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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Myrtle Rhoden, 2000

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Object ID: WV0171.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Myrtle Rhoden’s early life and her service with the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) and the WAC (Women’s Army Corps).

Summary:

Topics from Rhoden's early life include her parent’s life in Jamaica; life in New York City; growing up around music; training to become a beautician; and a lengthy story of where she was when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Discussion of Rhoden’s enlistment in the WAAC includes how she met a recruiter; her decision to enlist on the spot; description of the testing and physical exams required for enlistment; and her family’s tearful reaction. Basic training discussion topics include boarding the train to Fort Des Moines, Iowa; receiving uniforms; instructors; barracks life; marching; vaccines; and fixing WACs’ hair. Topics from her time at Fort Clark, Texas, include her favorite songs from the era; rumors about the WAC; singing with the cavalry band; an altercation with civilian women; dancing at the service club; and recovery from appendicitis.

Discussion of Rhoden's overseas service includes receiving orders for overseas duty; cabins on the Ile de France; the ship being bombed for three days; planes flying over to destroy submarines; talking to servicemen aboard the ship; meeting General Benjamin O. Davis and Captain Charity Adams; the appearance of her base in Birmingham, England; being confronted with years of backlogged mail to sort; organizing the postal unit and visiting an English woman whose son was serving in the military. She also describes hostility from white, American, male soldiers and female civilians while in England.

Other topics include her marriage; the role of women in the military; and activity in the Veterans Association.

Creator: Myrtle A. Rhoden

Biographical Info: Myrtle A. Rhoden (1921-2005) of New York City, served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) from 1941 to 1945. She later went to work for IBM, retiring after twenty-one years of service.

Collection: Myrtle A. Rhoden 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 this is an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Today I am in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is June the sixth in the year 2000, the fifty-sixth anniversary of VE [Victory in Europe] Day, and I'm at the home of Myrtle Rhoden this morning. Thank you, Miss Rhoden, for sitting down here with us.

MR:

You're welcome.

EE:

A couple of questions I'm going to ask you we've already talked about, but just want to have it on tape for our transcript. The first one I ask everybody is simple, which is where were you born and where did you grow up?

MR:

I was born in New York City. I grew up in New York City. My parents are from the British Isles, but they met and married in New York, and I'm the firstborn of four children.

EE:

Now, were they from the Virgin Islands?

MR:

From Jamaica. My mother and father attended the same church and sang in the same choir in Jamaica.

EE:

So it works there, too. [laughs]

MR:

Yes. Yes.

EE:

People sing in church choirs for all sorts of reasons.

MR:

Oh, yes.

EE:

You said that you were the oldest of four?

MR:

Four. I was born in 1921, July 17, and then my brother, Rudolph was born in October. My sister Mavis was born in two years in September, and my brother, my baby brother Keith, was born in January. And we had four children.

EE:

Your family, what did they do in the city? What kind of work did they do?

MR:

My mother was a housekeeper and a music teacher and a dressmaker.

EE:

An excellent [unclear]?

MR:

Oh, she was a fabulous dressmaker, and she taught all the children in the neighborhood music. My father owned two restaurants. He was a chef. He left Jamaica and became a merchant seaman, and then he went around wherever the ship took him, and he ended up in New York. He was still writing my mother and finally, when he served in New York, my mother came to her aunt who lived in New York, and then when she arrived they got married. In fact, they got married the day after she arrived, because they had been making these plans for years.

EE:

When he was in the merchant seamen, was that during World War I?

MR:

No.

EE:

Okay, it was just afterwards.

MR:

No, it was after that.

EE:

So you all growing up in the city, and you're in Harlem.

MR:

Harlem in New York City, which was a fabulous place to live.

EE:

Sounds like you were there at the right time.

MR:

At the right time. It was a gorgeous place to live, and everybody was family. I don't care from one end of New York in Harlem to the other end of Harlem, everybody knew everybody, and it was family. We went to St. James Presbyterian Church, but that was a very well-known church. My mother sang in the choir and there was Chapman Earl, and I can't think her name. She's a very famous lady, sang in the choir. Doris. Chapman Earl was a choir member. Irene Taterose[?] was a choir member. Sopranos. They sang like they should have been in opera. They should have been singing in opera. Dorothy Daniels. No, it's not Daniels. Oh, gosh, it will come to me. Oh, that's on the tape?

EE:

Don't worry about it.

MR:

Her husband was our pastor. But, anyway, she was an opera singer.

EE:

So you were surrounded by some wonderful music, it sounds like, at home and at the church.

MR:

All the time. That's why I used to be able to play the piano very well. My mother taught me music. And then we used to sing.

EE:

Did your mom ever want you to become a musician?

MR:

Yes, and I used to sing, too. We were surrounded by music. We were always—the classics. It wasn't the jazz. It was the classics at that time in the home, and she was very, very professional.

EE:

Where did you go to school in the city?

MR:

Well, the neighborhood school, PS 90, and then I went to PS 136, which was an all-girls school, junior high school, 136. That was in Harlem. Then when I graduated from there I went to Harrin[?] High School, 59th Street and Tenth Avenue. That was a combination of boys, girls, all nationalities. And I graduated from Harrin High School.

EE:

Were you somebody who liked school growing up?

MR:

I think so, because I never had a problem.

EE:

Well, now, what did you want to be when you grew up when you were growing up in the city?

MR:

When I was in school, I was in plays, and I used to sing and play the piano, because my mother made sure that everybody learned to play the piano, because she was a music teacher. But I didn't have any one specific plan to be anything. And then one day one of my mother's friends asked her, because when I went to the beauty parlor, I was so fascinated with the beauty business, Miss Edwards. My mom used to get her hair done there, and she asked my mother permission to train me, and Mama said yes. Surprise, surprise! I thought she would say no, if someone had approached her that way, because the beauty parlor business wasn't classified as high class. Well, I used to go there on Saturdays to the beauty parlor. Edwards Beauty Salon, right about the corner from my house, and she didn't teach me how to do hair, but she taught me how to take care of her shop. [laughs]

EE:

That's what she was looking for was a little relief so she could have a break.

MR:

Oh, yes. I took care of her shop. But then I would shampoo all the wigs. I learned how to do that, and then I shampooed, and then sometimes she'd be behind in her appointments and I would have to shampoo her customers. So she taught me how to shampoo, and I shampooed very well. So I did. I shampooed the customers. The next thing I knew, I was learning how to actually press hair and make it straight. And before I knew it again, I was not only shampooing and pressing hair, I was styling, finishing hair.

EE:

So she was training you.

MR:

Yes, she trained me. She was an excellent trainer.

EE:

Now, were you going to school the whole time?

MR:

I'm going to school during the day, but this is Saturdays. I would work in the shop in Saturdays, and I became a beautician. In fact, in my lifetime I've owned two shops of my own in New York City. I finally became a beautician. I used to work for Rose Morgan. She was one of New York City's best beauticians. She's well known. She married Joe Louis. Do you remember Joe Louis, the prizefighter?

EE:

Oh, yes.

EE:

Well, Rose Morgan married Joe Louis, and I worked for Rose Morgan for years. Just before I moved to Charlotte, I called her to tell her I was thinking about her. And she said, “You know, you're going to live a long time, because I was thinking about you just yesterday.” I hadn't seen her in years. “You were one of my best beauticians.” We did fashion shows at the—what was that called? At one of the big ballrooms in Harlem we did fashion shows. We did weddings. It was wonderful, and I used to do the hairstyles.

EE:

When did you graduate from high school? Thirty-nine or something like that?

MR:

Possibly. I can't remember.

EE:

It was a twelve-year high school. When you graduated, had the war started? I guess the war had started in Europe at that point.

MR:

At the time, it was in Europe. Our war started in '41?

EE:

Forty-one.

MR:

Forty-one, yes.

EE:

Do you remember where you were on D-Day? Not D-Day, Pearl Harbor day. You know what I'm talking about.

MR:

Yes, I remember very well. I remember very well. It was a Sunday. D-Day was a Sunday.

EE:

Pearl Harbor day.

MR:

Pearl Harbor day was a Sunday. We went to church as usual. Mama sang in the choir, as usual, and I sang in the junior choir, as usual, senior high school choir. If you were good during that week, Mama always treated you to something, if you wanted to do something.

She said, “What are you going to do when you leave church?”

I said, “I would like to go to the movies.”

She said, “Oh, all right. I'll treat you.”

EE:

That was nice.

MR:

I went to the movies on 125th Street in Harlem, the Loehmann's Theater, and I was looking at this movie. While we were in the theater, they stopped the picture and they made this announcement. They put all the lights on. “All military personnel report to your nearest station.” It was very formal, very military. Immediately there were navy men and air force men, all branches of service was in that theater Sunday afternoon. I was upstairs in the balcony. Those men were taking the steps two and three at a time, flying out of that theater. I was looking over, because I was sitting in the balcony. I was looking over and saw the men were running, the military people I'm talking about. And they had their dates with them, too. Some of them left their lady friends in the theater. As soon as they cleared the area, they put the lights back on and they put the film back on. I wish I could remember the name of the film.

EE:

And nobody still knew what the reason was?

