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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Ruth Petker

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Object ID: WV0125.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Ruth Kent Petker’s service in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1943 to 1945.

Summary:

Petker chiefly discusses airplane mechanics training in Norman, Oklahoma, and her service at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, during World War II. Petker speaks about getting her papers together to apply for the WAVES; living arrangements and mess cooking while at basic training at Hunter College; job choices in the WAVES; the layout of the base in Norman; and being confused by hydraulics.

Petker also describes the nice accommodations in Jacksonville; working in the assembly and repair shop; instrument training; checking the gasoline in her airplane trainer; attitudes of male navy officers toward the WAVES; plane crashes; guiding planes in for landings; a friend’s boyfriend who disappeared while flying; socializing between WAVES and enlisted men; singing barbershop songs; meeting fighter pilots who had downed Japanese planes; her reaction to the atomic bombs; VJ Day celebrations; and the phony Hollywood portrayal of WAVES.

Petker also briefly describes her life before and after her military service, including her education in art.

Creator: Ruth Kent Petker

Biographical Info: Ruth K. Petker (1923-2005) of Greensboro, North Carolina, served as an aviation and machinist mate in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) from February 1943 to November 1945.

Collection: Ruth Kent Petker 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:

EE:

Today is December the first, 1999, and my name is Eric Elliott, and I'm with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro [UNCG], the Women Veterans Historical Project. Today I'm at the home of Ruth Petker in Greensboro, North Carolina. Thank you, Ms. Petker, for having me over here.

RP:

My pleasure.

EE:

And we're going to do an interview for our Women Veterans project, and I'm going to ask you the same tough question that I ask everybody right off the bat. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

RP:

Greensboro.

EE:

Right here in town? Did you have any brothers and sisters?

RP:

Yes. I'm the middle one of seven. I had an older brother, two older sisters, then me and then another sister, another brother, and then another sister.

EE:

That is about as middle as you can get, isn't it? What did your folks do for a living?

RP:

My daddy was a pipe organ builder and piano tuner.

EE:

I have a good friend of mine who's very much into the history of pipe organs. It's nice to know that. And I guess with seven kids, your mom pretty much wrangled the household.

RP:

Right.

EE:

So you graduated from high school here in Greensboro?

RP:

I graduated Greensboro Senior High School in 1941.

EE:

Were you somebody who liked school growing up?

RP:

No. Well, I was out of school about as much as I was in anyway because I was sick a lot. But I got over it when I was about fourteen.

EE:

When did you graduate from high school?

RP:

Forty-one.

EE:

Forty-one. And I guess by then it had switched over to a twelve-year high school? This was during the transition. What did you do when you finished high school?

RP:

I went to work at Woolworth's.

EE:

The one down on Elm Street or—

RP:

Yes, the historic one.

EE:

Yes, that's right. You got it in history. How long did you do that job?

RP:

About a year or so. I don't remember really.

EE:

Were you living at the house at that time?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

If you were there working in the fall of '41, were you working the day that Pearl Harbor happened?

RP:

Well, Sunday was when Pearl Harbor happened. I got up and went to church, came home, and we were at war. But I was employed there, because I remember when President Roosevelt declared war, there was flags all over the place. I don't know where they came from, but they were up on masts all up and down Elm Street.

EE:

Maybe somebody knew something was going to come eventually. They just brought them out and didn't know how.

RP:

And the newsboys were running around with “Extra! Extra!” [laughter]

EE:

Well, when did you get the idea—Forty-one, forty-two, what did you do after working at Woolworth's for a year?

RP:

I worked for Burlington Industries.

EE:

At a hosiery plant?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Was it from that job that you decided to join the service?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

This was '43, I guess, when you joined the service.

RP:

Because that's when I was just old enough. You had to be twenty to get in, and I was chomping at the bit until the time came.

EE:

Well, what was the thing that got you first thinking about joining the service in the first place?

RP:

The war. And then, too, I was always fascinated by the navy, and every time something came out about women in the navy, I'd read all about it, read everything that came out. So when my—I was going to be twenty on Tuesday. On the Saturday morning before, Mother said, “There's a lady down at the recruiting office. Let's go see her.” It was a WAVE [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service] officer, you know.

EE:

Well, that was nice of your mom.

RP:

Well, I was chomping at the bit anyway for a long time. So we went down and got all the papers together, and it wasn't easy to get in then. You had to get three letters of recommendation, one from a former schoolteacher, one from a former employer, then an interested party, and you had to go to your doctor and get the whole rigmarole of physical.

EE:

The shots, the tests, and everything else.

RP:

Not the shots, just a clean bill of health complete, you know.

EE:

Right.

RP:

And then when I got it all together, I went down and took all those papers—Mother went with me everywhere I went. And see, the only regulation clothes we had then were our suits and shirts and ties, and shoes were—just had to be black oxfords. They weren't regulation. You just got enclosed oxfords. So I had to buy underwear, white—two pair of white gloves, two pair of black gloves, and things of that sort, all your underwear.

EE:

All of this came out of your pocket?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

So you had to really want to join.

RP:

Yes. So I went down to see the man in the recruiting office, and he said, “Well, you're not twenty-one yet. You have to go get your father to sign the papers.”

EE:

Your mother wasn't good enough?

RP:

They just said father because Daddy ruled the roost in those days. So I went home and told Daddy, and he said, “Oh, is that so?” He made a big production out of it, signing those papers. So then that was in February, so in March I reported to duty at Hunter College in Bronx, New York, Hunter College Annex.

EE:

Was that your first big trip away from home?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

First time riding on a train?

RP:

No.

EE:

Did you have any other friends or brothers and sisters who went in the service?

RP:

My oldest brother was in the army, and that's all.

EE:

And he'd been drafted, or did he volunteer?

