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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Emily Harris Preyer, 1999

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Object ID: WV0065.5.001

Description:

Primarily details Emily Harris Preyer’s days at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and her experiences with the American Red Cross during World War II.

Summary:

Preyer discusses her father’s death and her family; Woman’s College (WC) professors, including Louise Alexander, Dean Harriet Elliott, and Dr. Malcolm Hooke; pouring tea for Eleanor Roosevelt during Roosevelt’s visit to WC; being involved with WC student government; and June German dances in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Topics related to World War II include Preyer’s reasons for choosing the Red Cross over the other services; her pet koala bears; her duties with the Red Cross; her relationship with servicemen and other Americans in Australia; babysitting for General MacArthur in Brisbane; working in shifts in the hospitals; cultural differences she encountered in Australia; the general attitude the Australians exhibited toward Americans; reactions to VE Day and VJ Day in Australia; and her husband’s military experiences in the North Atlantic and at Okinawa.

Preyer also discusses her life after the war, including her continued work with the Red Cross in Greensboro; her children’s experiences in similar organizations, like the Peace Corps and VISTA; and her opinion of women in combat positions.

Creator: Emily Harris Preyer

Biographical Info: Emily Harris Preyer (1919-1999) of Greensboro, North Carolina, served with the Red Cross in Australia from 1943 to 1945.

Collection: Emily Harris Preyer 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:

[Note: Richardson Preyer, Emily Preyer's husband, was also present during part of the interview]
EE:

My name is Eric Elliott and I'm with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro [UNCG], and I'm here today at the home of Emily Preyer in Greensboro, North Carolina. Thank you for having us.

EP:

I'm honored.

EE:

This is part of the Women Veterans Historical Project of the university [and] we're going to start with two simple questions that we ask everybody: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

EP:

I was born on Main Street in Reidsville, North Carolina, where the First Presbyterian Church stands now. And my mother—My dad died right when I was born, and I was one of six children, and she moved over to Greensboro when I was about four or five years old, and so I went to a regular elementary school and high school and to UNCG.

EE:

All right here in town?

EP:

All right here in town, walked to school to all of them. [chuckling]

EE:

Well, there's something to be said for that. Now, you say you were one of six, were you oldest, youngest, or in the middle?

EP:

I was the youngest.

EE:

The youngest, all right. Older brothers and sisters?

EP:

My brother was the oldest, and then I had four sisters. And my sisters used to say they never got a piece of white meat until that damn brother went off to college. [laughter]

EE:

All right, that sounds good. Did your mom go to school, college?

EP:

Yes, she went to college and finished at the State Normal [North Carolina State Normal and Industrial School, now UNCG] in 1890-something, I think '96.

EE:

So in one of the first couple of classes evidently.

EP:

Yes, but that was when she lived in Reidsville and came over here and lived.

EE:

What did she do?

EP:

She got married very shortly after she finished college, in Reidsville.

EE:

And then after your dad passed away—?

EP:

She stayed there till—She had a first cousin over here, Mr. A. M. Scales, and he was a wonderful lawyer, and he talked her into moving here. Thought the children going to school and the colleges here, and that's why we moved from Reidsville. Good old Rockingham County.

EE:

Oh yes, I've visited downtown Wentworth, which you know is across —

EP:

Oh yeah.

EE:

It's actually part of Reidsville now. They've lost their status and they're trying to get it back.

EP:

I know. Gosh, and it had been the county seat all these years.

EE:

Forever, that's right. Which high school did you go to?

EP:

I went to Greensboro Senior High School, which is now Grimsley High School.

EE:

Did you like school?

EP:

Oh, I loved high school. We lived on Courtland Street, so I could walk to school. That was about four blocks from Westover Terrace, which is where Grimsley High School is.

EE:

Did you think of going anyplace other than WC [Woman's College of the University of North Carolina, now UNCG]?

EP:

No, I didn't because it was during the Depression years and everybody in my class—all the girls, went to—Well, at that time it was WC—it was NCCW [North Carolina College for Women].

EE:

NCCW when you went in, and then I guess by the time you got your degree it had changed to WC?

EP:

I think it changed to WC in 1963. It was NCCW the whole time I was there. But everybody from Greensboro went there in my class.

EE:

What was your major when you got to college? Did you know what your major was going to be?

EP:

Oh yeah. I majored in English—I had a double major, English and French.

EE:

Do you remember some favorite professors from that time period?

EP:

Oh, I loved Miss Louise Alexander. And I was crazy about Dr. [Malcolm] Hooke. He was the head of the French Department. And I was devoted to the dean, Miss Harriet Elliott. Elliott Hall over there is named for her.

EE:

Now she later left to join the Roosevelt administration, didn't she?

EP:

She joined the Roosevelt—And she had Mrs. Roosevelt come to Greensboro. And I was president of the student government, so—Dr. [Walter Clinton] Jackson lived right there on campus, and so he had a—Miss Elliott had a tea for her, and I never will forget Mrs. Roosevelt came down and we were all so excited. I had somebody from every class saying I was pouring the tea, and I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt, will you have tea or coffee?” And she said, “Well, honey, I'll have it in my cup, whatever,” because I was pouring it right on the silver tray. [chuckling] Oh, she was a wonderful lady, Mrs. Roosevelt.

EE:

Was this your senior year, '39?

EP:

Yeah. And you know she was a great friend of Mrs. Julius Cone, Laura Weill Cone. She was Laura Weill from Wilmington, and she wrote our college song, and we sing it right today.

EE:

Great. So you started that song when you were in school?

EP:

Well, she started when she was in, and of course she was—I guess forty years older than any of us. But she had written that song way back in the early 1900s. But she was here in Greensboro and she lived in a house out here on Summit Avenue, Mrs. Julius Cone, the Cones who started the Cone Mills?

EE:

Right, right.

EP:

And her husband. Oh, she was a great lady.

EE:

That's wonderful. Well, now, you were involved in student government. Were you involved in student government back in high school as well?