MR:

No, nobody. They didn't tell us the reason. Just obey that order that came over that microphone. It sounded like a military order. So if you're in uniform and you're in the military, you belong to them, you know. So I'm sitting in the theater, the picture ended. I can't remember the name. I don't remember the name. It was a military picture, [unclear] and Ronald Coleman.

Anyway, I came out of the theater, and when I got out of the door, the front door of the Loehmann's Theater, you could not see the ground, the sidewalk, the middle of the street. No traffic could pass. It was mobs of people. From Seventh Avenue to Eighth Avenue was nothing but people, and there's no traffic. The cars couldn't drive through. So I walked up to Seventh Avenue, and everybody's asking, “What's going on?” Nobody knew. “What's happening?” And nobody knew. “What's all this all about?” Nobody knew. So we're walking and people just jamming the streets. Somebody knew something. Why are they out there? Finally, I got to Seventh Avenue. There was no buses running, nothing. I had to walk from 125th Street to 150th Street, that's where I lived. [laughs]

EE:

I know why you remember that day now. [laughs]

MR:

I remember that day well, and I walked up to my house, and we lived in the third building from the corner of Seventh Avenue, and we lived on the top floor. So I had to go all the way up to top floor of the building, the sixth floor. So when I opened the door, Mama was standing there by the kitchen. I said, “What's going on?”

Mama said, “Don't you know? We're at war.”

I said, “What do you mean, we're at war?”

“Japan bombed Pearl Harbor this morning.” So that cleared up the whole mystery.

I said, “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor?”

“Yes, they bombed Pearl Harbor, and we're at war with Japan.”

So, of course, I said, “Well, you should see the mob of people out in the streets.”

She was looking out the window. She said, “I've seen it.”

“Everybody's out in the street. What's going to happen? Are we going to—?”

She said, “We are at war. Pearl Harbor.” And, of course, the radio was on. We didn't have TV at the time. We heard all the news, and it was all day and all night and all day and all night. Newspapers came out. We saw what happened, and that was that.

EE:

Well, now how is it that somebody who's a beautician gets from shampooing and straightening hair and joins the WAC [Women's Army Corps]?

MR:

Mondays I don't work. I'm a beautician, right?

EE:

Yes.

MR:

The shops are closed on Monday. That's a beautician's day off.

EE:

My sister's a beautician. I'm familiar with that.

MR:

I usually stayed home with Mama, because we have a good time together. She fixed salads. She fixed something to eat and sandwiches. I'd do her hair, and I may take a nap. Then I said to her that day, “Mama, I'm not going to stay home today.”

She said, “Why, what's going on? What are you going to do?”

I said, “I think I'm going to the movies. I think I'm going to the movies.” And I left. She was real disappointed.

She said, “Oh, I thought we were going to have our day.”

I said, “No, I think I'm going to go take a walk and maybe take the bus downtown and go to a movie.” Now, I'd been to the movie the day before, the Sunday, the day before, but I just didn't feel like sitting in the house. I didn't feel like doing hair. I didn't feel like whatever it was. Something drew me out of the house to go to this movie, and I went to Radio City Music Hall. Saw the theater. Saw the stage show, and saw the movie again, half of it. I got bored, and went to the ladies room and then I decided to go home. When I got to the front door it was snowing. I didn't have anything for snow. I didn't have any shoes or anything for snow.

EE:

This was February, March, something like that?

MR:

No, this is still December.

EE:

So it was right after, okay.

MR:

The next day, December 8. So instead of going out in the snow, I don't like snow, I went back in the theater. Radio City Hall is this enormous theater. It's a beautiful place. And I went downstairs to the underground, and it was about three or four square blocks of the most gorgeous stores down there in that arcade.

[Tape recorder paused]

MR:

—and the dresses and the jewelry and the restaurants and men's clothing. It's a beautiful store. And then over here on this side I see a girl sitting there in uniform. I didn't go past her.

I just said, “What are you doing over here? What's this all about?”

She said, “Oh, I'm recruiting women for the women's army.”

I said, “I didn't know they had a women's army.”

She said, “It's brand new. We're just trying to get women enlisted in the service now.”

So I said, “What do you have to do?” Oh, I have to say that.

EE:

Little innocent questions can change your life. [laughs]

MR:

So she pulled out a little pack of papers like that and told me to look through them, and I looked through them. I read everything that was inside and I said, “Well, how do you get in this thing?”

She said, “Fill out the form.” I filled out the form.

EE:

So it just happened on your walk that day.

MR:

I'm serious. I had no idea.

EE:

Didn't read anything in the paper. Didn't know one word about it.

MR:

Nothing.

EE:

Was this an African American woman at this stand?

MR:

No, she was a white woman, a blonde girl with a women's army uniform.

EE:

And she's just saying, “We just need folks.” And you filled out this form, gave it back to her.

MR:

I filled it out. It was a lot to fill out. It was a lot to read. So I was sitting at her table a good forty-five minutes, and finally I read it. I did everything. I filled out and I signed my name and my age, whatever I had to fill out. And she said, “You will be contacted by telephone.” And I walked out of there. When I came to the end of that arcade—the theater's at Sixth Avenue—when I came out, I was at Seventh Avenue, where I'm supposed to be to get my bus to take me up to my street, because I lived off the corner of Seventh Avenue. Got on the bus. I didn't open my mouth. Didn't say a word. I was like I was in a daze.

EE:

What have I done? [laughs]

MR:

Now I've got to face Mrs. Rhoden.

EE:

Yes.

MR:

She's sergeant of the family. She's five feet what? Mama is five feet four. [laughs] So I walked in the house, went to my room, closed the door, didn't mention one thing to anybody. This is a Monday. Oh, she told me to report to this building Tuesday morning.

EE:

What? For a physical?

MR:

No, to fill out some more information. And it's right there not too far from where I was. The beauty shop is closed on Monday, so I told Miss Edwards I had some business to take care and I wouldn't be at the shop Tuesday, and to give my appointments to the other two girls. I only had about three appointments.

So I went downtown to this building. It was an official building, a big business building. I can't think of the name of it now. I wish I could. Upstairs somewhere. I had to fill out some more papers, and when I filled them out, they said, “Come back Wednesday for a physical.”

So now I have to check out of the beauty parlor on Wednesday. Now, I'm not telling anybody what's going on. I don't tell her why I'm not coming in, just that I have business and I can't be there Wednesday. So she took care of my customers on Wednesday. I had a big business. I had a lot of customers.

Then finally I took the physical from head to foot and passed. I'm twenty-one years old. Some of those people failed the physical; some of them failed the written. I don't know how you could fail a test that simple. You had to be pretty stupid to fail that kind of test to go in the army. How do you fail an army test? [laughter] I saw people going out that door and going out that door. They told me to go out that door.

I said, “What is it?”

“Oh, you passed.”

I said, “Oh, they failed?”

“Yes, they failed.”

I said, “Oh, God. They're pretty stupid.”

And the written test, too. I mean, the physical. Some people didn't pass the physical. The physical was atrocious. You had to stand on the side of your feet without your shoes. You had to stand on your toes. You had to stand on the back of your heels without falling. It was all real strict, real rigid.

EE:

Testing your balance? Testing your posture and everything?

MR:

Yes, yes. Yes, you took your shoes off and you stood on the side of your feet, outside, and you stood on the inside of your feet. You stood on your toes, and you stood on the back of your heels, and you did not fall. I'm serious. I was twenty-one. I'm physically fit. Everything else was perfect, eyesight, all my teeth.

EE:

Now, did they tell you what you would be doing in this, what kind of work you'd be doing?

MR:

You didn't get that information until you got to Fort Des Moines, Iowa.

EE:

You left New York. This would have been early '42, maybe March or something?

MR:

No, it wasn't. It was the next week. Now, this is Wednesday, Thursday. Friday I go home and there's a telegram on my bed. When I put the key to open the door, Mama opened the door at the same time, and she's hysterical.

I said, “What's the matter?”

She doesn't know what it is, but I got a telegram. We never had a telegram come to my house.

And she said, “You have a telegram. You have a telegram. I put it on your bed.”

She wouldn't open it. So I went down the hall. My father's home, too. I go down to my room. Off the living room is my room in the corner there. I closed the door and I was to report for basic training, Des Moines, Iowa. Monday morning you have to leave from Penn Central Station. [laughs]

EE:

And Mama's going, “What?”

MR:

So I'm sitting in the room with the telegram. They tell you what time you have to be at the station and where you're going. You're going to report for basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. At such and such a time you have to leave. Nine o'clock I think we have to leave that morning. That's a Monday morning, and this is what? This is Friday.

So I got my courage together, because you could hear a pin drop outside. I knew the two of them were sitting and waiting. And I walked outside and I went in their bedroom and closed their door. They had two big French doors in their bedroom, from the living room to their bedroom. And I let them read the telegram. World War III was in my house, was in that room. It was daylight, too. It wasn't dark yet. My mother went into hysterics, and my father went into hysterics. My father cried like I had died, and they couldn't believe that. “What forced me? What did they do to me?” they kept asking me, “Why would you want to leave home? What is this army? What is it all about? How could you go into the army? You don't know anything about an army. I didn't know they had an army for women.” And the screaming. Oh, God. Oh, they carried on terrible. Very dramatic.

EE:

I think they thought maybe you were going to go off to war.

