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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Ellen Steel, 2000

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Object ID: WV0154.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Ellen Steel’s career in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from 1949 to 1969 and changes in the army since the 1940s.

Summary:

Steel chiefly describes her basic training and her various duty stations. She talks about her parents’ reactions when she joined the WAC; basic training in the late 1940s; skills learned at quartermaster school; orderly rooms; her desire to work overseas; social life, including sports and movies; segregation and integration in the military; visiting Normandy and Germany; living arrangements at the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Command in Europe (SHAPE) in France in the mid-1950s; working with African-American WACs; attending the University of Arkansas; working with a male reserve unit; duties of sergeant major of a training battalion; her duties at Fort Meyer; and her opinion of General Elizabeth Hoisington.

Steel also comments on changes in the army and women in the military. Topics include the WAC merging with the regular army; advantages of military service, including greater independence, discipline, confidence, and responsibility; her opinion of women in combat; and patriotism.

She also briefly talks about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; her brother’s death in 1953; and her enjoyment of defense work during World War II.

Creator: Ellen Brown Steel

Biographical Info: Ellen Steel (1923-2007) of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, served in the Women’s Army Corps from 1949 until 1969.

Collection: Ellen Brown Steel 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:

My name is Eric Elliott, and I'm with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Today is December 18 in the year 2000, a beautiful Monday morning. I'm tempted to say “downtown Lynn,” but if you're not from the neighborhood, you may not understand that joke. But we're out here in beautiful Lynn, North Carolina, and I'm at the home this morning of Ellen Steel.

Ms. Steel, I want to thank you on behalf of the school for sitting down with us and talking about your career in the service today. I'm going to start with probably the toughest question I have all day, and that is, where were you born and where did you grow up?

ES:

I was born in Holdenville, Oklahoma, and I grew up in various cities in Oklahoma.

EE:

Well, is Holdenville—give me a reference point, not being a native Oklahoman. Where is Holdenville, near Oklahoma City? Near Tulsa?

ES:

Yes. Not too far from Oklahoma City, yes.

EE:

Okay. And you moved around growing up. What did your folks do?

ES:

My mother was a homemaker, and my father worked in the oil fields.

EE:

So you're a true Oklahoman in that sense.

ES:

Very true.

EE:

Do they still have the oil well right there on the state capitol—

ES:

As far as I know they do. I haven't been back there for years, so I don't know. But they probably—

EE:

Right there on the capitol grounds for many years and had the working oil well right there to remind folks what things came from.

ES:

They probably would have a rebellion on their hands if they took it down.

EE:

That's right. So you all were moving as work locations—as the wells would dry up?

ES:

That's true. But Dad's work was mostly in the Oklahoma City area.

EE:

He worked for a company, or was he an independent?

ES:

No, he worked for a company.

EE:

Did you have any brothers and sisters?

ES:

Yes, I had two brothers and one sister.

EE:

Where are you in that, older, younger, in the middle?

ES:

I'm the baby. They always claimed I was the spoiled one.

EE:

Well, no matter what you do, the older ones are going to say that about the younger ones.

ES:

Sure.

EE:

Moving around like that, I guess you were moving schools as well, were you not?

ES:

Yes, I was.

EE:

What did you think of school growing up? Was it something you liked, or did the moving get in the way of liking school for you?

ES:

No, it didn't really get in the way. I didn't change areas too much because of being in the city area, but I changed schools, of course, going into other grades. It wasn't too bad at all.

EE:

North Carolina was a little slow in its school system on getting the twelve-year high school. When did you graduate from high school?

ES:

1941.

EE:

Where were you? What high school did you graduate from?

ES:

I graduated from Moore High School in Moore, Oklahoma, which was a suburb of Oklahoma City.

EE:

Did you have a favorite subject when you were in school?

ES:

I don't remember that I did.

EE:

Did you have a clear sense when you were in high school of what you wanted to do when you grew up?

ES:

I had no idea, none whatsoever. In December, after I graduated in May, was Pearl Harbor. So then it was defense work for most people, and I went into defense work.

EE:

What did you do when you first got out of high school? Did you work in a local place, or were you at home?

ES:

I just stayed at home, as well as I remember.

EE:

What do you remember about Pearl Harbor Day? How did you get that news?

ES:

My mother and dad and I were listening to the radio. It was on a Sunday afternoon. They came on with a special news bulletin that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. And you know, I don't remember much of anything else that day. I guess we were all probably pretty much in shock. But that's where I was. I was at home with Mother and Dad.

EE:

You said you had older brothers and an older sister. Did your brothers—you had just graduated from high school. Were they drafted? Were they in the service?

ES:

My oldest brother was married and had two children then, and he was working for the National Park Service, so he was exempt. I'm sure it wasn't for physical reasons, probably his job and his dependents. My sister was in Washington, I guess, or went to Washington, D.C., soon after that. My younger brother went into the air force.

EE:

Pretty much right away?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

So he volunteered to go in the air force?

ES:

Yes, he did.

EE:

Where did he serve?

ES:

He served in—I'm not too sure. I know he served in Arizona for a while. He was in Texas for a while. He was in Alaska for part of his duty, and he was in Riverside, California, March Air Force Base. He was killed at March Air Force Base in a plane crash.

EE:

This was a training mission?

ES:

They were on training missions, I think. I'm not sure just exactly what kind they were.

EE:

Was this in '42, '43 he was killed?

ES:

No, he was killed in '53.

