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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Virginia Russell Reavis, 2000

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Object ID: WV0183.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Virginia Russell Reavis’ service in Europe with the Army Air Forces' 810th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron during World War II and her nursing career and personal life following the war.

Summary:

Discussion of Reavis’ early military service includes deciding to join the army and joining a unit from Duke Hospital; her parents’ reaction to her enlistment; and treating patients at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She also describes her air evacuation training at Bowman Field, Kentucky, including the difficulty of the physical activity; marching; pulling a prank on her drill instructor; sleeping in tents; obstacle courses; live ammunition courses; and jealousy of civilian women.

Reavis also describes her trip to England, discussing traveling in a convoy of ships; blackout at sea; detecting a submarine on depth charge; a welcome by a Scottish band; riding a train to England; a girl’s attempts to save her lipstick when her purse broke; and staying in British Royal Air Force bachelor’s quarters. Most talk focuses on Reavis’ time flying air evac operations. Topics include: transatlantic flights transporting wounded soldiers and supplies; stopovers in Iceland and the Azores; flying in converted cargo planes; calling groups of rescued soldiers “litters”; riding with soldiers who had just been in combat; rescuing Germans because one couldn’t tell who was who; reactions to flying with German soldiers; and a German doctor aiding the Allied troops on the battlefield.

Of particular interest are Reavis' recollections from around D-Day, including the view from the plane of ships in the English Channel; details of who rode in each air evac plane; rescuing a soldier she had grown up with; being unable to recover troops when the field was being strafed; and the dangers of flying in air evacuation planes. She also shares a lengthy story about her plane crashing when attempting to drop paratroopers during the Battle of the Bulge, and being stranded in France on Christmas Day 1944 and New Years Eve due to weather. Reavis also tells of a time when her plane crashed at takeoff while hauling gasoline to General Patton’s troops.

Other topics from her time in the service include: social activities; treating a member of Glenn Reavis’ band; working under Josh Logan and using his name to get tickets to Oklahoma; eating powdered eggs, potatoes, and Spam; trying to get apples in France; an English family caring for the squadron; finding a high school friend while on leave in England and staying too long; Catholic priests on base; hospital workers; buzz bombs in London; the salary for army nurses; VE Day and VJ Day; coming home on leave; losing friends; and seeing penicillin for the first time.

Personal topics include: living in Wilmington, North Carolina with friends; what she gained from her time in the service; being approached for employment by airlines; living in California; opinion of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and her opinion of women in combat.

Creator: Virginia Russell Reavis

Biographical Info: Virginia Russell Reavis (b. 1920) of Swansboro, North Carolina, was an air evacuation nurse in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1942 to 1945.

Collection: Virginia Russell Reavis 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:

[Virginia Reavis' niece, Ginny Shipley, is present for portions of the interview]

HT:

Today is September 17, the year 2000. My name is Hermann Trojanowski. I'm at the home of Mrs. Virginia Reavis in Hubert, North Carolina, to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Mrs. Reavis, if you could please tell me a few things about yourself, some biographical information, such as where you were born, when you were born, where you lived before you enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and a little bit about your family life and growing up in the Depression years in the thirties.

VR:

Well, I was born in Onslow County in 1920, October 6, 1920. I graduated from high school in Swansboro, North Carolina. We didn't have any money during the Depression, but we were never hungry like a lot of people were. Nobody else did either, so that made it—when I graduated, I went to Louisburg College.

HT:

Was that here in North Carolina?

VR:

Yes, it is. It's a Methodist college in [Louisburg]. I came back home Christmas and didn't go back. I was so homesick, I thought I would die. When I got home, I thought, “I'm never going back.” So I didn't. [laughs]

But I wasn't old enough—I wanted to be a nurse, but I wasn't old enough to go in. So then I stayed out for a year, and then I went in. In '39, I was in nurses' training.

HT:

Where did you do nurses' training?

VR:

At Thompson Memorial Hospital in Lumberton. It isn't there anymore. They combined. They had two hospitals there, two training hospitals there. They just combined them, and now I think it's Robeson County Hospital or something like that.

We were seniors when they bombed Pearl Harbor, on our senior year. So as soon as we graduated and took the state board, we signed up with the Duke [Hospital] unit. I got right out of nurses' training and went right into the service. I went in with the 65th General [Hospital], which was made up at Duke University. We were at Fort Bragg, and then they came out with this—they were interviewing people for Air Evac[uation]. So my friend [Emily Lewis] and I signed up, took the test and everything, and we were accepted, two of us. Four from Fort Bragg were accepted, and we were two of them. So that was very exciting.

HT:

What kind of special training did you have to go through?

VR:

We went to Bowman Field, Kentucky, and they put us through a pretty rigid thing. We had classes, but we also had to bivouac and march. They trained the glider pilots there in classes. So they sort of made our course like theirs. When we graduated from that class, then they put us in squadrons. We were in the 810th. We trained a little while in squadrons, and then they sent us different areas.

HT:

How long was the training in Bowman?

VR:

About six months. About six months.

HT:

Was it sort of like basic training, something like that?

VR:

Yes, kind of thing. Yes. We had to go out in that woods in Louisville and dig trenches, and do all the things they were making the soldiers do.

I remember my uncle was at—what's the place near Louisville? Fort Knox. He was in tanks. He said, “I never had to do all these things, Virginia. I can't understand it.” He was five years older than I, and I was very close to him.

Anyway, he was impressed with the training they put us through. They didn't know what was going to happen to us, and so they made it pretty stiff.

HT:

Can you tell me a little about the training that you had to endure?

VR:

Yes. I remember one time we marched—I don't know how many miles. It seemed like forever. We had this real sadistic instructor. We all decided he didn't like nurses, but he rode in a jeep while we were marching, and then he did all these things that—just gave us a real bad time. At the end of the five days, when we were seamen, and I remember when we sang, [sings] “For he's a jolly good fellow,” and then somebody blindfolded him, and we had this pit we had to dig for [unclear]. We put him in the pit and covered him up.

Oh, he was absolutely livid. He'd really been giving it to us, but he couldn't take it. So afterwards, he said, “I'm going to see that none of you finish.” They had been taking all these pictures, and so they had pictures of it, and nobody [unclear] any pictures. They ran so he couldn't—all of us were in on it.

But I remember we had to pitch tents. We had to sleep in those tents. My roommate and I, when we pitched our tent, we stretched out, and it was on a root, and it was horrible. We said, “No way will we take it down and do it over. We'll just curl up around this root.” But anyway, that was quite a thing.

I remember one time we were having to climb those ropes and go through the obstacle course, and this girl came by in a convertible. She had on a pretty dress, and she stopped and looked at us. I remember we didn't really like her very much. [laughs]

I remember Emily said, “I wish I were there, and she had a wart on her nose.” I don't know. She always wished somebody had a wart on their nose when she didn't like what they were doing.

Anyway, we went from the Duke unit together. We stayed together, and we were put in the same squadron. That was Emily Lewis. We just went through the whole war together.

HT:

So you were stationed together the entire time.

VR:

Yes. Yes.

HT:

When did you go to your first duty station, do you remember?

VR:

Well, when we finished and they assigned us, we were the 810th Air Evac Squadron. They sent us to Europe in December of '42—'43. I'm sorry, December '43, because I went in in October '42. [Unclear] and we left. They sent us to a base in New England out from Boston for debarkation, and we left from there.

We got on the ship, and we were about twenty-four hours out, and we had an epidemic of food poisoning. We joined this convoy. We left on the ship, and during the night, it started rocking. When we got up the next morning, it was just ships as far as you could see. There was one of the big passenger ships that was in with the convoy.

HT:

What type of ship were you—

VR:

I don't know what type it was, but it wasn't that big. It was big, but it wasn't as big as one of those—

HT:

Was it a converted liner of some sort?

VR:

No. We had a couple of converted liners in there, but this was smaller. We really got the rolls with it, but they decided that because it had a medical unit on, they wouldn't put a little ship out and turn around and come back, they would go. So we had to work our way over, and it was pretty bad. It was up on the top deck of the ship, the top, and it was blackout, you know. You had to have things closed. You couldn't have any light.