MR:

They were dramatic. They were so hysterical, it was unbelievable. So it made me almost sorry I signed up. So I finally told them that it wasn't all that. I wasn't going to be carrying weapons. I wasn't going to be killing anybody. I was going to be probably typing. And they just boo-hooed and boo-hooed. I mean, they cried outrageously. It was unbelievable. So finally I got in their bed with them. I had Mama on this arm and Daddy on this shoulder.

EE:

Just reassuring them.

MR:

And I held them. They were boo-hooing and crying. They had me crying, too. Then finally, I'll never forget that Sunday. I'll never forget that day, that Monday, rather. Finally, they sobbed until they felt better. I convinced them somehow that I'm not carrying a weapon. I'm not killing anybody. They thought the worst.

EE:

I know. But they never had women in the army before, so I guess it was likely for them to worry about it.

MR:

They thought the worst. And finally they dozed off a little bit, and then I was able to worm my way out and go to my room and change my clothes. Before I knew it, the phone was ringing. They had called people and my family and my friends and here comes my best friend Marguerite, here comes Katie Jones, my godmother.

EE:

You were getting full-court press, weren't you? [laughs]

MR:

Yes. It was unbelievable. And then Saturday they had a big farewell party for me, celebration. My father, I told you he had two restaurants. So he did all of the refreshments. Sunday was another big party, folk coming in and out. Our door was wide open. We lived on the top floor. So our door was wide open. We had so many friends. So then finally I said, “God, I can't wait till tomorrow morning.” I was in my room praying for Monday morning. I was so tired. [laughter]

EE:

I'll bet.

MR:

Oh, what to bring? What you have on, only the clothes that you're wearing, pajamas, your night clothes, your toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, towel, one wash cloth. That's all you bring with you. So I had a little black bag that I put all my little things in and that was it.

EE:

And you didn't know anybody else joining?

MR:

Not one person.

EE:

You go down to Penn Station.

MR:

I go to Penn Central Station with my mother and Mrs. Carter and Marguerite, the three of them.

I said, “You all can't go. You're not going in the army.” [laughs]

“Oh, we're just going to see you off at the station.”

They come with me to the station. It took forever to get, you know, enrolled, you know, your name and the whole bit. Finally, we got to this line up, and I'm looking way back there, and they're standing way back there. And then we go downstairs to the train tracks and we get onboard the train.

I get in the train and I'm sitting in this compartment, and there's a girl sitting in there already. She's sitting in front of me. Ruth Webber. I'll never forget her name. I guess they're still friends. I'm going to ask him about Ruth Webber one day to find out where she is.

Ruth Webber is sitting there and I'm sitting here, and this is the window and there's the platform out there. Right? You know, the car compartment? I said, “I am so tired. I've been up since six o'clock this morning, and I'm so tired from what I've been going through this whole weekend with my folks.” I'm just talking, talking, talking. The next thing I know, here is my mother and Mrs. Carter and my girlfriend.

EE:

On the train?

MR:

On the train coming slowly down on top of me.

EE:

Oh, my baby.

MR:

How in the world did they get down on that platform? And they came from the other end, way down at the front of the train. And I said, “What are you all doing here?” I thought I had finished seeing them. [laughs]

EE:

You can't get out of New York, can you? Much less go overseas. You can't even get out of New York. [laughter]

MR:

I said, “What are you all doing here? You all are going to get me in trouble.”

“Well, we just wanted to say goodbye one more time.”

And everybody's kissing at the same time, and we hear whistles outside. MPs [military police] are blowing whistles because they saw these three women running down the platform. So they finally came and got them out, told them they had to leave. Oh, God, embarrassment. But that wasn't embarrassing. I was scared for them. So finally the train, we heard the train take off. The whistle and the horn blowing, “Toot-toot.” This is down underground. Penn Central Railroad. And we rode all the way—

EE:

Had you ever been on a big trip on a train before?

MR:

Not like that. Not all the way out to Des Moines, Iowa, no. It was my first experience. Everything that I had done that week was my first experience. And we finally got to—well, we stopped on the way. We ate in a restaurant somewhere off the highway there, the railroad station, and we went in some restaurant and then we came back out. I can't tell you how many women were on that train, but it was a trainload. I don't remember if it was all black or what, but it was a trainload from one end of that station to as far as your eye could see.

EE:

Just women going to Des Moines.

MR:

Just women going to Des Moines. When we got to Des Moines, Iowa, it was like two o'clock in the morning, and when we pulled in, weapons carriers, trucks, big trucks, weapons carriers was lined up for the full length of the station, and also on the platform there were two caskets on the platform. Some soldiers had gotten killed.

EE:

Not exactly the thing you want to see first thing when getting off. [laughs]

MR:

It wasn't. I don't want to see this first thing in the morning, two bodies. You know, we didn't see the bodies, but we saw the caskets. We find out that these two men had been killed. Not in warfare. This was—

EE:

Practice.

MR:

No, men. Somebody shot somebody. Somebody killed somebody. It wasn't a warfare killing, it was fighting, angry, argument. So we got off the train, and we got down on the ground, and you had to put your foot up in the stirrup. See, the back of the truck was dropped down, and you had to put your foot at the end of the stirrup and the strap pulling yourself up into this truck. Unbelievable.

EE:

Welcome to the army.

MR:

Yes. So we got in the truck and they took us to Fort Des Moines, took us to the basic training. Oh, I'm mixing up the story. I'm sorry. Let me go back.

EE:

It's all right. Go ahead. We'll fix it.

MR:

Basic training. I'm going to Des Moines, Iowa. I just told you what happened to me in Texas. Fort Clark, Texas.

EE:

Okay. That's how you got off. So when you got to—

MR:

We got off the truck and they took us in vans to our barracks, women's barracks. We got our luggage. No, they brought it to our building, and then we were able to unload our things and get ready for the next day. We had to go to school the next day.

EE:

How many women were in that barracks? Do you remember?

MR:

There was one, two, three, four squad rooms, two floors. The first floor, then over there was a squad room. Upstairs squad room, squad room. Four.

EE:

About ten in a room?

MR:

No, about thirty in a room.

EE:

Thirty. Oh, okay. So it was a considerable number. All right.

MR:

It was a lot of women in each squad room. Now we're all civilians, right? We don't know anything about rank.

EE:

Sure.

MR:

Here comes the sergeant blowing her whistle and telling you what to do and how to fall out the next morning, and when you fall out the next morning it's dark. The moon is shining. That's when we fell out. And we had to go and get clothes, military clothes. We had to be fitted, and we had fatigues. We got fatigues and sneakers and that knit cap. That's what we had on.

EE:

You were military and yet not military.

MR:

Not quite. Not quite.

EE:

Not quite. But you had to be pretty close.

MR:

But this is December and it's cold. So we finally got winter coats, a trench coat and a winter coat, heavy coat. That was our dress coat.

EE:

I was going to say, you were early enough that they probably hadn't settled on what the uniform was, had they?

MR:

We really didn't have everything that we were supposed to have. We had wool socks that we could wear up to our ankles with the stockings. You put the stockings on and then you put the wool socks on over and then you had the shoes, military shoes.

EE:

Were all of your instructors there women?

MR:

All instructors were women. We had no men instructors, none whatsoever. Once in a while they'd have a soldier come up with a truck to take us somewhere.

EE:

And you're probably early enough that none of your instructors were African American, were they?

MR:

They were all African American.

EE:

They were all, okay.

MR:

Yes. They were all African American. One or two were white girls in the office, but we were an all-black unit. Myrtle Gowdy was one of our officers. Lieutenant Gowdy, black woman. So she was the only Myrtle I met at the time. She was very nice to me. We became good friends. Lieutenant. She was a first lieutenant. That's a first rank.

EE:

What was a typical day in basic like for you?

MR:

Wore you out. We were running. We hut-hut-hut-hut all day.

EE:

Like that had a lot to do with what you were going to be doing.

MR:

Yes.

EE:

But they want to get you in the drill, don't they?

MR:

We hutted from the barracks to the mess hall, from the mess hall to the barracks. And then we worked out. In the backyard of our barracks was a tennis court, and some girls played tennis. I didn't play tennis. But we did physical education out in the field. Wherever you went, we hut. We didn't walk. We did the hut, hut-hut. We had to go back to the hospital to get checked again. We had to get shots. We had to get shots, some were booster shots on top of what we had gotten, and we had to get vaccinated.

EE:

So you just had sore arms the whole time?

MR:

Oh, we had sore arms. A couple of guys passed out, fall down on the floor. You didn't want to eat. You didn't feel like eating. You didn't want to go to the mess hall. And then you missed your family and start getting very grumpy and depressed.

EE:

Did you all have any free time during basic, or you had to pretty much stay on?

MR:

We were on duty. We did not have any free time. And this was just like the first six weeks of our military life.

EE:

What time of year was this? This was early '42?

MR:

This is '41. December 7, 1941. I went in that next day after Pearl Harbor.

EE:

How long were you at Des Moines? Through about February of '42?

MR:

Six weeks.

EE:

Six weeks? Okay. So when you got through with that—

MR:

Oh, we were soldiers then. By the time we finished basic, we were soldiers. They'd blow that whistle to fall out, and you'd hear “Fall out!” Like they were going to kill you. “Fall out!” And you jumped out of your bed. But you had already been up. You know you have to.

EE:

You probably took turns doing drill leader. Were you platoon leader for a day or something?