EE:

So he'd been serving for some time?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

But he was making it his career, in other words.

ES:

Yes, sir, he was. Yes.

EE:

You said that right after Pearl Harbor you got a job in the defense industry. What was that work?

ES:

Well, first I went to school. The government had a school in different areas, and I went into an area of machine shop, of all things, and got some training in that.

EE:

You were trained to be Rosie the Riveter.

ES:

Well, no. I was a turret lathe machine operator.

EE:

Okay. Laura the Lather.

ES:

There you go.

EE:

So was that manufacturing work that you could do in the Oklahoma area?

ES:

Yes, it was, but we moved then from Oklahoma City to Hastings, Nebraska, where they were working on naval ammunition depot, and my dad went to work there. So I went to work for a company that manufactured antiaircraft projectiles, the casings for the projectiles.

EE:

This would have been in '42, I guess, you moved there?

ES:

'42 or '43. It was probably '42.

EE:

Did you do that for the duration of the war?

ES:

No. We left there and went to the West Coast, to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, where my dad worked as a pipe fitter and I worked as a machinist until the war ended. In 1946 is when we came back.

EE:

What part of California is that? Is that northern or southern?

ES:

Washington State.

EE:

Oh, Washington State.

ES:

Yes, right across the sound from Seattle.

EE:

You were hands-on from the beginning, weren't you? Had you had that aptitude for—just because your dad did the mechanical things, working in that kind of industry, had he helped you out and make you not afraid of using your hands from the beginning?

ES:

No. I guess it was just a natural thing for me to do.

EE:

Something you enjoyed doing?

ES:

Oh, I enjoyed it very much.

EE:

Had you thought about—I guess in '42 they were talking about starting the WAAC [Women's Army Auxiliary Corps]. WAAC, I think, was the first service—it was the W-A-A-C.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Had you thought about joining the service?

ES:

No, I hadn't. I didn't start thinking about that until after the war was over. When we left the West Coast we went to Arkansas, and jobs were not very plentiful. I just didn't know what to do with myself, so I decided I'd check into the air force. I wanted to go in the air force. I passed all the tests and everything but would have had to wait—I believe they told me six months—to go in. I didn't want to wait that long so I joined the army.

EE:

So you came back to Arkansas, and you were there probably for what? If you finished in '46 at the navy yard, a couple years you were in Arkansas.

ES:

Yes, two and a half years.

EE:

And all this time you were still living with your folks.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

I guess it was sort of nice to be able to work, to be independent in the sense of financially independent and yet have the security of the home folks there.

ES:

It was wonderful. Yes, it was.

EE:

Somebody to have the light bill paid so you can save up for the future.

ES:

There you go.

EE:

So instead of waiting six months you joined, and you end up joining in March of '49.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

You might have joined before March. Is that when you reported for basic in March of '49?

ES:

I enlisted in March of '49. In those days you enlisted one day and then within a couple of days you were on your way.

EE:

So you didn't have to wait?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

You had a brother in the air force at this time. How did your folks feel about your joining the service? Were they concerned?

ES:

No, not really. My mother didn't mind at all, but I learned later that my dad would not have—if I had been under age, he would not have signed for me to go in. But I didn't find that out until three or four years after I joined.

EE:

Well—

ES:

I was twenty-five when I went into the service.

EE:

At the time you went in, did you still have to be twenty-one when you joined?

ES:

I'm not sure whether it was eighteen or twenty-one. I might have been twenty-one.

EE:

A lot of the women I've talked to, the service experience is the first time they've seen another part of the country. You, with your growing up with your family largely for Defense Department reasons, movement around the country, so you've seen a lot of the U.S.

ES:

I sure did.

EE:

And you were probably a lot more worldly than a lot of the people that you went into the service with in that sense.

ES:

At least I thought I was. I'm sure I was.

EE:

Tell me, was this the first extended period of time that you were away from home, when you went off to basic?

ES:

Yes, it sure was.

EE:

And had you ever been to the East Coast before?

ES:

No, I hadn't.

EE:

So this is the farthest away from home on a five-year spell that you have been.

ES:

Away from Mom and Dad.

EE:

And when you went in on March 29, did you have any friends or anybody in Arkansas that you kept up with who gave you any comment on it? I know earlier on, when they first started the WAACs and the other services, but especially the WAACs, there was just a bunch of nasty rumors about the character of folks who went into the WAACs. Was that still a problem when you went in, or had people come to realize there was a difference between the scuttlebutt and the reality?

ES:

I never had any problem with it, and no one ever mentioned anything to me about it. So I think it was beginning to fade away a little bit by then. Because that was what? That was about six years after the WAAC started, six or seven.

EE:

What did you brother, who was in the service, think of you joining?

ES:

He thought it was great, but he wanted to know why I didn't go into the air force. No, but my whole family supported me in that very, very much.

EE:

You went in, and you went for basic at Fort Lee [Virginia]. Tell me about the basic experience for you. What was that like? What was a typical day like at basic for you?

ES:

Well, let's see, we got up early, had reveille, had to fall out and stand reveille and then dismiss and go to the mess hall for breakfast. Of course, we had our beds made before we went outside to reveille, and then we went back in and got ready to go to the mess hall and then reported for classes, I guess around 8:30 or nine o'clock. I don't remember the times.

EE:

Were all of your instructors women at that time?

ES:

Yes, they were.

