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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Mary Cooper Floyd, 1999

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Object ID: WV0048.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Mary Elizabeth C. Floyd’s clerical work for the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) while stationed in Washington, D.C., and Long Island, New York, during World War II; and her life after the war.

Summary:

Floyd primarily shares information about the clerical work she performed while in the WAVES, focusing on her dictation skills. Also of note is her description of her cross-country travel with a navy roommate during leave times, including stops in Oklahoma and California.

Floyd also discusses briefly treatment of and attitudes toward women in the military; the patriotic spirit of the nation; political figures; the pleasant experience she had as a member of the WAVES; and her post-war business school training, marriage, and work for GMAC.

Creator: Mary Elizabeth Cooper Floyd

Biographical Info: Mary Elizabeth Cooper Floyd of Leaksville-Spray, North Carolina, performed clerical work while serving in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II.

Collection: Mary Cooper Floyd 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 March 3, 1999. I'm at the home of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Floyd in Greensboro, North Carolina, to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Mrs. Floyd, thanks so much for meeting with me this afternoon. Could you tell me your maiden name, please?

EF:

Cooper.

HT:

Mrs. Floyd, could you tell me where you were born, please?

EF:

Critz, Virginia.

HT:

Could you spell that, please?

EF:

C-r-i-t-z.

HT:

Okay, thanks. And is that where you grew up and went to high school?

EF:

No, we moved to Spray, North Carolina, Leaksville-Spray. And then when I got old enough—Well, when I got twenty I joined the [U.S.] Navy.

HT:

And where did you go to high school?

EF:

Leaksville-Spray.

HT:

And could you tell me a little bit about your family life before you went in the military, something about your parents and siblings and that sort of thing?

EF:

Well, I had two sisters and two brothers.

HT:

And were any of them in the military?

EF:

My brother was in the military.

HT:

And you said you joined the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] during the Second World War. When did you join? Do you remember which month and year?

EF:

No, I don't.

HT:

And do you recall why you joined?

EF:

Because I was left at home by myself. Everybody else had jobs out of town or joined service, and so I just wanted to get away from it.

HT:

And what did your parents and your brothers and sisters and your friends think about you joining?

EF:

Well, I think I just wore them down. Finally they gave me permission.

HT:

Did your parents have to sign?

EF:

Oh yeah.

HT:

Because you were under twenty-one?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

And were you working when you enlisted?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

Okay, and what type of work did you do?

EF:

Clerical work in a cotton mill.

HT:

And where was that?

EF:

In Spray.

HT:

In Spray, okay. And you say you don't remember the day that you entered?

EF:

No.

HT:

Can you remember anything about your first day of basic training? What was that like?

EF:

All I know, I enjoyed meeting all the different people. I never dreaded any of it.

HT:

So it was a good experience?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

And where did you go for basic training? Do you remember?

EF:

Hunter.

HT:

Hunter? That was Hunter College in—I think it was in New York. Is that correct?

EF:

New York.

HT:

Did you take the train up?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

And was that the first time you'd ever been on a train?

EF:

No. [chuckling]

HT:

And what was that experience like, going up north?

EF:

Well, it was just fine. I enjoyed it. Everybody you met was just real nice.

HT:

And do you remember how long the basic training was? Was it four weeks, six weeks?

EF:

I don't remember whether it was four or six. It was just something like that.

HT:

Do you remember what a typical day was like? Did you have to do marching and go to classes and learn how to shoot a gun or anything like that?

EF:

Well, I didn't handle a gun. We did march.

HT:

Anything outstanding that you remember that was unusual that might have happened during those few weeks?

EF:

Well, I couldn't understand why some of the women would faint just doing a little bit of marching. They weren't used to doing nothing.

HT:

And was this in the wintertime, fall, or spring that you were up there? Because I've heard other ladies say they were up there in the winter and it was so bitter cold, and there was like ice and that sort of thing.

EF:

Well, mine was in a nice time of year. It was spring or summer. It was really nice.

HT:

And after you left basic training, where were you stationed permanently?

EF:

Washington [D.C.] and then Long Island [New York].

HT:

And what type of work did you do in Washington, D.C.?