One night, they dropped a depth charge from our ship. There was a submarine. They picked up a submarine, but it didn't get into the ships, and I don't know whether they got the submarine or not. We never knew. We just knew it was pretty dark, and we had to get on our life jackets. We did that.

We got in Scotland on December the nineteenth. It took us ten days to go because we zigzagged because of the submarines. We got over there, and I remember we'd been on the ship, and it was warm. We got out on that barge, and I was frozen. We had on our uniforms, and we had gas masks, we had bedrolls, we had our purse, and we were top-heavy.

So I remember our chief nurse said, “Now, look smart, girls.” She was very attractive, so she always looked smart. But anyway, she said, “Look smart.” I remember we were going down that gangplank, and the Scottish band was there, and they were playing the bagpipes. They played Dixie among their other things. [Laughs]

When I started down that gangplank, my legs just—I couldn't feel them. They were numb, it was so cold. So I just went down on the gangplank. Somebody picked me up, and I went right back down again. [Laughs] I couldn't stand on my feet.

Finally, we got in. We stood there, and we got on these little trains, those little British trains. Have you ever been on them? They go a little “peep,” you know, and they're gone. There are compartments, and you go from outside into the compartments. You don't go down the line like we do here. You just get on where you're going.

I remember we had all that stuff on us, and we got in, and we read the instructions. They said, “Now, in case of an air raid, you fall down flat.” So when they did the little “beep” with the train, one of my friends thought it was the air raid, and she was trying to get on the floor. She was so funny, anyway.

In the middle of England was where we were going from Scotland. It was near Nottingham. When we got there, it was three o'clock in the morning, and we had to get on this bus, and everybody was really weary. This same friend, she's very witty, and she got on the bus first, and the strap broke on her purse. She had a purse full of lipstick, and I remember it rolled all over the bus.

We were standing out there, and she said, “I will not let you on until I pick up every bit of this.”

We said, “Lucy, we will give you ours.”

She said, “You say that now. You don't know how long we'll be over here. You don't know whether we'll ever get any more lipstick or not.” [laughs]

We had to wait until she finally got all of her lipstick. Then when we got to our base, into our quarters, it was an old air force—I mean, not air force but British—what do they call it? [Royal Air Force, RAF] Anyway, it was like their club, and this big dining room and big living room. Of course, the dining room part, we had beds in. The living part was this long, old room, and it had a big fireplace. So the guys had kept this fire going in the fireplace because they knew we were coming. It was at that time in the morning.

I remember this one girl, she was twenty-seven, and we thought she was old, twenty-five or twenty-seven, but she was sitting in front of that fireplace, and she started crying. Tears were running.

“What's the matter, Billie?”

She said, “I'm not crying for myself. I've lived my life, but you and Emily are so [unclear] young, that you're in this mess. This is a horrible mess.”

We flew with the crews and took in supplies. Then we got over to the Continent. We went over there after D-Day. I think the first time I went over was D plus five, because they had to get landing strips for the planes to come in.

We were in old cargo ships, and they took me in. Then we converted them into air ambulances. We got the straps down, and we had about twenty-four litters, we called them. The ambulances would come up with litters, and then we would put them on our planes. We had a technician. And that was another thing. We were at Bowman Field; we had to train our own technicians. We went to Louisville General—

HT:

Were these corpsmen?

VR:

Yes. We went to Louisville General with them and then a private hospital. I don't remember the name of it, and you went through a training time with them. Sometimes we'd have so many patients that we would get the more serious, and they would take the ambulatory ones, and we would be by ourselves, and they would [unclear].

I remember the second time I went, we had a planeload. They were bringing them into the field hospitals, and they were just kind of cleaning them up and sending them to us. Some of them were just—we'd get them, and they would have grass all over them, and they all looked alike. You know, they were just men in uniforms. Not all were exactly alike, but, you know, they weren't clean, they weren't in their dress uniforms.

My second time out, we had a whole plane full, and this one on the very bottom was moaning and groaning. I looked at his card, and he had just had some morphine. They had just given him morphine, so I couldn't give him any more for a while. So I said to him, “Now, let's change your position a little bit. These are awfully uncomfortable, these old canvas stretchers. Maybe this will help.” And he started talking in German, because they just were taking care of wounded, and we'd get them on the planes, you know.

I didn't have my technician with me. The one there next to him got up, and they were going to kill him. They said—you know, they had just been fighting, and this was just horrible. I remember I was right up by the bulkhead, so I pushed the door, I was pushing him back, and I pulled the door open. I said, “I need help.” So the navigator came back, and he helped me.

I remember he said, “It's Sunday. We're going to England. The war for a while is over for you. Just take it easy.”

HT:

This was a German prisoner of war?

VR:

This was a German, yes, that they'd picked up. He was wounded, and we didn't know we had a German. I didn't know we had a German. I didn't know he was German till he started talking. Then the one over on the litter next to him, right across—you know, we had just this little space between, and he had just been fighting. I mean, it hadn't been very long; his buddies had been killed, and he was a German, and he was going to kill him.

HT:

Oh, wow. So what was the final outcome?

VR:

Well, no, the navigator came back and helped me. He calmed him down. We got to England, and afterwards they segregated, you know. When they got further along in the war, they didn't do that anymore. However, we did—a lot of times, I'd have a whole planeload of them, of Germans. I remember I felt very bad towards this. It was a hard thing for me to do anything for them. I went back, and I said, “I don't think I can do this.”

But then, I think a couple of trips later, we had some infantry men, and this one boy was talking to me. They would all talk if you weren't busy, and you'd sit down and talk with them. He said that they were cut off, and they had a lot of wounded, and on the loudspeaker, this German doctor said, “I know you have wounded, and I know you don't have any medic. I'm a doctor. They're going to cease fire. I'm coming over to take care of your wounded.”

This was the best thing I could hear. I mean, this helped me. I thought, “This is what it's all about. We're all human beings, and this is what I'm here for, just take care of the wounded.” So I could handle it after that, but I felt like that was special, that God had sent this patient to help me out.

HT:

Where in France were you?

VR:

No, we were in England. Our home base was in England.

HT:

In England, but you were flying to the Continent?

VR:

Yes. When they hit the beachhead, and then as they moved up so we could land.

HT:

This was after Normandy, of course.

VR:

It was after D-Day, yes. This was on Normandy. They were just starting Normandy then. We could see the line's movement, you know, as we were—and the first time, they took us down to southern England, and we stayed all night in these tents, and then the next day, we went out with supplies. I remember, it was so cold in that tent, I almost died.

I got in the plane, and it was warm, and I dozed. The crew chief went up, and he said to the pilot and copilot, “Do you believe it? We're flying on it.” Of course, it looked like you could walk across the English Channel, there were so many ships down there. It was an awesome sight. And he said, “She's asleep.”

He said, “Well, let her be happy.” And he said, “We're hauling demolition on this plane, and we have no fire protection or anything.” He said, “Well, let her be happy in her ignorance.” It was so good to be warm. I'd been freezing all night long.

HT:

Were you the only nurse aboard?

VR:

Yes.

HT:

There were not two nurses on each plane?

VR:

No. We had our technician, and like I said, sometimes we didn't have one.

HT:

That was quite a bit of responsibility for a young woman.

VR:

Yes, it was.

HT:

Because you were what, about twenty-two, twenty-three at that time?

VR:

Twenty, twenty-one. I was twenty-two when I started. It was. It was. But young people, they don't think things are going to happen to them that much, I think. It's how they get by with it.

I remember one time a paratrooper friend said, “We know D-Day is coming, and I look around this room, and I think, 'I wonder which ones won't come back,' and I don't think about myself not coming back.” However, he didn't come back.

I don't know what to tell you. There were twenty-five of us in a squadron. So we had a lot of good times, too. We were on the base. When we got over, before D-Day, they sent us out to the bomber base, two of us to the bomber base, to work in the dispensary. We'd go out mornings when they left and went to check the crews. Then when they would come back in, they would shoot flares at them. This was the B-17 base that we were on, and they'd shoot flares for the wounded, and then we'd meet the plane that had the wounded on it.

