold came out of the door. And he looked at me, “Willie!”

I looked at him, I said, “General Doolittle told me to sit down.”

He said, “Sit!” So I sat. [laughts] That's the only time, I guarantee you, I sat in front of that many generals. The first time, and last time, I ever saw that many generals in one spot. Those Germans would have had a good time if they'd known they were up there.

I was very fortunate, though. I didn't have what you might say any really embarrassing moments. I had moments that made me angry, and I think I got more of that in officer candidate school than I did when I was overseas. Overseas you're a little more relaxed. But in officer candidate school you could always find somebody that was going to get you if they could.

HT:

Speaking of Officer Candidate School, where did you go to school?

ME:

Des Moines, Iowa.

HT:

And how long was the training for that?

ME:

Three months. They called us the ninety-day wonders. I said, “If it was a ninety-day wonder, it's a wonder you lived through ninety days.” It was the hardest work I ever did in my life.

HT:

I'm sure that it was an accelerated course.

ME:

Oh, you better believe it! And it was cold up there in February, March, and April.

HT:

What was a typical day like, do you recall?

ME:

Yeah, you got up around 4:30 and did your chores, and at five o'clock you were outside—and it was pitch-black dark—trying to get into formation to go to the mess hall, which eventually you did. You went to mess and you came back and you finished cleaning up your area, and then we had classes, all sorts of classes. We had—on military science, we had them on, as I told you, talking to bereaved—you know, somebody, and all of those things. We also had them where we had to learn to speak to girls who had gotten pregnant. I didn't, fortunately, have that particular chore. It was just regular things that would go on in a company of women. We already had our skills, as far as—Well, for myself, administration was my skill. That was my qualification. But in case you did happen to end up with a company, you needed to know these things. We were given courses in public speaking, which I had very little problem with because—Well, I don't know, I've always been able to run my mouth. [chuckling]

HT:

And this was in February of 1945?

ME:

Yes.

HT:

And then after you finished officer candidate school, you went directly to Washington, is that correct, at the Pentagon?

ME:

Washington, D.C.

HT:

Anything memorable happen there that you haven't discussed earlier?

ME:

Not in particular. It was just like going to work every day and coming home. One of the funny things, the navy boys hated to salute a woman. You weren't in the navy, or were you?

HT:

Air Force.

ME:

Air Force? Well, they were just about as bad. But no, they didn't like to salute a woman officer. We were still new, even though we'd been three years. But those navy boys, they were the son-of-a-guns. [chuckling] And you'd be walking along, and you knew they were going to do it, but they would start out like this, you know. Well, your hand would automatically go up too, and they would settle their hats. And you had saluted. And they got the biggest kick out of that. You felt like running after them and ramming their heads together. [laughs] Which you didn't do, of course. But I didn't like Washington. I just didn't like it at all. So Delos came home and we got together and decided we—So we've been together for fifty-one years.

HT:

So you never thought of making the army your career after you got out?

ME:

I did, yeah. But my mother and father were not particularly fond of that idea. I was, because I love to travel and I figured that would be the easiest way for me to do it. But they were not in favor of it. And I was tired, if you want to know the truth. I was just worn-out, so I just thought, well—I was at home about three months, and when Delos came along we seemed to hit it off.

HT:

So you did not know him before?

ME:

Oh, yeah!

HT:

You knew him before you went in?

ME:

Yes, he was from Burlington.

HT:

And when did you actually get out of the army?

ME:

November 14, 1945. That's my birthday.

HT:

Do you recall what the social life was like in those days while you were in the army?

ME:

Oh, my heavens! When we first got to England, there were dances every night. You'd get picked up in a truck, you'd be taken to an army base, you would dance till one o'clock in the morning, you'd ride that truck back to the camp, and you'd get up at eight o'clock in the morning to go back to work. I mean, it was—I'm sure those boys all meant well. They just wanted to see an American girl. And the favorite words, “Where are you from?” That was the favorite word. But after we kind of got mixed into the crowd, they had dances and we went to them, but we also—And as I said, we had the WAAC recreation center, where most of us had our dates, especially when they would quarantine everybody. And then we would have—Oh, we went into town to the picture show at—And we had picture shows on the base. That's where I saw White Christmas, on the base in a Nissen hut. But we had pretty good shows. Every time I see M*A*S*H I think about that, seeing them sitting on those benches. That's what we had to sit on, too.

HT:

Speaking of movies and dances, do you recall what your favorite songs and movies and dances were from those days?

