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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Marjorie Suggs Edwards, 2000

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Object ID: WV0177.5.001

Description: Documents Marjorie R. Suggs Edwards’s early life; military service during World War II; and her personal life and career after the war.

Summary:

Edwards describes her childhood in an immigrant section of Passaic, New Jersey. She discusses in detail her community; being raised by her Cuban grandmother; her family’s multicultural background; and her summer job as a nanny in Massachusetts.

Edwards talks at great length about her introduction to segregation when she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She recounts several incidents of discrimination and discusses her feelings about being in a segregated military unit and of traveling in the segregated South. Other military topics include her basic training; her work as a special services officer; the separate but unequal service clubs for white and black personnel; a brief stint as transportation officer moving troops from Illinois to Texas; and her work in the motor pool.

Edwards also discusses life after the war, including her decision to leave the service and get married; her education in design; her love of adventure; her career as an interior designer; and her volunteer and civic activities in Durham, N.C.

Creator: Marjorie Randolph Suggs Edwards

Biographical Info: Marjorie R. Suggs Edwards, of Passaic, New Jersey, worked in personnel, special services, and motor pool with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from February 1943 to December 1945. Following her military service, Edwards had a long career as an interior designer, primarily in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Collection: Marjorie Randolph Suggs Edwards Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

HT:

Today is June 26. My name is Hermann Trojanowski. I'm at the home of Mrs. Marjorie Edwards in Durham, North Carolina, to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Mrs. Edwards, thank you so much for talking to me this evening. I really appreciate it. Can you tell a little bit about your life before you went into the military during World War II, with such things like where you were born, when you were born, what you did before you entered the service, and a little bit about your family life, about your parents and about your brothers and sisters and that sort of thing.

ME:

All right. I was born in Passaic, New Jersey—it's a little small town about eighteen miles outside of New York City—just about, I guess, a little after the turn of the century. It was at the time when all the immigrants were coming in from the different parts of the world.

My grandmother was an immigrant. She came in from Havana, Cuba. We grew up in this small town of all different kinds of nationalities. There were German, Polish, Jewish, and Italian, all mixed together, all trying to learn about ourselves and who we were and the country. So my story's a little bit different.

The reason I told you all that background is because you will talk to several people, women, and you'll find out that each story is different about how they accepted military life and what their life was in military life and what their life was afterwards. Everybody has a different interpretation. I've read articles written in the paper from other black military women, and their stories are just, in some cases, very negative because that's the life that they lived. They grew up under negative circumstances. I can't say that. My background is very positive. I didn't know the difference. It didn't make a difference. It didn't matter back there about who you were. If you couldn't speak the language, well, then, you were stupid, that's all. It was not what color you were, but the fact that you didn't understand it. If anybody had a name to call me, I had a name to call them back. So there was no feeling of who was lesser than. Everybody loved each other or disliked each other not because of the color but because of who you were nationality-wise. I had no problem there. It was kid stuff.

Do you want to know about joining the service?

HT:

Well, if you could tell me a little bit about your family, what your parents did. I think you said your mother immigrated from Havana, Cuba?

ME:

My grandmother. Havana, Cuba, right. What her life was like—I guess it was difficult for her in a strange country, trying to learn the language, but she learned very rapidly. She married a man from Kingston [Jamaica], West Indies, which, of course, that complicated things even more so. She had her difficulties, I guess, back in the 1800s trying to find work and to develop and whatnot as she did.

She and my grandfather apparently didn't make it very well. So she, with her daughter, who was my mother, they decided to relocate. Meanwhile, my grandmother met a Filipino gentleman. So there was a divorce from my grandfather, and she married the Filipino, and they moved to Passaic, New Jersey. But before they left there, they lived in Brooklyn, New York, and that's where my mother met my father.

My father was a Shinnecock Indian, a half Shinnecock Indian. I don't know what the other half was. That marriage didn't last very long either. So my mother and grandmother had to raise the children by themselves. These two women in this very complicated world were trying to raise all these children. There were seven of us at that time. My father came and went. Jobs for women were scarce. Grandma was a seamstress. My mother took in laundry, mostly doctors' and nurses' uniforms from nearby hospitals.

During the Depression, things were not easy, but they made it, fortunately. I was none the worse for wear because we were given very, very good qualities whereby to live. We were taught the cultural things of life. It was a must that we go to the theater. It was a must that we go to the things of cultural interest, even though we were poor. We lived so close to New York City, it was easy to get on the Erie Railroad for about a quarter or so, and we could go into New York City. So the museums were things that we had to go to. Educational, musical concerts. Mother played piano, Granddad played guitar. Two brothers were drummers. I sang.

I didn't find any negativity as far as knowing who I was when I was growing up. I've always been told that I'm a very proud and very competent woman, and in some cases it's been an asset and sometimes it has not been, but that's been my life. I went to the public schools. I came out of the public schools. I didn't go to college, but I did go to design school, and I became an interior designer.

HT:

Where did you go to high school?

ME:

In Passaic, New Jersey.

HT:

After you graduated from high school, did you go directly to design school?

ME:

No. No. I did that after the war.

HT:

After the war. What did you do between the time that you graduated from high school and the time you went in the military?

ME:

I worked in factories around, different manufacturing. Passaic is a manufacturing town, and there are a lot of mills, silk mills and chemical mills and rubber factories and all kinds of things in that town. That's the reason so many immigrants migrated to Passaic, New Jersey, because of the industry that was there.

Then I went into social work, and I did social work just before I went into the service. I worked at Western Electric, and I worked at Cornell, an electronic factory in Massachusetts. I grew up between Massachusetts and New Jersey. Now, that's another story. [laughs].

When I was about nine years old, Mother needed money. I told you the Depression years were very bad. So everybody had to work. No matter how young you were, you had to find something to do to make money to feed the younger ones that were coming along. There was no man in the house, so therefore we had to help. So I did babysitting.