I remember that that was when I first realized they really are having a war and people are shooting at us. I think about the first or second day after we got to the bomber base, they had their worst hit, and that was bad. They started pulling them out of that plane. Badly wounded, and they were ashen because of the oxygen being shot out, I guess. It was bad.

HT:

If we could backtrack a minute, I have a couple of questions to ask you about when you first entered the service. What made you decide that you wanted to join the military?

VR:

Well, the war had started. Actually, when we took our state boards, these nurses came in from Duke, and they needed more nurses to fill up their units for the 65th.

HT:

These were military nurses?

VR:

They had already started the 65th. They were in the service, and they came in in uniform. I remember this real good friend and I, she was way over on the other side, and we just looked at each other and said, “Yes. Yes. We'll sign up,” and we did. When we got through taking the test, we went out and signed.

HT:

What did your parents think about that?

VR:

Oh, they were devastated. Can you imagine? [laughs]

HT:

Their little girl doing this.

VR:

Yes, yes. Oh, I know. I said, “Now, look, if I were a boy, I wouldn't have a choice. I'd be drafted. I'm doing something that—I'm needed, and, you know, I have to do this.”

HT:

They gave you no arguments after that?

VR:

Well, they didn't give me arguments, anyway. They were wonderful people. They were really good about letting us make up our mind about things. I used to say I don't know how my dad did it, because he always—it had to be your decision, but somehow we did what he wanted. I haven't worked that out. I don't know. I wanted to inherit that for my own children, but I didn't.

HT:

And what about your siblings? How did they feel about your joining?

VR:

Well, they were all younger, and they were all home. I was the oldest.

HT:

You didn't have any brothers?

VR:

I had one brother. They were pretty used to me being real positive about what I wanted to do, I guess. I guess I always was.

HT:

Did your parents have to sign your—

VR:

No.

HT:

Because you were over eighteen at that time, I guess.

VR:

Yes, yes. I was twenty-one, yes.

HT:

You were free to do what you chose.

VR:

Yes. I didn't even think about them objecting, and I didn't think about how they felt until I saw the expression on my mother's face. Then I thought, “Oh, my. What have I done to her?” I know it was very difficult for them.

HT:

And you went to Duke University and joined there, I guess. Is that correct?

VR:

No. We got our orders, and we were all sent to Fort Bragg.

HT:

Fort Bragg. And that's where you joined?

VR:

That's where we were sworn in.

HT:

Then you took a troop train up to Bowman?

VR:

Well, when I got in Air Evac, that was when we did the train. We didn't do any of that at Fort Bragg.

HT:

You didn't stay at Fort Bragg very long?

VR:

About six months [unclear]. Yes. I was with them about six months, or maybe eight months. You know, it's hard to remember. Yes, I think about eight months I was with the 65th.

I remember our chief nurse said—Emily and I just went over and took the test, and she was livid. “You didn't go through channels. You are in a combat-ready unit. You will not be relieved from this unit,” and our orders came in anyway. So she had to let us go. She was sure upset with us. I think it's a good thing we did go, because I don't believe she would have ever been very happy with us all through the—

HT:

What type of work did you do at Fort Bragg?

VR:

At Fort Bragg, it was just general. We had wards, and we worked on the ward, and the troops came in with whatever. I remember whatever ward they assigned you to, the first one that was up was respiratory. Then when I went by myself, I remember it was the VD [venereal disease] ward.

I said to this boy, “We have to get meds on you. Look at all these medications that have to be given.”

He said, “Oh, don't worry about it, Miss [Unclear]. Don't worry. It's fine.”

I said, “It'll take me all day to give all these.”

He just said, “Wait. Let me show you.” He opened the door, and he said, “Pill time.” [laughs]

They all came by and got their medicine. We just handed them out. They all got the same thing. That was funny.

HT:

We were talking earlier about basic training. Did you ever go through something like basic training? Because when I was in the air force, I went through six weeks of basic training at Lackland. But as a nurse, you were a commissioned officer.

VR:

We were commissioned. We were direct commission, yes.

HT:

So you were a second lieutenant, I assume?

VR:

Yes.

HT:

Did you have any kind of drilling and marching, other than what you had mentioned earlier?

VR:

No, we didn't. We didn't. No. We just went in hospital and worked in the hospital. We didn't do that before we went in Air Evac, and then they put us through that.

HT:

Did you think it was a good decision for you to go to Air Evac? Were you happy with that?

VR:

Yes. I liked it. Well, sometimes I didn't. A lot of times, I didn't like it. But when I was ready to leave, Emily would say, “Oh, well, we can't do that. We have to go through [unclear].” Then she'd, “I can't do this. I'm fed up.” They really did put you through the [unclear], and they kept telling us that we wouldn't all graduate anyway.

Then when she was discouraged, I'd say, “Oh, Emily, we can stand this a little longer.” So we finally graduated.

HT:

And that was a lot of physical training, I guess. You mentioned marching earlier.

VR:

Yes. We had to drill. Then, like I told you, the glider pilots were going through their training there at the same time. They used to go by our quarters, and they'd say, “Nurses' cadence count,” and they'd say [imitates], “One, two, three, four.” [laughs]

HT:

What did you ladies do for fun?

VR:

We had a lot of fun. I remember this glider pilot and I won a jitterbug contest one time. We had the club, and we went to the club. Then when we got overseas with the squadrons, you didn't dance very long. You were tagged every five seconds. You were very popular because—

HT:

There weren't many women around.

VR:

It was us, yes, just us. And we were from home. There were English girls there, but we were from home, and that made a difference. They were really nice to us, the guys were; they really were.

HT:

We were talking about some other things. I guess you remember some of the movies and dances from those days. Do you recall anything special about who your favorite movie stars were?

VR:

Well, I remember one time when I had the upper respiratory ward, this patient said, “Would you call my commanding officer?”

I said, “Sure.”

He said, “Tell him how I'm doing.”

So I called him, talked to him. He was Captain Miller. When I got through talking to him, I went back and I said, “What do you do in the service?”

He said, “Well, I'm in a band.”

“That wasn't Captain Glenn Miller, was it?” It was, and I said, “Gee, if I had known that, I would have been so nervous.” [laughs] But it was Captain Glenn Miller.

I remember when we were stationed in England, one of the administrative officers was Josh Logan. Do you remember?

HT:

No.

VR:

He directed South Pacific when he got back. Like one of my friends said—there was a big write-up in Life magazine about him—she said, “Isn't it funny how much more attractive a million dollars after your name can make a person?” Because we didn't pay much attention to him.

Except I remember one time, we came back, a couple of us came back. We did some transatlantic runs, too, before D-Day, getting patients out of England and back into the States. So we were coming back, and he said, “When you're in New York, just go.” Oklahoma had been running [unclear], and you couldn't get tickets to Oklahoma. He said, “Just go in there and tell them that I told you to come and ask them. They will get tickets for you.”

We almost didn't do it, then we decided, “Well, let's do it.” Boy, we got the best seats in the house. We said, “Gosh. You mean Josh Logan is that important?” But he was stationed out from Nottingham when we were in the middle of a visit with the [unclear] unit.

HT:

You mentioned earlier that before D-Day you flew transatlantic flights. Where was your home base in the United States at that time?

VR:

Our home base was England, but usually we went into Fort Totten, which was out in New York.

HT:

How do you spell that? T-O-?

VR:

T-o-t-t-o-n [sic], I think. I don't even know if it's named that anymore.

HT:

That's out of New York?

VR:

Yes. We always had to report in there, and then we'd stay over, and then we'd come back.

HT:

What was a typical flight like?

VR:

Well, when we took the wounded over, we were busy, and we'd have a planeload. Then when we were coming back, we had to deadhead in. Our route would be Fort Totten—I don't mean—we'd leave Fort Totten for Newfoundland or Goose Bay, Labrador, and then we'd go from there to—sometimes we went into the Azores, and then we'd stop over, and then we'd get in. If we deadheaded straight back, it took us fifteen hours. I think it took us fifteen hours from Newfoundland.