RP:

He volunteered. He'd been in the National Guard, so he just volunteered to go in.

EE:

Right. And your parents didn't—other than your dad giving the dramatic production, they didn't give you any—they weren't concerned about you joining the service then? They were supportive?

RP:

Very supportive.

EE:

That's good. What do you remember about Hunter College?

RP:

It was a college.

EE:

Well, that's your first question. Now, when you grow up with six brothers and sisters, I guess you've already been used to group living, but it is a different experience, being in a barracks with forty strangers.

RP:

Well, what they did up there in the Bronx was they emptied out some apartment houses in the neighborhood of the Hunter College Annex up there on Jerome Avenue.

EE:

Yes.

RP:

And anybody that knows the Bronx will know where the Kingsbridge Armory is, and we were very close to that. We drilled over there on rainy days and things. And it's catty-corner from my apartment house.

EE:

Okay. So it wasn't that far.

RP:

And then the school was about a block, a long block, the other direction. They had an auditorium and classrooms so we went to orientation and things and tests in the classrooms.

EE:

Right. You had to be one of the early classes of WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] going in, did you not? March of '43?

RP:

Well, fairly, because the first ones went to Cedar Falls or somewhere in Iowa.

EE:

Cedar Falls, Iowa, right.

RP:

And that was the third class at Hunter.

EE:

At Hunter. Okay.

RP:

With us came the first, the very first, enlisted Marines [U.S. Marine Corps Women's Reserve]. The Marines and the SPARs [from “Semper Paratus—Always Ready”—U.S. Coast Guard] and the WAVES all had their boots—what they called [unclear].

EE:

Were most of your instructors men or women that early on at Hunter?

RP:

Both.

EE:

Both? Did you have men do the drill and women do the classes?

RP:

Yes. We had these nasty marines do the drill instruction.

EE:

They give you the complete DI [drill instructor] language, too, or were they more—

RP:

No, they were just gung-ho, really regimented.

EE:

What was a typical day like for you, do you remember?

RP:

Well, see, the earliest ones who came had to get up real early, and the chow hall was over there on the campus, too.

EE:

So you had to march across for breakfast?

RP:

Yes, and you had to be in and out in fifteen minutes. Then the next class would come in, and they'd be behind us, so they got up about a half an hour later than we did, and then the next class would get up an hour later than we did, and they'd go over. So maybe our day would start at 4:30, and they'd go down to whatever—

EE:

And then you'd rotate, I guess.

RP:

Yes. And as we progressed, we got to sleep a little later.

EE:

You were there for about what, eight weeks, I guess was training?

RP:

About five and a half.

EE:

Five and a half, that short. When you joined, did they give you an option of what kind of work you wanted to do?

RP:

Yes, if you qualified. See, a lot of girls were already secretaries or medical technicians and things of that sort, and they just went and interviewed and took tests right on the spot, and they would get out of boot camp with a rating already. But me, I knew nothing, had no idea what I was going to do. So in the orientation lectures, they'd say, “If you don't have any idea of what you want to do, go in the medical corps.” So I put down medical corps, and they said, “Well, you have to have a second choice.”

I said, “Well, I don't know what.”

So the ensign looked over my grades, because part of your tests were aptitude and I don't know what all, I guess intelligence and things, you know. He said, “Well, your qualifications from your tests show you'd make a good aviation machinist's mate,” because I'd made a hundred in barnyard physics. Have any idea what that is? I remember one of the questions was, like I'd sit here and I'd see a man way over there on the other side of the park, and he's hitting something with a hammer. I can see it go down and hit that object, but the sound would come late. And just for relating things like that.

EE:

Right. How far away is he depending on—

RP:

No, it's not how far, but when you would hear it.

EE:

Right.

RP:

Just common sense mainly.

EE:

Right. Right.

RP:

So then the more I got to thinking about it and talking to the kids, they said, “You'd be better off in aviation than in the medical corps,” so when I went to have an interview with a doctor about going into the medical corps, I told him that I'd gotten bit by this aviation bug. So he said, “Well, I'll turn you down for lack of interest.” So the chief yeoman out there, or specialist of some kind, a man, said, “How'd you do?”

“Oh, I turned it down.”

“You get back in there and volunteer. They won't let you [unclear].”

So when they—they gave you two choices of where you wanted to go, whether you wanted to go to Norman, Oklahoma, or Memphis, Tennessee, to go to school. I asked for Memphis, Tennessee, so they sent me to Norman, Oklahoma.

EE:

That sounds like typical service procedure.

RP:

So we had a troop train ride from New York to Oklahoma for a couple of days, just five cars of us tomboys.

EE:

Oh, my goodness. That's a lot of women in one spot.

RP:

And tomboys, too. So we made it to Oklahoma okay, but some of the kids had, I guess, had heard from other kids going there ahead of time, you know?

EE:

Right.

RP:

I didn't mix real well like that. I mean, you had to dig in there, but some did, you know, and they'd heard all about what was out there. Well, when you get to Oklahoma and go from Oklahoma City out to Norman, it's like going across a great big meadow or something full of oil wells, pumps.

EE:

I guess that's right. That's right.

RP:

There's a cute little thing there. There's a little track, had a little trolley on it, and you go back and forth to Oklahoma City and back to Norman. See, the University of Oklahoma is at Norman, and there goes the “Toonerville Trolley”—have you ever heard of the Toonerville Trolley? Well, way back yonder in the funny papers, the Toonerville Trolley was just a little dilapidated heap of—it looked like an outhouse more than a trolley on rails that went back and forth.

EE:

Well, now that you mention it, Charlotte has rebuilt their trolley system, and I took my kids down to it every Thanksgiving, and somebody had made a reference in their little paper about the Toonerville Trolley. Now it makes sense. They were referring back to the comic strip. Okay. So where the school—were you all held on the campus of the university or separate to it?