This woman, I used to baby-sit for after school had a house in Massachusetts on the beach because they went to the beach every summer and she had a little five-year-old boy. She asked my mother if she could take me with her to Massachusetts to sit on the beach with this little five-year-old boy. My mother said fine, it would be a good vacation for me and the money was needed too. So the woman would mail the money back to my mother. I didn't get any of it. [laughs] But I did sit on the beach with the boy, and it was fun in Massachusetts.

While there, there was another family, there was another girl who babysat, I guess you'd say, across the road, and we got to be good friends. This girl was Portuguese. I don't know whether you know the Cape Verdeans of the Massachusetts area. Okay. She was a Cape Verdean. Her mother was a Cape Verdean. Her mother didn't like the idea that I was so young away from home and that this lady had to have me seven days a week and I never had any place to go weekends. So she asked the lady that I worked for if she could bring me back to her house weekends when she picked up her daughter. So every Friday I was picked up and taken to the Portuguese family, and that's where I grew up, between those two households. [laughter]

Even as I became older, I would go up there, and I went to school up there for a while. Then in later years, I never married anybody from up there, but we got very, very friendly, and I'm a member of the family. I still am a member of the family in Massachusetts. So that's another story. My family is gone now, my mother, grandmother, father. Everybody's gone.

HT:

What about your siblings? Do you have any siblings that are still alive?

ME:

There were nine of us in all. My mother had remarried and had other children, but they're all gone except me and the youngest brother.

HT:

What was your maiden name?

ME:

Randolph, the Randolphs of Virginia.

HT:

Do you recall why you joined the military?

ME:

I guess I've always felt patriotic, I guess, wanted to do what I needed to do to help whatever was out there to be done to help save the country. I was very patriotic about the country.

HT:

Did you have any siblings or parents who had been in the service?

ME:

My father. My father was in World War I.

HT:

Which branch was he in?

ME:

The army in France.

HT:

And what about World War II? Did you have any brothers that went in?

ME:

Yes. I had two brothers, one in the navy, and a sister at the Pentagon.

HT:

So you had a sister, but she wasn't in the military.

ME:

No. She just worked at the Pentagon.

HT:

Civilian at the Pentagon.

ME:

Yes. Right. And two brothers in the navy.

HT:

How did your family react when you told them you wanted to join?

ME:

Negatively. [laughs] My mother particularly. She couldn't understand it, and my friends, of course, convinced her that it was not the thing to do, that we were only in the service just to service the men, that's all, you know, sexually. Others that didn't say that said that it was wrong for us to go in because all we were doing was releasing the men to go be killed overseas and whatnot. They were going to go and be killed overseas whether we went in the service or not, but that was their rationale.

HT:

That was one of the big issues at that time. I think even a lot of the posters said things like that about, “Join the Service to Free a Man” and that sort of thing. I've talked to several other women who said that they saw these posters and they really—but they were patriotic enough that they really wanted to join, and nobody asked them, “Would it bother you to perhaps think that you might be sending a man overseas to his death?” When I talked to them, they said they didn't really think about that.

ME:

I thought about it, but I said they were going to go anyway, whether I went or not. If I could be of any service at all, maybe I could keep them from going and they wouldn't have to go. I mean, there are two sides to every story. So yes, I cried with every truckload that went out because I was a truck driver. I had to take the truckloads to the embarkation places where they would be picked up and taken overseas. I'd cry every night that I had to do that. Some came back and some didn't. That's reality. You have to face that.

HT:

Did your mother have to sign for you to enter the service?

ME:

No. I was under age, but I went in with—I lied a lot. [laughter]

HT:

Which branch of the service? You were in the WAAC [Women's Army Auxiliary Corps], is that correct?

ME:

Yes.

HT:

W-A-A-C?

ME:

Yes. It was at the beginning.

HT:

Do you remember which year that you went in?

ME:

'42. What does it say there? Not '42, '43? '43. At the top.

HT:

February 1943. And why did you choose that particular service, do you remember?

ME:

Well, we couldn't get into the other—people of color could only get into the army until way into the war. They couldn't get into the navy at all, black women.

HT:

Oh, I did not realize that.

ME:

They didn't want us in the army either, but they had us.

HT:

How did that make you feel? Did you particularly want to join this branch as opposed to another one, or—

ME:

No. I guess I didn't think about it because my father was in the army, and I decided that was where I was going to go. As I say, I was not a negative thinker. Remember, I told you I didn't come up with black or white thoughts. It didn't occur to me that I was going to be in a black unit.

It never hit me because I always went to mixed schools. Everything I went to was always mixed. Even when I was in the army and found out I was in a unit of all women of color, it still didn't register until sometime later on. Then I realized, “Yeah, that's right. We're separate.” There was an invisible line drawn.

Especially when you bought the WAAC card to send back home, something that I realized down at the bottom here, that everything was—two of everything. That's when I began to wonder. See, two service clubs, two theaters, two of everything. Then I realized why they had two. Then I began to look around and realize there's only certain people of a certain color here.

Then I realized. I knew about segregation, but it went right over the top of my head because I didn't grow up with it. So then I began to take notice and realize this is what's happening here.

HT:

Where did you enlist?

ME:

In Passaic, New Jersey, but we were sworn in in Newark, New Jersey.

HT:

Do you recall what your first day at boot camp [basic training] was like and where was boot camp?

ME:

In Fort Des Moines, Iowa, very, very interesting.

HT:

And that was in February of '43. So it must have been colder than—

ME:

Yes, very cold. But then, I'm used to cold because remember, I grew up in Massachusetts and New Jersey. It's not warm there, either. So the cold didn't bother me at all. I didn't notice a difference there because we had change of climate in both states that I lived in. But yes, it was very cold in Des Moines. The parade grounds and the places that we were drilling on were very cold, but it wasn't any colder than when we were sent to Chicago. There your nose couldn't run because the mucus froze in your nostrils. That, to me, was colder than Des Moines, Iowa, because of the wind of Chicago, “the windy city.” That was very cold.

HT:

Does anything stand out in your mind about your—I guess you spent six weeks in Fort Des Moines. Is that about correct, six weeks in basic training?