HT:

Going back to England, was the plane empty, or did you ferry supplies over?

VR:

It just had people. People. Yes. I don't know—I don't think they ever had any supplies.

HT:

That must be kind of rough, going from England to the United States all by yourself, the only nurse aboard, taking care of how many, twenty-four people?

VR:

Yes. Well, when we came back—I think that we had on there, they had four engines, but the ones we were with were the old C-47. They only had two engines; and when we'd fly back, they had four. Were they C-54s? I'm not sure. I just know the C-47, the old “goony bird.”

HT:

So they were nicknamed “goony bird”?

VR:

Yes, they were called “goony birds,” but they're still flying, some of them. They're very reliable planes. Then I met Clay, who after D-Day, when we went to Bottesford—no, let's see. Yes, Bottesford is the name of it. It's out from Reading, England, about sixty miles southwest of London. And—isn't that awful?

HT:

How did you actually meet him?

VR:

I flew with him.

HT:

Oh, okay. You say he was the pilot?

VR:

Yes, he was the pilot. We flew with different crews, and sometimes I flew with him. His barracks was right across from ours.

Another thing that was funny, we had powdered eggs all the time, you know. Sometimes from the farmers, they would get fresh eggs. Nobody would go over to eat, and somebody would come in the barracks and say, “Fresh eggs for breakfast.” They'd do it with the guys, they'd do it with all the [unclear], and the mess hall was jammed with people just to get a fresh egg. I do that to Clay sometimes now. I say, “Fresh eggs for breakfast.” [laughter]

HT:

Speaking of food, did they feed you fairly well?

VR:

Pretty well. I'm sure that we probably got—well, a lot of things that they didn't get back in the States, they sent it to the troops. [unclear]. I remember they had Spam. I don't know. They always had that canned Spam. Sometimes they'd even have C rations, you know. You wouldn't get to eat in the mess hall that often. Somebody got a Christmas package, and I guess you couldn't get Spam in the States, because they sent it off to the troops, and they were doing this big favor for them, and they sent them a can of Spam in there. [laughter]

Like spuds. We were going into France one time; this one nurse said to this Frenchman—they would meet the planes when they'd want to trade us something, and she saw all these apple trees when she was coming in, and she was trying to tell, in her French, that Americans love apples.

“So tomorrow we'll be back here, and I'll trade you cigarettes and all these things for apples.” So the next day he came, and he brought this big old gunny sack full, and when she got back to the barracks and opened them, they were potatoes, spuds, you know.

So she had the nickname of “Spud.” [laughter] She was saying “pomme de terre,” which is “apple of the earth” in her French, and she ended up with a whole bunch of—you know, the jokes in service, they always had potatoes.

HT:

How many people were on the crew for each one of your flights? Was it a captain and a copilot?

VR:

Well, we flew—there'd be three planes, normally would go. The head plane would have a navigator. A full plane was pilot, copilot, navigator, and radio operator. They'd always have a pilot and copilot. Then sometimes they wouldn't have a navigator because the lead plane would have the navigator. So they'd have to keep up with the lead plane. Then usually a radio operator—and a crew chief, crew chief on all of them

HT:

Were you ever attacked on any of your flights?

VR:

No. A lot of times we got on the field to land, and they'd say, “Get off. They're strafing the field,” at first. Then—

HT:

What did you do with the wounded? I mean, you couldn't take them off.

VR:

No. We couldn't get the wounded. We'd land with the supplies. We called them “milk runs.” If we went in with supplies, and we couldn't get the patients, they couldn't get them to us because they were strafing or things like that, we'd stand at the door when we'd land so they'd know we didn't have patients yet.

I got these patients on, and one of the patients was a boy from Bear Creek that I grew up with, and he saw me standing in the door of that plane, so he said to the ambulance driver, “Put us on that plane. Put us on that plane,” and he did. So the ambulance would bring them up, and then we'd transfer them, and we'd take them to England. So that was kind of neat.

HT:

And how long did you do this, how many months or years?

VR:

Well, we were over until the war ended, and we got in December before D-Day, which was June 27, '44. Then we were there until it ended in August of—'46? '45?

HT:

'45.

VR:

'45—of '45. Then they started mustering us out [unclear].

I spent some time in the Azores, not a lot, but when they were sending us back after the war. Towards the end of the war, just before it ended, they pulled our squadron out to Preswick, Scotland. Then we flew transatlantic runs until the end of the war.

HT:

You were in the same squadron during the entire war.

VR:

Yes, 810th. Well, when they pulled us up, our squadron was with it, but there were several squadrons. Then I think they called us the 840th or something like that, but we were still with the—twenty-five of us in the 810th.

HT:

I imagine you made some real good friends during all those many months.

VR:

Yes. Yes.

HT:

Do you recall any humorous stories about yourself or about any of your friends?

VR:

Oh, gosh, a lot of them. Yes, we had a lot of funny things happen. [Pause] I can't—

HT:

Well, maybe it'll come to you later on. Let me ask you something about what was the general mood of the country during that time, in the forties and during the war? How would you describe it?

VR:

Well, everybody pitched in. Everybody felt like it was their duty. I don't think anybody tried to avoid being in the war or whatever part they could play. Then I know the people in this country tightened their belts and did everything they could. If they hadn't supported the troops, you know, they'd have never made it.

Well, Americans always cried. I know I used to think, “Oh, I feel so sorry for the English,” because they complained a lot, but it was good-natured.

HT:

The Americans did?

VR:

Yes. “It isn't like this at home.” Everything at home was perfect, but this was terrible. I remember one thing that tickled me so was I heard some guy talking about how backward they were because they got down on their hands and knees and scrubbed the floors, you know, the people that were working, and back home, they had these old—not sponge mops, but those old—with the cotton on the end where you'd ring it out, but you didn't have to get down on the floor. But I thought, “What a thing to compare.”

The British were so nice. I thought they were. They never complained, and they tightened their belts, and they really did without.

HT:

Did you ever have a chance to meet any of the British people—

[Begin Tape 1, Side B]

VR:

—and we always took them. They had a daughter that had died, and she was about our age in World War I, but she died soon after that. Her sweetheart went to India, and he never came back. They thought she died of a broken heart, and that was their only child. So they kind of adopted Emily. I remember they'd say, “Virginia, 'ave you 'eard from 'ome?” “Have you heard from home?”

They gave us things, like I have an old pair of beads that this man—he had sent her from India, little, tiny beads. I still have them. They kind of adopted us. Galloway was their name. He always went to the pub, like his club. Every night he would go. A lot of times the British people—we would be out, and they would invite us for a cup of tea, and you knew they didn't have that much to share.

They were reserved. I remember one time I was on the train. I guess I was going to London, but I was by myself. This sailor, a British sailor was—and this in—it wasn't those little compartments. This was a bigger—like a club car, I guess, or something, I don't know what it was. Anyway, he was asking me if I had—knew how to—[unclear] was having trouble with their money and the names.

I said, “I think so.”

He said, “Well, now, what is this?”

I said, “That's a half penny.”

“That's a ha'penny.”

So I was trying to say it like he said it. And then, “'Thropny' bit.”

“Three penny.”

“No. Not three penny, 'thropny' bit.”

So I happened to look over, and they were sitting on the side. This was like table seats, and then this was a long—and they were all reading their newspapers, but they were all grinning. They still had their newspapers up. [Laughs]

When we had time off, we'd go down to London and go see a play. I saw Arsenic and Old Lace one time there, and it was very—and what's the name of the movie star that's so ugly? Boris Karloff was in that. He was there, that was him. But the rest of the people were British, and to have somebody from Brooklyn with a very British accent was kind of—you know, they were supposed to be from Brooklyn, and they poisoned all those people. It was real funny.

HT:

Did you manage to keep up with the Galloways after the war?

VR:

Well, a little bit. They were elderly, and not very long, I know, they died, probably soon after.

Another time, one of my classmates from nurses' training—I was in Southern England. Emily and I were down. It was just after—we hadn't been there very long.