ME:

Well, of course, the shag. You'd be amazed at how many of the—and I always thought it was funny, how many of the Northern boys could waltz. As I said, we had a Victrola, or something to that effect, in the WAAC room, and we would dance down there. Most times, or a lot of times, it was just walking around. But sometimes we'd get out there and get a shag group going, and that was fun. I used to be pretty good. I kind of lost the talent, though.

HT:

Well, do you feel you made a contribution to the war effort?

ME:

Yes, I do. It's something I'm very proud of. And I know I've talked to other women—now women, we were girls back then—and the ones that are still living in our outfits, and a lot of them are not, that we—We didn't join for any personal reasons, unless it was maybe, for instance, to get away and see if we couldn't do something with our lives, other than—Well, I can tell you what would have happened to me if I had stayed home. If I had stayed home I would have worked, probably right where I was, down at old May Hosiery Mill. And I would have stayed down there. And when Delos came home, probably we would have gotten together and we would have raised a family. But I would never have had the self-assurance that I can do. Maybe it sounds like something extraordinary, but I can do it if I try. It gave me a sense of balance, a sense of—I taught Sunday school for forty years, I taught a couples class for, oh, about ten years, made up of men [my?] age or more, been in service and everything else. And of course my father was not a preacher, but he was half one. [chuckling] And I could supervise, which I'd never been able to do if I had stayed here. I have self-confidence, even now.

I have cancer of the lung. But I just determined I wasn't going to let it bother me. In fact, it bothers my brothers a whole lot more than it does me. But I have lived a good life. I'm seventy-nine years old. I've been around the world. Not in the army, but I've been around the world, in every country except India, which I have no thought of even going to, and the Arctic and Antarctica, which is pretty good.

HT:

That is pretty good.

ME:

I've had five heart bypasses, I've had one cardiac replacement in my leg, I've had two disks removed from my back. There ain't much left of this bum, beat-up body.

But anyway, yes, I feel like I made a contribution, in that we did replace men that eventually went into something or other. I don't know whether they went to the front line or what, but anyway we did replace them.

HT:

Did you have any regrets about that?

ME:

Well, in a sense you worry about them, especially if you had to work with them a little while before they went off to wherever they went off to. You would wonder sometimes: I wonder what happened to so-and-so? But you didn't have any way of finding out. I have a horrible feeling most of them went in the infantry, which wasn't the best place to be. But if I didn't do it, somebody else would. I feel like if they hadn't started the women's corps, all of them, they would have taken the 4-Fs and put them in clerical and that type of things. Now, I can speak to that for the simple reason that we didn't do the types of jobs that the women do now. We didn't fly. We drove trucks and cars. A lot of girls were chauffeurs in London—well, even in Norwich. We had the teletype operators, the switchboard operators. They had all been men. And if you see even in some of the old movies now, you'll notice that they're nearly all women. Of course, the British had had women in the service long before we got them. And we went kind of on the same principle that they did, because they didn't have any fliers/pilots or—Now, we had women flying planes, as you know.

HT:

Right, the WASPs [Women Airforce Service Pilots].

ME:

The WASPs. And they got a dirty deal all the way through, in my opinion. But I have been very proud of the fact that I was in the army. I'm not saying that—I've told you the funny things that happened, but there were days when it was just plain monotonous, just like any other life. But you learn to live with it. And you learn to live with discomfort. If anybody'd tell me before I went in the army that I could have lived in eight feet by four feet, I'd have told them they were a liar. [chuckling] But that's about all I had.

HT:

Well, do you recall what the mood or the climate of the country was like during those days?

ME:

I wasn't in the United States during those days, except Washington, and I don't really consider that part of the United States. [chuckling]

HT:

Oh, really?

ME:

I don't consider that as standard. I didn't know anything about rationing, never did.

HT:

So you had plenty to eat overseas and everything that you required?

ME:

Oh yeah, more than we needed. We swore they used the hams for anchors, though, drug them across the ocean, because they were so salty when we got them. But no, food was always good. We always had plenty of it. It might not have been what you wanted, but you did learn to eat dried eggs. And they weren't anything like the dried eggs we have now, I'll tell you that. But when they'd have pancakes or something like that, the line would be twice as long. But I'm a breakfast eater, and I was always up for breakfast. And I never could figure out how everybody in the whole darned camp knew when we were going to have fresh eggs, because the line would be from here to Georgia.

HT:

At the chow hall.

ME:

For fresh eggs. But we never figured out how they found out.

HT:

So I guess most of your food was probably army rationing?

ME:

Oh yeah.

HT:

And every once in a while you might get some fresh things from the—well, from the country, I guess, or whatever.