EF:

Well, see, I could take shorthand, and so the Office of Research and Invention was just all these men that-Well, you know what they were doing, research and invention. They needed somebody to take it all in notes, so they kept me busy.

HT:

And how long did you stay in Washington, D.C.?

EF:

I want to say about three or four months.

HT:

And did you enjoy your work there?

EF:

Yes.

HT:

It was interesting?

EF:

Yes, in fact, we were in the auditorium with a lot of different people, and they weren't getting anywhere, they were just talking. And somebody asked for a volunteer to go somewhere on some street and work, I raised my hand, and I got in with the Office of Research and Invention, which was a good job. I just didn't want to be washing dishes. [chuckling]

HT:

Could you tell us something about the type of work you did at this particular office?

EF:

I got this out so you could see. Somewhere in here my picture is, but-I did clerical work, a lot of dictation. In fact, it was mostly dictation. And thirteen, I think it was, copies of everything.

HT:

You had to produce thirteen copies of everything? And those, of course, were the days before copy machines, so everything had to be done with carbon copy, I guess.

EF:

Yeah! It was something.

HT:

And do you recall what rank you were at this time?

EF:

A yeoman 2nd.

HT:

A yeoman 2nd class?

EF:

Well, I was 1st class, then I got up to yeoman 2nd. You were apprentice seaman and then you were 1st and 2nd.

HT:

Many of the posters of that time asked women to join either the army or the navy to free a man for combat duty. Did you view your enlistment in this light at all, that you might free a man to go to sea or something like that?

EF:

I don't really know. I just felt like I didn't think I was helping enough staying in the job I was in, and which they really needed people.

HT:

And do you think you were treated equally with the men who worked with you?

EF:

Sure!

HT:

So there was no discrimination because you were a woman, that you can recall?

EF:

No.

HT:

Did you ever receive any special type of treatment because you were a female?

EF:

I don't think so. All you did, you had a job to do and you did it.

HT:

Do you remember how many hours a day you worked, what was the typical length of the working day?

EF:

Yeah, about eight o'clock till five [p.m.].

HT:

So you didn't have to work until the job got done? I've talked to other ladies who said they usually went in sometimes at 7:00, 7:30, and they couldn't leave until everything was done. And others I've talked to said they had basically normal business hours.

EF:

I had basically normal.

HT:

And during off-duty hours, what kinds of things did you ladies do for fun and socializing? Did you go to movies or dances or—?

EF:

Just the normal things people do. I mean, there were a lot of people to socialize with.

HT:

And do you recall any special incidents, like going out of town to New York or going on trips?

EF:

Oh, I went to Washington and New York whenever I wanted to. In fact, I went to Oklahoma with my roommate in the navy, and then we went on to California. We took all the leave that we had accumulated and spent it traveling.

HT:

And how long did this last?

EF:

It lasted about twenty days.

HT:

And you went by train, I guess?

EF:

Both. Whatever we could.

HT:

Do you remember anything in particular about the trip that stands out in your mind? Anything exciting happen?

EF:

Well, it was just exciting, the fact we were seeing so many places. And one couple took a look at our uniforms, I reckon, and gave us tickets to the rodeo. And I had never been to a rodeo.

HT:

And where was this? Where was the rodeo?

EF:

I think it was in Oklahoma. And so we managed to go to that, and that was fun.

HT:

And these tickets were free?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

Well, I have often heard that people were very generous to you people, both men and women in uniform. They would pay for their dinners, buy them drinks, give them tickets to the rodeo and things like that. It was just an amazing time. How generous civilians were to anybody who was in uniform, which was very nice.

EF:

Well, I guess they were thankful they weren't in uniform. I don't know what was going on.

HT:

And did you ever meet anyone interesting in Washington that you can recall, famous people?

EF:

No, not really. I met one man, it was real funny, he thought he was famous.

HT:

And who was this?

EF:

And he thought we'd recognize his name and everything, but I didn't. So I just let him think that. [chuckling] So he really thought he was something.

HT:

Do you remember his name, by any chance?

EF:

No.

HT:

So he wasn't that famous that it would stick in your mind.

EF:

No, see, that was my trouble. [chuckling] I had no idea who he was, but he thought he was a big shot. And I didn't really meet anybody in California other than ordinary people.