EE:

What was the strangest thing, the most difficult thing for you about basic? Some people had trouble with privacy. Some people had trouble with personalities. Did you have any problems with basic, or was it a good experience for you?

ES:

It was a good experience for me. I don't remember having any problems.

EE:

Were you older than most of the women who were in service—

ES:

Yes, I was.

EE:

When you signed up initially, did you express a preference for a kind of work that you would be doing or a location in which you'd like to do it?

ES:

I don't remember that I did.

EE:

So they didn't give you a set of options. Like you could be cooks and bakers or you could be whatever?

ES:

I'm not sure, but I believe they gave us aptitude tests.

EE:

So it's based on those tests.

ES:

And it was more or less based on those tests.

EE:

When you signed up initially, what was your initial commitment for?

ES:

Three years.

EE:

Basic, when you went through it, was eight weeks?

ES:

Eight weeks, yes.

EE:

And you were telling me before we started the interview that after basic, you ended up staying at Fort Lee. Was it further training?

ES:

Yes. I went to quartermaster's school.

EE:

What kind of skills did you learn at quartermaster's school?

ES:

Oh, just I guess, learning how to take inventories and how to order supplies and fill out forms.

EE:

There's a lot of paperwork, isn't there?

ES:

Yes. Yes, a lot of paperwork. And how to figure out, if you came up short on an inventory in a mess hall, for example, figure out how to go about getting the replacement items that you might be short. And I remember we used to have men who would pick up all of our garbage and take it to pig farms. They had a lot of pig farms around there. If we ran short on silverware when we took our inventories, we checked with them, and if they had found it, they would give it to us. [Laughter]

EE:

Thoroughly cleaned, we hope?

ES:

Oh, yes. Well, yes. I don't know how, if they were sterilized or not, but—

EE:

Something unattractive about taking it right off the truck on the way to the pig farm, picking it out of the slop, I don't know.

ES:

But you'd be amazed at how many knives, forks, and spoons got into the garbage from there.

EE:

Well, I guess if you think about it, quartermaster corps, they're really sort of the problem solvers. They have to make sure things are there to get whatever the job is done. So you've got to know how to work the system, in a sense.

ES:

You sure do.

EE:

How long did that school last, another eight weeks?

ES:

I don't know. It was an eight weeks course, yes.

EE:

And then after that school, you actually were assigned to—

ES:

I was assigned to the basic training battalion at Fort Lee. I don't remember which company I was in—Company G, I think.

EE:

Were you a PFC [private first class] after the quartermaster's school, or when did you make PFC?

ES:

I think I had to wait for a while after school to make PFC.

EE:

When you came out of the quartermaster's school, where did you work on base there?

ES:

I worked in one of the basic companies as a supply clerk. I believe it was Company G. It was a company that had just been formed, and they were just then getting their cadre ready to open up the company.

EE:

It's a company of men or women?

ES:

Women.

EE:

How many WACs [Women's Army Corps] were stationed at Fort Lee? Was it a goodly number?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

But it's a major training facility for WACs?

ES:

Yes, it was. It was the training facility at that time, yes.

EE:

They had a number of places during the war, but I guess at this time they probably had an East Coast and a West Coast training facility. Is that how it worked?

ES:

I don't remember that they had a West Coast training facility. I think everybody came to Fort Lee.

EE:

So your immediate supervisor at those jobs, you were working with women only then?

ES:

Yes. Yes.

EE:

So at different stages the WACs are sort of just sprinkled like powdered sugar throughout male work environments, and there are maybe one or two in an environment, but early on you got stationed to working around women, and you may not have had the static problems that some other people had.

ES:

Sure didn't. The only men that would be in the area were the firemen that stoked the furnaces. They were coal furnaces, and the only men were the ones who took care of the furnaces.

EE:

You were at Fort Lee as the supply clerk. How long were you at Fort Lee before you left to go to [Fort] Larry Wood in Missouri?

ES:

Oh, Lord. I don't remember.

EE:

You were made supply sergeant at—

ES:

I was supply sergeant in Fort Lee, and at Fort—

EE:

You went from supply clerk to supply sergeant, and then you switched to the orderly room as First Sergeant.

ES:

Yes, at Fort Lee.

EE:

At Fort Lee.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

My mom's a nurse, so when I hear the phrase “orderly,” I think of something different, probably, than what it is in the military context.

ES:

That's true. Very different.

EE:

Tell me what an orderly room is and what's your work there.

ES:

The orderly room was really the headquarters of the company, because each battalion was broken down into many companies. In the orderly room we had the commanding officer, the executive officer, the first sergeant, supply officer. All of the administration people were in the orderly room.

EE:

I guess you worked, then, directly with the CO [commanding officer].

ES:

Yes.

EE:

When you left to go to Fort Leonard Wood, which I assume was probably sometime—you were telling me you thought it was several years you were at Fort Lee—

ES:

Yes.

EE:

I guess the Korean War started not too long after you joined up, really. June of '50 was when the Korean Conflict started. Do you remember anything changing at Fort Lee when that started?

ES:

No. No, I don't.

EE:

In World War II there had been a shift in—the purpose was “Free a man to fight.” There wasn't a shift in how WACs were being used based on the need for personnel in the Korean Conflict?

ES:

I don't remember that there was.

EE:

You don't remember any change in the way you all operated?

ES:

No.

EE:

You left and you went to Fort Leonard Wood. Were you doing the same kind of work in Missouri?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

You were just there for a shorter period of time.