We got a ride on the shuttle plane that was going down to Greenham Commons because we knew all these people down there. So we went down and met them, and we had dinner. We were in this restaurant having dinner. They never made very much noise in the restaurants. They were quiet. They weren't like us.

Somebody said, right in my ear, [whispers] “Virginia Russell ,” and it was one of my classmates. She had married one of the paratroopers, and they were down there. This was just before Christmas, so we weren't supposed to be that far from the base, anyway, but we were getting the shuttle run in the next morning.

The next morning, Lib and her husband came by our room. We were supposed to go at eleven. They said, “Don't go. There's a train that leaves at four o'clock from London. You can leave here and catch it. Then you can have breakfast with us.” So we did. We thought that was a good idea.

So we got on the train, we get to London, and what a hub. We weren't supposed to be that far from our base, anyway. All the military were supposed to leave so the British people could get where they were supposed to go. We went in, and we bought first-class tickets, and they sold them to us. We were free to get to our train, and couldn't understand anything anybody was saying. I remember when we got on the train going to London, this boy that we knew, that we'd had dinner with the night before, [unclear] he was going into London and he got on.

He said, “What are you two doing here?”

Anyway, I remember he said, “Well, let me get you to where this train is. Now, are you sure you're going to be all right?”

We said, “Oh, we'll be all right.”

I remember he did his hands like this [claps], and he said, “[Sighs] I don't know what Uncle Sam is thinking about, sending you two over here,” he said. “We'll never win this war.” [laughs]

But we got on, and he left us there. Then we went to get on there, and we couldn't get to the train. Then two Canadian MPs saw us, and they came over.

They said, “Are you having trouble?”

We said, “We sure are. We can't get on. We've got to get on that train.”

They said, “No problem. We'll get you on.” So they said, “Stand by. Stand by.”

So they take us and put us on that train like we were prisoners. We got on the train, and we were just in this little entrance, and we had to stand. She jammed us in, shut the train, and we finally got to the station near our base and called our base. It was three o'clock in the morning. We were way overdue. We were in a lot of trouble. Not a lot of trouble, but we were in trouble, because we were late getting back. We weren't supposed to be on that train. So we had a good time.

HT:

Did anything happen because you were late, other than a little reprimand, probably?

VR:

Yes. We just got chewed out good.

HT:

But no KP [kitchen patrol duty] or anything like that?

VR:

No. No. No, we just were really—we were talked to.

Another thing I remember was the Catholic priests. They did a wonderful job of picking out—they sent young priests over, and they did a much better job than our Protestant chaplains did. I shouldn't say that. Scratch that. [laughter]

HT:

That's all right. Why do you think that was?

VR:

Well, they were dedicated. And I made some good friends. I remember after the war, when Clay and I were married, then Clay was recalled in the Korean War. That part of my life I spent as a wife in the service, which was quite different, but I remember when the father saw me that I knew him from England, and he was stationed on this base. So he called me, and we went to lunch, and he came out to see us a lot.

One time, Clay's—somebody in his squadron said to him, “I didn't know your wife was Catholic.”

He said, “She's not. She just has a good friend that is.” [laughter]

But he really was nice to our squadron. I had never been around Catholic people before, and I got into an outfit where about half of them were.

They used to call me the “black Protestant,” because I would say, “Have a cup of coffee. Now, come on to the Protestant religion, because that doesn't interfere with your stomach.” Because they'd get up mornings, and they would not have anything to eat before they'd go to mass on Sunday. I would have a nice breakfast, and then I'd go to church.

“See? You're in the wrong religion.”

HT:

Backtrack just a minute—about your flying the wounded back and forth, was it difficult for you to see the wounded day in and day out and try to help them? How did you feel about that?

VR:

We were bringing them back to get better treatment, and they were out of the war for a while. A lot of it was bad, but the things that really bothered me were the ones that had head injuries. I'd see these, and I'd think, “They're going home—they left, these nice young boys. They're going home, and they'll never be anything but vegetables.” That was very difficult. Death wasn't the worst thing.

HT:

I remember reading recently about Bob Dole, and he was severely injured in the war. It took about two and a half or three years or something like that, to recover through physical therapy. I guess he never fully recovered, but just the physical therapy just to get halfway back to normal [unclear] very difficult. But you sound like you really enjoyed your work, though.

VR:

I did. I did. I did.

HT:

You met some good people.

VR:

In our squadron, we had four flights. There were six nurses in a flight and then our six technicians and our flight surgeon. He would meet the planes when we—

HT:

But doctors did not accompany—

VR:

No. Once in a while they would, just to go, but mostly they were there when we got back with wounded, because they were treated at the field hospitals. They just picked them up, and they moved back and forth with the lines.

I remember one time we had to spend the night [unclear] get weathered in. Had to spend the night. I was thinking [whispers], “I couldn't sleep [unclear] every night. I couldn't stand it.” Those old canvas cots.

The nurse said to me—that I was sharing the tent with—she said, “I couldn't do what you do. I couldn't fly on those planes.” From then on, I'm thinking how lucky I am. I can go back to England and have a nice shower, and my bed's more comfortable than this.

HT:

I've talked to a couple of nurses who were stationed at the field hospitals, and they had it rough.

VR:

Yes. They had it rough.

HT:

They spent literally months and a couple of years out in tents and that sort of thing in all kinds of crazy weather, because England's very cold.

VR:

Oh, it's so damp.

HT:

Damp and everything. That was really rough for them. Did you ever encounter any kind of discrimination as a woman?

VR:

Well, I think that, being a nurse, that they never felt that way.

HT:

But I've talked to other ladies who were—

VR:

They were a little bit that—I know one time, I had to go for a month to a WAC [Women's Army Corps]—they had WACs, and they didn't have any medical in the air force except us, the flight nurses. So they sent a flight nurse down to get the physicals done and all these things and to help the doctors. This was towards the end of the war, and so they sent me.

I had three bronze stars, because we'd been in combat areas, you know, and an air medal, and I was a second lieutenant. Some of the WACs were captains, all first lieutenants and captains and whatever, and those guys were so annoyed that they had all these promotions and I didn't have them.

I think we did get a promotion to first lieutenant. I think we'd have stayed second lieutenants all—they wouldn't even—I remember the chief nurse at Fort Bragg that was head of all the—everything, and she was World War I and had stayed in all these years, and she was just a captain, and that was just about as high as they got.

HT:

Women were not readily promoted, I understand.

VR:

No. Before World War II, they didn't have other branches of service with women. And the whole medical corps didn't get very many promotions, really.

HT:

Even the doctors?

VR:

Yes.

HT:

Did you ever work with any women doctors?

VR:

No, they didn't have any women doctors. They were all men. No. We didn't have any male nurses.

HT:

What about the technicians and orderlies, corpsmen, I guess—

VR:

The corpsmen, the technicians, were all [unclear] surgical technicians.

HT:

They were all men.

VR:

They were men, yes.

HT:

What was the hardest thing that you ever had to do, physically?

VR:

Well, I think our training at Bowman Field. They had live ammunition. We went on that course where they were shooting live ammunition, and you had to crawl underneath it.

HT:

You have to crawl on your hands and knees, right.

VR:

Yes. I don't know [unclear] that was, but we moved fast. [laughter] We did better than the glider pilots did, because we didn't have guns. We just slid through there so fast—you'd better believe it. They had more material to carry through.

HT:

But you did have a backpack on going through the obstacle course.

VR:

Yes, we had a backpack.

HT:

Did you have to climb the ropes and go over the fences and the walls?

VR:

Oh, yes. That's what we were doing when the girl in the convertible came by and stopped and looked so pretty.

HT:

The glamour gal.

VR:

She looked so pretty and clean, and we were just absolutely filthy. That four days in the woods at Bowman Field out from Louisville in July was terrible. We looked pretty raunchy, and women hate that. Men do too, but I think women do worse than men.

HT:

What about emotionally? What was the hardest thing you ever had to deal with emotionally while you were—

VR:

I think the hardest thing was the feeling I had when that German—I just would have liked to—I just had hatred for him. That was my worst. And then, of course, you lost friends. I mean, that—you were heartbroken over losing friends. They went into that drop on D-Day, and a lot of them didn't come back.