EP:

Yeah. I was trying to think, I was treasurer of the class. We had two people running for president of the student government our senior year, Jack Cheek and—what was the name, Roy Apple. And Jack's dad gave everybody chewing gum and said, “Chew for Cheek.” So we gathered up all the apples and gave everybody an apple for “An Apple for Roy.”

EE:

Oh goodness, I guess it pays to check what your last name is before you get into politics. You might be setting yourself up for some expenditures. [chuckling]

EP:

Right.

EE:

So you were active in student government all throughout the time that you were there?

EP:

Yeah. I was a town student for three years. I didn't live on campus. And then when I was elected president of student government I planned to not live on campus, but my brother-in-law, Britt Armfield, and my sister, Jane Armfield, paid for me to go to be a senior in Woman's Dorm. That was the name of it, Woman's Dorm. And those first three years I worked in the registrar's office at NCCW, and I was so scared of Miss Mary Taylor Moore. Oh, she was the registrar, but anyway—

EE:

She made sure everybody dotted I's and crossed T's.

EP:

Oh, and I got a seat by the window. I checked the absentees and stuff like that. And Miss [Mary Alice] Tennent and Miss [Edith] Harwood were there. Anybody who is anywhere near my age will remember those three teachers—not teachers, registrars.

EE:

Well, because it was the Depression, did most folks who went to school there have some sort of a job in the school—

EP:

Lots of them did. A lot of them waited on—

EE:

A lot more than nowadays, I guess.

EP:

Oh yeah. And everybody that I went with from Greensboro was a town student because of the expense. And I just got to live there my senior year because of my sister and brother-in-law.

EE:

Well, that's interesting, because most of the folks I've talked to come from out of town and are in a dorm experience, and I was going to ask you was it harder being a town student? But it sounds like during that time period that was the normal thing to do.

EP:

That was the thing, yes, especially for any Greensboro or High Point or Reidsville—All those people were town students.

EE:

Right. What about social life on campus? It was an all-girl school. How did that—

EP:

Oh, we had a wonderful time! We had four clubs. We didn't have sororities, we had four organizations. And I can't remember what the other three were, but I was an Adelphian, and our colors were red—

EE:

This is like the Dikean and—

EP:

Yeah. Our colors were red and white, and we had dances on Saturday night over there in Coleman Gym. And law, we had a ball! A lot of us went to the June German [dance] every year.

EE:

June German, tell me about that. Since I know you graduated in '39, I imagine they stopped having Germans after '39.

EP:

Oh yeah, that was an all-night dance in Rocky Mount, [North Carolina]. You never heard of the June German?

EE:

No, no!

EP:

Oh, my goodness, you are young, Elliott.

EE:

I know, I know. I've heard of it because they used to have Germans they talked about at Chapel Hill, about the same [unclear].

EP:

Right. That's right, so we had June Germans in June and danced all night. And our parents would all let us go, and we drive home at 4:00, 5:00, or 6:00 in the morning.

EE:

Wow. This is all with live music?

EP:

Oh yeah, the best bands in the country they had.

EE:

Great. Why'd they call it German?

EP:

I don't know, but they called it the June German. That's what the Rocky Mount people named it.

EE:

When you were getting this degree in English and French, what were you thinking you were going to do afterwards?

EP:

Well, my grandchildren know the story that one time when I was in Aycock School here in Greensboro I skipped to the pencil sharpener, and the teacher got very upset that I skipped when everybody else was studying. She said, “You just keep skipping till I stop you.” And I was so embarrassed. And she said, “Well, why did you skip?” And I said, “Because I'm going to be a missionary when I get out of school, so I'm going to skip now.” [chuckling]

EE:

That's what you were planning on doing?

EP:

Yeah. Well, I talked about it. And then when I came along in '39, the war, you know, but I went straight to the University of Virginia and got a master's degree in English literature. And I planned to go on and get a Ph.D, but then the war—In '42 it was really going, a really bad situation, so I volunteered for the American Red Cross. And I was sent to Washington to train. I loved it up there, because I used to go to hear Dr. Peter Marshall. He was a famous—

EE:

I had a woman who talked to me that she joined the choir at that church just because she could get a seat, because there wasn't any way to get a seat unless you went early.

EP:

And join the choir? [chuckling]

EE:

That's right. Well, let me fill in a few details there, because that's the transition that I'm very interested in. Because people from all different experiences decided to participate in the war effort, and I want to understand—First of all, it's kind of unusual to go directly into grad school as a woman, is it not?

EP:

Yeah, they didn't have undergraduates at that time, and you of course couldn't live on campus. We lived out on Rugby Road in a very nice elderly lady's house. And there were very few girls there, but I think the war brought on letting girls come to graduate school.

EE:

Makes sense, because they might have had some spaces that they wouldn't have had otherwise.

EP:

Otherwise, right.

EE:

So you entered—That would have been the fall of '39 you went right in then?

EP:

Went in the fall of '39 and I finished in—

EE:

Forty-one.

EP:

Forty-one, right. So when the war came along in '41, Mr. Charlie Phillips at NCCW called me and said, “We desperately need a language teacher in Charlotte, because the man has been drafted that taught German.” I said, “Well, Mr. Phillips, I haven't had any German.” He said, “Well, you can take it at night at Queens [College].”

EE:

Take it and teach it. [chuckling]

EP:

Take it and teach it. [chuckling] And so that's how. So I left graduate school and taught in Charlotte at what we called—It was Central High School and then they changed the name to Garinger High School, because Mr. Garinger was a principal. I had a room of forty boys, and they used to sing that song, Where's Elmer? You remember? And Dr. Garinger would get so mad. He was the nicest gentleman. But anyway, so I took German out at Queens College four nights a week, and then I would come back to the school and—I taught some French and Spanish, both of which I had in college. But I had about twenty-one boys, because in those days you had to have two years of German in order to be in medicine. I don't think that's true now, but you had to have German to go into the medical world. I would have one boy read it and the boy back of him correcting. And of course I couldn't read it myself, and of course they finally caught on.