ES:

Yes, I was.

EE:

And then you went to Leavenworth.

ES:

Yes. I was at Fort Leavenworth six months because I remember telling people that I was sent to Leavenworth for six months. You know the prison is there?

EE:

Yes. “Oh, my gosh, she's been sent to Leavenworth. What's she done now?” [Steel laughs.] I'm sure that was a good letter home.

ES:

They called my mom.

EE:

You're right. I couldn't get away with it forever.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Okay. Six months at Leavenworth. But apparently it wasn't hard time. You were doing a similar kind of work.

ES:

No. I was doing soft time.

EE:

Soft time. How close were you to—you had to be pretty close to having your three years run. Did you re-enlist while you were at Leavenworth or before?

ES:

Turn that tape thing off for just a minute, and I think I can find some— [Tape recorder paused]

EE:

Okay, it looks as though the first three years were at Fort Lee, at which time, Ms. Steel, you re-enlisted and went to Fort Leonard Wood. Were you still working in the orderly room when you were at Leonard Wood?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

And at Leavenworth as well?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Had you ever expressed an interest in working overseas, or did you know that that was just part of the career cycle, that at some point you probably would be going overseas?

ES:

I think I figured that I would probably go. However, I wanted to go. I didn't put in any preference for it, but I was ready to go.

EE:

We talked earlier about that you didn't notice any change in the use of WAC personnel during the Korean Conflict from your perspective, how you were looking at things.

ES:

No.

EE:

Was the Korean Conflict an important part of conversation, being in the military?

ES:

I don't recall that it was.

EE:

Well, they were support personnel for people in Korea, but they weren't in Korea itself, were they?

ES:

I don't think they were. Now, they might have had a very few of them over there. I don't recall.

EE:

I talked with some women who served with [unclear] in Japan like that [unclear].

ES:

Yes. I think that was probably the support group that took care of the Korean Conflict.

EE:

There's several things that are happening in the country, and I guess before I send you overseas I want to ask you a couple of things about your experience in those first three years. Obviously you made a decision that this was not going to be just a three-year interval, but when you first re-enlisted, you must have liked it enough to think of it in terms of, “Maybe I'll stay in this for my work.”

ES:

You're correct. I had decided by then that I might just as well stay for twenty years. I had nothing else that I would like to have done any better.

EE:

Was the pay good?

ES:

Yes, it was. As far as I was concerned, it was real good.

EE:

I guess room and board never hurts either.

ES:

No.

EE:

The other people I've talked to, depending on the kind of work they did, had a social life with the other WACs. Was there a social group that you hung out with in your WAC experience there at the first part, or was everybody pretty much doing everything on their own?

ES:

I think, as well as I remember, I didn't run around with any group of people. Oh, there might be three or four of us get together and go to a movie or something like that, and then, I was interested in sports, too.

EE:

Were there teams then, opportunities for you guys in sports?

ES:

Yes, softball. And they had basketball games.

EE:

So it was a good opportunity for just fellowship to do that kind of stuff.

ES:

It sure was. And we made trips to other bases, too. We went to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, for a couple or three games, and then, when I was at Leonard Wood, we'd go to Leavenworth for softball games, and they in turn would come and play us.

EE:

You had traveled around geographically to a lot of places before your time in service. Those first couple of years, the experience of meeting people from all different places, all different experiences, probably was a new one for you, was it not?

ES:

Yes, it was.

EE:

Are there any particular characters you remember that very first couple of years that stick out in your mind?

ES:

No. I can't think of any. At the time there probably were, but I've forgotten if there were.

EE:

Obviously it was a pleasant experience for you.

ES:

Marvelous. It was. It was very pleasant.

EE:

The services and the WACs in particular were one of the areas where our country was first testing out integration. Did you have a chance to work with any blacks?

ES:

Yes, I sure did.

EE:

How early in your career was that?

ES:

I guess the first that I remember—I probably worked with them before this—was when I went to Fort McClellan in the personnel office.

EE:

In the sixties, I guess.

ES:

Yes. Yes.

EE:

So at the time that you were—through the fifties, then, in your experience, it was still pretty segregated.

ES:

Yes. Yes. I can't remember whether any—on the softball team, for example, I can't remember whether we had any Negro girls or not. I really don't remember.

EE:

Do you ever remember playing a guest team?

ES:

No. I do remember, when I first went into the service they had what they called a colored company, where one company was strictly the Negro personnel.

EE:

And they had their own—this was at Fort Lee?

ES:

Yes. They had their own barracks, their own mess hall, and their own classes. Like I was in Company A, we didn't go to classes with Company B. We were all Company A people who went to classes together.

EE:

When you decide to re-enlist, and you're at Fort Leonard Wood and Leavenworth and the word comes down that you're going to Europe. That had to be pretty exciting.

ES:

It was. But my first orders were for Japan, but they were revoked after I sent my luggage to Seattle or Tacoma or wherever it was I sent it. My orders were revoked, and I was sent to Europe.

EE:

So you sort of were whipsawed around the world there. You went, and it was probably—just doing the numbers—'55 or '56 when you got the word you were going over to Paris.

ES:

I believe it was.

EE:

What was your work like when you were at SHAPE, Supreme Headquarters of Allied Powers in Europe?

ES:

It was pretty much like it was in the States, really, except that we had, in our detachment—I was first sergeant there, too, and it was an international detachment. We had French, Dutch, I guess just French and Dutch and American women of the different services, of all the services, a few from all of the services.