RP:

No, that far. Well, it was a big base in the—up in this corner near the university was the WAVES' area. Our barracks and mess hall was up there.

EE:

Now, this wasn't a navy base in Norman, Oklahoma?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

I just have a hard time thinking fifty years later what in the world the navy's doing protecting the ocean in Oklahoma.

RP:

The aviation.

EE:

All right. It's aviation. That's right. Okay.

RP:

It was in the Dust Bowl. All that greenery—blah, and there we were.

EE:

Right.

RP:

Then there was a big barn, a recreation center for dances and concerts and things next to us, and then all the canteens, and way over on the other side is where the men lived. So we were pretty well separated.

EE:

Right. And how long were you there at Norman, then, for a month or so or—

RP:

Six months.

EE:

Six months. That's pretty long training.

RP:

Well, we had mess cooking for four weeks before we started school, and then the school was actually about five months.

EE:

What was the schooling like? What did they teach you? What were you trained to do?

RP:

Well, every week there was a different subject. First you took up this part of an airplane, that part of an airplane, theory of flight, nomenclature, and all the mechanics of the airplane, you know, going through and looking in the guts of it.

EE:

Sounds interesting. Did you enjoy it?

RP:

Yes. But one thing I could not get the hang of was hydraulics, and hydraulics works on the theory of the path of least resistance. So like when you're braking your car, when you put your foot down—it used to be hydraulic brakes. I don't know what they are now. But that fluid would go down and expand the brakes on the wheels, see? And that would stop the car. But what they had us doing—certain lines were blue, some were gold, and some were red, and it meant they went to certain places, items on the airplane, like the flaps and the wheels, putting the wheels up and down and stuff. I just couldn't keep it all straight. You had to know what each valve was and everything like that.

EE:

Right. A very complicated machine. What kind of planes were you working on, all different kinds or PBYs [patrol bombers] or—

RP:

Mostly Stearman trainers. They were just what we'd never apply again.

EE:

Right. I guess this probably was the first school they had for this. Was this the first time they'd had this school? Were you in the first group?

RP:

No. There were several groups that got there before us.

EE:

After you stayed five months at Norman, where were you stationed after that?

RP:

Well, I asked for Miami, Florida, and they sent me there.

EE:

Shock of shocks.

RP:

Yes. They gave me a ticket from Oklahoma City to Memphis, Memphis to Birmingham, [Alabama], Birmingham to Atlanta, [Georgia], Atlanta to Jacksonville, [Florida], and Jacksonville to Miami. So I had delayed orders. I had eleven days to get there. So when I got to Atlanta I got off the navy ticket and got my own ticket and came to Greensboro for eight days then went back to Atlanta and took up again and went on down. Got down to Miami at Opa-locka Air Base. The barracks there was an old night club. It looked real good on the outside, but on the inside was where they'd torn everything away from the walls and stuff and never fixed up the walls and just rows of bunks and lockers. So they said, “Well, we don't need you here.” So after three days they gave us new orders.

EE:

How many did they send down to Opa-locka?

RP:

Well, from Norman maybe ten, I think, went. But one girl went on down there, and then we, six of us, were sent back to Jacksonville on Thanksgiving Day.

EE:

This would have been '43?

RP:

Yes. Well, the thing of it was, like that train trip I was talking about, whenever I had to make—to change trains, they'd have an hour or two, so in between trains I'd go out and walk around the town and look it over a bit.

EE:

Tight.

RP:

But when I got to Jacksonville going down, I walked out and looked at that place, says, “Ahh.” I went back in and bought a magazine.

EE:

Well, now, Jacksonville's a nice big city on the waterfront now. But it wasn't then, I take it.

RP:

Close to the railroad station. But when we came back and we got out to the naval air station there, they took us to barracks that were built for us, for midshipmen, really.

EE:

Right.

RP:

We had rooms.

EE:

A room as opposed to a big hall.

RP:

Yes. So we had two double-decker bunks, two closets, a table and four chairs, and a washbasin and two medicine cabinets, which is comfortable.

EE:

Sounds like you could live there.

RP:

And chests of drawers too.

EE:

Is that when you started your work, then, as a mechanic?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

When you actually worked as a mechanic, did you work 8:00 to 5:00, five days a week, or did you rotate shifts? What was the work like?

RP:

Well, I went to work called Assembly and Repair [A&R] Shop, which is just like a great big factory, and there's about 80 percent civilians there anyway. They were very jealous of their jobs. So we went to—

EE:

I imagine they were pretty well-paying jobs, I would think.

RP:

Government jobs, yes. My first assignment was to work with two men. See, the thing was, the airplane flies just so much. After it flies thirty hours, it has to go for a certain check, after sixty hours, a more extensive check, at 120 hours a really knock-down, drag-out check over an airplane. Then after it flies so many hours, they just take them into the A&R shop and tear them down and rebuild them. So I was in this—our crew, we tore down engines. I loved it when it was all over.

EE:

Well, you know, I talked with somebody, I guess who was in the SPARs, and she grew up working on tractors so she knew her engines, and they got her in, and she was fixing the engines, and her CO [commanding officer] came by and saw her covered with grease one day and says, “That's not for a woman to do,” and she went up to office.

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Now, I'm impressed that they let you all do that work.

RP:

You ain't heard nothing yet.

EE:

All right. Tell me more.

RP:

This is the week after Thanksgiving, right?

EE:

Okay.

RP:

Somebody got a bright idea they were going to transfer fifty-five men from squadrons, flying squadrons, to A&R and take ten of us [WAVES] and send us over to the squadron. So the weekend—we were supposed to go home for Christmas, but they couldn't find everybody, so we went there right after New Year's. No, wait a minute. We went right after Christmas. That's it, because my chief [at A&R] had promised me five days and eight hours leave to come home over Christmas. You could get either Christmas or New Year's. I asked for Christmas. I got New Year's.