ME:

We were there longer. Basic training was six weeks, but we were there longer until we were—what's the word they call it, the word meaning they switch you over to something else?

HT:

Transferred? When you go from one place to another you were training, you're transferred—

ME:

No. There's another word they had for that. [ME added later: “Staging.” Either held in one place temporarily or shifted from post to post, after training, trying to find a place where you were needed most for your abilities.] Anyhow, we were sent someplace else where we were needed. That's when they placed us where we were needed or where we would serve best or whatever. So some of us stayed a while. Some went to—I don't remember where some of the girls went, really. I don't remember that. We were transferred to Fort Custer, Michigan, and then from there to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and then from there to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where I came out of the service, in Fort Sam.

HT:

Was there anything in basic training that you recall that was hilarious, funny, or unusual type incidents, you know, having to march everywhere?

ME:

Yes. But those were just everyday things. [ME added later: Gas chamber training with the men was hilarious. The men would scramble to run through the gas filled chambers, and come out panting, some even crying, while we girls came through bravely, runny eyes perhaps, but no panic like the guys.] The segregation is what, I think, that hit me, and noticing the differences, and I don't know whether you want to know about those things or not.

HT:

Yes, please. Tell me about your thoughts about that.

ME:

We had some of the girls in the service with very fair skin. You couldn't tell whether they were black or white. But according to their records, they had to sign in as whatever race they were known as. So that's how they had to be put into our branch of service. Either the mother or the father was one or the other, black or white.

One of the girls joined the service because her husband was in the service, thinking that she would get to see him or be stationed somewhere near him or something. As fate would have it, they could not get their furloughs at the same time. He got a furlough and went back home. While he was there, he met some girl, and she became pregnant.

When the WAAC found out about it, she was very upset. Naturally, she was upset. She wanted to see if she could get out of the service and try to locate him another way or something. She went to the colonel of the post in Texas. It was in a Southern town, and the colonel of the post was a Southerner also.

She looked white, of course. She told him that she was white and that she had joined the service because she wanted to know what it felt like to live around the black girls, the colored then, colored girls. She found out it was driving her crazy and that she had to get out. Otherwise, she was going to lose her mind. She couldn't stand living with colored girls.

Being a biased Southerner, he understood it. Therefore, he let her out of the service. God has his own way of working. She got out, and she couldn't locate the husband, but the girl that he had made pregnant had the child, and the child was born retarded. This black ex-WAAC raised the child just the same. The mother of the child died, and she raised this child that was retarded and crippled and deformed and so forth. Fate has a way of doing things to you.

HT:

That is an amazing story.

ME:

That was one of the funny stories. We had another girl who was very dark-skinned. A couple of the white fellows she had met wanted to see what it would be like if they took her into a restaurant in town. They wouldn't let her in, naturally. They said, “No. You're not allowed in the restaurant.” So they were trying things out.

Then she decided she would defeat them. She came back to the barracks, got her bathrobe, put this crazy-looking bathrobe on and put a white towel around her head like a turban. She went back with him as an African prince, and they allowed her in the restaurant. [laughs]

So those were some amusing stories. You asked for something funny.

HT:

Those are good ones.

ME:

That was a funny one.

HT:

Oh, my goodness.

ME:

There was a time when I was traveling to—I mean coming back home from Texas and having to cross over the Mason-Dixon Line riding the train. It took me two or three days, almost, to get from Texas to New Jersey. I was sitting on the train reading a magazine. Finally, we got to the line, and the conductor came through, and he looked at me in this uniform with U.S. written on there all over it, and I was sitting reading this American magazine.

He said, “You're going to have to change and get into the other car.”

I'd heard about this, read about this, but I had never had it happen to me, and I couldn't believe this was really so.

I said to him, “Que? No comprendo.”

He looked at me, and see, that's so close to Mexico. So he assumed I was Mexican. So therefore, he just ignored me and let me stay.

Now, that's how stupid he was. There I was, reading an American magazine, telling him I didn't understand English, and wearing a U.S. uniform. [laughter]

There are lots of those, you know, drinking out of the fountains, wondering why I couldn't drink out of the fountain that said “white,” what would make the water taste better. I've always been a very inquisitive person. My mother was scared to death when I said I was going to Texas, because she knew I was daring.

I'd go to the fountain and say, “Why aren't we supposed to drink out of that fountain?” I looked around to see if there was anybody drinking out of the fountain, and no people of color were drinking out of it. So I drank out of it to see what the water was like. And the people of color, they were so amazed. “You're not supposed to do that. You're not supposed to do that.” Nothing happened, fortunately, but I really wondered why that was. That was one I couldn't figure out.

HT:

This was in Texas?

ME:

No. This was on the way to Texas coming from New Jersey. I think we had to stop in Arkansas. Do you have to stop in Arkansas on the way to Texas?

HT:

Yes.

ME:

Okay. That's where the train went through a station, and on the sign it said, “The blackest dirt and the whitest people,” The sign at the station said that. So there are so many stories.

When I was in Texas another time, I was riding on the bus, and the bus was full. I got in the front in front of the front door and walked to the back. I knew about the flags. I learned that about the flags, but I sat right under the flag.

A white serviceman was sitting under the flag, so I sat alongside of him. As soon as I sat down, he jumped like I'd stuck him with a pin.

He said, “Driver, you gonna let this woman sit here by me?”

I looked at him. Then I moved my legs in case he wanted to get out. He didn't, and I looked to see what the driver was going to do. It was not a bus stop, but the bus driver pulled the bus over like he was going to stop the bus. This was before Rosa Parks. [laughs] He pulled the bus over like he was going to stop, pulled over to the curb.

When he pulled to the curb, he opened the side door where I was sitting. Up front were two white fellows, soldiers also, in uniform. We're all in the same uniform, all in army uniform, I remember thinking we're all GI, fighting for the same country.

These white soldiers stood up, and they said, “Hey, fella, either sit down or get off the damned bus.” He found out he didn't have any help, and he got off the bus.