HT:

And where did you visit in California?

EF:

Well, we went from Los Angeles up the coast, on the way up to-Los Angeles is at the lower end, isn't it?

HT:

Yes.

EF:

All the way up to—My mind has left me. I'm having some Alzheimer's, too.

HT:

Oh, I'm sorry. Did you make it all the way to San Francisco maybe?

EF:

Oh yeah, we went at least that far.

HT:

Well, that was a brave thing to do, for two young girls to travel all the way across country by themselves.

EF:

I know it. It was stupid. [chuckling]

HT:

No, I call it gutsy. [chuckling]

EF:

It was stupid. Well, heck, after you lived in Washington and New York and got along all right, you could take off and go anywhere.

HT:

I have heard from other ladies with whom I've spoken say that train travel was difficult in those days because there were so many troops moving back and forth, and they would have to stand up for hundreds of miles sometimes because there were no seats. Did you run across anything like that?

EF:

No.

HT:

So you were able to sit down?

EF:

No. I'm sure I was lucky.

HT:

Did you meet any troop trains going across on your trip?

EF:

I think one time I was on a train with a lot of troops, and it was in Washington and they were going up about New York or somewhere, and we just happened to be on the train. But that was fine. It was just different people, more men than there were women.

HT:

And how long were you in the military altogether?

EF:

One year and two months. See, I wasn't in there very long.

HT:

And what made you decide to leave?

EF:

I figured I'd done all I could, and I'd go back home and take up what I was supposed to be doing.

HT:

So you never thought about making it a career?

EF:

No, I went in because I figured if they needed every man we had, they probably needed a few women.

HT:

And what was the hardest thing you ever had to do physically while you were in basic training or in Washington or New York?

EF:

I didn't have anything hard to do physically.

HT:

So marching wasn't difficult for you?

EF:

No, that didn't bother me. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the rhythm of it.

HT:

Did you have to calisthenics or physical exercise?

EF:

A little bit, but not enough to bother me.

HT:

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

EF:

I really don't know. Like I say, it was hard for me to understand these women would join, and then the first thing you know they were crying.

HT:

But they couldn't get out, could they? I mean, they had to stay in.

EF:

One woman actually—I think they finally just put her out. Something happened to her. She wasn't around anymore.

HT:

Do you recall any embarrassing moments or funny moments while you were in the military that stand out in your mind?

EF:

Not at the moment. I mean, I'm sure there were plenty of them.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid?

EF:

No.

HT:

Not even on that trip?

EF:

No. I wasn't scared of nothing. [chuckling]

HT:

You were a brave soul. Oh, gosh! [chuckling] What were your favorite songs and movies and dances from that period of time?

EF:

Oh, goodness! I'm not very musical. I can't think of nothing right now.

HT:

What dates were you actually in the service? From when to when?

EF:

I thought maybe you'd know that. I don't know.

HT:

Was it right after the war started or toward the end?

EF:

It was right after it started.

HT:

Maybe we can find out from some of the paperwork after we finish the interview.

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

Yeah, okay, we'll do that.

EF:

Because I can't—

HT:

What was the mood or the feeling of the country during World War II? What was it like? Was it a lot of patriotic feelings?

EF:

Well, I think people kind of came together. We knew it was war, but they kind of came together and we worked it out. I don't know. Like I say, I don't know how to express myself.

HT:

Do you think you made a contribution to the war effort?

EF:

I think by working for the Office of Research and Invention I did. You'd be surprised what they expected me to take in dictation, and I'd never heard of it.

HT:

Some very difficult terms?

EF:

Very.

HT:

And how did you spell all these things? Did you have to look them up? Like some of the things that we've covered today, we always have to go back and look up some of the spellings because we're not familiar with some of these terms.

EF:

Well, you know, the men I worked for were real nice, and when they knew that I didn't have a chance of knowing how to spell something, they'd spell it for me. And the admiral in the section where I worked, about the first day I was there he gave me dictation. And he looked over my shoulder to see if I could take it. [chuckling] So he already knew shorthand, and he could tell if I knew what I was doing.

HT:

So I'm assuming you did all right.