EE:

So again here's a situation where you're working and all your commanding officers and all the people you're working with are all women?

ES:

Yes. Yes.

EE:

Tell me, because you were working with women from other countries, how did the WAC experience compare with what you found out about the way the French forces used women in services?

ES:

It was pretty much the same, really. And by the way, they were all required to speak English. So there was no language problem at all. However, once in a while I would post something on the bulletin board that they didn't like, and they would start talking in their native language and I had no idea what they were talking about.

EE:

So any time you heard French, you knew it probably wasn't a comment they wanted you to hear. [laughter]

ES:

That's right. That's right.

EE:

You were there for two years. Did you get a chance to do any sightseeing when you were there?

ES:

Yes. I went with some friends to the beach at Normandy, to the cemetery at Normandy. I didn't get out of Paris too much. I did go to Orleans once or twice while I was there. I had friends down there. I saw a lot of Paris, did a lot of sightseeing there. I went to Germany with athletic groups and to athletic conferences three or four times, to Garmisch in particular.

EE:

And that still today is a big recreation center for the armed forces.

ES:

Yes. A beautiful area, just beautiful. I went to Nuremberg one time, to a sports conference, and saw the building where the war crimes trials were held. Now, that was interesting, I thought.

EE:

Those probably had just finished, I guess.

ES:

Just finished, I think, yes. I had a chance to go out to Soldiers Field out at Nuremberg, where Hitler used to address his troops, kind of an eerie feeling but a good experience, really.

EE:

Did it change your impression of, say, the Germans by being in Europe?

ES:

I don't think so.

EE:

So you had the perspective of understanding there's a difference between the German government and the German people and who's in charge and whatnot?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

I guess you were in at a time when domestically, and I guess internationally, too, with the cold war, there were a lot of security concerns. People who were stationed in Europe, especially in Germany, were very worried, you know, about spying and things like that. Did they counsel you all about the dangers of spies when you were working at SHAPE?

ES:

No. I don't recall that they did.

EE:

You're there, and your time in Paris comes to an end as your second tour of duty comes to an end. You came back to San Antonio, Texas, and you decided to leave the service, is that what happened?

ES:

Well, I came back to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and that's where I left the service. That's where I took my discharge.

EE:

Something happened. You'd signed on and thought you could make a career. What was your thinking on coming out of the service?

ES:

I really don't know.

EE:

Obviously you rethought it pretty quick, because in another month you had re-enlisted.

ES:

Yes. I guess I missed it.

EE:

They probably give you an opportunity, it sounds like to—you could leave and then come back in. You came back in at the same rank?

ES:

Yes. You retained your rank. I can't remember the time period, but there was a period of time, a limit, as to how long you could stay out. I was well within that limit, I think. I missed it, I think, was the reason why I went back in. I just missed it.

EE:

When you went out at Fort Dix, did you come back and stay with the folks?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

They were in San Antonio at the time?

ES:

No, they were in Arkansas.

EE:

In Arkansas?

ES:

Yes. But I went to San Antonio for reassignment, as my first assignment after I re-enlisted.

EE:

So you just went back to the recruiting office there in Arkansas?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Fayetteville, I guess it was?

ES:

No. It was in Little Rock.

EE:

Little Rock, and you just signed back on. Then your first assignment was at William Beaumont Hospital in El Paso?

ES:

Right.

EE:

Where again you were first sergeant?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Was it the orderly room, or are hospitals a little bit different?

ES:

It was in the orderly room.

EE:

And again, at this position, was it all women you were working with?

ES:

Yes. Of course, the women in the detachment were working with the men in the hospital. But as far as my work was concerned, it was strictly with the women.

EE:

Something I didn't ask you about. When you were in Europe, I assume that most of these places—up to this point you have been in on-base housing with other women.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

I assume as you are moving up in rank, you get a little bit more privacy in your housing.

ES:

I got a private room.

EE:

When you're in SHAPE, are you living on base? Is there a compound where you're living or do you have your own apartments?

ES:

They were just buildings that were close to the SHAPE headquarters. They were barracks buildings within walking distance, easy walking distance.

EE:

So it was a secured compound that you were on.

ES:

Yes, yes, it was.

EE:

And you were at Beaumont for about a year and a half, I think.

ES:

Probably so, yes.

EE:

Whose idea was it for you to go back to school? Was it yours or was it the army's?

ES:

Well, my CO called me over one day and was telling me about it, and I thought, “Well, gosh, that sounds like a pretty good deal. I think I'll apply for it.” So I did.

EE:

I talked to another woman who went back after World War II on the GI Bill, which was a new thing. Was this really a GI Bill benefit that a GI could go to—the government would pay for your education, is what it amounted to?

ES:

Well, actually, it was not for people who had already served their time and gotten out of the service; it was for people who were still in the service, that the military was willing to pay for their education, but you had to sign up for another four years in order to be accepted.

EE:

So you went from Beaumont to Fayetteville, Arkansas, the University of Arkansas.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

And you entered a course in personnel management, which I guess you'd come out with a BA [bachelor of arts] in personnel management?

ES:

I'm sure I would have. I had two years of college, two calendar years, and I didn't go ahead and finish to get my degree. I would only have had, probably, another year, but I guess I was tired of school and wanted to get back into the military life, because you're out on your own, really, when you're going to school that way.

EE:

So when you came back from Fayetteville, were you living on campus or you had an apartment nearby?