MR:

I used to take them running in the woods. [laughs]

EE:

I can see the beautician in you now going, “Oh, my gosh, my hair is going to—”

MR:

And they had me doing their hair. They knew I was a beautician.

EE:

I've heard the rules for hair. What were the rules for hair for you all?

MR:

You couldn't have no hair no longer than your earlobes. You couldn't have hair down on your shoulders.

EE:

No curl?

MR:

Well, you could have curls. You could have waves. You could have curls, but no hair was longer than your earlobes, and you had a short haircut in the back, a bob in the back. I used to do their hair in the barracks. I used to do hair with a rusty curling iron, an electric stove, downstairs in the latrine. That's a military term. [laughter]

EE:

Yes. A term of art.

MR:

Yes. And they would ask. But you have to shampoo your own hair. I'm not shampooing no hair.

EE:

Did you all take turns with latrine cleaning duty and everything else?

MR:

Oh, heavens, yes. KP [kitchen patrol]? Oh, mercy, yes. Everybody had to do the latrines. Sometimes the shower stalls. We didn't have bathtubs. We had shower stalls, and we had the face bowls and the mirrors and the tile. You had to do all that. We had to clean that stuff and clean it thoroughly. It had to be spotless. And, of course, the floors. The latrines had to be done perfect.

EE:

Well, now, when you finished this training, where were you assigned? Just pretty much Fort Clark?

MR:

Fort Clark, Texas.

EE:

This is where the trucks come in the middle of the night?

MR:

The best time of my life.

EE:

All right. Tell me about it.

MR:

I was with the 9th and 10th Cavalry.

EE:

Were you on a horse?

MR:

No, I never rode a horse.

EE:

Did they still have horses down there?

MR:

Yes. Oh, gosh, yes.

EE:

Just like that.

MR:

See there?

EE:

Oh, yes, I see the pictures.

MR:

Oh, yes, they have horses. There's no two ways about it. In parades they had horses. I showed you the picture of us in formation, and we got—

EE:

Well, now, the WAAC [Women's Army Auxiliary Corps] was started to help free a man to fight, so you were going to Fort Clark to replace a man or what was it?

MR:

We did not replace any men.

EE:

You did not replace any men?

MR:

No.

EE:

What were you doing down at Fort Clark?

MR:

We were in all administrative jobs, clerks, typists. We worked in a hospital. I did in [an] administration office, admission office in Fort Clark, Texas. And one of my dearest, dearest officers, Clark, Captain Clark was my boss. He was from Chicago. He was a very good boss, very nice man. I wish I knew where he was. Anyway—

EE:

Now, you were telling me before we started this tape the thing about being at Fort Clark is that the numbers were about—it was an incredibly small amount of women compared to the number of men.

MR:

Twenty thousand men.

EE:

Twenty thousand men.

MR:

There weren't twenty thousand women nowhere.

EE:

About eight hundred you said?

MR:

Yes. [laughs]

EE:

So it made it pretty good for dancing at the social club.

MR:

Oh, it certainly did. It certainly did. I was very popular in the service club. I was a very popular dancer. I was a New Yorker and I knew how to dance well, and the men were so—I was their favorite. I was. I'm not bragging.

EE:

Any songs come to mind when you think of dancing down there?

MR:

I know Honeysuckle Rose was a happy song. And then I used to sing with the band. I got nerve to jump up on the bandstand one day and take the microphone and sang Embraceable You. [laughs]

EE:

Oh, my goodness.

MR:

And the tears. Oh, they all applauded and cheered. The next thing I know, I was with the band.

EE:

It's terrible being shy, isn't it?

MR:

Yes, it's awful. You can get yourself in a lot of trouble. [laughter] The next thing I knew, I was flying with the band in the airplane to go sing with some men that graduated from another air force.

EE:

Another unit. Oh, good gracious, you're on tour.

MR:

I'm serious.

EE:

Oh, my goodness.

MR:

I got to the point where the men—there was nothing I didn't do. I swear. Because I sang in our Glee Club, [unclear] Collegiate Chorale in New York. I sang at the collegiate group with Bob Shaw, Robert Shaw. He was our director. So I was very, very popular in New York as far as singing. But I can't tell you how many times I went and sang at different military bases with the band. I wore my uniform.

EE:

So you'd get permission to go off to do this with the other guys?

MR:

Special Services gave me permission. Special Services gave me permission. I didn't just go anyway on my own. Special Services had to excuse me from duty. And Captain Clark says, “When are you going to do some work around here. Every time I look around you're flying somewhere.”

EE:

So I imagine your job was normally first-shift work, if you were out traveling getting ready for these gigs at night.

MR:

Oh, I went home from duty early because they had to pick me up. They had to pick me up and take me to the airfield so I could fly. This is the time where I flew. We sang at this air force base. I had a good voice. I sang at this air force base.

I've got to show you something. I'm sorry. I hate to interrupt you.

EE:

That's all right.

MR:

And when I got to the air force base, they took pictures. They'd say “Rhody?” They called Rhody instead of Rhoden, “Rhody, where you going now?” These girls worked in the hospital, and they come home from duty and I'm waiting for somebody to pick me up to take me to eat somewhere, because I'm going somewhere to sing with the band. And it was a huge band. It wasn't no small one. And they played the best dance music.

EE:

Let's stop for just a second.

[Tape paused]

EE:

—at Fort Clark then traveling around and entertaining, doing some administrative work during the day. When you're doing your day job—

MR:

I'm admitting patients to the hospital. I'm in the administrative office.

EE:

So your immediate bosses, are they civilians or are they military?

MR:

Male. Male military men. Captain Clark was my boss.

EE:

How long were you at Fort Clark all together?

MR:

I want to say two years.

EE:

A good haul. So you were at Fort Clark when they changed over to WAC [from WAAC]?

MR:

Yes. I reenlisted in Fort Clark. One WAC did not reenlist. One WAC went home. Serious. I don't know why that girl didn't reenlist. I remember her saying she was going back home. But all of us, we all signed up.

EE:

So in August '43 you reenlisted. How soon after that did you move to Oklahoma?

MR:

Oklahoma wasn't too long. What does it say about Oklahoma?

EE:

It doesn't say when you moved there. In fact, it's not even—

MR:

Where did you see that?

EE:

That was in that article you were at Fort Gruber, is that right?

MR:

Camp Gruber.

EE:

Camp Gruber.

MR:

Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. We went there as administrative clerks again. We were always in paper. We were paper shufflers. That's all we did is paperwork, military paperwork.

EE:

Was that wonderful mimeograph sheets and seven copies of everything?

MR:

Seven copies, yes, yes. That was very, very boring, but we did it.

EE:

Now when you went to Oklahoma, were you still singing? Were you still doing that?

MR:

I sang with the band. What do you mean, was I still singing?

EE:

Yes.

MR:

No, not with that band. That band belonged to the cavalry. I sang with the cavalry band. Now, there's a picture of the ballroom. Did I show you that?

EE:

No.

MR:

A thousand. It looked like a thousand people was in that ballroom. I thought I showed it to you. Okay. I don't know where that is.

EE:

This is a place where you were singing?

MR:

Fort Clark, Texas. It's a picture of the women and the men that were stationed there. I thought I showed it to you.

EE:

How long were you at Gruber before?

MR:

We were at Camp Gruber for a very short while. I was an administrative clerk again, and I didn't like Gruber.

EE:

Where is that? Is that near Oklahoma City or Tulsa?

MR:

Tulsa. It's near Tulsa.

EE:

A lot of these places, these bases, were disbanded after the war, so it's hard to track.

MR:

I wasn't very happy at Camp Gruber. And then we were ordered overseas.

EE:

You didn't get a chance to volunteer? You were just told, “We need you overseas.”

MR:

There was no volunteering, my darling.

EE:

Your government requests the pleasure of your presence.

MR:

Of your company. [laughs]

EE:

You don't refuse the government.

MR:

No. And you got all new stuff, new duffel bag, new everything. And one night they woke us up and said, “Pack your bag.” I mean, your bags are packed already. The weapons carriers, the trucks, were coming to pick us up to take us to the train station, and they said, “Rhody, we're going to New York. You'll be able to see your family. We'll give you time to go visit your family, because we're going to Europe.”

I saw when we got to New York. I saw Washington, because I opened the curtain and I peeked out. Oh, everything was blacked out, the train, and you weren't supposed to be—

EE:

Opening the window.

MR:

No. But I peeked between the curtains, you know, little holes, and I saw the Washington—it was lit up—Monument. I saw Washington, D.C., so I knew we weren't going to the Pacific. I knew we were going to Europe. It was a big monument. It was all lit up. The nightlight was on it. The next day, I think, we landed in New York, and we got off the ship and we got on board a truck that took us. No, we got off the train.

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

MR:

And we were all on the top deck, all of us WACs.

EE:

So all you know you're getting on a ship. You don't know it's going to where.

MR:

You don't know exactly where. We knew we're not going to South Pacific. We know we're going to Europe. Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii, so we know we're not going there.

EE:

Had you been introduced to Adams at this time? He didn't know you?

MR:

[Unclear].

EE:

Okay.

MR:

We got onboard the ship. When this squad room got filled up, then go to the next squad room. A certain amount of people go in there. I think there were one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, twelve bunks. These were not cruise ships. [laughs]

EE:

Yes, I know.