So after Christmas they gathered us all together and took us over to the squadron. They said ha ha ha, you leave, but this chief was a twenty-six-year man and he was as salty as all get out, just a—so he saw me over in the cafeteria, and he said, “Can't you get your leave?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “I promised it to you, and you're going to get it.” And he went over to the squadron, and he gave them hell over there. They came out—the chief came out on the line and said, “How long you been in the navy?”

I said, “About ten and a half months.”

He said, “How much leave you had?”

I said I hadn't had any.

He said, “How about boot leave?”

I said, “I didn't get any boot leave. I went straight to Norman.”

He said, “All right.” So they gave me my five days and eight off.

My brother was home from Trinidad. That was the first time I got to see him in four years.

EE:

That's great.

RP:

So then we got back and settled down. Well, in the squadron—it was a fighter squadron that they trained pilots who already had their commission and wings to—would you like a Coke?

EE:

Oh, I'm fine. If you want something, I'll stop this and you can get something to drink.

RP:

Well, they already had their commission. So this where they got the operations training for carrier duty.

I'll be right back.

EE:

All right. I'll stop it right here.

[Tape recorder paused]

EE:

[Looking at pictures] I guess you were at Jacksonville Naval Air Station?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

And then this squadron is just another part of that same complex.

RP:

Yes. We had two fighter squadrons. Then we had Beechcraft trainers. Then on down—see, the river went all the way around the base, and down at the far end of the riverfront, they had PBYs and other hangars. When I first got in the fighter squadron, they had F4Fs, they were small fighters. Then they got—well, then we wound up with F4Us, the Corsairs. They were the best fighter planes they ever built until the jet age.

EE:

And what was your work when you were with the squadron?

RP:

Well, they had trainer planes, single-wing trainer planes called SNJs [two-place advanced trainers]. They were made in Texas, and they were called the Texans. The army called them AT6s. The pilots—they had two cockpits, and the instructors would take the pilots up, put them in the back cockpit, and pull the hood over them, and they'd do the instrument flying in those airplanes. So we had to get out there and—see, the first flying schedules were at eight o'clock, and we'd get out there sometime after seven and turn them up, check them out, see if they're ready to go up in the air, see the pilots off, and to lead them out.

EE:

Well, now was this—the crew that was doing this, the ground crew, was it all women or were you mixed with men as well?

RP:

Out there on that line was all women, but each girl had an airplane to herself, right? So my airplane was mine. Not anybody else—

EE:

You had to be responsible for all this maintenance and everything else?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

It sounds like—you know, the slogan back then was “Free a man to fight.” Sounds like that's certainly what you did when you were in that job, wasn't it?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Did you ever have anybody give you any static about sending a man off to war?

RP:

No, they didn't come right out and say it like that, but they just resented it. In fact, the personnel officer and some chief petty officer just laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed when we showed up to report, to come on board. You know, here we are. We said, “What are you laughing at?” It just couldn't register in their little bitty minds.

EE:

Right.

RP:

But see, the executive officer out at Norman said the women could do anything a man could except become a father, and then they had one up on the men there, too. [laughter]

EE:

Well, your CO at Jacksonville, was that another WAVE or was that—

RP:

No.

EE:

Okay, that was a regular—

RP:

It was all men. The whole squadron organization topside was men. They had a flight officer who ran the show and the personnel officer, and then there was a skipper. When I got there, the skipper was a full commander. So he says, “Okay. If you're going to be out here, you'll have to do the same kind of duty that men do.” So one of the spot assignments was to stand out on the runway with flags and flag the planes in to see if they had their landing gear and their flaps down.

EE:

Sort of like being that fellow who stands in front of William Tell and puts the apple on his head and say, “Okay. Shoot me. I trust you. I'm going to stand out there and make sure that you get your landing gear down.”

RP:

Well, see, there's a man on board the aircraft carrier that does that as a business, and they have to watch him for sure. But they didn't look at us very much. We'd stand there—standing there like this, which is—straight out like this, “Roger,” and they'd come on in. So one time a man came in, fat, dumb, and happy, no flaps, no wheels, but the ordinance crew was out there. See, another thing they did was, the ordinance crew had a great big old sleeve that hooked to an airplane, and when it took off they'd throw the sleeve and the plane would tow it.

EE:

Right.

RP:

And the pilots would shoot it. And their bullets had crayon colors on them so when they brought the sleeve down, they could see—

EE:

Tell who got the hits.

RP:

Yes. So there's an ordinance crew out there and me, and I was jumping up and down giving him a wave off, and he never looked, and the ordinance crew was waving their hats and whistling and carrying on, and his prop disk, I'm sure, was that high off the mat. We looked around and caught on and he gunned up [and] took off. I would have been crucified if he had crashed that plane. [laughter] But I did everything I could, and everybody else did it, too.

EE:

Were there ever any accidents out there when you were out there?

RP:

Oh, yes. But nothing like—not from that, but just miscalculating landings and sometimes the plane would just come in and cartwheel. For some mysterious reason, one man brought his plane in crosswind and just splattered it all over the mat, tarmac there. The engine was rolling thataway and just pieces of airplane—of course, he didn't live to tell about it.

EE:

Because this is training, I imagine the folks who were being trained there were only there for what, about a—how long were they there, a month or so?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Because they had been flying elsewheres. Just they're learning to fly on this short takeoff, short landing for carriers, which I guess is a new thing in the war, really. We didn't have carriers in the First World War.

RP:

Well, for fast airplanes like that, yes. And they kept building them bigger and bigger, you know? We had some auxiliary fields out in the boondocks, just tar laid out to look like a carrier deck, and the instructors would come out there and give them what they called touch and go. They'd come down to land and take off again, go around, and they'd practice it again and again. The instructors talked to them on the radio while they were flying.