ME:

Right. Well, we would get brussels sprouts, which is a British favorite. But fruit, no. We had canned fruit. Fruit cocktail, if I never see it again it'll be all right with me. We would have this type of bowls full. That was your dessert most of the time. But fresh fruit, the only time we got really fresh fruit was when maybe the boys were sent down to North Africa for some reason or other, and they'd come back loaded with oranges and bananas and all that good stuff, and they were good enough to share with us.

The little girl I was telling you about, Betty, I brought her a banana one time. I thought I was giving her a great treat. She spit it out. First of all she tried to eat the peeling, and I told her no, that was the peeling and we took it off of it. And then she got a bite in her mouth, she says, “This is icky!” and she spit it out. [chuckling]

HT:

Was that the first time she'd ever eaten it?

ME:

The first time she'd ever had a banana. She didn't know what it was. I don't know whether she likes them to this day or not. I haven't thought to ask her.

HT:

Well, what did you think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt?

ME:

Well, we were all very much in favor of him. Of course, we were young, we didn't know. When I was in officer candidate school and President Roosevelt died, I can vividly remember standing at the window when they lowered the flag down to half-mast. There must have been twenty or thirty of us in that room, and all of us were turning around and saying, “Who's the vice president?” You know, we'd had four. “Who's the vice president?” And finally somebody said, “Harry Truman.” We said, “Who's he?”

HT:

He was an unknown.

ME:

Well, he was a good unknown, but everybody thought he would fall flat on his face. Now they quote him as a—

HT:

Right.

ME:

But we were not politically inclined. I mean, we felt like that was not our sphere of influence.

HT:

What about Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt?

ME:

I admired her greatly for what she put up with from him, for one thing. And another thing, she was a woman's rightist, you know. I'm not saying she was pretty, because she wasn't. But I think she kept the country together, the women anyhow, because she exemplified the ability to do things, to make speeches, to stand on her own opinions, which is one thing we were taught in the service was to do those things. And she had never been in the service. In fact, she had been browbeaten by her mother-in-law for how many years? So I admired her very greatly. I still do.

HT:

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

ME:

Jimmy Stewart. [laughs] As far a heroine was concerned, I frankly didn't have any, that I know of.

HT:

Can you describe for us what your adjustment was to civilian life after you left the army?

ME:

Getting used to being married. [chuckling] That was the main problem I had, you might say. I was independent, and Delos was too, and it made life hectic for several years. But as I said, we've made it through fifty-one years. That's not too bad.

HT:

That's not too bad, no. What kind of impact do you think having been in the military made on your life immediately after you got out and in the long term?

ME:

Well, I didn't know what I wanted to do after I got out. I was very much buffaloed, and as I said, I was tired. Washington is a very strenuous town, and the job I had was strenuous. Everybody was coming home and everybody was looking for jobs, and at that time the only skills I had were administrative or secretarial, and I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to that. And then, after Delos and I were married, we had Delos Jr. He was born eleven months after were married, and then John [Elder], and then Susan [Small]. So, when Susan was about three or four, and I've forgotten which, I went back to work, because I felt like I was losing everything that I had learned in the service that I had learned I was capable of doing, and I wasn't getting much out of raising three children. Although they're just as sweet and good as they can be, even now. I just felt like there was much more to life than what I was going through then. So I worked for thirty-six years.

HT:

So you think being in the military helped you get back into civilian work life?

ME:

Yep, very much so, and it made me capable of having the assurance that I could handle a job. The man that I worked with in the custom fabrics division, [chuckling] he was a salesman, and we were in the same office together. He smoked and I didn't. Anyway, he was a salesman, born and bred. He would be talking on the telephone. I could hear it. I had answered the phone so I knew who he was talking to, and he would start to give them a cost, a price, and he hadn't gone through the cost department. And I'd hang up the phone, because it was attached to mine, and I would just rip it and hang it up. He'd say, “You cut me off!” I'd say, “Chet, you have got to learn to go through the cost department before you give a price!” So we finally—He was a fine fellow to work with, he really was, just as nice as he could be.

HT:

Do you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter when you entered the service?

ME:

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. In fact, I still consider myself partly one because—

HT:

Because women had not done that before.

ME:

Yes, and everybody, if I tell them I was in the service, their eyes still get big, even women my age that lived through that time.

HT:

Well, do you consider women who joined the military at that time to have been forerunners of what we today call the women's movement?

ME:

I think it had a lot to do with it because, as I said, a lot of us found out we were perfectly capable of doing a lot of things that we had never been allowed to do before: make decisions, get up and speak in front of a crowd, all those type of things that—I wouldn't have any more done that than the man in the moon if I hadn't had that training.