Now, before that, while these black folks were standing in the back, when they heard it happen, I could hear switch blades opening, “click, click, click.” I didn't know what until later on I realized what it was. This one woman said to me, “You sit there, girl.” Now, I wasn't about to get up anyway, but I knew I had somebody behind me when she said, “You sit there, girl.”

HT:

Now, you mentioned earlier in the conversation something about the flags. I don't understand what that means.

ME:

You're not a Southerner?

HT:

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I was born in Germany, and even though I grew up in the South—

ME:

Growing up in the South was enough, isn't it?

HT:

Well—[laughter]

ME:

You're not supposed to sit in front of the flag. [ME added later: Not the American flag, just a small sign flag to separate the races.]

HT:

Oh. I did not realize that.

ME:

On public transportation. You didn't know that?

HT:

No, I didn't.

ME:

Okay.

HT:

I learned something today.

ME:

Well. So then I was learning then, you see. Yes. There was a flag, and they'd move the flag according to how crowded the bus was, I guess. But it so happened that there were some seats still there, and I sat down under the flag, where I should have been behind the flag. See, back in those days, they told me the places where people of color sat was the back of the bus—

HT:

Right. I've heard that expression.

ME:

—the front of the train, the bottom of the boat, and the balcony of the theater. Then they tell you to stay in your place. Do you know where your place is? Do you get that? Back of the bus, front of the train, bottom of a boat and balcony of a theatre—

HT:

Called the steerage. You've seen quite a few changes in your lifetime, thank goodness.

ME:

Yes, and they haven't hurt me at all. I've enjoyed all of them. I'm waiting for the next one to happen. I guess that's all the funny stuff I can tell you.

HT:

Those were quite interesting, quite interesting. You had alluded to this earlier in our conversation, but one of the questions I always ask is about how your extended family and friends, et cetera, felt about you joining up, and you've already answered that.

Do you recall what people in general thought about women joining the military? I think you sort of hinted, earlier in our conversation, that there was this terrible reputation slander. I think it was put out by the army against women, probably in '43 or something like that, saying that women who joined the military were of no account and that sort of thing. Of course, there was no truth to that, but I think people believed it anyway, rumors, propaganda, and that sort of thing. Did you run into that, any kind of attitude from your family and friends and just people in general?

ME:

Yes. They would speak of it, yes. My mother thought it was not a good idea because your reputation would be ruined and whatnot. My grandmother was a very, very wise lady, and she said to me, “You were raised to be a lady. When you go into the service, continue to be a lady, and you will be treated as a lady. Hold your head high, know who you are, and don't let anybody turn you around.”

I went into the service with that in mind. I brought this to prove it. It's a letter. I will read it to you, if I have the right glasses, how I was respected by some of the men in the service. This is from a sergeant who was in the army that I had met on some occasion, I don't remember where, and it's a little poem. Apparently, he was trying to be a poet.

“Now, since I've had a chance to sit and talk to you, fair one, I know you have good qualities. My confidence you've won. I'm sure you like the better things that life has to present and that your choices in life is that brings respect and merriment,” and he underlines the word respect. “May I congratulate you for the clean life that you live. I know it will be your just reward to get the best life gives. You friendship I appreciate. It's obvious that I do. It's a friendship that is full and rich and pure and plain and true.”

Now, I've gotten talks like this from a lot of soldiers. One fellow told me that I was the kind of a girl he'd take home to Mama, he says, “But I'm not ready to get married now. I don't know whether I'm going to come back from this war or not.” He says, “But if I do, I'll be looking for you.” [ME added later: He didn't come back, unfortunately.]

Now, those are the things about respect that I got from the men in service. I never had any problem of being disrespected, but it's what Grandmother said, if you act like a lady, you'll be treated like a lady. Now, that's an answer to your question, that no, I never had any problem. Unlike today, they didn't have coed then. The girls were in their own barracks and the men on the other end of the post.

One fellow tried to break in one night because one of the girls had gone out and left the barracks door unlocked so that she could get back in. She put a little something in the door and the lock so that she could get back in after bed check. You know what bed check is?

HT:

Yes.

ME:

But this fellow, apparently he sneaked in. It was after bed check. The whole place was dark. All of a sudden, we heard this scream. He had tried to get in the bed with one of the girls, and shoes and things were thrown, bottles and jars and whatnot came from all directions at that fellow. I don't know whether he made it out without getting hit or not, but he got out of that barracks in no time. That's the only time we ever had any trouble as far as men were concerned bothering the women in the service on my post.

HT:

Did you not have MPs [military police] guarding the perimeter or something like that?

ME:

They didn't need to in those days. They had guards at the gate, naturally, and if you needed, you could call them, but people had a little more respect for each other. When anything like that happened, it was unusual. It was a rarity. So we never had any problem where I was.

The only pregnant woman we had in the service is one who came in pregnant. She came in from Alabama, and they told us later on that the governor of Alabama at that time said that he was glad of the war and the women in the service because they'd get rid of some of the black nigger wenches out of Alabama. So some of them came into the service, and one of them came in pregnant into our company. So she was already pregnant when she came in.

HT:

I'm assuming she was discharged.

ME:

Oh, naturally.

HT:

Because I think unmarried women could not stay—I mean—

ME:

You couldn't be married.

HT:

Couldn't be married, rather, right, or pregnant or have children like the girls do today.

ME:

They're having a lot of trouble today. You never saw anything like that. Because it's all coed. I mean, when you're sleeping and eating and everything with the same sex, you have to expect that. I mean, that's nature. You can't do anything about that. Why they expect it to be otherwise, I don't know. I'm confused about that, really. I don't understand it.

HT:

Do you recall what the mood of the country in general was during World War II?

ME:

Very Americanized. We really were for the United States, not like today. Everybody wanted to do something for their country to help. They were for the United States. Very cooperative.

HT:

After you left basic training for Des Moines, I think you mentioned you were sent to Fort Custer, Michigan, next.

ME:

Yes.

HT:

What type of work did you do there?