EE:

I guess when you talk about people who were injured, and that's a very dangerous kind of work, did you know anybody personally who was hurt badly out there?

RP:

Oh, one of my best friends' boyfriends [a pilot] just got lost at sea. They flew out over the water a lot out there, and he just disappeared, and he had been an enlisted Marine on the original [SS] Enterprise, and we went on liberty one time and he wore all of his ribbons. My boyfriend says, “Gee whiz, you'd think he was General MacArthur.” [laughter]

EE:

Oh, goodness. Were you stationed there, then, till the end of your time in service?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Sounds like an exciting and a good—it sounds like good work to have. I know a lot of folks that I've talked to said that the enlisted folks got the more interesting jobs than the officers because the officers were just stuck being supervisors, and the enlisted folks actually got to go out and do the good work.

You were in the service. When did—you got out in November of '45. Do you remember, I guess, the day that President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt passed away?

RP:

Yes. I was in the movies. They stopped the movie for about ten minutes. It was on the base.

EE:

Right. I know a lot of bases where they were asked to come back to the base when they got the news.

RP:

Yes. There was nothing they could do about it.

EE:

Do you have any memories of the end of the war, either VE [Victory in Europe] or VJ Day [Victory in Japan Day]?

RP:

VJ Day. Now, in our barracks, since we all had rooms, we didn't have a general reveille. So we had a ledger book on the desk, at the MA [Master-at-Arms] desk, where you wrote your name in and what time you wanted to be awakened, and whoever had reveille watch had to take that book around and wake you up and have you sign the book. So the morning that Japan surrendered, the girl on watch came in—I had the reveille watch, and this girl told us that Japan has surrendered, and I said, “Well, can you wait just a minute till I go get my radio?”

She said, “Yes.”

So I went and got it, came back, and the news was that it happened about one o'clock in the morning, and all the negotiations and interpretations and stuff were being done in Switzerland, but for all general purposes and so on, the war was over. So I went to the first girl I had to wake up, and I said, “You want to sign this?” and she said, “Yes.”

I said, “You want some good news?”

She says, “Yes. What?”

I said, “Japan has surrendered.”

“Huh?”

I said, “You got a radio?”

She says, “Yes.”

“Well, go turn it on. You'll see.”

So I walked out. I woke up about four or five girls. I didn't have to wake up anybody else. So our MA, a girl named Bogart, and we called her Bogie, and we weren't supposed to get her up till eight o'clock, when we went off duty. So about 7:30 I went and got her. I said, “Bogie, you'd better come out here and see what's going on.”

She said, “What? What? What?”

And here is girls just laying on the floor having St. Vitus' dance and just all kinds of weird things.

She said, “What's the matter with them?”

I said, “Well, didn't I tell you? Japan surrendered.”

She said, “Oh, my God. Really?”

Because after those two atom bombs were dropped, we felt sure they would cave in right now after that first one. But they just kept on. Nothing came through that they were ready to give up. So they dropped the other one, and still nothing happened. So it was about three days or so after Nagasaki—what is it?

EE:

Yes, Nagasaki.

RP:

Then they finally put out the word they wanted to surrender. We were really getting ready just to go in and let them have a little—the way we were talking was to let them have one on Tokyo.

EE:

Right. That would get their attention. Yes.

RP:

Because, you know, people think it's a mean thing to do, drop those bombs. Well, it was no picnic, but do you know how many islands there are out there in that South Pacific?

EE:

Every one of them got—

RP:

Every one had to be taken one by one bloody one, and each time you got closer to Japan, bloodier than the last time. So we were glad to see those atomic bombs go down.

EE:

What was the hardest thing about your time in service, either physically or emotionally?

RP:

Mess cooking at boot camp. I don't know what kind of orientation those WAVE officers got, but they decided to be mean, and we had to get up at four-thirty, four o'clock or something like that, go into the mess hall, and start that business of—well, I had it easy. I had the easy duty because one thing I'd do is I'd wait until the last thing was offered, which would be the easiest. They'd always give you a big sell about what's hard to do, and then they'd bring [unclear], like serving on the serving line and so on. So I got to run the beverages, put milk and coffee on the tables. Nobody bothered me. But then they—there was a lounge in that building, and we couldn't go back to our apartments, and we had to serve all three meals. Then after supper was over, they had to clean up everything.

EE:

Get ready to start again.

RP:

And if those officers saw a little grain of salt on the table, “Get a rag. Come here and wipe this up.” And we wouldn't get out of there until after 10:30 about every night and then be back up at 4:30 in the morning again. Those kids went crazy. This girl who was in charge of our class—we elected her—was a debutante from Richmond, and she was so conscientious, and she broke down because the girls were—it was driving her—just getting to her that they were slaphappy and complaining and so forth. Well, people expect to hear complaints, and it doesn't bother them, but she took it seriously. The kids were really slaphappy, you know, because—and they sent her home. I didn't think that was fair.

EE:

Because you knew that was just an over-the-top effort to just get somebody's goat, is what it amounted to.

You meet a bunch of people. You were talking about she was from Richmond, and I guess you were meeting people from all over the country and all different walks of life, different backgrounds. When you meet characters from all over, is there a particular funny event or embarrassing situation that comes to your mind from your time in the service?

RP:

Well, out at Norman, there was a girl from South Carolina. Nobody ever saw her wash a pair of hose or anything like that. She just ambled around. But she read the bulletin board. She knew everything that was on the bulletin board. She knew—and her clothes were always done and stuff, you know, but when we were changing over, relieving the girls who had been mess cooks before and we're doing clean-up, swabbing around, and we had a rain shower. Out there in that dust bowl, that hard ground turns into soft mud, you know. So after it quit raining, she got up and says, “Well, I guess I'll go out and squeeze some mud through my toes.” And she went down the staircase and looked out there, and there's about a dozen other kids out there just a-sloshing around and putting that mud—

EE:

I guess her—I guess in the dust bowl you would have time to have a good mud fight.