ES:

No, had an apartment.

EE:

I guess you weren't too far from the home folks if you were back in Arkansas.

ES:

I got to home quite often, really. It was nice, real nice.

EE:

Good. You came back in '61, '62, somewhere in there, and you went to Fort McClellan.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

And you were actually using this new training in personnel at the WAC Training Center, where you were working in the office doing personnel work.

ES:

Right.

EE:

I assume then it's an all-female staff.

ES:

It is.

EE:

I think you're the first person I've talked to in the WACs who has had that experience, in a sense, of being fully surrounded by WACs.

ES:

Really?

EE:

Because most of them, at some point in their career, had a station where they're either assigned to a regular army unit or they just, in the chain of command, they're working with male supervisors. That's a nice perk you had. You were at McClellan for how long, to '65, two or three years?

ES:

Yes. Yes, I'm sure I was.

EE:

And it's at McClellan the first time you were working with black WACs?

ES:

Yes. I remember one girl. She had been a deserter, and finally gave herself up, I guess, and was assigned in the office I was in. I can't remember—it wasn't the personnel office at that time; it was another office. Anyway, she was telling us one day—she was a wonderful person, she really was, and you would never think she'd go away and desert or anything, but she was telling us one day about her sister. She and her sister decided their little brother needed to be a little darker than he was. He was a light brown Negro. So they put him in a roasting pan and put him in the oven to darken him. Of course, the mother walked in right away. She said that was the beating of her life. I don't think I'll ever forget that young lady. She was something else.

EE:

Goodness gracious. In the time that you were in, and here, you're having a change in the work. You have been doing quartermaster work, which is your original thing in all of these different stations up to the time you get to McClellan, where you're dealing with personnel, with people, more than supplies, I guess.

ES:

Yes. Well, first sergeant's work is a lot—

EE:

More people-oriented.

ES:

Is more people-oriented.

EE:

Because you've got to deal with those who are going to get the stuff.

ES:

There you go.

EE:

You're in charge, so it's how nicely can you cajole somebody to get what you need, not just passing the paper. [laughter] I guess the fifties, we're starting to get computers. Did you ever have to work with computers in the time you were there?

ES:

Never did. No.

EE:

So how many carbon copies did you have to make of everything?

ES:

Oh, about—several. [laughter] I don't know.

EE:

So you [unclear] for a number of years at another [unclear.

ES:

Yes, they were. And our copy machine was one little stencil mimeograph machine.

EE:

The office environment changed so much in the last twenty, thirty years.

ES:

Oh, my goodness, yes.

EE:

I remember when the IBM Selectric was just a wonderful machine. You could change that little ball around and, my goodness—all those little Royal typewriters everybody had, punching away, and all of a sudden you had this fancy electric machine.

So the nature of the office changed. Did you like the change in work from supply and the people working with that to personnel?

ES:

I liked it. I found it very interesting.

EE:

You were there for a couple or three years, and you went to Edison, New Jersey, and you were the active army person assigned to a reserve unit.

ES:

Yes. Now, that was strictly male. I was the only female except for some of the civilian—we had some civilian women who worked at the reserve center.

EE:

Tell me how this came about. Was this just part of a normal rotation, that at some point in your career they want you to work with the reserves? How did your CO come to you and present this new assignment?

ES:

You know, I really don't know. I never did know exactly why they assigned a woman to a reserve unit, because it was a strictly male unit, and I don't know.

EE:

Now, that's not assigned to a base, I guess. Are you working out of an office in some facility?

ES:

You know like the National Guard armories and the reserve unit places?

EE:

Yes.

ES:

Well, that's what we worked out of. Now, while I was at Fort McClellan, I went from personnel at WAC center down to sergeant major of the WAC training battalion, and then went from the training battalion to the reserve unit in Edison.

EE:

What is the difference in the job work when you went from personnel to sergeant major at the training battalion? What was the nature of your job there?

ES:

Well, kind of like a housemother, I guess. You were responsible for the entire battalion, really, and kind of helped the people with any problems they might have and, of course, had to make up duty rosters. Just a lot more paperwork, a little different, perhaps.

EE:

Are you also handling private concerns with these women?

ES:

For some of them, yes.

EE:

What was the work when you were at Edison? What was that job? Were you basically just coordinating the activities for that group with other reserve units, or what was your charge?

ES:

I think that was primarily what it was.

EE:

You had not spent a lot of time in the Northeast, other than come through to check out. You've been in a number of different parts of the country. You were at Edison for how long, about a year?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

And then got assigned to Fort Meyer in Washington, where you're attached to the Office of Economic Opportunity in the Job Corps, which is a new program.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

What was your charge when you were at that location?

ES:

Well, they did the paperwork for the Job Corps centers, a lot of the directives and everything for the Job Corps centers. We made sure that they got out to the proper people. It was just kind of like an office manager's job where you just took care of a lot of the paperwork and made sure that it got where it was supposed to go. I was the only—I think I was the only military. I don't know, though. We had a colonel who worked in the main office at Job Corps, Colonel Gorman. I think it was just mostly an office management job.

EE:

You are at McClellan and Edison in Washington during a time when the need for WACs is going up because our country's back at war again with Vietnam.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

How did Vietnam change the WACs in your opinion? Did it have an impact?

ES:

Not in what I was doing or where I was.

EE:

So it wasn't an active concern about trying to get more women plugged in or [unclear]?