ME:

Oh, what did I do at Fort Custer? Personnel work, I think, then. It's on my profile. I think that's where I worked, in personnel.

HT:

Did you do personnel work the entire enlistment, or did you do various—

ME:

Just in there, Michigan, see, because we moved around from Michigan to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and then to San Antonio, Texas, Fort Sam Houston. In Illinois, that's where I went to Special Services School. Then I became a Special Services Officer, I guess you'd say.

I used to plan activities for the service people. I'd get any of the performers or any theatrical people, movie stars or anybody in the musical world, if they were traveling through the circuit, I would make contact with them through the USO's liaison between the USO and the army. Then we'd get them to come through the circuit, like Bob Hope's type of thing, and entertain the service people on the post. So I did a lot of that, planning parties and dances and shows and concerts and all kinds of things. That was in Special Services, and that was in Fort Custer, Michigan—Fort Sheridan, Illinois.

HT:

So you did personnel work and then Special Services. I think you mentioned earlier in our conversation that you drove a truck.

ME:

That was later on. With each thing that I did, there was a commendation. I have a portfolio full of recommendations and commendations and whatnot because I seemed to make a mark at each thing that I did. It was decided that I was needed in Special Services. So I was sent to Lexington, Virginia, to Washington and Lee University, and that's where I went to Special Services School. When I came out of that, that's what I was doing.

Then we were transferred to Texas, and they needed somebody on the trucks. So I went to motor school. There were forty-some men and just me, the only woman. [laughter] I have a picture of me, with all the men and just me in the motor pool. I had to change the tires and wash the engines and do all the things that the men did.

HT:

What on earth made you want to get out of Special Services and go to the motor pool? I would think—

ME:

Nothing different than why did I want to go in the service to begin with. You'd have to get up here in my head to find that out. I don't know. [laughs]

My mother would always say—ever since I was a little girl, she'd say, “My god, what next?” because I was always doing something that was unusual, something that other people wouldn't think of doing.

HT:

When you were transferred from base to base, was that transfer as an individual, or did you transfer as a company?

ME:

As a company. Another story? As I said, I was very well respected by not only the personnel but also by the officers, and people felt that I could do the unusual. So they put me on as a transportation officer to transport eighty-two women plus myself, the only officer, from Illinois to Texas on the train, on a troop train. I think it took us three days or two and a half days or something to get there.

Now, you can understand. I mean, then I wasn't a commissioned officer. To be responsible for meal tickets, make sure all the clothing—that they all had uniforms on when they had to have them, that decorum was kept on the trains and whatnot, no getting into the berths with the porters and things like that, I had all of that to do, just me, with eighty-two women as my responsibility.

HT:

Especially when you were very young.

ME:

I was getting ready to tell you that. We had women who celebrated their fiftieth and fifty-fifth birthday while I was in service. So, you see, they could have been my mother. It was very, very difficult to do.

Many of them tried to see how much they could get away with, but I've always had, I don't know, a sort of profile about me that they would have to sneak around to do it. Whatever, they couldn't do it in front of my face. They didn't know what I would do. I never did anything, but they were afraid of what I might do, I guess, and so they feared me a little bit. [laughs]

Anyhow, we made it. When the captain and her first sergeant met us at the train, I had to get them [the women] all off of the train, have them stand at attention, called attention for them to all line up on the platform I had to make sure that all barracks bags were all out and tied and whatnot, nothing was left on the train. Everybody was in A-1 uniform complete. That's a lot for one person to do with eighty-two people. But they did it and lined up on the platform.

I walked up to the captain and saluted. I said, “Ma'am, your company has arrived.” I think I was a corporal then.

She said, “What is your name, Corporal?”

[laughs] I had no idea. I didn't know what my name was. I really could not tell her what my name was. I was just so relieved of that duty, to be free of that responsibility, glad that I really made it, but I didn't get a commendation for that one. I made sergeant but not because of that. I don't know whether it was another something else somebody took in. I was recommended for Officers Candidate School, but the war was over before I got to go. I was on my way up, upward bound, I guess you'd say.

HT:

It sounds like you really enjoyed all the different types of work that you did. What did you enjoy the most, do you recall?

ME:

Special Services, I think.

HT:

Did you do that the longest period of time?

ME:

No. I think they were all equal.

HT:

In all these various things that you did, do you think you were treated equally to men who did similar things? You said you were the only woman in the motor pool, so do you think they treated you equally?

ME:

Fine. They realized that I was a woman and some things I couldn't lift, and they'd help me out of respect for me because of the way I carried myself. They knew that there were things that I couldn't do or they would prefer that I didn't do. I probably could do it, but they were gentlemanly enough to aid me in certain things that I did. So I really had no problems at all with disrespect.

HT:

During your time in service, did you ever encounter any kind of discrimination because you were black or because you were a woman?

ME:

Well, I told you about the discrimination on the bus and whatnot. What was the other question?

HT:

Did you ever encounter any discrimination because you were a woman? Did you ever have any of your fellow workers who were men—

ME:

No. Put me down?

HT:

Put you down because you were a woman?

ME:

No.

HT:

And they resented you because you were—

ME:

No.

HT:

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

ME:

I don't know of anything.

HT:

Some women have mentioned doing pushups in basic training and that sort of thing.

ME:

No, because I was a physical training instructor.

HT:

Oh, you were?

ME:

Yes, also. That was part of the Special Services School.

HT:

You'll have to tell me about that.

ME:

[laughs] Well, just getting the women out in the morning was hard enough, you know. So to get them to do the exercises, that was double trouble, but we managed. We managed to get them done. But no, I haven't had any trouble with that at all.

HT:

What about emotional? I think you mentioned earlier in the conversation that when you delivered a truckload of men to go overseas, that was hard.

ME:

That was hard. That was very hard. That was the only emotional thing that I think I encountered. Being the kind of person that I am, I kind of adjust to things and find a way out of whatever situation that I'm in. So I haven't got any problems that way at all. But that was hard to do.