MR:

Each squad room had twelve bunks. You could put your stuff up on the shelf behind your bed right there, and I would always climb up on the top bunk. When we took off, during the middle of the night we took off, and we sailed about three days and nights, and then that third night Pearl Harbor met us in the middle of the ocean. It wasn't any manmade like—there were submarines and—

EE:

Aircraft?

MR:

It wasn't aircraft. It was buzz bombs. They didn't send manmade bombs over at the time.

EE:

Like a B-2 or something like that?

MR:

There was no human being flying this plane, this bomb. This bomb was loaded with a certain amount of chemicals, and when the chemical ran out, the bomb wiped you out. Submarines were manmade. I wish I knew the captain of that ship that I was on, because he—and this bomb would go this way. He zigzagged to the point where we were holding on for dear life, feet flying up in the air, you know, the jerk was so severe.

EE:

So you would zigzag until you had [unclear] where you had to avoid this stuff.

MR:

Then our planes came over and got some of those submarines. So there was a lot of explosions, a lot of bombing, and a lot of screaming.

EE:

Is that the first time you were afraid?

MR:

The first time. First time.

EE:

Because you had been doing deskwork and having lots of fun, and the war was a good thing for you until then.

MR:

The first time. And this was in the middle of the night. This wasn't daylight. When you heard the siren, whoop, whoop, whoop, we heard all that noise, that kind of sound, and then the boom, explosions. And, see, our ship didn't get hit, but that next ship got sunk. It was a troop movement. It wasn't just one ship. It was a troop movement, and it had to be at least, I'd say, a dozen ships in the troop movement, male, female troopers, soldiers.

We were on the top deck, but in the lower deck was all men, because we would have to go down in the hole and cross through to the other end of the ship to come up in the mess hall. So that's the only time we got to see the men that was on our ship. “And where are you from? And what's your name? Who are you? Who's from So-and-so?” Oh, God. But we were talking to them, and they were nice. I don't remember none of them now. And they were in three bunks. They had three bunks. Men were sleeping three on top of each other, and it was on both sides of the ship. Of course, this is the full length of the ship. There were a lot of troops, a lot of men. I mean, not cavalry. These are military. This was regular army.

EE:

Right, reinforcements.

MR:

So when we went through there, we were “What are you all doing? Where are you all from? Where are you from? Who's from So-and-so?” And we, “Who's back from New York?” You know how you do. You're not embarrassed. You're the same. You talk to everybody.

We got bombed at least three days straight. I'm not lying. We got bombed every—when it got dark, we got bombed. And this bomb, there was no man flying that bomb, those bombs. Those bombs were gas filled or whatever, whatever they used to fill it, and when it ran out, it came down and wiped you out, and a lot of men got killed.

EE:

So when you heard it, you heard it coming. But when you heard it stop, that's when you got worried.

MR:

You heard it coming. When you heard [squeaking sound], that sound, you better start praying.

EE:

Because you just didn't know where it was falling from.

MR:

It would fall right down on whoever was in its way. And our captain, whoever he was, I wish I knew who he was, conducted that ship and he had it. We were almost sideways when he would make a turn. Things would be flying from our shelf. The women always put their cosmetics on the shelves, and the bottles would be flying all over the place. [laughs]

EE:

I'd say this probably had a serious effect on your ability to enjoy being on the ocean for a while.

MR:

I've been on several cruises since, but it wasn't ever like that. [laughs]

EE:

Never like that.

MR:

And then our planes would come over. That's when we were glad that they were hitting the submarines that was underneath us. There were submarines beneath us, not just the buzz bombs over us, it was submarines were below us. So that captain did a yeoman's job getting us across that ocean with all that warfare. I mean, it's amazing how we didn't get a scratch. Ile de France was our ship. The Ile de France we went over on.

EE:

So it sounds like it was a civilian ship that had been commandeered for the war.

MR:

The ship was gorgeous. The dining room was beautiful, the paintings on the wall, the watercolors on the wall. It was a beautiful ship, big ship. We landed in Scotland. We landed in Glasgow, Scotland.

EE:

This is where you saw Major Adams for the first time?

MR:

For the first time. We came down the gangplank, and General Benjamin O. Davis and Captain Charity Adams. I can't think her initials. And she and he greeted us with a salute, welcomed us, and each one of us came down one by one and I saluted her, and “Corporal.” I had a corporal rank on. And my name was Rhoden, Myrtle A. [laughs] That's the first time I ever saw her, and the first time I saw him.

So we jumped up on the big trucks, again. God, we were forever climbing off those trucks and jumping up on those trucks. And then they took us to our squad. No, they didn't. They took us to the train station. We ate in the mess hall, and then from there we went to the train station that took us to Birmingham, England. Birmingham, England, is where we got off the train.

EE:

Not exactly the most scenic city in England.

MR:

Not really.

EE:

Lots of coal. Lots of industry.

MR:

Very drab.

EE:

Yes.

MR:

A very drab city. But the people were wonderful.

EE:

Where were you stationed? Was it a base outside of town?

MR:

We were in town. We were a postal unit in town. Our building looked like, I won't say military. It was quite civilian, but it was painted military. It was three blocks long and three blocks wide, and we all had our squad. Our squad room was in that building. We were two stories high. I think they redecorated. The government redecorated from civilian appearance, because it was a school at one time.

EE:

Okay, that makes sense. So that's where you all were housed, but then you went to this airport hangar, really, what it was, where they had that—

MR:

Where the bags were with the mail. We had to reroute them. And, you know, we got boxes of address cards where the men were. They knew where the men were, where the unit was, but they couldn't ship the mail. They had nobody to ship the mail to the men.

EE:

They just let it stack up because it had been—

MR:

It had stacked up for years. It wasn't no one-day thing. That mail was stacked up from here to that wall.

EE:

You didn't find out this was going to be your job until, I guess, you got to Birmingham and they said, “We'd like to show you something. Here's your work.”

MR:

Here's your job. So we said, “Who was here? Nobody did nothing? What, they didn't do anything?” There was nobody there to do the mail. The men were at war. They weren't getting their mail, but they were at the frontline.

EE:

What did you think about seeing all those letters that people had sent off a couple of years ago, when you knew that there could be news about loved ones?

MR:

Yes, many years of mail was piled up, at least two. So we went and did it. We got into it. We worked three shifts, morning, noon, and night. We sang songs. We told jokes, some clean, some dirty. [laughter] Oh, God, we entertained ourselves. Somebody would get homesick or start crying, so we'd have to hug them and make her feel good. Somebody got mail from home that wasn't good news, Grandma died or something like that. But we did the best we could. We used to tell jokes and laugh. So we weren't that miserable.

EE:

When you say you worked three shifts, you'd work the same shift for a week and then rotate off? Is that what you'd do? Seven days a week. Did you have any time off?

MR:

There's somebody working from eight o'clock in the morning for eight hours, and then in comes the next shift for the next eight hours and the next shift for the next. This was continuous. There was no stopping. There was not one hour that WACs wasn't working on mail. They'd bring a big box. Here's Sergeant So-and-so, A202, whatever number he was, and I'd find his name. I got his mail in this big bag, because I assembled it. I assembled the mail, because when they'd dump it on my station, I'd pull it out and I put all this man's mail. I find him and put it all in a sack. Then I put this other guy's mail in a sack. And I've got everybody's mail organized. Now I've got to get his present location. Then I wrap it in this old ratty type of cord, cut it off, and we put a big piece of paper. You write everything on there. Wrap his mail in that, and then you wrap this cord around it, and this man gets about ten, twelve, fifteen letters at one time, and then you sent him his mail. You stack it. That's where you stack him in another box until you get them all done and this bag is empty. So you get another bag, and you do the same thing over and over and over again.

We'd sing songs. We'd tell dirty jokes. We'd miss our loved ones, you know, our love friends. I wasn't dating anybody when I went in the service. I missed my family, and they'd send me packages. Mama was very generous with the gifts and stuff, and I'd share it with my friends, you know. It was a good life. It wasn't bad.

EE:

Did you get to see any of the area? Did you interact with the people?

MR:

Went to a bar one night down the street from the WACs battalion where we lived. About five, six blocks down was a tavern. That's the first time we were mistreated anywhere, American soldiers. Three of us walked in: me, Bragg, and Jeannie. I'm the middle height. Claire Blackett was about a foot shorter than me, and Jeannie was about two feet taller than I was. So Jeannie, Rhody, and Blackett, we walked in in our military uniforms in this bar, and they were playing darts. You know how the British taverns are.

EE:

Oh, yes.

MR:

And the owner and the men, the British people, welcomed us with open arms. The American soldiers were very hostile. There was a big fight in there that night. They threw them out bodily. A lot of fists, a lot of hitting in the fists, and they were not welcomed there anymore. They called us some horrible names. These are American soldiers. That was our first night going out, the three of us. So the British men, the British civilians, if they left without a problem, it would be fine. But if they did not leave immediately, it wouldn't be too good. The American soldiers threatened the British civilians, and it started the fight. And the British soldiers, they threatened them with weapons. But the Americans didn't have their weapons. I don't know why they didn't pull their guns. They didn't have any. So they took them out. They drug them out by the scruff of their necks. They threw them out in the gutter.