ES:

No.

EE:

In D.C., you were at Fort Meyer. How long were you there before you were switched to the Pentagon to work with who would become General [Elizabeth] Hoisington? I guess it was Colonel Hoisington at the time.

ES:

I think it was. I'm not sure when she got her promotion to be honest about it. I only worked at the Pentagon for probably six months before I retired. It seemed to me that the Office of Economic Opportunity was under the Labor Department, and military persons who worked with them were detailed—

[Begin Tape 1, Side 2]

EE:

You were saying you were at the Labor Department, and then they eliminated the detail that was assigned to the Labor Department.

ES:

As well as I remember it. And when that happened, I only had about—not over six months before I was going to retire. So they detailed me, assigned me, then, to the WAC director's office for that short period of time.

EE:

What was Colonel Hoisington like? What do you remember about her?

ES:

Tremendous, tremendous lady, good to work for, but actually you didn't work for her, you worked with her. She was just one of those people that made you feel like you—

EE:

She was not distant from you, then. It was a team effort.

ES:

That's absolutely correct.

EE:

I personally like bosses like that.

ES:

Oh, they're the best.

EE:

You feel like you can be yourself around them.

ES:

You sure could. You sure could.

EE:

You ended your time in service, then, in August of '69?

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Man had just walked on the moon.

ES:

That's right.

EE:

The world had changed a lot in the twenty years that you were in the service.

ES:

Oh, tremendously. Yes.

EE:

What did you do after you left the service?

ES:

I didn't do anything for about six months, I guess, and then I went to work.

EE:

Did you come back to Arkansas?

ES:

No, no. I stayed in Maryland. I bought a home in Morningside, Maryland, and stayed there for the last ten years, I guess, because my sister lived in that area. I got a job out at the Andrews Post Exchange and worked in the drug department. I was going to work for the summer and then go on vacation and come back, but when the summer was over, I decided I just wanted not to work anymore. Then I never did work another drop except what I wanted to do.

EE:

You were in Maryland for about ten years, which would have put you, I guess, about 1980. Where did you go after Maryland?

ES:

Came down here.

EE:

So you've been in this area since—

ES:

I came here in June of '79.

EE:

And you said you also had some relations down here, that's how you knew about this area.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

Well, you can look at the snow on the mountaintops, but not have to put up with it as much in the streets.

ES:

That's true. That's true. This area is what they call the “thermal belt,” and it can be snowing down the mountain up here. You can see the line where it starts getting a little bit warmer and you don't see any snow on down here yet it will be up on the mountain.

EE:

It's nice.

ES:

If we get any snow, usually it's just three or four tablespoons or something like that. Once in a while the ground gets covered. We had a blizzard in '93, but we'd just as soon not go through it again. No power for a week.

EE:

I recall that. That was the storm of the century.

ES:

Yes, it was. It was indeed.

EE:

Twenty inches around one side of the mountaintop. We had eight inches, I think, in Winston-Salem that year.

ES:

Did you really?

EE:

Yes. It was a bad storm.

ES:

It was. It was a bad storm.

EE:

Have you stayed in contact with some of your friends that you made over the years in the service?

ES:

Yes. We exchange Christmas cards every year, have for a long time.

EE:

Are you active in any of the veterans' organizations?

ES:

No, I'm not.

EE:

You were telling me, though, that you know that there's some reunion that's coming up in Fort Lee next year. What group is that?

ES:

Yes, it's the WAC reunion. They have one—I think it's every two years. I haven't been for a while. They used to hold them at Fort McClellan. And then after they—in fact, the one they're holding next year at Fort Lee will be the first one at Lee since they closed Fort McClellan.

EE:

A few years after you left the service, the WAC that you had spent your career in ceased to exist.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

It became part of the regular army. How do you feel about that?

ES:

I wish it hadn't happened.

EE:

What did they lose when they joined the regular army?

ES:

I think they just lost their individuality or something, I don't know. I just think it would have been better to have had it separate.

EE:

At the time in the early seventies, there was such a commotion over equal rights and equal opportunities for women. Many people have said that it was because of the role of women in the service, the opportunities for women in the service, that women were able to make a good case, “See, look at the WACs. Look at all that women can do.”

ES:

That's right.

EE:

Do you think that the WAC helped pave the way for women's rights?

ES:

I think they probably did. Probably did.

EE:

Did your time in the WAC, do you think, make you a more independent person than you would have been otherwise?

ES:

Yes, yes.

EE:

What about the service does that?

ES:

I don't know. I guess the main thing is you have a lot of responsibility in most of the jobs, you learn to do things on your own, you're well disciplined.

EE:

If someone were to come up to you who knew nothing about the services, and unfortunately that's the case nowadays because with being an all-volunteer service and not having a time of war, thankfully, there are fewer homes that have that experience, what would you tell somebody who has no connections with the service? What's the biggest misconception about military people?

ES:

I don't know, unless—I think a lot of people think that it's the lazy people who go into the military because they feel like it's a real soft job, and if you can't get a job on the outside, you can get a job in the military. I think that might be the main thing.

EE:

Sort of sounds like, from the people you were around, you were around a few go-getters in your time.

ES:

Yes.

EE:

If a woman came up to you today and said, “I'm thinking about joining the service,” what would your advice be for her?

ES:

It would depend on the person. Some of these young ladies would not listen to anything you say anyway, and why they ask you the question—you wonder why they ask you a question. But if they were a person I thought would settle down and would do a good job wherever they were, I would say, “Go for it, but you're going to have to work for everything you get. It's just not handed to you on a platter.”