EE:

Words twenty-five cents apiece, yes. [chuckling] Oh, my!

EP:

Yes. But anyway, then after that, that was when I volunteered for the Red Cross, because the war had gotten really so pitiful.

EE:

Were you there at Queens College when Pearl Harbor happened? Where were you Pearl Harbor Day?

EP:

I'm trying to think where I was. I never even dreamed of that. Let's see, '30 to '40—

EE:

Forty-one. December of '41.

EP:

In '41 I was at Virginia. Wasn't that in December?

EE:

That's right, you were still there in December of '41.

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

Well, if you went in the fall of '39, you would have graduated in the spring of '41 if you took two years. Did you take more than two and a half years? Was it five semesters?

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

So you were still at Virginia?

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

Okay, and that's how you found out about it.

EP:

Yeah. And I wanted to go right then, but I had taken this—They called and said how desperately they needed language teachers, because all the men who taught had been drafted.

EE:

They were probably drafted to go translate for the military, I would think.

EP:

Yeah, he was drafted to Washington to translate German, you see.

EE:

Right. Did you tell your mom about you wanting to go and help?

EP:

No, my mother had died right when I went to college. She had died. She was a great gardener, and she was fifty-six and she was out in the garden and had a stroke and just went just like that. And that was when my sister who was married and living here said I could come live with her and Britt. They didn't have any children. Britt Armfield was a great [Universitiy of North] Carolina man, and my sister Jane went to Salem [College] and then she had to stop and go to work. And then after her husband's death, she went back and got a B.A. and an M.A. from Woman's College.

EE:

Wonderful. Did you tell the folks that you were anxious to get involved in the war effort somehow?

EP:

Oh, I just told them I was going. And I was sent to Washington, and they said, well, get on a ship from—Well, we went over to California and got on a ship that went to Hawaii and then went to Brisbane, [Australia].

EE:

So your first assignment was the other side of the world.

EP:

Way the other side of the world.

EE:

Did you think of joining any of the other services, or did you just have in mind, “I want to do Red Cross”?

EP:

Well, the thing is that you could get in the Red Cross with maybe two months training, whereas if you went in as a WAC [Women's Army Corps] or a WAVE [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—Navy] it was a much longer thing.

EE:

And when you say you went to D.C. for training, let me ask you about that. Because I've had one other person who went to the Red Cross and end up being in Morocco and Italy, but she wasn't real clear about the training. What was training like for you? Did they house you in a dormitory up there?

EP:

No, you'd stay wherever you were living or staying up there. They have a beautiful old building. Have you ever seen it?

EE:

The Red Cross in Washington?

EP:

Yes.

EE:

Yes.

EP:

Where Liddy [Elizabeth] Dole, you know, is.

EE:

Oh yes. Yeah, before I realized I was a Democrat, I was thinking we could invite her to something. [chuckling]

EP:

We won't talk about that, will we?

EE:

We'll take this off the transcript. But let's see, so you were there for two months?

EP:

Yes.

EE:

Did you specifically ask for an area?

EP:

No, you couldn't.

EE:

Couldn't?

EP:

You couldn't. I think some girls who had people in the service that they were trying to follow asked for London or someplace, you know, if they were—A lot of people wanted to go to London.

EE:

A chance to maybe see their loved ones overseas or their boyfriends?

EP:

Yeah, but I didn't care. I said I'd go anywhere.

EE:

So you weren't worried about leaving a boyfriend behind or anything?

EP:

No! Goodness no.

EE:

All right, smart for you. So you take the train across country. You have a Red Cross uniform on, I guess, when you get on the train?

EP:

Oh yeah, Camp Cooke I think is where we left from out in California. It took us three weeks, Eric.

EE:

Three weeks?

EP:

Three weeks to get to Australia.

EE:

If you survived the trip, I guess that was basic training. [chuckling]

EP:

Oh, right, yeah.

EE:

Brisbane is on the west coast?

EP:

Yeah, Brisbane is on the east coast, toward California, and it's right there where—New Guinea, you know, where our boys landed.

EE:

So New Caledonia, all that area up in there.

EP:

And then New Guinea is right up that way, and then you come down and then there's Brisbane, and then you go on down to Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide.

EE:

So just curving around the corner.

EP:

Down there on that coast. And then Perth was the farthest away, on the Indian Ocean.

EE:

Well, you arrive at Brisbane. Are you there with anybody else that you know?

EP:

No.

EE:

This whole time you're with people that you—

EP:

No, well, you know I'd see people from—In the States we'd have parades and stuff and you'd run into—I ran into a boy named Chubby King from Greensboro, and I think I saw Bill Beerman who was from Greensboro. Oh, it was wonderful seeing them. There were army people on the Brisbane side. Then you'd get over to western Australia and they were all Marines and [U.S.] Navy people and submarine people.

EE:

Was this the longest you'd been away from home folks?

EP:

Oh yeah, law! But Perth and Western Australia was the most beautiful place. We had the cutest little house on a lake, and it was called the Swan Lake because Perth is the only place in the world that has black swans. So we called our Red Cross club the “Swan Dive,” and they could come in and dance and do whatever they'd want to, and we'd write letters for them. Then when they would be sent to the hospitals in Perth we would go and write letters. We weren't nurses, but we did whatever the nurses asked us to do.

EE:

Right, wherever there was somebody who had some need, you took care of it.

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

Let me go back and get a few dates to make sure I've got it right. You go to Washington to join the Red Cross, and what time is that?

EP:

I think it was '43, and we went over there then, and I came home in September of '45 when the war was over. And that was when I told you about that article.

EE:

Right, right. So you left in—was it spring, summer, winter, fall? What time in '43 was it, do you remember? Of course, you switch seasons when you went across there, so—

EP:

Yeah, that's right. Christmas we spent on the beach. That was one— [chuckling]

EE:

Christmas of '43 was on the beach?