EE:

Was it because you were women? Because you were black women?

MR:

Because we were women. Because we were black. We had two strikes against us.

EE:

You ended up living down in Charlotte for thirty years now. But the attitudes with race relations have changed so much in our lifetime.

MR:

I know.

EE:

And yet when you entered the service, it was a lot different living and growing up in New York as a black woman than in the South.

MR:

Absolutely. Absolutely, because a lot of—

EE:

And you came down to the South.

MR:

Yes, but I met some women from the South, and they were so glad to be in the army compared to what they had been going through.

EE:

You're stationed in Texas and Oklahoma, which are South but then kind of not South, because they're sort of out in the middle of no place. But did you get the sense then that there was a difference in the ways that black women were treated?

MR:

No. No, because the government wouldn't allow it. The army didn't allow that.

EE:

You didn't really have enough mingling to find out what it was like.

MR:

You didn't have. You did not. I wasn't in touch with it.

EE:

So that was your first time that you had actually run up to that kind of hostility.

MR:

Absolutely. Because I remember at four o'clock I went to town one weekend, Bragg and I. Bragg was my buddy. And Fontaine and me. The three of us went to town one day, Saturday. We didn't go out that much, but we got a pass and we went to town and we did a little shopping, not a whole lot of stuff. We didn't need nothing. We had plenty of makeup and perfume. We had everything you needed. We didn't need to buy anything. We walked in this bar, and it was all cavalry men in there. Well, they almost kissed our feet, the cavalry men. They loved us to death. You know, they see us all, “Oh, yeah. That's our girl.” And I sang, and they knew me from the band. And the guys in the back said, “Come on, here's a table.” They pushed the girls out of the chair, the civilian girls. And I said, “No, don't do that. No, we'll wait.” “No, come on. Here's a seat for you.” So we sat down. But the women didn't. They were sitting on the floor, mad as the devil because these soldiers had knocked her down because of another woman soldier. Now, who's throwing prejudice? It was almost a physical fight in there. The women cursed terrible, bad language, and they just threw them out the door. I'm serious. So I said, “Now, how are we going to go outside? And they're probably out there waiting for me, and I didn't do anything.”

So we sat in the back. It wasn't the back. It was about the fifth table. The bar was right there. I didn't drink. I'm not an alcoholic. My mother didn't allow us to have, women to have, liquor in the house. We had parties, my father would entertain guests and whatnot, but we did not drink liquor in our house. Well, I think I had a little something in the bar mixed with Coke, and then I danced with the fellows. When we came out, there was nobody out there. They had gone, those black civilian women. But they were the street hustlers. These women were the street hustlers, and they were moving out on whatever they thought they were going to get. [laughter]

EE:

But, see, there were these rumors, terrible rumors, about all WACs at the beginning that that's basically what the army wanted them in there for.

MR:

That's what they said at one time. We proved it different. It was altogether a different—no, how did I find out?

EE:

I mean, you know, when I listen to you talk about your parents and their anxieties. It was over not you being a WAC but you being in the army and all their fears about being in the army. For a lot of women, it was this slur campaign saying, “Oh, well, you're just that kind of woman if you're going in the service.”

MR:

My mother said the same thing to me when she wrote me. And one time she called me.

She said, “Is it true what I hear that you all are just there for the pleasure of the men?”

I said, “No, Mama. Don't believe that garbage. Believe me, we are surrounded by military police. We cannot even go out the building unless we're escorted. No, it's not true.”

The MP barracks was up the road from me. At the corner was a barracks, and then the next building was the military police. So we were down on this road here, and Sergeant James A. Robinson, I wonder where he is, I hope he's alive. I'd like to see him. I dated him for a while. Sergeant James A. Robinson. He was from New York, and he was very nice to me. He used to pick me up in his Jeep to take me to the service club, because I used to sing with the band. If he'd see me on the road, because I walked most of the time, but if he saw me on the road, he would stop his Jeep and pick me up and take me to the squad room.

But he didn't dance. See, I want to dance. I'm not going to sit on no date sitting there with him sitting next to me and that good music was playing and I can't move. So the relationship was platonic, but it wasn't no—he couldn't dance. He wasn't a dancer.

I said, “You don't mind if I dance?”

He said, “No, no. I don't want to spoil your time and your fun.”

So I'd get up there. Oh, I can't think of his name from New York, black fellow. Boy, he used to love to dance. George Brown. He used to be at the Y all the time. That's how I knew him, from the YMCA in New York. And he would be my dancing partner. Boy, both feet would be off the floor. [laughter] When he spun me around and swung me up and lift me up, my feet would be off the floor. And there'd be a circle around me. George Brown was something else. A couple other fellows were good dancers, and I used to have the best time. Mr. Robinson would be at the bar sipping his little brew or whatever he was sipping, and then when time to come home, he would take me home. See, he was the sergeant of the MPs. Now, how could we be protected more better than that?

EE:

That's right. So you weren't going to get in trouble.

MR:

His barracks was right up the road, and that was the military barracks and Bill Floor[?] was in that squad, too. William Floor. He lived in the Bronx. In fact, he knew my father. So he treated me real nice.

EE:

From what I read, you went over to Birmingham. It must have been about February of '45, something like that. Were you still there when you heard about Roosevelt passing away? So [unclear] in Birmingham? Were you there on VE Day?

MR:

Yes. I came home after VE Day, when the war ended, and I was very depressed.

EE:

Now, had you already been to France in the meantime? Did you go with the unit to France, or did you come back after VE?

MR:

No, I went to France. I went to France. I was in France during World War II.

EE:

Okay. So you were at Birmingham for about three months?

MR:

Yes, and then we went over to France.

EE:

To Rouen.

MR:

Rouen. Rouen.

EE:

Rouen. Yes, I know the French have a—

MR:

Rouen, France. Let me tell you about England. Let me go back to where those men threw those American soldiers, the white soldiers, out of the bar.

I said, “Now, what happens when we go outside?” I mean, they got guns and their weapons and their Jeep.

“No, we will escort you. We will take you home. We'll see that you get there.” That's the British people talking.

We stayed in there quite a while. We were throwing darts and we had little—I don't know what they were, nothing strong. We weren't drinkers.

I know Clarice didn't drink. Her father was an Episcopalian priest. Hard to get out, huh? Father Blackett. I knew him in New York, too. Father Blackett was like a second father to me, and I was in their home quite a bit. Father Blackett and Mrs. Blackett and their son. We sang at the same club at the Y. So I knew their family very well.

When I saw Clarice in there, I said, “What are you doing in the WACs?” She came in long after I had finished basic. So when we went overseas, she was like a sister. She treated me like family, you know. I was her guardian.

Anyway, I was trying to say something.

EE:

So this is after Birmingham, and you're worried about how the white soldiers were—

MR:

Oh, these three soldiers went out, and I said, “How are we going to get home?” They told us, “We will take you home.” So the white civilians went outside and looked around the area and checked it out and made sure that there was no military, nobody around. So they put us in a vehicle and took us to the WAC barracks, and we were protected all the way back.

EE:

That's good.

MR:

But the part that women were in the army for the enjoyment of the men was truly a false, filthy rumor, and I don't know one soldier that mistreated us. Not one.

Dave Robinson, he used to come and pick me up. Sometimes I'd be in my squad laying in my bunk and dozing off, and, see, we had a second door. Here's the office right here. So he'd come in the main door and sign his name to take you out. But there was a door that you could come through to our barracks. And I'm laying in my bunk here, and there's a door over there to go out on the porch.

So Fontaine said, “Rhody, Robinson's outside in the Jeep.”

I said, “Where? What's he doing?”

“He's laying back, sitting at the wheel, laying back. I think he's waiting for you go come out.”

I said, “Well, he didn't tell me he was coming for me.” [laughter]

EE:

He didn't get [unclear] treatment.

MR:

I mean, he is so conservative, you know. So I'd go out that side door in my fatigues. I didn't plan to go nowhere with him. So I get in the Jeep.

He said, “Do you want to go for a ride?”

I said, “No, I'm not dressed to go nowhere.”

He said, “I'm just going to check the guys on duty, on post outside the gate across the road.”

I said, “I'm not supposed to get off the base. I don't have any identification or nothing.”

He said, “Well, you're with me. You're in my Jeep. This is a military Jeep.” [laughs]

So that's what happened. He took me out one night and the guys would salute the Jeep, and then he'd check whatever they were talking about, and then he'd go across the road. This is Brackettville. We go into Brackettville, and go up the hill, and that's the night we did see the civilian women on line in front of a house waiting for the men to come in. I saw that with my eyes. But these were civilian women. They weren't military women.

And he said, “You know what they do, the women. That's why they hate the WACs so much, because you all get so much preferential treatment, and the men treat you all with so much regard that they don't like the fact that they don't get that kind of treatment.” They get beat up, some of those women. They would get beat up.

Anyway, I said, “Oh, my God, I couldn't allow myself to do that.” Women had a little skirt and a little blouse on. One woman had a little panties and a bra standing in the doorway. I'm serious. I couldn't believe my eyes.

He said, “Well, that's the way they live. That's how they make their money.”

EE:

And the MPs weren't told to go round them up?

MR:

They're supposed to round them up. They're supposed to round them up. He's not supposed to be showing them off. [laughter]

EE:

It seems a little relaxed.