EF:

Well, I'm assuming I did too, [chuckling] because I stayed in the office.

HT:

Now did you work with all military people? Were there any civilians in the office?

EF:

No, all military.

HT:

All military? All officers basically, or were there some enlisted?

EF:

No, there were some enlisted.

HT:

And both men and women?

EF:

Yeah. More men, of course. And the men had two units to supervise, and one at a time was overseas and one at home. I was in the radar section.

HT:

And what did the radar section do?

EF:

Well, you know what radar is, don't you?

HT:

Yes. And that was fairly new in those days, I understand.

EF:

Yeah, that was—I guess our group invented it or started one of the first parts of it. We celebrated the invention of radar, anyway. The guy across the street said they'd say, “Come up, wherever you are,” when anything was down in the water and they knew it and they didn't know. [chuckling]

HT:

After you left Washington, D.C., were you stationed somewhere else? Was it New York?

EF:

Long Island.

HT:

Long Island. And what type of work did you do there?

EF:

The same thing. Our whole office transferred to Long Island.

HT:

And do you recall what the name of the station was, or the base, what the name of the base was?

EF:

Fort something-another.

HT:

Maybe we can find it in some of this reading material that you've got here.

EF:

Fort something-another. I can't even think.

HT:

And you did the same type of work at both places?

EF:

Oh yes.

HT:

Do you remember why you transferred or the whole unit was transferred from Washington to Long Island?

EF:

I don't think they told us.

HT:

You just woke up one day and they said, “We're moving”?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

And then after you left Long Island, where did you go?

EF:

I was discharged from Long Island. And I got out just as quick as I got in. I mean, as soon as I thought the war was really over and I could get back in my normal routine at home, I came home.

HT:

So was the war over when you got out?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

Okay, so that would have been in probably the summer or fall of 1945 probably.

EF:

Sounds right.

HT:

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

EF:

Well, I admired him.

HT:

And was it a great shock when he died and a fairly unknown person, Harry Truman, became president?

EF:

Yeah. In fact, I just couldn't see how in the world anybody was ever going to do what he had done.

HT:

You never had a chance to meet him or see him?

EF:

Oh no.

HT:

What about Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt? Do you have any feelings about her?

EF:

Well, I admired her. I think she was a strong woman, but I don't know nothing about her.

EF:

Who were your heroes and heroines from the World War II era?

EF:

I don't know.

HT:

And where were you when you heard about Victory in Europe Day [VE Day], which was in May of 1945?

EF:

I was in Washington at the Dodge Hotel.

HT:

And was that at a party or—?

EF:

No, that's just where I was living.

HT:

Oh, where you were living, okay. That's one thing I haven't asked you before. Did you live in barracks in Washington and Long Island, or where did you WAVES live?

EF:

When we first went to Washington it was in barracks, and then we were just put off into-like I went to the Office of Research and Invention, just a hotel close to where they were so I could walk to work.

HT:

Because nobody had cars in those days, or there wasn't much gasoline, so you had to walk.

EF:

Well, that's right. I didn't even have a driver's license or nothing else.

HT:

And what about VJ Day? That's Victory in Japan, which was in August of '45. Were you still in Washington at that time, or had you been transferred to Long Island?

EF:

I was transferred to Long Island, and I can't remember. I can't.

HT:

That's fine. Could you describe your adjustment to civilian life after you got out of the military? What was it like to one day be in the military and the next day to be a civilian again?

EF:

It didn't bother me at all, I don't think.

HT:

And what type of work did you do after you got out of the military?

EF:

The same thing.

HT:

The same thing? Do you remember for whom you worked?

EF:

I worked for General Motors [Acceptance Corporation, GMAC].

HT:

Was that here in North Carolina?

EF:

Yes.

HT:

Which city was that?

EF:

Well, I went back to my old job in Leaksville-Spray, and I was bored stiff, and so I knew I could go back to business school on the GI Bill, so I came over to Greensboro and did that. GMAC came up to the business school and asked him for somebody that could take dictation. And I'd been taking it so long already, and then I had learned some more there, that they offered me good money. So I went to work for them.

HT:

And where did you go to school on your GI Bill?

EF:

McClung's.

HT:

How do you spell that, do you remember?