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

How long were you in Brisbane before you went to Perth?

EP:

You know, I really don't know. I think it was about three to five months, because that was when the war was moving over toward Okinawa and all in there and I was sent up to Subic Bay, [Philippines], very briefly. But the soldiers' part of the war had calmed down some, so that's why they sent us to Perth.

EE:

Yeah, because that was an area of very heavy fighting near where you were, and then as it lessened you went back.

EP:

That's right. New Guinea was rough! We lost a lot of Americans there.

EE:

I know back stateside there were some people who weren't altogether thrilled with women being a part of the military.

EP:

Oh, no!

EE:

Or having anything to do with the service. Was it a little bit better being in the Red Cross?

EP:

Well, I think it was in the extent that when you were overseas I think the Red Cross men and women meant a lot to those soldiers and sailors.

EE:

It was a little bit of home.

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

So you were three to five months in Brisbane?

EP:

Yes.

EE:

And in Brisbane where you at a hospital facility there, or was it a club, or where was it?

EP:

No. Oh, I wish I—I'll have to give you the picture. I guess I didn't get one, though, till I got to Perth. I always wanted to have a koala bear.

EE:

Oh yes.

EP:

Oh! We lived in a rooming house. Some Australian family—Listen, Eric, those Australians were the most wonderful people in the world to the Americans. And we would be controlled by the Japanese if it hadn't been for the Australians. They were wonderful to us! But I do remember getting this koala bear, and I was able to take him over to Perth. Take her, I named her Carolina, and she had a baby koala bear. And you know they never touch their paws on the ground, you know. They stay in trees. And I've got a picture that they took of me with the koala bear and the little baby. And I took it with me to—That's a good reason I wasn't on that plane. But anyway, I had to take a ship over to Hawaii, and when I got there the Americans wouldn't let me bring him to America. So I had to give him back to them. But, oh, koala bears are the cutest little things!

EE:

Oh, don't tell me that because my son really loves them. [chuckling] He's in love with them.

EP:

Oh, they are adorable! Tell him about Carolina.

EE:

Okay. So they do make good pets then?

EP:

Oh, they're wonderful, and gentle as can be!

EE:

So you got the koala bear in Brisbane and then took him with you to Perth?

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

Then they wouldn't let you bring him back.

EP:

Then when I left Perth and got over to—

EE:

Hawaii.

EP:

Hawaii, that's when they took it away from me.

EE:

Some of the slogans of the day for getting women involved in the war effort were “Free a man to fight.” Now you didn't have that thing, although it sounds like what you did was replace a man who went to fight, basically replaced a man in Charlotte who went off to the war.

EP:

Yeah, who was called to be a German translator.

EE:

And you probably replaced a man who went off to fight who would have been in graduate school.

EP:

Right.

EE:

But now you're in the Red Cross, and the job you're in the Red Cross is something—I think people think of the Red Cross in terms of emergencies, and they've got a pretty good handle of what it is. We have not, fortunately, in my generation and for a long time had a really big war effort where you had to have a big Red Cross.

EP:

Right.

EE:

What does the Red Cross do during wartime, that big a war operation?

EP:

Oh, they contact the families, we went to the hospitals and did everything we could for those boys. I mean, we learned to do bandages and all. We weren't trained nurses, but we learned to do, oh, anything to comfort them and help them get well. They called me “the Rebel.” [chuckling] There's the funniest thing this boy that was on a submarine said, “Rebel, you know what? You always make me feel homesick, because I lived up in Maine, and every winter when the wild geese were flying over my house going south for the winter, they'd go 'Waah! Waah! Waah!' and you just remind me of those geese.” [laughter] And of course they just kidded me about my twang till I could scream.

EE:

Oh yes. That's funny, you get a group of people from New Jersey in a room with a sharp accent and all they'll talk about is your accent. [chuckling]

EP:

That's right. Amen. But those boys, oh, they were so wonderful. I've been to a lot of their weddings. There was a wonderful law professor at the University of Virginia named Eager, and George Eager was about nineteen, and I guess I was—I can't think how old I was. I was about twenty-four, I think, and he was the—[speaking to her husband] Oh, he was a wonderful boy, wasn't he, George Eager, Rich?

RP:

Yeah.

EP:

And he died. You knew he died?

RP:

Yeah.

EP:

He was a great friend of Judy's and ours, Judy Burnett Davis and Burke Davis. Are you going to leave us?

RP:

I'm going to have to leave you temporarily.

EP:

Poor thing, he's going to play tennis.

EE:

Oh, it must be rugged. [chuckling]

EP:

I know, it's tough. You're great to face it.

RP:

Well, somebody has to do it.

EE:

Somebody has to whip on that little ball, that's right. [chuckling] The people that you were with in the hospital context, how long would they be in the hospital where you were?

EP:

Well, they'd get them back to America as soon as they could. They would get them—if they were able to fly. You know, if they were in good enough condition.

EE:

I know some of the people I've talked with who worked at the hospitals, it's like what we call a triage today. They had a hospital that was just for burn patients, just for blind, just for amputees.

EP:

Right.

EE:

Because you were so close to the front, I guess, comparatively, was that just any and everybody that you would see?

EP:

Yeah, any and everybody. You know what? I told you that I lived at the Hotel Lennon because there was no such thing as rooming houses or motels. And there was one hotel there, and I lived there with a girl named Jean Ferguson who was from Massachusetts, and she was a wonderful girl, and we lived next door to General and Mrs. [Douglas] MacArthur and their son. And this General MacArthur would go to that hospital in Perth to see those boys. Because a lot of times you don't hear the personal part of MacArthur, because I think he was a very—Well, he was a general and he was very—

EE:

He had a certain image he wanted to project.

EP:

That's right. But he went to see those boys in that hospital. Because they would come down from—And Mrs. MacArthur was very sweet and quiet, and a cute little boy.