The girls would always hate for me to come in [from transporting men who were about to go overseas] because they'd know they'd have to listen to me cry all night. And there was always one special person in the group that—when I would go out, there'd always be that one special guy that you liked or had seen a couple times or something like that.

HT:

And where was this?

ME:

This was in Texas.

HT:

Fort Sam Houston?

ME:

Yes. And part of the time in Illinois, too, in the Chicago area, because I remember having to take the truck into the city to pick up the laundry at one time. So I had to do that.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid? Were you ever in a situation where you were afraid, you were in danger?

ME:

I don't think so. I can't think of any. I'm a pretty daring person. Whatever comes, I was going to accept it. Like going overseas. I told you I wanted to go overseas. I had signed to go overseas, and when the orders came for me to go, they gave us the stuff to make out our will, and they sent us home on emergency furlough. When I got home, as I walked in the door, my mother said a telegram came. When I read that telegram, it said to “return to camp immediately.”

“You know what this means, kiss all the boys goodbye and tell them you'll see them after the armistice.” So my mother said, “Well, go and take a shower, and I'll make you a sandwich,” and I could head back on the next train. Before I could get back downstairs again, another telegram came that said, “Await further instructions before returning.”

When I got to camp, everybody had gone, the whole company. They had to put me in another outfit completely, and I just cried all that night because I wanted to go overseas.

HT:

Where did your compatriots go?

ME:

They went to England. That's the 688th. I think they called them the 6 two 8s or double 8s? They all went to London, England. They were the postal unit.

HT:

I think I've heard of the postal unit. I think Betty Carter, who's the project director, was telling me that they were sent over there and it was like months and months of piled up mail, and it was the biggest mess, and they had to straighten all that out in just no time flat.

ME:

Yes. Well, that's the unit that I was going to be in. I was very unhappy about it.

HT:

How did it happen that you didn't get a chance to go, because you'd been sent home on furlough?

ME:

Because of the time. By the time I got back to camp, their orders were to ship out right away, and they couldn't wait for me to get from New Jersey to Texas just for one person. They had to go and that was it. See, you had to wait for a train. It took two or three days to get from Jersey to Texas, and the army doesn't wait for you. So that took care of that.

HT:

Do you recall any hilarious or embarrassing moments during your military service that stand out in your mind?

ME:

Again, the only thing that I can think of that would be hilarious would be in the integration feeling. Some of the big bands that I'd have—I told you how in Special Service I had the big bands that would come through. I don't know whether it was Duke Ellington or Count Basie, but one of the big bands was coming through Texas, and they were going to perform in this auditorium downtown in San Antonio.

Of course, you know, “the coloreds” had to go up the back stairway and whatnot, but this time it was the ballroom. In this big auditorium ballroom, they had put two rows of chairs back to back. One bandstand, the band played on the bandstand, but the chairs were through the center of the dancehall back to back. You know what that meant?

That was the funniest thing to me. I sat in the balcony looking down. I said, “If that isn't the stupidest thing I've ever seen.” Whites were dancing on this side of the chairs, and the blacks were dancing on this side. [laughs] I couldn't even feel offended because I thought it was so stupid. They'd sit down in the chairs back to back. The colored would sit here, and the white would sit here, and they were touching each other. They could talk to each other, but they'd better not turn around and face each other.

I thought that was so funny. I couldn't even feel offended. Other people felt offended by it, but as I said, I didn't grow up feeling negative so I could not be offended because I think that segregation to me is still stupid. I don't see any reason or sensibility to it. So that's the only thing, I think, that was funny.

HT:

Tell me a little bit about your social life, since you were talking about Count Basie and Duke Ellington. What did you ladies do for fun? Did you go to movies and dances?

ME:

We had our own service club, as some people will tell you. That card that I showed you shows you that they had two service clubs. Ours was just a little hole in the wall. It was a little barracks that they allowed us to use as our service club, and we had to—

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

HT:

Mrs. Edwards, if you continue now, I've turned the tape over. We were talking about the service club that you had put together.

ME:

Okay. Ours was just nothing. It was just like a barn. There was nothing to it at all, just folding chairs and things like that. We had the juke boxes that they could dance to and things of that sort, and that's about all there was. We set up card tables, and I'd start the card tournaments and things like that.

One day I decided to go to see the white clubs, they'd be like lounges—gorgeous, beautiful, the lovely furniture and whatnot in it. So that's the two. They had the two service clubs and two theaters, and the theaters were different. They were not as nice. Everything was separated, different, but not equal.

So you felt as though you were fighting two wars. Of course, you fought the men and the women war, the war between the men and the women in some cases. I didn't have that situation, but in some instances they were. Then you had the racial thing that you were facing. Then you had the war that you were fighting between overseas and the United States. So you were fighting three wars at the same time, and that was very difficult.

HT:

Do you feel that some of these things that occurred during the war were sort of precedents for the civil rights movement of twenty years later in the sixties?

ME:

I'm sure somebody [unclear] did it. Yes, I'm sure, something about life and history. Life goes on, and there's always a spark of something from any incident that's going to turn into something that's real. Somebody will pick it up that has a little more foresight and a little more education or something. They'll know where to go and what to do about it, and I think it just—it changes. Life changes. Nothing stays the same.

HT:

Do you recall where you were when you heard about VE Day, which was Victory in Europe, May of '45?

ME:

I don't remember where I was. Probably—I remember being in the barracks. I remember that. [Harry] Truman was president at the time, wasn't he?

HT:

Yes, I think so. President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt had just died.

ME:

Had just died, yes. I remember sitting in the barracks or something. It's nothing that I can say that's profound or anything about it.

HT:

You got out of the service in December of '45. So you were still in service during VJ [Victory in Japan] Day and also when the atomic bomb was dropped over Japan. Do you have any recollections about either of those events?

ME:

No. I was appalled by it, of course. I've since been to Hawaii, but I wouldn't go on the boat. I didn't want to see it. But so many of the tourists and whatnot couldn't wait to get to see the boat.

HT:

The [SS] Arizona?