EF:

M-c-C-l-u-n-g.

HT:

And was that here in Greensboro?

EF:

Yes. And the only reason, he just ran a standard ad and I just saw his ad in the paper. I didn't know anything about it.

HT:

Did you enjoy your work at GMAC?

EF:

Yes.

HT:

How many years were you there?

EF:

Just a little over a year because I got married. You know that stops everything. [chuckling]

HT:

Had you met your husband while you were in the military?

EF:

No, I met him in Greensboro.

HT:

Okay, so you met him after you got out?

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

So you two have been married for fifty-some years, I guess.

EF:

Yeah.

HT:

That's wonderful. Do you think your life has been different because you were in the navy, in the WAVES? Was life different?

EF:

Well, probably. It's made me more easy to accept people. Like you know we have a group here in Greensboro, the WAVES group.

HT:

Right.

EF:

I've enjoyed meeting all those women.

HT:

And did you know any of them before you joined this particular organization?

EF:

No, I sure didn't.

HT:

Well, if you had to do it over again, would you join the WAVES again?

EF:

Probably. I don't know why I liked the navy better than I did the army.

HT:

But you did have a choice? You could have joined any of the branches that you wanted to?

EF:

Oh yes.

HT:

And I think you mentioned earlier that you had a brother who was in the military?

EF:

A brother in the navy.

HT:

In the navy. So was that one of the reasons you think you might have joined?

EF:

Oh, maybe. I don't know.

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be an independent person?

EF:

Yes.

HT:

And were you that way before you went in the military, or did the military make you independent, or more independent?

EF:

It probably made me more, but I think I was that way anyway.

HT:

And did you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer or a forerunner when you joined the WAVES in World War II?

EF:

No. I probably should have, but I know I didn't.

HT:

Would you consider yourself and other women who joined the military during the war to be forerunners of what we call the women's movement today?

EF:

Probably.

HT:

I still think you ladies were rather gutsy to do this, since not many women had done this prior to this period of time. So I think it's a great thing. Do you remember how women in general were perceived who joined the military during World War II? What did the families, what did the public think about women who joined the military?

EF:

Well, they didn't think they were—They kind of looked down at us.

HT:

Oh, really? Why was that?

EF:

Oh, just that they figured we were getting into something we didn't have no business being in.

HT:

But you never had any problems with any of your co-workers?

EF:

No.

HT:

And did you ever have an occasion where someone said something to you because you were in the military? I was talking to a lady who said that her mother was approached by a neighbor of theirs and some bad things were said about her, but she never found out about it till years later. Did anything like that ever happen to you?

EF:

No.

HT:

And have any of your children ever been in the military?

EF:

No. I have a son that's disabled, and then I have two girls, and not many women to join in anything.

HT:

So you never encouraged your daughters to join the military because you had been in?

EF:

No, I haven't encouraged them. I figured that that was something they could make up their own mind-

HT:

How do you feel about women in combat positions? You know recently in Iraq some women flew some air combat missions over Iraq, flew planes over Iraq.

EF:

I didn't know that.

HT:

Would you approve of something like this, women fighting?

EF:

And flying airplanes? If they had been trained and knew what they were doing, I don't see anything wrong with it.

HT:

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

EF:

I don't think so. You covered more than I've—I've forgotten more than you got out of me. [chuckling]

HT:

Could you tell me something about what your life has been like since you left the military some fifty-some years ago? I know you got married. And could you tell me how you met your husband and what you two have done?

EF:

Well, he came to business school in Greensboro. Just like I wanted a better job and I came over here to get more training, he did the same thing, and that's where we met.

HT:

And so you've lived here ever since?

EF:

Yes.

HT:

Was he in the military during the war?

EF:

Yeah, in the navy.

HT:

In the navy? And what type of work did he do, do you remember?

EF:

He was a gunner's mate.

HT:

A gunner's mate? In the Pacific?

EF:

Probably. I don't know.

HT:

Well, Mrs. Floyd, I don't have any other questions for you this afternoon. I do thank you so much for talking to us. It's been wonderful.

EF:

Well, it brings back a lot of memories.

HT:

Right. Okay, well, thanks again.

[End of Interview]