EE:

Well, how was it that you—How did you get the baby-sitting job for them? Did you just bump into them on the street and say, “I'm your next-door neighbor,” or—?

EP:

No. Well, we had so few Americans over there that naturally in that—

EE:

You hear an accent and you say, “Oh!”

EP:

Yeah, and I got to know Mrs. MacArthur. And when the general would get to come in, he'd go take her to dinner and I'd go in there and just sit with their little boy. No such thing as a TV, you know, or radio.

EE:

No, no. That was when babysitting was work. You didn't just put them in front of a box.

EP:

That's right, you'd read the stories.

EE:

You entertained them. [chuckling]

EP:

Amen!

EE:

Well, that's fascinating. Did you keep up with them after the war?

EP:

You know, I never heard—I think I got an invitation to the MacArthur boy's wedding, but I was trying to think where I was. I think it was maybe in the fifties. Could it have been that long ago? I guess it would if he was [unclear].

EE:

It might have been, if he was just a little seven- or eight-year-old. But another ten or twelve years he would have been old enough probably to get married.

EP:

But I didn't get to go. And it seems to me it was in Norfolk, Virginia, was where the wedding was.

EE:

So a typical day for you—Did you all work seven days a week?

EP:

Oh, we worked seven days a week, morning, noon, and night.

EE:

So you just rotated shifts?

EP:

Morning, noon, and night, yeah. There were seven of us, and one of us—Two stayed in the hospital and the five of us took turns. I mean we were always there, all of us, somebody.

EE:

Right, but just rotated. It was the same schedule in Brisbane, and then again at the hospital in Perth?

EP:

Yeah. It was a little easier, I think, in Brisbane, because it was such a huge town, you know. Perth was a little city.

EE:

No place. [chuckling]

EP:

That's right.

EE:

And it's a long way, and a big desert between it and anyplace else. How did you get from Brisbane to Perth? Did you fly over there?

EP:

A C-47 took us. I don't think they had trains.

EE:

A train across that big desert, I'm not sure if they had them then.

EP:

Right.

EE:

And you say that when you got to Perth it was mainly Marines and [U.S.] Navy personnel.

EP:

Yeah, navy and submarine people. It was the biggest submarine base in the world.

EE:

Well, that's probably what made it a bigger town afterwards, because once you build that much stuff up there—

EP:

Oh yeah. And we had a lot of sadness when two or three of them were sunk. That was another thing, we spent a lot of that time writing letters about—you know, to the parents. You know, there were very few of them married then. You know, today most people in the army—

EE:

Would have been married, yeah.

EP:

Yeah. But no, these were all boys about nineteen and twenty.

EE:

Was that the hardest part about your job?

EP:

Yeah, that was the hardest, when those submarines wouldn't come back.

EE:

And I imagine you got to know the crew, because they probably had a few dances, I imagine, before they went out.

EP:

Oh yeah, we had a ball dancing.

EE:

This woman was talking about when she was in the Red Cross in Italy, whenever they got ten women together, time for a dance. [chuckling] It didn't matter what was going on that night, they'd have a dance. But I imagine that would be difficult to then—As I say about how long they were there, because once you get to know—My mom's a nurse, and once you get to know them it's hard to—

EP:

Nurses are the most valuable people in the world. Doctors are wonderful, but a patient can't get well without a good nurse.

EE:

No, I think you're right. You have to have care visibly demonstrated.

EP:

Yes.

EE:

Of course, that's what you all were doing. You all were demonstrating care [unclear].

EP:

My oldest sister was a nurse in Roanoke, Virginia, and she was a wonderful nurse. Good nurses just can't be beat.

EE:

Were you treated fairly professionally when you were over there?

EP:

Oh, no, they were so sweet. Those Australians loved us. The Aussies. We called them “the Aussies down under,” and we all learned to sing Waltzing Matilda. I could sing it better than the Star- Spangled Banner by the time I came home.

EE:

So did they say “G'day, mate” back then, too?

EP:

Oh yeah, and said “mate” [pronouncing it might]. And you have steak and eggs for breakfast.

EE:

Did you have vegemite back then as well? [chuckling]

EP:

Oh, Amen.

EE:

Some things haven't changed. You were there through—

EP:

Through the end of the war, and then I left in September. But see, that was the plane that went down. They were coming home the day after the war, and that's when it crashed.

EE:

Tell me about some days just before the end of the war, if you can remember the mood of folks out there. Do you remember hearing about D-Day, when we were finally invading Europe in June of '44?

EP:

Yeah, but they didn't dream it was anywhere near the end for us over there.

EE:

Because there was so far to go. And even when the war ended, nobody knew the atomic bomb was out there. So they all expected an invasion of Japan taking forever.

EP:

Yeah, absolutely. And we didn't think we'd get home for a long time, even when we—

EE:

Which made it doubly joyful to have it end so fast, didn't it?

EP:

Oh yeah, it was wonderful.

EE:

This famous scene, you know, of Times Square where the sailor is dipping the woman, I imagine that might have happened once or twice in Australia too.

EP:

Right. [chuckling] Australians are really wonderful people, and they love the Americans.

EE:

That's great. I think writing home might have been the hardest thing that you had to do with those folks.

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

What about physically? That three-week trip might have been pretty— [chuckling]—Was there some physical stuff?

EP:

No, you know, I was lucky. I don't remember getting seasick. And there were so many soldiers on the ship with us, those three weeks we spent our time trying to get with them and entertain them. Of course they were overjoyed, you know.

EE:

Did you all have USO [United Service Organizations] shows coming through?

EP:

Oh no, we didn't, not in Perth.

EE:

Oh, you didn't? Not in Perth?

EP:

No, we didn't have any USO.

EE:

Too much a business place?

EP:

Well, and Australia, you know, the Australians did everything they could. The USO went places where—

EE:

So the Australians had their entertainment for you then?