MR:

But he had his girl with him, so—

EE:

He wasn't going to bother with it.

MR:

No. So then we rode back to the barracks. We came, went back through the gate, and he took me to my porch, and I just got off and went back in. So I had to tell everybody what I saw.

EE:

Was Captain Adams there with you the whole time in Birmingham?

MR:

No. No. Yes, she was there the whole time, but she didn't go to—did she go with us to Oklahoma? I don't remember.

EE:

Was she there in France with you? You said to me while we were talking on the phone that you thought of her almost like a second mother because she was that caring for her soldiers.

MR:

Because I got sick one time. Oh, that was Captain Kerney. I had appendicitis. I was in my bunk and I was hurting and I didn't know why. I can't remember Captain Adams going overseas with us. Oh, yes, she was overseas. When we came off the ship she greeted us with General—what am I talking about? But Kerney was with me in Texas. See, I didn't meet Adams until we got overseas. Kerney was. Captain Kerney was my commanding officer. K-e-r-n-e-y. I've seen her in New York, too. Since I went home, I met Kerney. In fact, she came to my wedding.

EE:

You were in Birmingham and then went to Rouen.

MR:

Rouen.

EE:

Rouen in France.

MR:

Yes.

EE:

And did about the same kind of thing, just trying to take care of the backlog in the post office.

MR:

The post office. The backlog of the post office. That's what we did around the clock seven days a week.

EE:

How long were you there, about three more months?

MR:

Where?

EE:

In France.

MR:

And the war ended.

EE:

Which was August of '45, I guess. Where were you living in France? Was it a base or was it again civilian housing that you had taken over.

MR:

Rouen, France. Where were we living? Come on, bring it back. I know I know where I was living. I just can't say it.

EE:

You had good memories of the people in Birmingham. What did you think of the people in France?

MR:

Good memories. The French people?

EE:

Yes.

MR:

Beautiful memories. I want to tell you about another night again. I was in that pub again in England, Birmingham, down the road, and we met Mr. Hicks. Mr. Hicks was playing darts the night that they threw those white men out, those white soldiers out. He said, “I would like to take you home where I live not too far from here. My landlady, Mrs. Grange, Audrey Grange, is my landlady. Her husband was quite wealthy.” He had a big business. It will come to me. “But her two boys were captured in the war. Her two sons are prisoners of war, and she is grieving, worried so much. And she asked me if I met any of the women, American WACs, to bring them to the house, and she'd like to entertain them. And she's praying that somebody's good to her sons, wherever they are.” And he said, “I'd like to take you home or invite you to come and visit Mrs. Hicks [sic].”

Oh, God. She was so nice to us. She was about five feet three or four, little teeny lady with white hair and the biggest blue eyes. Mr. Hicks told us how to get there. We took the tram. The tram went right past our barracks. We took a tram to the last stop. It was a Saturday. We got off the tram and we went one block and we walked down the road and went down a hill and the house was on 20 Reservoir Lane. I'll always remember that address, 20 Reservoir Lane. Rang the bell. I stood in the middle. Jeannie was over here. She's shorter than me, about this. No, Jeannie is six feet and Claire was about that tall. The door opened and this little bitty lady with pure white hair and gorgeous blue eyes came opening the door and she just, “Oh!” She was so thrilled to see us, and she opened her arms, and I went in the middle.

EE:

So you got the bear hug. [laughs]

MR:

Then Claire came and she got inside. She pulled her other arm around. And then tall Claire leaned over the lady, and she just cried and cried and cried and cried and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, and our tears came to our eyes.

EE:

Sure. Sure. You knew it was genuine love.

MR:

We just kept holding each other and hugging and hugging and rocking and rocking. Finally, she said, “Oh, welcome. Oh, thank you for coming over.” She took us in the house. She had a little puppy dog. A little dog came running to the door. It was a gorgeous home. So we went in this country home and we sat down. Beautiful, beautiful furniture. A very wealthy man. He was in the government somewhere, Mr. Hicks. No, Mr. Hicks was the man that lived there as her tenant, and her husband was in the government. And she was fearful that her sons were being mistreated being that they were prisoners of war. I can't remember where they were.

EE:

You said if you had had the opportunity you think you would have liked to have stayed in the service, but you didn't have that opportunity.

MR:

Never asked us to stay.

EE:

You came back at the end of '45. What happened after that? Did you go back to beautician work in New York?

MR:

Got a civilian Civil Service job, worked for the government. Then I got married in '47. Did I get married in '47? Yes. I married Benny. He came home. He was with the 366th Infantry. He came home, and then he asked my father. My father loved him to death, and my mother did. Well, we were teens. We grew up.

EE:

You grew up together?

MR:

Together. And my mother and father adored him, treated him like a son. And he was very nice to me. He didn't do a whole lot of the things that boys do with girls. We never had any idea of touching each other like that. That's how we grew up.

EE:

Sure.

EE:

After you left him in '49, you say you guys split. Now then you went back to work, a beautician and had your own shops? When did you start working with IBM?

MR:

I did twenty-one years at IBM, didn't I?

EE:

Yes.

MR:

My doctor pulled me out of the business. I can't remember the date. I went to my doctor and he said, “No, you can't do hair anymore.” Lung-wise, the smoke, the grease, the fumes, chemicals, a lot of things. He said, “You can't do hair anymore.” Then I got a job in the bank, Coney Savings Bank. I worked there about a year. I got tired of that. I didn't like the job. It wasn't paying me enough money. I was used to making good money in the beauty business.

Then I took a test with the federal government, and I got a job working for the federal government. Yes, I got a job working for Civil Service. Civil Service, and then I decided to leave my husband and—no, I still worked for Civil Service after I left him, and then I decided to own my own business. Somebody talked me into doing that. Rose Morgan? I started doing business, but I wasn't operating like I used to when I first went in the business. I would own my shop.

One day I was coming out of Apex Beauty College. It was up on 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. Small Paradise was in the middle of the block. But I had to go see somebody up there about business, because I was going to open a shop. I was standing on the corner waiting for traffic to stop and the light to turn red, and a taxi cab pulled up in front of me, and my husband comes flying out of the cab like a paratrooper.

And he said, “Shorty.” No, he didn't call me Shorty. He called me Chick. “I got to see you.”

I said, “I don't want to see you.” And the people surrounded me, like there was going to be a big fight. You know how people [are]. At that time, people were rough at that time.

I said, “I don't want to see you.”

And they said, “There's a fight. There's a fight.” You know how people—

I said, “Don't humiliate me on the street like this.”

He said, “Please get in the cab. Please get in the cab. Please.”

I said, “All right.” I got in the cab, and he took me down to Mr. Mann's Restaurant down on [unclear], a nice restaurant. And in the restaurant I walked in, that's where the policemen used to hang out.

EE:

All of his buddies.

MR:

Yes, must have been about twenty-five of them in there eating lunch and, you know, at the bar and in the booths. And then when I walked in [clapping and cheering sounds]. They're cheering.

EE:

He tried to put you on the spot.

MR:

And I'm saying, “What's going on?” Freeman came and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and somebody else was hugging me. I had about five or six men trying to get to me. So I said, “What are you all doing here?” I was ready to see them, because I knew them all when he first went in the police department, the 135th Street, 32nd Precinct. 135th Street was the police station, down the middle of the block.

So, oh, he was smiling and screaming. Everybody was smiling. He was smiling, too. He was standing right here by me. I looked at him and he was acting like he was real proud, you know. I'm talking about my ex-husband. We'd been divorced a good two years. So then he took me to the back. The man that owned the restaurant came out and escorted me to the back and here was this table.

EE:

Already set up for you?

MR:

Set up with the flowers and the champagne. I said, “What's going? What are you—?”

EE:

Was Mama around the corner? [laughter]

MR:

His troops were there, his fellows, his buddies, his fellow policemen was there. So he asked me, you know, he talked, just casual talk.

I said, “What's this all about?”

He said, “I want to ask you one question. I want to ask you to marry me again.”

I said, “Marry you again?” I said, “Where is your mother?” [laughter] I looked around. I really did. I went really stupid then. I went crazy then. I was serious. I said, “Where is your mother?”

He said, “Oh, my mother's not going to be involved in this. It will be just you and I. From now on it's just going to be you and I. I promise you, Chick,” three times, “you and I.”

And my heart said, “Don't do this. Don't you make no mistake and make a fool of yourself and ruin your life. Your hair's coming out. Your nerves are bad from the first time. And then you didn't even enjoy the other things.” I never did. I never did. It was my first experience, and the wife and the bride, it was not pleasant. It was not thrilling. It's supposed to be thrilling. Where's the thrill?

In fact, I got pregnant and I carried my pregnancy for three months and I had a miscarriage in the street in front of Bloomingdale's on the sidewalk. They carried me in Bloomingdale's, and then they called an ambulance and took me to the hospital. Only time I was ever pregnant. And I said, “Shoot, I wonder why?” Because I don't remember anything going on that grand. It wasn't.

So I stood up. I didn't finish eating. I stood up and took my bag. I said, “No, I will never go back to that situation I was in with you, ever. That's all I will remember. I don't know how I'm not to remember how you—”

EE:

It's hard to block that out.

MR:

You can't block that out. Laying in the bed with a man that you hate touching you. How can you forget that?