Of course, we were at [Fort] Bragg, we didn't—the paratroopers were there, and then they were also connected with the troop carriers. The pilots that took the supplies in and that we converted into air ambulances were the same ones that dropped the paratroopers in. So we were all in the same outfit.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid?

VR:

Oh, yes, a lot of times. I was afraid when we crashed on takeoff that time.

HT:

That's the photograph you showed me?

VR:

Yes. We got out, and the crew chief was hit. The prop hit him. We were hauling these gasoline tanks. We took the gasoline in that way for Patton's troops, and that's what we were hauling.

We took off, and something happened. They thought it was ice on the wingtips, because it didn't lift. We came back down, and we hit gliders, and we did a 180-degree turn before we could stop.

All I could think of is, “We're going to blow up. We've got gasoline.” I jumped out and ran. The navigator came out the back door. Then the copilot and the pilot went out these little [unclear]. They don't know how they got out of them. They didn't think they could get through those, but—because we were on fire.

Then they started running back. The navigator was behind me—I mean the radio operator, and I was behind the navigator. We jumped. We jumped down. We had to jump. Then we ran away from the plane. Then the pilot and copilot started going back. The navigator—and I did, too—thought that they thought I was trapped in there, because I was back there by myself.

HT:

So you were in the back of the plane while this was going on?

VR:

Yes. Yes.

HT:

Did you guys wear seat belts or harnesses of some sort?

VR:

Well, this time I didn't. I was sitting on just a little place that I had—that all these were gas tanks around. The seats were out, and I was just trying to sit anywhere I could.

HT:

So you were literally sitting on gas tanks.

VR:

No. I was sitting on a little stool, but nothing was fastened in, and I couldn't fasten my seat belt. I mean, there was no place—we had little things that fell down like seats on the side. They weren't seats like they have in airplanes now.

HT:

Little jump seats, I think they call them.

VR:

Yes, yes. So I was sitting on that. They had just a space for me. I remember I had a jacket on, and I didn't have my arms in it. I had it around me. When I got up, I just didn't even wear my jacket. I just jumped right out of my jacket and started going out [unclear], and he was in front of me.

We got away, and the navigator said, “She's with me.” I was running with him where they were so they would see me. It was the crew chief, and he'd been injured. So they threw him off the plane, and then they just set him down.

I said, “Let's get him away from this plane.” I gave him first aid, and then our doctor came.

He said, “Thank God you're giving first aid, not getting it.” Because they could look on the number on the tail and know who was on the plane. So he knew that I was on that plane. Then he took over.

The boy died. He was very young, and he had internal injuries. He had a compound fracture, and I was putting this on him.

I said to the radio operator, “Hold his head up.”

He said, “I can't breathe.”

I said to him, “You have to breathe.”

He said, “I have a baby at home I've never seen.”

But he didn't make it, and he was only about twenty. So then I was afraid to get on. I remember I told Clay—that's my husband—I confessed to him, I said, “I'm afraid to get on those planes anymore.”

He said, “Don't tell anybody. Just get on.”

I thought he'd sympathize with me.

HT:

So you didn't get out of it.

VR:

No, I didn't. Then the next time I got on one after that, it was Christmas Eve, and we were going into France to pick up some patients. We were flying with a crew that wasn't ours, because that was the Battle of the Bulge. Remember reading about that?

So our crews took off, the ones that we flew with took off, and they were going to drop parapacks to the troops. We started to get to where these people were flying, and all of a sudden, somebody said, the radio operator said to me, “It's a mess.”

I remember we had two paratroopers, and we had a jeep in the back. The two paratroopers were sitting in the jeep, and then we had supplies. We had some demolition this time, too, because the copilot said to me, “Gosh, I hope nothing happens this—we're hauling demolition.”

About that time, this plane was coming down, and it was hitting everything, just like we did. This copilot and I jumped out of the plane. We ran. I remember the paratrooper jumped up, and his helmet hit me on the head, because when we came out, they jumped up, too, and his helmet fell off and hit me on the head.

We jumped out, and we ran just as far away [unclear], and then we sat down and watched it, all the [unclear], all the fires, and everything. We decided that we should get some kind of a trophy for being the fastest runners, but I wouldn't even be entered.

He said, “That plane's going to blow up.”

They missed us, but they hit one plane right across from us, because we were lined up like this, and everybody would take off that way. It hit one of those, and it was full of paratroopers, because they were going to take them in as just regular troops, because they couldn't drop them, the weather was so bad.

So anyway, we had to get back on that plane and take off and leave. Of course, the guys couldn't break—they saw the planes, they couldn't break radio silence and call and see what had happened. So they dropped the paratroops and the parapacks off, and we took off.

We got stranded in France, because we got in there, we landed on the field, and all the planes landed. I remember this major said, “What are you doing there? We're losing the war. Man,” he said, “what are you doing with these nurses in there?”

[Unclear] put us all on one plane and took us in, to right outside Paris. What's the name of that, the Lindbergh field? What's the name of it? I don't know. Anyway, that's where we went.

They said, “Don't leave the barracks. Don't leave anyplace, because people are using American uniforms. They may use nurses' uniforms. They may use anything. So they'll shoot if they ask you and you don't know the password.”

I remember one of the passwords was Marilyn Monroe, and another was something about baseball. If they asked you that and you didn't know it, they'd shoot you. But we stayed in. All the windows were shot out in the building we were in, and all during the night, you could hear the guns. You could hear it. And freezing cold. It was so cold.

The next morning, it was Christmas day. Here we were, stranded. They had some food, but we didn't even have any utensils to eat it with.

HT:

I guess this is Christmas of 1944.

VR:

Yes. Anyway, we said, “We're going into Paris.”

The major—it was a doctor in charge, he said, “I can't—can't let you go into Paris.”

We said, “We'll be responsible for our own self. We'll sign in, but we're going into Paris. We aren't staying in that place. We'll just see what we find.”

So we went in, and we went to the Red Cross. I remember we had on these old coveralls. We were not dressed to stay in Paris. They put us in these real nice hotels. They had great big tubs we could take baths in.

I remember one Red Cross woman said, “Your mothers would never forgive us if they knew we didn't have a big Christmas dinner.” So they had a big Christmas dinner, and they had a big dance. Someplace they got corsages. I don't know where. So we had them on our coveralls. They had a big dinner dance, and we had a good time.

The French were changing streets back, the German names, you know. The Germans had changed the names of the streets, and then when they liberated them and they were out of there, they changed their names back. Well, they were putting up signs.

We didn't go out at night. So we were stranded there about a week, and then the weather lifted, so we got back. We just went with any plane that was going back to England, and that was New Year's Eve. So we got back.

Everybody had put a formal in their footlocker when they came overseas. We weren't supposed to be out of uniform, but we were upset with our chief nurse. We decided that she shouldn't have let us go on that; she should have put her foot down, because they said that everything was closed in. We didn't fly with our own crews. So we decided that we were going to pull our formals out, and we were going to press them, and we were going to the New Year's dance in formals, which we did.

HT:

This was a formal uniform or a gown?

VR:

A formal gown.

HT:

Oh.

VR:

Yes. We'd stuck them—everybody had stuck one in their footlocker, but we weren't supposed to be out of uniform, see. Of course, the guys had never seen us in civilian clothes, just mostly in those old fatigues we wore around and in our flight uniform. Anyway, we pulled them out.

Our chief nurse said, “You know you're not supposed to be out of uniform.”

We said, “We're going to do it anyway.”

She said, “Well, I'm just going to stay in my room, and I'm not going to know anything about it.”

The first one that went was Carol Andre. Carol Macmillan she was then. She went in with this guy, and she said, “You could just feel the cold shoulder we got,” because they thought the first good-looking English girl that came along, you see, he had dropped Carol. All of a sudden, they recognized her in her formal.

By the time the rest of us got there, we had a receiving line, because they were all waiting to see what we looked like. It was kind of good for their morale, too. We had a real, real nice time.

HT:

Speaking of uniforms, what type of uniform did you wear most of the time?