EP:

Yeah. They went to—I was trying to think whether they went to New Guinea. I don't believe they did. I'm trying to think where the closest one was. But I don't remember a USO show in Australia.

EE:

Let me ask you a practical question. You were in parts of the world that I imagine just a year or two before you never—If somebody would have said New Guinea or Pago Pago, [American Samoa], or—

EP:

You never heard [of] them.

EE:

You just never heard—Did people just have to go around with a map in their pocket? Because it seems like it really is—It's almost like this is America discovering the world, in a sense.

EP:

That's right.

EE:

Everybody in that experience, it's all new territory.

EP:

Well, you know, Australians—I always felt like I was living fifty years ago in America, because they were so far behind us. Women didn't have lipstick, they never heard of stockings. You know, it was unbelievable!

EE:

That's right. It's like being on the frontier.

EP:

Right, it really was. Oh, but they were so sweet to us! They would do anything for us. They were wonderful. We'd do anything for them.

EE:

Well, that experience, I think, would bring everybody—Having experienced it, there's no way anybody could ever forget it.

EP:

That's right, [unclear] could describe it.

EE:

Was there ever a time that you felt afraid or in personal danger?

EP:

You know, I never can remember it. I guess we were all working so hard. We'd go home, we'd fall in the bed, get up, and just day in and day out. I guess when you're in your early twenties you can take it.

EE:

That's right. You don't think about if life is going to last for a lot longer.

EP:

Right.

EE:

Somebody told us, “I went to come back.” [chuckling]

EP:

That's cute.

EE:

“I didn't think about it. I went to come back.” [chuckling]

EP:

Isn't that cute? That's wonderful. I want to show you something when you've finished.

EE:

Okay. Do you remember, if you were bringing comfort to these folks, were there some favorite songs or favorite movies from that time period that either those guys enjoyed or you enjoyed, that you remember?

EP:

No. Let's see, when was Gone With the Wind?

EE:

Well, that was '39.

EP:

Well, that they talked about. Yeah, I can remember that.

EE:

Well, I can imagine if “Reb”—

EP:

Yeah, “Rebel.”

EE:

That was in your consciousness. You weren't Scarlett, were you? [chuckling]

EP:

No, I was “Rebel.” I remember that. You know, I don't ever remember us having any American movies. We had a Victrola. A Victrola. No such thing as any—

EE:

No, long-play. You had to wind it up and—

EP:

Wind it up. Victrola. It had a dog on top of it, remember?

EE:

Oh yes.

EP:

What was the dog's name?

EE:

“His Master's Voice,” I remember that.

EP:

Right, right.

EE:

I don't remember the dog's name, but I remember that dog.

EP:

Yeah, I do too.

EE:

And the records were about that thick and weighed a ton. [chuckling]

EP:

Right, right.

EE:

Do you feel you contributed to the war effort?

EP:

Well, I don't think I contributed to the effort, but I had a wonderful time being with those servicemen. And they needed all the help and fun that they could get. Because I'll tell you, some of them would leave us and a lot of them didn't come back.

EE:

Were your sisters or brother involved in the war effort, too?

EP:

No, they were all aged out, because I was the youngest and all my sisters had finished school and—

EE:

All got married and had family, I guess.

EP:

Yes, they did.

EE:

I know the average age of soldiers was older then than it was in Vietnam. Were most of the women who were in the Red Cross with you about your age, or a little older?

EP:

Yeah, a little older. There were two people, I think, in their thirties, but it seems to me the submarine boys were young, nineteen and twenty and twenty-one.

EE:

Did you get your assignments through—Well, I find it hard to imagine that you'd get your assignments when you switched. You were probably assigned to the army, whatever the army said they needed, or—

EP:

No. I know when I got to Brisbane—they sent me to Brisbane to the American Red Cross, and it was there that I was sent over to the submarine base.

EE:

From Brisbane you were assigned.

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

So there was a commanding officer there.

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

Did you have a rank within the Red Cross?

EP:

No, no rank.

EE:

No rank, okay. You were in an environment where this question also seems—The question I have is what was the climate, the mood of folks, during the wartime? And I imagine there's a whole mix of feelings in the place you were at.

EP:

Oh yeah, in Australia, oh, they were so thankful to see the Americans. Oh, they were so thankful to see us! And I'll tell you, they saved us in New Guinea, though not so much in Perth because Perth was just—another world.

EE:

It was too far.

EP:

But those Australians loved the Americans! Oh, they were so grateful to the Americans. And we were so grateful to them!

EE:

Are there some interesting characters from that time period that stand out in your mind? Life brings you all sorts of interesting characters, but are there some from that time period that you recall?

EP:

Well, you know, because mostly I was with American boys, but I'll just try to think about that.

EE:

You already mentioned the man from Maine. [chuckling]

EP:

Oh yes, who said I sounded like a goose flying over his house.

EE:

That's right.

EP:

But you just felt like you'd known them all—Everybody was so friendly. I think they were all so far from home that they were thankful to lay eyes on somebody that would talk their way of talking.

EE:

You were in Perth, I guess, when you probably got the word that [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt had passed away.

EP:

Yeah. Was that in—?

EE:

What did people think about that? April of '45.

EP:

April of '45, that's right.

EE:

Just before the word came that the war ended in Europe.

EP:

Oh, it was certainly sad to me, because I thought he was a wonderful president.

EE:

I guess having met Mrs. Roosevelt, you felt sort of a—When you meet somebody in person, you sort of feel connected to them thereafter.

EP:

That's right. When was he elected, in '36?

EE:

Oh, goodness no, earlier than that.

EP:

Thirty-two.

EE:

Thirty-two. The only four-term president.

EP:

Yeah, because I remember when she came to get that cup of tea and I poured it on the tray. [chuckling]

EE:

Do you have some heroes from that time period, or heroines, people that you looked up to and thought—?