EE:

So you say for some women it would be the thing for them. You have to have a certain attitude, a certain—

ES:

I think so. I think so.

EE:

—willingness to get along.

ES:

But in some ways, I think every woman should go into the service, and maybe they would be a better person for it when they came out.

EE:

Person in the sense of a better person or a better woman or both?

ES:

Both.

EE:

A couple years ago at about this time, the U.S. sent for the first time a woman combat pilot into action, bombing Baghdad. That was a long way from '42, when they didn't want women anywhere near the front.

ES:

Isn't that the truth?

EE:

Are there certain jobs that women should not do in the service, or should all jobs in the service be open to women?

ES:

I have mixed emotions about that, really. I don't know that I think we should send them into combat, and yet, they would do a wonderful job, most of them, and would probably welcome the chance. I don't know. But I really do have mixed emotions about it. In a way, I think, “Give them all they can handle,” and in another way I say, “No, no, no, cut it off before you give them too much.” That's kind of wishy-washy.

EE:

I think that's where the country is, myself.

ES:

[Laughter] I'm just following her.

EE:

I mean, I think the rules for advancement have to be different for women than men, given the limits of their opportunity.

ES:

Well, yes, I think you're right.

EE:

How do you think the service—I was trying to think and listen to you. You don't sound like someone who, in their service experience, ever went through an experience which got you afraid or which scared you or scarred you in that sense. Did you have any experiences where you were afraid or frightened?

ES:

No.

EE:

So the travel and different environments didn't faze you. You handled that pretty well?

ES:

I think I handled them all right, yes.

EE:

What's been the biggest change in you as a person as a result of your military career? Do you feel that you look at the world differently because of your time in service? If so, how?

ES:

Well, before I went into the service, believe it or not, I was a very shy person. I was not one to express an opinion about anything. I just went along with the flow, you know, and didn't question anything. After being in the service for even a short period of time, I could feel like I was getting more confidence in myself and forming opinions of my own and expressing them whenever I felt it was appropriate. It's just made me a better person.

EE:

So in a sense, having to respond to authority made you question it more?

ES:

That's true. That's true. [laughs] I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's true.

EE:

A question that I'm supposed to ask folks, and I'm never quite sure how to do it—I think I can get away with it with you—what was your most embarrassing moment during your time in the service?

ES:

You know, I don't know. I'm sure I had one.

EE:

Do you recall a funny story that happened to somebody that—well, you were telling about that one little girl talking about her brother.

ES:

Yes. Yes. I think that was the funniest one that I heard. But I do remember, and it kind of struck me as funny, that when we would have inspections—during my time at Fort Lee, we had the IG inspections, and we had clotheslines between the barracks. During those inspection periods they wouldn't let us hang any clothes out on the clotheslines, because they were afraid our panties would embarrass somebody, I guess, or something, I don't know. I thought that was kind of strange.

EE:

No underwear in the breeze during inspections.

ES:

There you go.

EE:

Even though it's part of life.

ES:

It sure is. But I'm sure I had to have a number of embarrassing moments, but I honestly cannot think of any.

EE:

It is a terrible task to go through somebody's life in an hour. It's just not going to be sufficient, however we do it. But we've gone through all these stations in your career, and there are all these different places and experiences that you've had. Looking back, if you had to do it over again—of course, you don't have that option, but if you had that option, would you?

ES:

Yes, I sure would.

EE:

How do you feel about patriotism?

ES:

I think it's not in a lot of people's minds these days. I think it's a thing that—it's an intangible thing that we all should have.

EE:

When you see the news reports on somebody in harm's way, or we just had a crash down at Jacksonville this past week—

ES:

Yes. Wasn't it terrible?

EE:

—does that story reach you different because you served in the army? Do you feel a connection still to folks in the service?

ES:

I think I feel more of a kinship to it, I guess, from being in the military. And there's one thing that really bothers me, is the way people treat the flag. I think it's just awful. They have no respect for it.

EE:

I have asked you a number of things today. Is there anything about your time in service that we've gone through or that I haven't touched on that you think is important for folks to know, about your decision to make a career out of your service experience, or things that people ought to know about a woman's experience in the army?

ES:

That's a tough one, a tough one. I think being in the service is good for anybody and everybody, a certain time anyway, even if it's just for a year. Of course, I realize it costs an awful lot of money to have a person in the service for just a year. But I think it makes—I know it made me more patient with other people. It made me much more understanding of people and the way they think and their actions. And it certainly helped me as far as responsibility was concerned. Of course, I was brought up during the time, too, when Mom and Dad ensured that we had a certain amount of responsibility in the home. But being in the service taught me even more about responsibility.

EE:

Lessons which I think we all need reminders in now and then.

ES:

Yes. I think we do. I still need to be reminded periodically.

EE:

I'm reminded every April 14th.

ES:

Indeed. Yes, indeed. [laughs]

EE:

I'll tell you, I have enjoyed this this morning and the chance to talk with you and share this recollection of many places and many good times, and you've shared this experience. So on behalf of the school, I want to say thank you for doing this, and on behalf of the country, thank you for your service.

ES:

I'm just so happy to have had the opportunity to. And I want to thank you for coming down here and letting me spout off about my experiences. I've enjoyed it very, very much.

EE:

Well, thank you.

[End of interview]