VR:

The olive drab was our dress uniform. Then the flight nurses, we had a blue—it was a battle jacket, and we had a skirt, so if we got stranded someplace, we could go in with a skirt on, and then we had pants, slacks, which—nobody else wore slacks, but we were in and out of airplanes, so that was our uniform.

HT:

So you didn't wear white uniforms?

VR:

Not in the Air Evac. We never wore white uniforms, actually, in the service. It was kind of a seersucker striped thing, and it had a little cap. If you worked on wards, that's what you wore.

HT:

I talked to a cadet nurse, and her uniform was [unclear] seersucker.

VR:

Yes. The white ones wouldn't have done very well in the service.

HT:

Do you recall where you were on VE [Victory in Europe] Day?

VR:

Yes. I was in the Azores.

HT:

On R&R [rest and recuperation]?

VR:

No. We were doing transatlantic runs, and that was a stopover. We were coming in on the plane, and I remember the pilot called me up, and he said, “Something's happening. It sounds like they've dropped—” That was VJ [Victory in Japan] Day.

HT:

VJ Day, right.

VR:

VE Day, I was in England, and I don't even remember what I was doing. It was over there, but the battle was still going on in the Pacific. So it just looked like you would change.

The war wasn't over [unclear], but the lights came. People started opening their windows with the lights on. I remember that. All the time we were in England, it was blackout. At night we had to—flashlights they called “torch,” and you had to have your torch.

HT:

So there were no streetlights. How did you find your way around at night?

VR:

You had to take your torch, and you didn't get out very much. This one time, I was in London, and we were bombed. A couple of times I was in there, and we were bombed. That was scary.

HT:

How close to the bombing were you, do you recall?

VR:

Well, we had all the lights out, and we looked through the blackout curtains and watched. Of course, the lights that were coming were searchlights as much as anything else. The planes were coming over and not close to where I was.

But one time I met Clay in London. That was when I was at the WAC place. I went in, and that was near London, right outside London. He came in, and I met him, and we had dinner and a play, and he went back. Then I went to the Red Cross, and that night the bombs were dropping. They were sending those what they called V-2 bombs. They sounded like an old Maytag washing machine, “chug, chug, chug.” It had no target. Just wherever it dropped, it blew up.

I remember I got up and got dressed and waited till morning, and as soon as it was light, I got out of there. There were places burning, you know, all around. I got to where the shuttle bus went back to the base and got out of there. Then I remember I got there, and they had some that were landing near there. I thought, “I think they're after me—they're following me.”

HT:

Were these the buzz bombs?

VR:

They were buzz bombs, yes. They were so frightening, because you knew a pilot wasn't up there, and you knew they didn't have a target. Wherever it stopped, it was going to blow up. I think they were really bad for morale, because it was spooky, and they made an awful lot of noise.

HT:

You said earlier that you were in the Azores during VJ Day.

VR:

On VJ Day, I was in the Azores, and we were going in a plane, and then the war was over. The next morning—we had this chapel, and everybody ended up in that chapel. I don't mean everybody, but it was full.

There was a young chaplain. I don't know what his name would be. He had red hair, and I remember he gave the most wonderful talk.

He said, “You know, this is a great responsibility. It's going to be so much responsibility on our shoulders, our generation.” He said, “A lot of people last night celebrated by drinking and everything.” He said, “We can't do that. We have to accept this responsibility, don't we? We fought the war, and it's over, but this isn't the end of it.”

HT:

After the war ended, how much longer did you stay in England?

VR:

I never got back to England. I was in the Azores, and they kind of got us. They were coming through, and I said, “What's going on?” Finally, they remembered us. It was kind of a confusing time. So then they sent me back to Charleston.

HT:

Charleston, South Carolina?

VR:

Yes. That was the post there. I went in, and I remember the flight surgeon called me in and was telling me how glad they were to have me on base and everything.

“Wait a minute. I think there's a mistake here. I'm supposed to be mustered out.”

He said, “Well, you have to have so many points before you can be mustered out.”

I said, “Let me tell you about my points.”

Of course, every month overseas counted, every combat [unclear], so I had about—after that, they all opened doors for me like I was old and decrepit. [laughs]

He said, “I'm going to get on this right away. I'll get this straightened out.”

Because I wondered why they had me assigned on a ward. I got on the ward, and they had penicillin. I had never seen penicillin.

I said, “What is this?”

“This is a new drug that's come out.”

They didn't give us any. We just had that old sulfa powder we put in wounds.

HT:

How long were you in Charleston?

VR:

Not very long. They cut orders real fast for my discharge.

HT:

Then you were discharged. Do you recall when that was?

VR:

Yes, my discharge date was December, either twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth.

HT:

Of 1945?

VR:

Yes.

HT:

Were you still a second or a first lieutenant?

VR:

First.

HT:

How did that feel, to be a civilian again?

VR:

Kind of strange. Kind of strange. You had put so much time in those three years. So much happened in those three years, because that's how long it was.

HT:

I guess you came home.

VR:

Yes, I came home, and they were sitting on the doorstep, probably, so desperate at Jacksonville for help. So I went there. But I said, “I can't handle this.” They didn't have enough people working, and they didn't have enough doctors. I know these people, and they were coming in like with emergencies, which weren't being taken care of. I said, “I have to get out of this. I can't do it.”

HT:

So you left nursing at that time?

VR:

No, no. No, I stayed in nursing. Then I went into Wilmington with a couple of friends. We did private duty, and we got a little place out at Wrightsville Beach, rented place.

We did private duty. We made enough to pay our rent and groceries and a little spending money, and then we would take off. I mean, we would take days off. So we'd take a case, and then we'd take days off after a case. That way, we could work when we wanted to. So we did that.

Then this hospital administrator down in Florida wanted us to come down and work. So we went down there for a little while, but, see, Clay and I were planning to get married, so then we got married.

HT:

When was that, in 1946?

VR:

Forty-seven. No. We got married in '47. He came out here to see me in '46, the end of '46, and then we got married in August of '47.

HT:

What kind of impact do you think that being in the military had on you?

VR:

I don't know. I don't know. I don't know how to answer that.

HT:

Do you think it made you a stronger person, more independent?

VR:

No, I don't think so. No. Maybe my values were different. I don't know, but then, I don't know whether I was that—I was so young when I went in.

HT:

Right. Do you think the military changed you in any way? As you said, you were very young.

VR:

I was very young. No, I think—see, at that time, in the military, it was a bunch of young kids, and we kind of grew up in the military. I don't know. It was just part of my life.

HT:

Do you think your life's been different because you were in the military?

VR:

I think it's been different, yes, because of the military. I mean, I met Clay, I lived in California for fifty-two years and have a lot of friends that are all over. If I had not done that, I probably would have just been in this area where I am now.

HT:

Did you ever think about making it a career?

VR:

No, I never did.

HT:

Did you have that option?

VR:

No. We were just out, but some of my friends went back. We could have gone back, or we could have signed up, if that's what we wanted to do.

HT:

But you didn't want to do that?

VR:

No. No. I got offers, some offers from the airlines, too, because it used to—on the airlines, you had to be a registered nurse.

HT:

To be a flight attendant or a stewardess.

VR:

So I got some offers for that with American Airlines [unclear].

HT:

Did you not consider that at all?

VR:

No. I thought it would be real tame to be flying with passengers after flying with the wounded, and then I was interested in Clay.

HT:

After you got married, you moved to California?

VR:

Yes.

HT:

Was he still in the military at that time?

VR:

No. No. He lived in California. He got out, also, but he stayed in the reserve. He was born in California, and all his relatives were out there.

HT:

If you had to do it over again, would you do the same thing again, join the nurse corps?

VR:

Yes. Yes, and I would go in Air Evac.

HT:

Can you describe a little bit about your adjustment to civilian life? You came home, had been in the military for over three years, and then you got married and moved to California. That was quite a change.

VR:

No, I didn't get married right—it was almost two years before we got married. Then, when we got married, Clay went back to school.

HT:

Under the GI Bill?

VR:

Yes. He went back to school on the GI Bill. Then I—

[Begin Tape 2, Side A]

HT:

—we talked about your adjustment to civilian life and moving to California, and I hear you worked for a private doctor out there?