ME:

The [SS] Arizona. I wouldn't go. I didn't want to see it. It's too close to me in the heart.

HT:

Did you have any friends or anyone who died—

ME:

They were all my friends. I just say they were all people, all fighting for the same thing. So they were all my friends, fellow human beings.

HT:

And you were discharged in 1945, I believe.

ME:

Yes.

HT:

And where was that, at Fort Sam Houston?

ME:

Yes.

HT:

And you were a sergeant at that time?

ME:

I was a sergeant at that time.

HT:

And did you ever give any thoughts about staying in, making it a career, or did you have that option?

ME:

Well, I fell in love, and I wanted to get out and get married. [laughter]

HT:

Good reason.

ME:

That did it, but I'm sorry now. I wish I had stayed. Not that it was a bad marriage. It lasted forty-seven years. There was nothing wrong with the marriage. My husband died about seven years ago. At the time, you know, you're young and you want to go on with your life. “The war is over. Now I've done it. I've gotten rid of everything. I've won the war. Now I'm going home and do something else now.”

HT:

Was your husband in the military?

ME:

He was in the navy.

HT:

How did you meet him?

ME:

At Great Lakes. He was at Great Lakes, and we were scheduled to go there just to tour the Great Lakes Naval Station. So while we were there, we invited some of the guys out to the post to a dance that we were giving. He was invited. I invited him, but he was on duty. So he paid one of the fellows to take his duty so that he could come to the dance. He told him who the WAC was, and he said, “Oh, no, man. She gave me an invitation, too.” So he had to go find somebody else.

Then both of them came to the dance, because they got somebody else to take their place. They bribed them in some way. So that's how we met. Needless to say that when we walked the post hand-in-hand, they'd say that's the only time the army and navy ever got together. You know, they never did like each other. You remember?

HT:

What impact do you think the military had on your life immediately after the war ended and the long-term?

ME:

You know, I've heard that question before, and I don't know, because I don't know what I would have been doing if I had not gone into service. I really don't know. Being an adventurous type of person and being a person who likes to try different things, there's no telling what I would have done if I had not gone into the service. I don't know that.

So it's hard for me to pinpoint what affect it had on my life. I think it might have developed my character, made me stronger or more willing to accept certain things, but I was already that type of person to begin with. I don't really know.

HT:

Sounds like you were a pretty independent person even before you went in the military.

ME:

I think so.

HT:

I've talked to several ladies who said that's one thing the military did for them, is make them more independent. If they weren't before, they definitely were after they got out of the service, but it sounds like you were pretty feisty before.

ME:

Yes, before. I'm still feisty in old age. I haven't changed any. [laughter] Everybody laughs at me. I dance three times a week.

They say, “You do what?” They say, “I can't even stand up at my age.”

But I go swing dancing twice a week, and they call me the Ginger Rogers of the outfit because I'm a ballroom dancer, all the twirls and the dips and whatnot. So I'm not ready to turn up my heels yet. I'll be around for a while, I guess.

HT:

When you got out of the service, you said you'd met your husband. Did you get married right away, or did you go back home with your mother?

ME:

Well, I went back but not with my mother. I went back home to my own apartment, and I went to school for design, which I already was in that field anyhow, but I went back to school for interior design. I went to Traphagen under the GI Bill of Rights, and I opened a store in New Jersey of interior design called “The Little Shop.”

I was in business until the phone call came from Cincinnati, Ohio, where my husband lived, and he invited me to Cincinnati to meet his family, and he popped the question. That got rid of the business and the car and everything, and I took off for Cincinnati, Ohio. So I gave up the business and went and married him. It lasted forty-seven years. It was not a bad choice.

HT:

And how long did you go to design school?

ME:

A year.

HT:

Just one year?

ME:

Almost two years.

HT:

And that was what school?

ME:

Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City, one of the finest design schools. I don't even know whether it's still there. It was 1680 Broadway, I believe, was the address.

HT:

And what all did you study there?

ME:

All of interior design complete, floor planning and color designing, the works, everything. In fact, I still keep my hand in it. When I sold my business in Long Island, I was going to go into business here. I found out that finding supplies and transportation and trying to get to and from different places where I needed supplies and furniture and things like that a little hard to get to.

People expected here for you to do free interviews, and I never did that. I wouldn't leave my office under forty-five dollars or fifty dollars, whether you wanted my services or not, just to get me there. It's like going to certain things. You don't go there for nothing and take a person's time and not pay them for it, to pick your brain and that's it. They're always telling you, “Well, what would I do with this piece of furniture? What shall I put here? How should I have done this window? What color scheme should I put here?” They're going to pick your brain like that, and then you go and you haven't got a nickel, and they've gotten the whole wealth of stuff that took you two years to learn.

It doesn't make any sense to me to expect somebody to give you free information like that. So that's what I did. I became an interior designer, and that's what I still do now in my spare time. I have a little workroom outside in the back. I've limited what I do. I just do window design. I did all this.

HT:

While you were married, you did the designing as well?

ME:

Yes, ever since I came out of the service. So that's forty years I've been a designer.

HT:

Did you get a chance to go overseas?

ME:

Travel, you mean?

HT:

Travel in light of what you continued to do your design work off of?

ME:

Not with design work, but tourist. As a tourist I did go overseas, yes. I've done a great deal of traveling.

HT:

It sounds like you didn't have much of an adjustment to make to civilian life. I've talked to a few ladies who said they felt kind of lost for about six months to a year. Did you undergo that sort of thing?

ME:

Oh, yes. I couldn't sleep in the bed. I'd sleep on the floor. The bed was too soft. You'd talk to some of your friends, and you'd wonder, “What are they talking about?” They're talking about things that you're not even familiar with. So yes, it was hard to adjust to. Even the clothes. I didn't want to wear the fancy clothes anymore. I wanted to stay in uniform. Yes, it took while. It took six months, I think. More than that, it took for me. Adjustment wasn't easy.

People still call me and say, “Do you still think you're in the military?” because I'm a very orderly person. Everything has a place, and everything has to be put in its place. Even now, they say, “You haven't gotten out of the service yet. You're still military.”