RP:

After lights out] she called the MA and said, “I want a blanket. Please, MA, I want a blanket.” Only half of the bunch were using one side of the room, you know, and on the other side they had all the bunks shoved over and the mattresses are stacked up, six mattresses. So she got up out of the railroad muck and went over there and slid in between those mattresses. So the MA came around for a bunk check—

EE:

She wasn't nowhere around.

RP:

Well, just as they was about ready to turn on all the lights and call a muster, she coughed and they caught her. So next day, everybody wanted a blanket. [laughter]

EE:

Now, the way you've talked about her accent, I had some people say they got end of grief being from the South. Did you get grief being a southerner?

RP:

Not much. Because I never did drawl, really. But there was this girl from Jacksonville that was in charge of our line, “quotes”. She didn't have to anything. So she just—like being—she was a petty officer, and she just liked being in this—she was queen or something. But, see, some of the girls, when certain pilots would come out and want to fly that weren't regular pilots, and they were willing to make points with them, they'd crowd you out of the way and take over your airplane and—well, the thing of it was, our planes came in lined up and the planes in the next squadron did the same thing. We were all one line down like that. Then the gas truck would start down there and come up the way and fill the gas tanks. So while they were a dozen planes away, I went up to the head.

So when I came back, well, meanwhile somebody wanted to fly my airplane, and this girl decided she could make points with the man, and he checked the gas tank, and you know, you don't fly an airplane if you don't have gas in it. So every pilot wants to make sure there's gas in that thing. And she didn't check it. She didn't know about the truck on its way. That's how good a supervisor she was. And I came in.

“Someone tuck in by here and wanted to fly your airplane. It didn't have any gas in it.” Because the truck was down over in Squadron Four, on its way up here. “He gave me hell because there was no gas in that airplane.”

I said, “You should have checked it yourself.”

“He gave me hell because there was no gas in that airplane.” [laughter]

EE:

You know, one of the things that people worried about when you had women in the service was that they might—it might disrupt the way men acted in the service. Now, you already mentioned you had a boyfriend down there. Did you meet somebody who was in the service?

RP:

Yes. He was two squadrons down.

EE:

Was there a lot of socializing between the WAVES and the other enlisted men?

RP:

You better know it. [laughter]

EE:

That was probably part of joining, wasn't it?

RP:

They had a beer garden on the base too.

EE:

Oh wow.

RP:

But—

EE:

Well, now, you had—did you have a—oh, what did they call them—service club, I guess. Do WAVES have a service club. I think the army has a service club. Did WAVES have one?

RP:

Well, we had a little old room. It wasn't a real club thing. We could go get a milkshake. They had a piano.

EE:

Did they have dances for you?

RP:

On Saturday nights at the mainside. See, there was mainside and then there was our section and NATT Center, which is Naval Air Technical Training Center, like at Norman, but this didn't have women at that one. But those pilots, they stayed at least two months when they were there. So whenever they graduated they threw a party.

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

EE:

I ask everybody a little bit about their social life, but, you know, most—well, a lot of WAVES are so scattered because they're in offices or—that they're not really in numbers enough to make an impact as a group on the social scene, but you all had some numbers. So I'm curious. If you got—you have ten working in your—with the squadron.

RP:

Well, that was to start with.

EE:

How many did you end up having there altogether?

RP:

The most, I think we had twenty-four.

EE:

A good number. What was your rank when you left the service?

RP:

Aviation and machinist mate, third class. So I got my [unclear].

EE:

Did they send any of you all overseas to Alaska?

RP:

No.

EE:

I think you didn't get overseas because you weren't allowed but you could go to Alaska or Hawaii with that work?

RP:

Some went to Hawaii, that I heard of, but I didn't want to go. They had some talk about going to Cuba. I wouldn't have minded going to Cuba, but they're so strict about—you have to undergo a complete character analysis and stuff, you know, and—

EE:

But it's the same works, but they have to do it because you're overseas. That makes a difference.

RP:

And this boy I met afterwards was in the army had some interest in some WAVE at Hawaii. He said he had to sign his life away to get in to see the girl, and they're very tensy about letting them go out of the area then, compound they had, whatever they had.

EE:

When you were in this work and being around mainly men, did you ever feel afraid or in physical danger?

RP:

No.

EE:

They took care of you there?

RP:

You'd better know it. You bring up so many things. Did I ever tell you how we broke the ice to start with? See, now, we're over there to the squadron's right early part of January. It was so cloudy and rainy all the time we didn't do much flying, and we had this line check where all our clipboards were, where records of our airplanes. Then somebody with a squawkbox to the tower that went about, pilots signed the clipboard, asking if you had any trouble or anything like that. He was just somebody that—well, the men all came in and sat around and we got to playing pranks on each other. Somebody would be reading a newspaper and all of a sudden it would go up in flames. Somebody was going to drop a burning cigarette in a fella's hat, and just as he dropped it, he took his hat off to scratch. And just crazy nonsense like that. And having Coke fights, you know?

EE:

Get all the fizz—

RP:

Fizzing up the bottles and squirting around. It was—so the chief finally came in and says, “All right, everybody either grab a broom or a swab and clean up this place or get out of here.” So we got out and went out into the hangar, and we wound up in a circle because everybody was keeping everybody else in front of them. [laughter]

EE:

About to be caught. Again.

RP:

And they had a record player amplified to the hangar so we started dancing. So they said, “All right. If you go out and secure your planes, you can be relieved for the day.” So we grabbed hands—we've already secured our planes. So we grabbed hands with the boys and went out and got ropes and tied down the planes, and then they said, “Let's go to town,” so we all went to town. And it was like that, you know. It was just like a bunch of kids on a schoolyard.