EP:

Well, of course General MacArthur seemed to have a better reputation then. I don't know why people don't—What is it about him? But right then I thought he was wonderful. And see, he was really the only—We saw captains in the Navy because they had to be a captain to be in charge of a submarine. Most of the boys I saw who would come to the Red Cross were enlisted men, you see, and it was wonderful because they just were so sweet and—

EE:

They were just down-home people anyway.

EP:

Uh-huh, unspoiled. We didn't get to the officers' clubs any.

EE:

You didn't run into any attitudes about “You women stay out of here” and do that—

EP:

Right.

EE:

Because I've had stories of people who were kept out of the officers club and desperately needed something just to drink just to relax. So those folks were sort of your heroes, I guess, the people who were on the lines and were doing the work.

EP:

Yeah. Oh, that were doing the job that had to be done.

EE:

You were in Perth when you heard about VJ [Victory in Japan] Day, and Roosevelt too, I guess, at the end of the war.

EP:

Let's see, yeah, forty—

EE:

Forty-five.

EP:

April '45. That's right, I was.

EE:

Then the news comes that the war has ended in Europe, but you all can't celebrate an awful lot because that doesn't really affect what you all were doing.

EP:

Nothing, absolutely.

EE:

And then the atomic bomb happens. And then the man that you babysat for is in Tokyo Harbor.

EP:

Right.

EE:

How did that make you feel, that he was the one? He was the one, the guy who paid you for babysitting [chuckling] is there taking the surrender.

EP:

That's right. Wasn't that thrilling that he could it. I'm so glad.

EE:

And I imagine that you could—

EP:

What was that famous saying, “We shall return”?

EE:

That's right, “I shall return.”

EP:

“I shall return.”

EE:

To the Philippines, and he did.

EP:

That's right. And he did, that's right.

EE:

And then to go into the harbor on the Missouri. And then I can imagine you probably could see yourself right there and watch what he was doing that day, knowing his personality.

EP:

Absolutely!

EE:

That's great. When you came back, when you finally got the right plane—and you got back to stateside, what did you plan on doing? Did you just want to relax for a while?

EP:

Well, you know, I'm trying to think. I got back in September, and Rich—This house is where Rich's mother and daddy and Rich lived, and I lived right across the golf course, and we got together some then and we got engaged—

EE:

So you all hadn't really dated before the war then?

EP:

No, we had always been close friends, our two families, and Rich's dad was quite a matchmaker, and so he would match up his sons. He's got five sons he worked on. [laughter]

EE:

He had practice. [chuckling]

EP:

And Rich was the next to oldest, and we had—

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

EE:

All right, well, you said Rich was on destroyers in the North Atlantic.

EP:

Rich was on destroyers in the North Atlantic. In fact, one time he was all the way down to Brazil and he waved to Roosevelt on a boat. Roosevelt was on a big—I don't know what it was, whether it was a carrier or not, but his destroyer pulled up beside it and he got to wave at President Roosevelt. Well, he was in the North Atlantic from—He got right out of Princeton in June of '41 and he volunteered and went to what they called the “90-day wonder school,” which was at Northwestern in Chicago, Northwestern University. They trained for ninety days and then they were made a lieutenant jg [junior grade], and he was sent right straight on a destroyer. He was in the Atlantic for two years and he was in the Pacific for a little over two years, and he just was telling a young boy that came here about how he was at Okinawa and there was a fleet of destroyers and his one was the only one that was not sunk. And he got to come on home after the war. I think it was about the same time I did. I think he came in December.

EE:

The testing time that you all went through emotionally, mentally—I mean, I can just imagine being out there in the middle of no place in the open ocean and there's your president.

EP:

Waving!

EE:

That's got to make you feel like “Let's go fight if he's out there with us.”

EP:

It was thrilling. Yeah, it's all worth it.

EE:

That's right, “He's out there with us.”

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

And then to live through that.

EP:

I wish he were here to tell you that, because it was in Brazil, I know that.

EE:

Well, that's wonderful. You know, Mr. [Tom] Brokaw has got a book out called The Greatest Generation.

EP:

Oh yeah, we're reading it. It's great.

EE:

And you can see why. Each generation has a different set of challenges.

EP:

Right.

EE:

You all had two of the biggest with the Depression and the war. It's amazing the stories I hear from your household and other places, and I just—you know, thank you. [chuckling] What impact do you think that your experience in the Red Cross had on your life, long-term, short-term? How did it change you as a person?

EP:

I don't know, it made me mighty grateful, I'll tell you. I think that plane crashing with those girls dying right there in front of me, and six submarine commanders, after they'd been through all that war four years.

EE:

And end in a plane crash.

EP:

And it was a C-47. They claimed that the C-47 was overloaded was why it crashed. But it changed my life, because it made me realize how lucky we were.

EE:

You just don't take things for granted?

EP:

No. [chuckling]

EE:

And you say thank you every night and you're glad to see the next morning. [chuckling]

EP:

That's right.

EE:

Did your time overseas make you a more independent person than what you would have been?

EP:

Yeah, I guess it would.

EE:

You sound pretty independent to begin with.

EP:

Well, yeah, I think we got plenty of feelings about being independent when you go through all that. I tell you, the American Red Cross is a great organization and I just love being a part of it. I work here in the Red Cross, and have ever since I came back to Greensboro. We have a wonderful chapter here. We're connected some with the Winston-Salem chapter, too.

EE:

Are they organized by—just the major counties have them, or how do they organize?

EP:

I'm trying to think. There's one in every big town, I think. High Point has one, and Winston and Greensboro, Thomasville.

EE:

I know a lot of them they do—in peacetime, I guess, without an emergency it's the blood bank basically is their big function.

EP:

Yeah. Oh, the blood bank. Think of the lives it's saved.

EE:

Some folks when they look back at this time period and they think about all the women doing things that heretofore only men had been doing, say, well, you know, this really is the start of the women's lib[eration] movement—not the talking about it but the women going and doing it.

EP:

Yes!

EE:

Do you think of yourself as part of that group that went out and showed they could do it?