HT:

Even after fifty years?

ME:

Yes, I'm still in the military. [laughs]

HT:

I guess it's sort of drilled in you. That's just something you never forget.

ME:

Do you feel it at all?

HT:

Well, sometimes I do. I was in for four years, in the air force, but I worked for civilians the entire time I was in the air force.

ME:

Oh, so you were around civilians more so than I.

HT:

Exactly. Yes. It was basically an eight-to-five, five-days-a-week job.

ME:

Yes. It really makes a difference.

HT:

It does. I was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, for four years. So my tour of duty wasn't too bad.

ME:

You were right home almost all the time.

HT:

That's true.

ME:

You didn't go overseas at all?

HT:

No. I had orders to Subic Bay, Philippines, to be air force liaison there, and they were canceled. I think the traffic management officer, who was my boss, had them canceled because he didn't want to lose me. Every year, I put in for duty in Germany and overseas duty, and I never got it.

ME:

May I give you a glass of ice tea?

HT:

That would be wonderful. I'm going to turn this off.

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

I think we were talking about me before we turned the tape recorder off. Now we're going to get back to you. I think we've already talked about you being a somewhat independent person even before you went into the service. Did you consider yourself to be a trendsetter or a trail blazer?

ME:

I think so.

HT:

Because women really didn't do that sort of thing.

ME:

I still am. They call me—what do they call me? Somebody just called it to me this morning. They said, “I've lived here in this neighborhood twenty years. I've lived here twenty years, and some of these people didn't even know each other until last year.” I decided to have a dinner party and invite the neighbors, and the first time they got to know each other was in my house. They're black and white, and they're all mixed in here, you see, and they were all sitting here at the table, and they were looking around at each other saying, “This is the first time I've met you. It's the first time I've met you.”

I do it all the time. I organize clubs, and I do all kinds of things. Yes, I am. I tutor in the school here, the elementary school. I tutor the children in reading. I have worked in the literacy council, and I start other people doing it. “Why don't you do this? These people need it here at such-and-such a place,” and I get people started in that. Then I work at the VA [Veterans Affairs]. All this is volunteer work.

HT:

What do you do at the VA?

ME:

The magazines. I get people to donate magazines to the VA, and then I put them in racks and things, and I walk around to different waiting areas and put them in racks where people are sitting and waiting, outpatient.

They had me going into the hospital rooms where the servicemen are, and I could not stand it. I'd go in there, and there would be one with no leg, and the blood would be coming through the bandages and whatnot. I couldn't handle it.

As I say, I used to cry all night just taking them overseas. You know what I'd do just going into each room and trying to give them a magazine. I'd break out in tears. So I said, “No. Don't send me into the rooms. I can't do that. I will do the waiting rooms, the outpatient waiting rooms.”

HT:

Now, the local VA hospital, do they service the men and women, or is it just—

ME:

Yes, we have a wonderful women's division there. All of my medical treatment is done there. It's right here in Durham.

HT:

I think there's also a hospital down in Salisbury, North Carolina.

ME:

I think so, but they said this one is a better one here at Durham, somebody told me. They have a women's clinic.

HT:

Would you consider yourself a feminist?

ME:

Not really. I like a woman in a woman's place.

HT:

Do you recall who your heroes and heroines were in the forties, when you were in the military?

ME:

I kind of liked Mary McLeod Bethune. The reason I guess I remember her is because I remember sitting behind her and Eleanor Roosevelt. I was in the glee club in the army, and we were invited to perform at some concert. We didn't know which one we were going to, where we were going. We found out we were on the same program, the glee club members were on the same program where McLeod and Eleanor Roosevelt were speaking that day. Sitting behind them, I thought that, my, wouldn't I like to be a trailblazer like Mary McLeod Bethune. I think she did some wonderful things for people, you know, [unclear].

HT:

Did you ever get a chance to meet her and talk to her?

ME:

Well, I got to meet her because I was sitting right behind her, you know, during the social hour, but not to talk at length to her or anything, but I'd read enough about her to know.

HT:

And what about Mrs. Roosevelt?

ME:

I admired her greatly, too. I really do.

HT:

And what about President Roosevelt?

ME:

Naturally, I think we all were kind of enamored with him. It was at a time when he was needed, and I think he did great things.

HT:

Of course, you sort of grew up with him being president. He's probably the only president you really knew.

ME:

Really knew in depth, yes. I think so.

HT:

Did you ever have any children?

ME:

I have one son who lives in Connecticut.

HT:

Was he in the military?

ME:

No. He was under draft. He's fifty years old now. He was drafted, and I prayed that he wouldn't be taken. [laughs] I guess my prayer was answered, because his number—and he was three or four numbers away when they had the draft, but no, he didn't go, thank goodness. He was in college, and I knew there'd be problems there at the time.

HT:

How do you feel about women in combat positions? During the Gulf War, I think we even had a few women who flew combat missions, and one I think was even captured by the Iraqis. How do you feel about that? Do you approve of that sort of thing?

ME:

Yes. I think that a woman—I'm not a feminist. I told you before, but I think if a woman wants to do a thing, I think it's her right to do it. I don't think there should be a law for or against it. If she feels that she can. Look at the women way back even before World War II who would take their place in the army in place of their husbands, or dress up in male clothes and go into the service. So all those things are—I think it's a woman's right and a woman's privilege to do that. I don't frown on it at all. Well, you should know, talking to me long enough, you know I wouldn't—just this short time.

HT:

This is basically all I have to ask at this point. Do you have anything else that you would like to add to the interview that I haven't covered? We've covered a variety of things.

ME:

We certainly have. You've covered a great deal. I appreciate the open doors. I'm sorry I didn't give you—probably things that I'll think about after you've gone.

HT:

Well, I'll be glad to come back. [laughter] Well, as I mentioned earlier, I don't have any other questions, but thank you so much for talking with me.

ME:

You're entirely welcome. Thank you.

HT:

It's been a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.

[End of interview]