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

MR:

I said, “No, I wouldn't marry you again. I don't have that feeling for you. I don't have that feeling for you.” I swear I had a feeling for a [unclear], more than I would for that man.

EE:

Obviously that was something that—

MR:

The mother had a lot to do with it. Oh, she destroyed his mind. And believe me, I hate to say this, my suspicions was as a little child I think she did her thing, because she didn't have a husband. I think she had those two boys under her wings more than necessary. I believe that with all my heart.

EE:

Sure. That was her support system, and she just used it too much.

MR:

And then she went too far, and she destroyed her sons.

EE:

That was a terrible thing to have to go through coming back. But when you think about all time that you had away from home and the service, what was the most difficult thing for you in your service time, either physically or emotionally?

MR:

Physically it was when I was sick with appendicitis and they rushed me to the hospital. Scared me to death. Couldn't go to work that day. I didn't see Captain Wells that day.

EE:

This was at?

MR:

Fort Clark, Texas. And when Bragg came home, my bunkmate, she said, “What are you doing? You still there?”

I said, “Yes, I'm in a lot of pain.”

And Fontaine and Pittman, two girls on the other side of me said, “Rhoden, you've got to go to the hospital to see what's wrong with you.” See, these things come back to me now.

I said, “I'm in a lot of pain.”

“Have you been to the bathroom?”

I said, “No, I can't go. It won't come.”

So the three of them picked me up and took me downstairs to the bathroom to give me, excuse the expression, to give me an enema. These are nurses. Two of them were nurses. Fontaine was administration and I was in administration. And when they put me on the commode and pumped me up and did whatever they had to do, it started coming out my mouth and I was passing out.

EE:

Because it was pretty clear you were blocked because of that appendicitis.

MR:

Yes.

EE:

Lucky you didn't rupture yourself right there.

MR:

That's right. So they knew what they had done, what had happened. So they hurried up and got me out of there and put me in the Jeep. The MPs were outside. We always had MPs outside on my side of the street. Soldiers were always—or troopers were always—across the road throwing notes with their names and the city that they came from. That's how we met fellows. And they would go in the squad room. They'd give them to us, and they'd put it in a book. [laughter] That's how we met different—“Who's from Jersey? Who's from Pennsylvania?” You know, different addresses. Put me in the Jeep, the three of them, and told the commander that I was going to the hospital, that I was having appendicitis. And they rushed me to the hospital. Do they take blood out of your finger? They took blood out of my finger. They were running down the hallway with me on the gurney in a hospital gown, and the next thing I knew I was coming out of it, ether. They had taken my appendix out. It had ruptured.

EE:

Yes, I'm sure.

MR:

They took the appendix out and they said it had ruptured, and we got it out just in time.

EE:

I was going to say, because that will kill you if you don't get the infection.

MR:

It will kill you. “We got it out just in time,” and that's what Bragg said and Fontaine and Pittman. We got you to the hospital just in time.

I said, “Yes, but you all caused it to rupture giving me that stupid enema.” [laughter]

“But we thought you needed it. We didn't know. But when we saw that you were bringing up out of your mouth, then we knew that something was wrong.”

And I was passing out. My eyes was going up to the top of my head, they said. So the three of them, they were my buddies. And the three of them rushed me to the hospital and they got the appendix out. I was in the hospital not that long. Oh, when I woke up, here was Captain Kerney sitting next to me. She was a doll, my captain. Captain Kerney. She came to my wedding. Yes, she was at my wedding. I remember her when she came to the wedding. Anyway, she said, “Corporal Rhoden, what happened to you?”

I said, “I have no idea.” I didn't. I was feeling very weird. That's when I realized they had operated on me. And then the next day I opened my eyes and there she was. She's very faithful, a wonderful lady. She's passed on since. I know Captain Kerney's passed on, but I don't know what happened to Charity. But that's my story. They sent me home for medical reasons. I think I went home by train, and I stayed home about three weeks.

EE:

To mend up?

MR:

Yes.

EE:

Do you feel like you contributed to the war effort?

MR:

I think so. I think we did a lot for the military at the time. I think we were good units. We didn't fail with the mail. The mail got to the front. We saw to it it got to the front. We were very worried about getting that mail done. We did our job, and we did it well. We worked fast.

EE:

I know everybody who got it were happy to get it.

MR:

Yes. We weren't slacking on it. That was before we got there. That mail got piled up before we got there. But once we got there, that mail was not piled up in that squad room like it was ever again. As it came in, we got it out.

EE:

Do you feel like a pioneer?

MR:

I think so. I truly do, because we didn't slow down. And then being young, we didn't have nothing. We didn't have any concern about getting tired.

EE:

What were you? Twenty-three? Twenty-four?

MR:

Yes, twenty-four. We didn't get tired. And we sang and we were happy doing what we were doing. We did the job well.

EE:

Do you remember any of the songs?

MR:

Gosh, I can't remember any. But songs that were popular at the time.

EE:

Did you just put new words to familiar songs? They tell me that's what they used to do, they changed the words around.

MR:

Yes.

EE:

If a young woman came up to you today and said, “I'm thinking about joining the service,” what would you tell them?

MR:

Yes, absolutely. It's an experience you couldn't buy. You couldn't pay for it. And it will not harm you in any way physically, because there's no war, really. But you will learn a lot from the military. You will learn. I like the fact that we had to be—the precision. I liked the way we had to be smart. We had to march, yes, but you looked smart. You were a first-class citizen in the military. I'm serious. That's how I felt.

EE:

You felt first class.

MR:

I felt like it.

EE:

And you were treated first class.

MR:

And we were treated like first-class citizens. And I truly enjoyed being in the military, even though my life was—there's my [unclear] Moore. Oh, I didn't know all of this was there. I hadn't even looked at all of that stuff.

EE:

We, as a country, didn't send a woman into combat until December of '98 when they put a fighter pilot in the air in Iraq.

MR:

Yes.

EE:

Do you think there's some jobs that should be off limits to women, like combat?

MR:

I sure do.

EE:

You do?

MR:

We don't have to. We don't have to. We have enough men. You can say, “Well, if they have to be shot down or shot at, why can't women be shot down and shot at?” But a woman is a woman. Female. I don't know why I feel that way. We don't have to shoot down a plane to prove that we're a woman. Why do we have to shoot down a plane to prove that we're a woman? Because a man has to do it? Somebody has to do it, but I don't think a woman should have to shoot down a plane to prove that she's a woman. I really don't.

So here I am. I wondered where I was. [reading] Myrtle Rhoden, New York, New York; Orlando, Florida, September 1992; Charlotte, North Carolina, November 1993. Okay, I wondered where I was.

EE:

Well, I have just about gone through all these questions here, and we have gone over a lot of lifetime in an hour or so this afternoon. Is there anything that I haven't asked you about, about your time in service that you think we ought to know about?

MR:

I wish more of the women had stayed together or friendly or more in touch with each other so that we could talk about what we went through. But a lot of them have passed on, too. That's another thing.

EE:

How did you find out about the Veterans Association in New York? Someone invited you. Some of your old friends that you grew up with had joined this group.

MR:

What? The 369th Veterans Association?

EE:

Yes. You were invited to come to that group, right?

MR:

Yes, but that was an all-male organization.

EE:

You were the two women. You showed me the picture.

MR:

These fellows were my chums growing up together. They knew that I had gone into the military. When I came home from the service is when they came after me. And then the Buffalo Soldiers. I did, I met a couple of fellows that was in it. In fact, where is that thing?

EE:

That brochure? Right here.

MR:

That.

EE:

Has that got their picture in there?

MR:

Yes, this fellow here. He was in Fort Clark, Texas, when I was there. There he is with his horse.

EE:

Oh, Henry.

MR:

Henry Azandra[?]. He's from a West Indian family. They came from French West Indies. That's him. That's how he looked when he was in Fort Clark, Texas. Troop A, 9th U.S. Cavalry, 1942. See the horse?

EE:

Right.

MR:

I didn't know Henry at the time, but I met him when I came home and when I told him what unit I was with, then he said, “I was in Fort Clark, Texas.” So we have a good kinship.

EE:

And he's here in Charlotte?

MR:

He's here in Charlotte, he and his wife. Now, this is the unit we belong to now. There are more people in it than this, but these are the officers. I was at the affair they had that day, and these are gals. These women weren't at Fort Clark. I'm the only one that was at Fort Clark with the original—

EE:

Group.

MR:

Group. And these are our officers here. This girl I know very well. And here's Henry, and that's me. He gave me my yellow scarf, because, see, I'm sitting up here with no scarf on, because I didn't own one. Well, he had them made, and he gave me this. That's right. He had this made. He has one on, and he's got that badge. See that badge on the pocket?

EE:

Oh, yes.

MR:

So somebody called me the other day and said they were going somewhere. I know I can't go. It's a long trip. I can't remember what it is.

EE:

Going back to Texas?

MR:

No, not Texas. I don't know. It's some long trip somewhere. [reading] The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association. See that's the way the men looked when I was stationed there.

EE:

That's great.

MR:

Are you going to take this and make copies?

EE:

Yes, I'm going to take it and make a copy of it, and I'll give it back to you.

MR:

Are you going to make copies of the tape?

EE:

Yes. I'll formally end this conversation and say thank you on behalf of the school.

[End of interview]