EP:

No, law, I never knew what it meant. I mean I just thought that was part of your job.

EE:

It was your job, you just—

EP:

Yeah.

EE:

So you don't think of yourself as a women's libber in that sense?

EP:

No, I don't. Golly, no.

EE:

Have any of your kids been in the military?

EP:

Our oldest son, when he finished Princeton in '71, he was not—You know, they put capsules to draw you out to see if you'd go to Vietnam, and his name was never drawn, so he volunteered for the Peace Corps. And he was supposed to go to somewhere in South America, but he was sent to—Oh law, where was it? Not Puerto Rico but—San Juan? No. Because we went down there to see him. But he was in the Peace Corps for two years and he taught the people how to plant rice. [chuckling] I mean, they were starving to death. And then our next child, Mary Norris, who finished at Carolina, went into the—What was that program that—Vista?

EE:

Yes.

EP:

Vista, and she was sent to Lexington, Kentucky. She served there for two years and then came home and went to law school. And then Britt finished Davidson [College] and he wanted to get in the Naval Air Corps, but he—I'm thinking that maybe his eyesight kept him from it. And then by that time Jane came along. She went to Carolina, and there were no—The Vietnam War was over then, wasn't it, because she finished in '76.

EE:

Seventy-five. Well, I guess we stopped in '72 probably. When did we get out?

EP:

Seventy-four.

EE:

Seventy-four, because '75 was when we gave it all over to the South Vietnamese and said, “It's yours.”

EP:

Right, and so Jane went to graduate school at Carolina and got an M.A. in government—nonprofits, I believe, and that's what she's doing in Chapel Hill, you know. She's head of the North Carolina Defense Fund, and she's fighting these hog people. [chuckling]

EE:

Some of Lauch's [Senator Lauch Faircloth] friends?

EP:

[chuckling] Oh, lawsy me! There was an editorial in the Greensboro paper about the hogs, what awful things they were doing. So Jane wrote the Daily News what a wonderful editorial it was, and so they called her back and said, “Can we print it?” And I said, “Oh, law, Jane.” [chuckling] Anyway, Emily finished Princeton in '81, so she went to law school. Now she was in your class, wasn't she?

EE:

That's right.

EP:

She went right straight to law school. And she worked for a while in Washington for—I forget the name of the firm, but she had a good time. I don't know how she met Richard Fountain. She married Richard Fountain from Rocky Mount, whose granddaddy was a wonderful man. He was Speaker of the House years ago, Mr. Richard Fountain. I can't think of that law firm. And she worked for Smith Helms in Raleigh for a while after she got married.

EE:

Right. They keep adding names to that firm, I think. Smith Helms Mullis and Moore. [chuckling]

EP:

Yeah, it's got some, doesn't it? [chuckling]

EE:

Well, these law firms are just getting longer and longer. They've chopped off—I think in Winston, was it, it was Petrie Stockton Robinson, and then Petrie Stockton and Kirkpatrick Stockton, or whatever it is now.

EP:

You know who I just loved over in Winston was Mr. Irving Carlisle. You know that firm that is now Womble Carlisle Sandridge and Rice?

EE:

That's right.

EP:

He was the sweetest man, Eric. I was on the committee—I was a trustee—Carolina [the UNC system] started out with Carolina, State [North Carolina State University], and Woman's College.

EE:

When it was the consolidated university.

EP:

Consolidated university. And Irving Carlisle and about four of us started the Carlisle Commission, and that's how we got sixteen branches. He was a wonderful man.

[Discussion of Centenary Church not transcribed]

EE:

If your daughters wanted to join the military, or your granddaughters, what would you tell them?

EP:

I'd tell them—

EE:

Join the Red Cross? [chuckling]

EP:

I'd say, “You do what you feel that you have to do.”

EE:

Okay. So having seen firsthand war, you're not concerned that—If they're mentally able to handle it, you say okay?

EP:

Won't be against it, that's right.

EE:

Because I know just for the first time in December we sent women into combat the first time with fighter pilots over in Iraq. And that's all right with you, if the women are—?

EP:

If the women feel they can do it. I mean, it's a very personal decision, isn't it?

EE:

That's right. We've gone through a lot. There's a lot more about your life and contributions to the university and the town and Chapel Hill and everything else I'd love to talk to you about, but that's all I wanted to get through in these questions about your service overseas today. But is there anything that we haven't talked about about that time that you'd like to add?

EP:

No, I just want to do like Louis Armstrong said, “Keep on keeping on.” [chuckling] You know, Rich is a great jazz man. In fact, when he was at Princeton Count Basie offered him a job to play in his band, saxophone. And Rich was a sophomore and he said, well, he didn't know what his parents would say. And what he meant by that, whether they'd let him leave college. But Count Basie considered it a racial thing and he said, “Preyer, we don't draw the color line in our band.” And so Rich really wanted to join, but anyway—I don't know how I got on that, do you?

EE:

[chuckling] Talking about all the different things people have done in their life.

EP:

I know there was some definite reason you asked me something.

EE:

Well, if there's anything we hadn't talked about that you wanted to add.

EP:

No, I don't know of anything.

EE:

You were talking about Louie Armstrong. You went from Louie Armstrong to Count Basie.

EP:

Oh, that's right.

EE:

You're just going through your record collection. I understand.

EP:

Right. Oh, Rich does love that hot jazz. Oh! And he's got some of them, a real collection. He's collected ever since he was a—His mother's got a picture of him when he was about three years old standing up, and he couldn't read but he could tell by the grain of the record what one he wanted to hear. You know, he could feel it and know which one it was he wanted to play.

EE:

He just had a sense from the beginning, huh?

EP:

Yeah, loved that music. Loved that music.

EE:

Well, thank you very much, Mrs. Preyer, and we'll look forward to sitting down and maybe having you come and see—We're going to do another exhibit in November, another lunchtime thing, so hopefully you can get over to that.

EP:

Good. It's an honor to be with you, Eric.

[End of interview]