HT:

Do you recall a slander campaign that was started, I think in spring or summer of 1943, by men in the army against women in the army?

ME:

Oh yeah.

HT:

I think it was probably more prevalent in the army than it was in the navy and the other branches.

ME:

Well, women were not allowed on ships back then. But the army personnel, women were in every division, you might say. And they accused us of having all the cushy jobs, and the way we got them was being cushions, you might say, for whoever was the boss. Yeah, we heard it. We even heard it in England. But we knew what we were doing, so, frankly, I don't even remember being affected by it.

HT:

So it didn't hurt morale, as far as you can remember?

ME:

No.

HT:

Well, I do remember reading that the women in the British Army and the women in the Canadian Army had the same type of problems.

ME:

They did.

HT:

So it was nothing unusual.

ME:

It was set up by some slob that probably went to Canada. [chuckling]

HT:

Have any of your children ever been in the military? I think you said one.

ME:

One. My oldest boy was in the Army Reserve, and he served six months and then three years after that, you know. What is it? So many weekends or—

HT:

Right.

ME:

Yeah. He was an MP [military police] and in the band. That was during the long-hair episode, and Delos Jr.'s hair was long. So he got him a wig, a short wig, and he'd push all his hair up underneath it, you know. And he played the clarinet, so he would march with that short-haired wig and get along all right. But his company itself was an MP company. So he did his turn. But John would never have been taken in because he had a cyst removed from his knee when he was six or eight months old, and they went from here to here. He couldn't play football, he couldn't play basketball, or anything like that, because the knee would go out. So I don't think he'd ever have gotten in the army.

HT:

What about your daughter? Did you ever encourage her to join?

ME:

No. Things have changed so much, and she is not the type. She's just not the type that's interested.

HT:

Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions? I think you've—

ME:

I don't think it's a good thing. Not because they couldn't do it, but I cannot forget the woman pilot in the first war with Iraq. What was that one called? [Operation] Desert Storm. And she was captured. And she was tortured in front of the two men that she was captured with. And they did everything to her that was inhumanly possible, and the men broke. She didn't but they did. And I don't think it's fair to put the men through anything like that and, as a consequence, the women through anything like that. I'm not saying they can't shoot a gun, because they can do it if necessary. Our history tells about women shooting guns, but I do not think it's a good idea for women to be in combat. The men, even the roughest and toughest of men that keep saying, you know, "Oh, women, the dirt of the earth," and this, that, and the other, will find themselves protecting a woman at their own risk. And I don't think it's fair to put them in that position. I know that there are some gung-ho women that would practically crucify me for saying that, but you asked how I felt and that's how I feel.

HT:

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

ME:

No, I think we've covered it pretty good. As I said, we had fun times and then we had—I remember the Battle of the Bulge. We were really upset about that. They came and—not because they came and got our extra blankets, but just the idea of what they were going through. And every day when we would get up, the first thing we'd look at would be the sky, and it would be so cloudy that nothing could fly. That was a rough time right along in there. Boy, when they could go out though, man, did they have more guts. They really took off and flew. I know the first girl that got up and stuck her head out the door and looked and said, “The sun's shining!” And we all knew what it meant. That was quite a day.

See, we didn't see any of the direct casualties. The nurses were the ones that really went through that agony. My husband, as I said, was with the 65th General Hospital, and we had reunions too, and the nurses would talk about when they would come in—so beat-up, so battered, so bruised—You'd think they wouldn't live for the next half an hour much less the next day, and how hard that was. And they say you never become emotionally immune to it, and I can see that. But they were the ones that really suffered from that. We did not. Sometimes if a boy would be hurt on a mission and come back, then we would see them on their crutches or something over in the WAAC area—maybe they were dating a WAC at the time, I don't know—but we didn't see too much of that, for which I'm glad. I always wanted to be a nurse, but I couldn't. Back then, Mother and Daddy wouldn't even think of me being a nurse. I don't think I would have gotten in anyhow with my feet. [chuckling]

HT:

Well, I have just a couple more questions about your days at Woman's College. I know you weren't there very long. Was that a one-year program?

ME:

Yes.

HT:

And do you recall what the social life was like in those days?

ME:

Yeah, you had a date, and your date came into the parlor and met the housemother. And you could go walking on the campus, and you didn't dare go off of it either. Some way, in the back of my mind, we had an ice cream place on the campus that we could go to. And I can't think of where it was, unless it was in the front of the dining—I waited on tables there.

HT:

That was to earn money to help pay your tuition, et cetera?