EE:

That sounds great. I mean, you were all of what, twenty-two, twenty-three?

RP:

Just twenty years. Just twenty. I got to be twenty-one when I was in the squadron.

EE:

Right. How old were those pilots? Were they about your age or a little bit older?

RP:

Early twenties. We didn't ever salute them. We said we ate two pilots for breakfast every day and still had to kick them out of the way to get around. [laughter]

EE:

Oh, my goodness. When you hear, as you probably do every now and then, a song or you see a movie on TV, is there a particular song or movie that when you see or hear says, “Yes, I remember. That was Jacksonville”?

RP:

Not really. Because the Hollywood idea of WAVES on the television was so phony. It was just so phony. It just wasn't acceptable. Then we'd sing Bell Bottom Trousers. But mostly the girls I palled around with liked barbershop singing. We'd sing those barbershop songs, not navy songs.

EE:

So you didn't go around singing Waves of the Navy?

RP:

Oh, you had to sing that if there was a big meeting, you know. The only time we sang that was then.

EE:

Did you have—I mean, I would think, you doing front line work, did you have a lot of big brass coming through and take a look-see if women were doing what they were, or how independent were you all?

RP:

We were off on our own, really. One problem was that sometimes men coming back from overseas had never seen WAVES before. They saw us doing all that stuff, and they'd just shake their heads, you know. Like, you know, a chock is a wooden frame that's—

EE:

Locks up the wheel.

RP:

Yes. So one time they couldn't fly because it was still foggy out. So this girl and the pilot took one of those chocks off to the side. She sat on one side with her back to him, and he sat on the other with his back to her, and they were talking like this, you know, and having a cigarette. This man had just came back from overseas thought that was too familiar, and he squawked up a cool tizzy about that. Then they'd come out and they'd try to instigate something when our airplanes were upstairs, we weren't doing anything. Why weren't we doing something, you know.

EE:

Yes. Like you give men the same grief. Right. Well, do you think you were treated fairly in large part by the men?

RP:

Well, on our level. Couldn't be better.

EE:

Okay.

RP:

But topside was something else, see. The personnel officer was from Massachusetts, and he was a George Apply. Do you know who that was? He was that kind of man. He didn't want to have anything to do with anybody. He was too—one girl out on the line was from Connecticut, and she went to one of them academies. So she got preferential treatment. But if it was anyone else, forget it. I couldn't get my rating because the chief would come out and be salty, and he'd say—I'd say, “When you going to recommend me for a rate?” and he said, “You haven't been in the navy long enough to be a third class petty officer.” I had to get rid of him before I could get my rating.

EE:

Did you ever think about staying in and making it a career? It wasn't really an option for you, was it?

RP:

I might run into another of Ramirez and Vanderventer. Ramirez was the chief and Vanderventer was the personnel officer. Always looking for something to scream at you about, whether it was real or not.

EE:

Well, what did you do after you got out of the service?

RP:

Went to school.

EE:

GI Bill?

RP:

Yes, with that.

EE:

Where at?

RP:

Woman's College [of the University of North Carolina, now UNCG] and the University of North Carolina [at Chapel Hill]. I went in as a special student. I wanted to be an interior decorator. So I just took special art courses pertaining to that type of—what I needed to know. Then I went to work at Morris and Neece. It was a furniture store downtown that had interior decorators there, and I went in the drapery department, where you started out, then found out I couldn't sell. Well, I was doing fine until the Korean War broke out, and they started raising the prices of all the materials every month. Not just now and then but every month. And so that's the reason I left and went to New York, and got a job in an engineering company as a technical illustrator.

EE:

Now, that plays off, I guess, what you trained in in the service as far as being familiar with machinery. How did you pick up the illustration part? Had you—

RP:

Well, it was electromechanical drawing.

EE:

So it was drafting as much as anything else.

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Was this upstate or in the city?

RP:

In the city. I lived in Manhattan, and the company was in Brooklyn at the Bush Terminal. Do you know that? Well, it's a whole lot of loft buildings where all different kinds of companies go in and take up space. You could be making coffee down here, pudding over there, electronics over here.

EE:

Right. Just a mish-mash of things.

RP:

Yes.

EE:

So this was early fifties that you went to New York. Is that where you met your husband?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

So you were working at the same company?

RP:

No.

EE:

That's good.

RP:

Now, he was employed in the liquor store near where I lived. I'd go in there and shoot the bull. Every Saturday morning there was a bull session.

EE:

Had he been in the service too?

RP:

Yes. He'd been in the navy also.

EE:

I imagine there probably was a common conversation sort of.

RP:

But, see, when he was in the navy, he was married and had a little girl. Then his son was born. So he wasn't interested in going overseas or doing any advancement or anything like that. Then his wife died. So he started asking me to go out with him, and I don't know—

EE:

And being a risk-taker, you said yes. [Unclear] you got into it [unclear].

RP:

Well, I was in a spot where I just couldn't refuse.

EE:

Well, I can tell you what your answer ought to be to this question, but I ask everybody this question, and that is, do you think you contributed to the war effort?

RP:

I suppose I did.

EE:

I suppose you did too, from what you've told me today.

Your group was the one that started all this stuff about women in the military, and other than being a nurse, you showed them that women could do things just like men could. We have now got an army and all the military services are fully integrated with women. In fact, we just sent in December the first woman combat pilot into action in Iraq on a bombing mission. What do you think about that? Do you think that women should be allowed to do whatever in the services?