ME:

Yes. I never did spill anything on anybody, though. I was pretty good. [chuckling] But that was hard work, I mean. We had an ice cream place. I can't think now where that place was. Of course, I lived—I can't remember whether it was Cotten or Gray [Residence Hall]. There were three buildings right together that used to face the old tennis courts, and we were in the middle one, and I can't think of which one it was. It was Cotten or Gray. Maybe somebody else will remember it. I don't. I'll tell you one thing I particularly liked, with three granddaughters in college now and the sororities and all that stuff. Neither one of my grandsons yet are in there, but I'm sure they'll get into it too. When I was there, one morning you woke up and under your door were two hats, paper hats, and a little notice that you're in such and such a sorority. And that's all it ever amounted to. And you know what? After watching my grandchildren and thinking about it, I don't even remember which one I was in. I mean, it didn't make that big of a deal. But now it's one of the biggest things on campuses, which sorority you're in. And I don't see that it's all that important.

HT:

Do you recall any professors that stand out in your mind?

ME:

No, I'm sorry. I wasn't much of a student. [chuckling]

HT:

What about people in administration, such as Harriet Elliott [dean of women] and Dr. [Walter Clinton] Jackson [chancellor]?

ME:

I remember her, but I never had any dealings, fortunately, never had any dealings with any of them.

HT:

Of course, you were there for just the one year.

ME:

One year.

HT:

And I guess it was rather an intense course, since it was only for one year.

ME:

It was. The main things I remember about it were the fact that we couldn't get in a car, you and your date could not go off the campus, you were very restricted in your dress, and that kind of thing.

HT:

There were trolley cars on Spring Garden Street at that time, is that correct?

ME:

Yes.

HT:

Did you ever use the trolley car to go downtown? I've heard other people say it cost like seven cents and—

ME:

Yeah, something like that. About a dime. Less than dime.

HT:

They really couldn't afford that because they were making so little money, and so you walked everywhere.

ME:

True. Yes, that's for sure. If you went uptown you walked, generally, because there just—there wasn't any money to be had back then.

HT:

Do you recall how much money you made working in the dining halls?

ME:

I never got any. Mine went on my—

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

HT:

So your parents were able to help you financially?

ME:

Yes, spending money and things like that, but they did pay part of the tuition. But my brother was at Chapel Hill. It was much more important then for a man to get a degree than a woman. And he worked in the library down at Chapel Hill for four years, and he was Phi Beta Kappa. He was smart, and he is smart still, and I don't resent it. I don't know—Now I went back to college on the GI Bill when I came home from service [laughs]. I told John he had six months of college education—he should be real smart! That's the middle boy.

HT:

Now where did you go to school after you came back?

ME:

Elon.

HT:

Elon.

ME:

On the GI Bill.

HT:

What was your major?

ME:

Psychology [chuckle]. I don't know why but it was.

HT:

You didn't think about going back to WC at that time?

ME:

No, I already had one child and was carrying the second.

HT:

That was much more convenient.

ME:

Oh yeah.

HT:

Is there anything else that you would like to add about your life after you got out of the service that we haven't covered?

ME:

No. I have three wonderful children, one son-in-law who is a gem, and one daughter-in-law who is also a gem, and six of the prettiest grandchildren—I don't care if two of them are boys [chuckle]—you ever saw. And they're scattered now. Corrie [Elder] will graduate from Princeton in June, “Teen” [Mary Kristine Elder] graduated from [North Carolina] State [University] last—when is December—and she's the one that's in Australia. She's been on the Dean's List for two years. And then a company in Australia contacted State—this is my understanding—and asked for an intern in communications. They're a company down there who another company will come to them and say, I want to set up a publicity, or whatever, you know, handle our public relations stuff. I guarantee you if anybody can communicate it, Teen can. So she's down there now and will be down there until April. And then Emily [Elder] is the third girl. She's at Carolina [UNC-Chapel Hill], a sophomore, doing well. J.T. [Small], he lives in Winston[-Salem], our daughter's son, now he's either going to State or Carolina next year, I don't know which. And little “Dee” [Delos Elder III], he's a sophomore—junior—at Williams [High School, Burlington] , and he doesn't know what he's going to be doing, and Lora [Small] is a sophomore in Winston, and she doesn't know what she's going to be doing either. So I got three more or less settled, and three—whoo-hoo!—hung out to dry [laughing]. But they're fun.

HT:

Well, I do appreciate you talking to me today.

ME:

Well, I appreciate you letting me.

HT:

Oh, it's just been absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much.

[End of Interview]