RP:

Well, as long as it's that kind of war. But see, like this carrier duty, fighting Japanese in the South Pacific, I wouldn't wish that on anybody. Now, talking about big wheels coming through, one time I was up in the flight office, had duty up there, and I was there by myself. Do [you] remember hearing them talk about the big turkey shoot in the South Pacific? After Midway they started knocking Japanese out of the sky like crazy. Well, this commander came in and had two of his flight logs. He said, “I have four of these, but these are my latest two, and if you need any of the rest of them, I can bring them to you.”

I said, “Well, the only one we need is your last one.” Because you record every flight you make and what kind of flight it was.

So he said, well, he had been written up in the Jacksonville paper with a picture of him about that big on the front page. So I was kind of shocked at that and stymied rather. And then he left, and I went over and got his logs. I started looking through them, and he had nineteen Japanese planes to his credit.

EE:

Oh, just in those two.

RP:

Yes. We had a pilot in the squadron next to us. The first time he went up off of a carrier, he shot down six Japs. And you know, you do five, you're an ace. He came back, and we started—

EE:

First trip.

RP:

Yes. They were making such a fuss about him, and he said, “Well, they just kept getting in my way.”

EE:

Right. What do you think about pilots? I think you have to have a respect for them after being that close to them.

RP:

Yes. I liked them very much. You see, they went to so many of these parties, too, because they gave them. You know, the graduating parties. It was just like campus life, you know, and they had cars, some of them, and the girls could date officers. The enlisted girls could date officers. A lot of them did, but they couldn't come in the barracks.

EE:

They couldn't be seen in the barracks with them.

RP:

They couldn't, and he called for them, but the enlisted boys could come into the lobby there and then the PA would say, “So-and-so, you have a visitor.” But the girls had to know when the officers were going to be there. Then they'd ride down to the gate, and they'd get out and walk through the gate and get back in the car and go into town. Now, that was silly, right?

EE:

[Unclear]

RP:

It was the doing of the [WAVE] officers who set up the routine for what kind of life we were going to have at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, these WAVE officers. So they made that rule so they could ride with the officers but we weren't supposed to. But we did. One night, there was a favorite pilot I had who was an instructor. His name was Mr. Miller, and I flew with him several times. I was up in the flight office. I had telephone watch. He came up there with this sheepish looking ensign. One of the boys in the metal shop had come up to keep me company, and he was talking to that guy. He was sitting there at the telephone dialing and he hung up, went to another desk and used that telephone to dial, and he was talking to him. Then the phone rang, and I said, “Mr. Miller, this is for you.”

He said, “Where is it in naval regulations says you can't help out a shipmate?” He said, “One of my men came in this afternoon, a WAVE was walking down Main Street in the hot sun, and he stopped and gave her a lift.” And I told you it was NATT Center mainside. It was a long way so he gave her a lift. That snotty Marine corporal got all screwy and came up and gave him a citation for taking an enlisted WAVE in the car with him. He said, “Now, you just show me where it's against the regulations to help out a shipmate.” So next day that order was rescinded.

EE:

Well, good. A little common sense coming into play every now and then.

RP:

Well, that was Mr. Miller for you. He was the real Clark Gable, but he didn't look anything like him. He was tall and slender and blond and blue-eyed, real handsome.

EE:

But with an attitude it sounds like.

RP:

Yes.

EE:

Do you think your time in the service made you more of an independent person than you would have been?

RP:

Yes, definitely. I came into my own, having two older sisters and two younger sisters and an older brother and a younger brother. There's a name for that. I don't know what it is, but where they pull you apart.

EE:

That's right. Would you recommend to a young woman today joining the service?

RP:

It depends on what she wants to get out of it. If you do clerical work, you can't get—you're probably qualified before you go in to do that kind of job, but if you're going to go in and go for training and so on, be sure you want to do that kind of work. Now, see, another thing that they did in squadron, they never mixed with us. We never saw them, really, but they were link trainers, and they operated this little—

EE:

Where they do the navigation tests.

RP:

Yes. So I never did see any of the people. Maybe they were somewhere else or something.

EE:

I was talking to somebody who did that. I think she was stationed near Pensacola, [Florida].

Last question I've got for you is, how do you think your life has been different because of your time in the service?

RP:

At least I got to do something I really enjoyed and was productive at the same time.

EE:

That's a nice feeling, isn't it?

RP:

Yes.

EE:

To know you're contributing yet still have fun doing it.

RP:

Yes.

EE:

That's good. If all jobs could be that way.

RP:

It don't last forever, because it's only for young people.

EE:

Is there anything that I haven't asked you about about your time in service or anything about that that you'd like to have for us?

RP:

No. Just made me think right now about—I told my chief in charge of our line, see, he grumbled and grouched and carried on till he didn't have anybody to look after but us, and we didn't need him either. So he went in the line shack and inflated a raft and slept all day. But if they woke him up and disturbed his sleep, he was mean as a hornet. He never forgave anybody for anything. So if I needed chief's advice, I'd go over to the metal shop and talk to the chief over there. So there was one poor fellow in there who was a Denny Dimwit, and they had a new fellow in there, not too tall, had a little bitty mustache, Errol Flynn-type mustache.

So I walked in, was going on to the chief's desk, and that dimwit stopped me. He said, “Kent, you'd better watch out. That boy's over there watching you.” And he was, because this was his first day on the job, you know. So I walked over to him, and I told him, “John said for you to stop looking at me.”

He said, “Well, I'll look where I want to.”

So I told John, I said, “He said mind your own business.”

He said something, and I went over and told him again.

He said, “Well, I'm a happily married man, and I can look where I want to,” or something or another like that.

So I went back over to John, and he says, “Kent, you're going to get me into a fight.”

I said, “John wants to know if you want to fight.”

EE:

You were a troublemaker, I can tell.

RP:

It wasn't a troublemaker. It's just everybody was laughing it was so silly. But John was the only one taking it serious.

EE:

Well, on behalf of the school, thank you very much for doing this, and I'll get you a copy back soon.

[End of Interview]