VR:

Yes. Clay had a big family, and they were all wonderful people. I went from our big family to their big family.

HT:

That must have been hard for you, though, being away from your family. I mean, you were—it was three thousand miles away, right?

VR:

Well, I was, but I was very fortunate because I came back most every year. If I didn't, somebody came, and then they started coming out to visit. That's why our children love it so out here, I think. In the summer, in vacation time, we would come back.

HT:

So this was almost like a second home, even for them?

VR:

Well, it was a special place, anyway, yes.

HT:

Getting back to your military time, I've talked to several women about—this was very unusual, for women to join the military. Prior to World War II, women didn't do that. I mean, it wasn't an option. Would you consider yourself to be a trailblazer or a pioneer because you had done this, joined the military?

VR:

No. No. Like I said, nurses were always in the military. I never felt like—I felt like the men always seemed to appreciate us, and they would say things about the WACs.

HT:

I've heard of that sort of thing, right.

VR:

Like I said, when I was on that base, they were so upset. They would come up to me and say, “We're so upset that you're a second lieutenant, and look at what you've done, and look at the rank around here.”

HT:

These were other women talking?

VR:

No. These were men, yes, the men talking. The men talking, because these other women were getting promoted, and we weren't.

HT:

I've never heard of this. Do you know why that happened to the nurses, they weren't promoted?

VR:

Well, they were in as a unit—in units, and they had their commanding officers, and they just put them in for promotions, and I don't think the Medical Corps even thought about any of them like that. It wasn't that important, no. It wasn't important. Didn't bother me, either.

HT:

Because you were there to do your duty and help the fellows who were wounded.

VR:

Yes. Yes. I wasn't anxious to get [unclear].

HT:

What was the pay like for you ladies?

VR:

Well, the pay—the pay, I remember we got $210 a month, because we got flight pay. So we got more than anybody else.

HT:

So you got base pay plus flight pay.

VR:

Yes. So we got more than the other nurses or any of the other—I don't know about the WACs. I don't know what they got.

HT:

Were you able to save a great deal of money, because there wasn't—I guess you couldn't spend the money since you all—

VR:

Oh, yes, you could.

HT:

Oh, you could?

VR:

Yes. [laughter] But I did save. I saved three thousand dollars. I sent a certain amount back to the bank every month from my paycheck.

HT:

That's a lot of money.

VR:

I thought that was a lot of money. When I got out and saw how much I had, I remember, “I have three thousand dollars.” But like I told you, we went down to London. If we got some days off, we went down and saw a show and whatever. But you're right, there wasn't too many places other than that. We didn't buy clothes.

I remember when I got—some people were playing cards because they were bored, and I played one time. We were playing blackjack, I think, and I lost two pounds. It was like two dollars, that was all right; and then I thought, “That's eight dollars. No, thank you.” That was the end of my gambling.

But I did learn to play bridge while I was over there, because we'd have to wait on these flight lines for the weather to lift, or we'd wait for patients, or we'd wait—especially as the war went on. So every time, you'd always find three other people and you'd sit down and play bridge. You had to wait for the [unclear], also wait for the weather to lift.

HT:

And you still play bridge?

VR:

Yes. And in England, in the summertime, remember, it was light until eleven o'clock at night, and it was light about three o'clock in the morning. So we had long days during the summer months [unclear].

HT:

The three years you were in the military, did you ever have leave to come home?

VR:

Well, I did get to come home towards the end of the war. It was before VJ Day. We did a transatlantic run, and they said we could have—well, I think I got a nine-day leave.

HT:

That was the only time?

VR:

That was the only time. So I came home.

HT:

That must have been very rough.

VR:

Well, that was the time I really felt strange, because the war was still going. It was towards the end, but it wasn't VE Day yet. Because I remember they made some drops over in England, and I got to New York, and when I got in Newfoundland, I heard about it. I knew the guys that did the drops, and I wondered what had happened to them. So I felt really like a fish out of water when I was home that time.

But after the war, I think I adjusted really well, but that time I didn't know what—my outfit and everything, I didn't know what was happening to any of them, and I was concerned.

But I did get a card. Emily had done a transatlantic run, so she came into New York. She jotted a card off to me real fast and said, you know, “We've heard from this and this and this one is all right and everything.” Then I could enjoy the rest of my visit.

HT:

Right. Were you anxious to get back to your comrades, so to speak?

VR:

Well, after I found out they were all right, I was all right, but I was really concerned.

HT:

When you were stationed overseas, did you ever get a chance to go to continental Europe on vacation or leave?

VR:

No. No. When we went over, we went over on air stations, and the war was going. You couldn't—that was a battleground over there. But we went over, and we'd go into little towns. When we'd land, if we'd have to—they called it RON if we had to stay all night, we couldn't get back, but that wasn't anything.

HT:

That was RON?

VR:

Yes, “remain overnight.” We'd get stranded. We got stranded in a lot of places. I remember one time we were doing the transatlantic runs, we were in Iceland, and the weather closed in, and we were in there ten days. When we did those runs, we had like two nurses would be in Iceland, and when you left Scotland, then you were there, and one that was there took off. So that's how you went.

So there were two of us in there, and I don't remember her last name; her first name was Jo. She wasn't in my outfit, but we were in there, and there was a B-24 group going home. They were on their way home. So we played bridge. You know, you just sit ten days.

So we got a car and went into Reykjavik, and we toured that town. Then we got some yarn and needles, and she taught us to knit. I remember this one little pilot just picked it up. I was all thumbs, and this pilot, he picked it up.

I said, “How did you do that so fast?”

He said, “I've watched my sisters do this for years, and I kind of knew how to do it. I kind of thought I knew how to do it.”

So he picked it up better than anyone. But that's where I learned to knit.

HT:

When you did the transatlantic flights, what was your flight pattern? Was it from England to—

VR:

Well, in the summer months, we'd go from Preswick, Scotland, to Iceland to Newfoundland to New York. When we couldn't get into Iceland, we'd go from Preswick to the Azores to Newfoundland. No, wait a minute. We'd go from Preswick to the Azores to Bermuda to Miami. I flew it in the summer months, but in the winter months, Iceland was out. You couldn't go that way. You went to Newfoundland, Goose Bay, Labrador, and Newfoundland and New York, or you went to the Azores, Bermuda, and Miami.

HT:

On the average, how many days did it take you to do these routes?

VR:

Well, it depended on—that one day, you would stay overnight. If the weather was good, you would end up taking three or four days to get to New York. Then you did get back in one night.

HT:

Each time you landed, were the troops taken off the plane?

VR:

No. The troops went on. See, it was like a shuttle.

HT:

I see.

VR:

[Unclear] would start with it. Yes. And then they would stay on.

HT:

So you'd catch the next flight [unclear] or something.

VR:

Then I'd stay, and then the one that was already there would take the next one, and then somebody else was [unclear], and I would take the next one, the shuttle.

HT:

I see. We're just about finished with the interview. I've just got a couple more general questions. What did you think of the leadership during the war, people like President Roosevelt, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, and General Eisenhower? Do you have any thoughts about them?

VR:

Well, of course, Eisenhower was very much there, but I remember when—well, I shouldn't say this, but when Roosevelt died, we were in Preswick, and this maid came in the barracks. We [unclear] one bed after another, you know, with different hours we were coming and going. That's the way it was.

She came running in, and she said, “President Roosevelt died,” and I remember [unclear], “So what?” [Laughs] Nobody got excited about it, I mean.

Of course, we were raised Republicans. My grandfather was somebody else. [laughs] We had to be a Republican and a Methodist, and that was all of his grandchildren. All of his children, and all his grandchildren, he said.

HT:

During this time, who were your heroes or heroines?

VR:

I don't think I had any. I don't think I had any.

Unidentified speaker:

Your daddy.

HT:

Have any of your children ever been in the military?

VR:

My son, Stephen.

HT:

Do you think he was influenced by your being in the military or his father?

VR:

No. No. No. They were drafting him, and he went in the air force rather than be drafted. So I don't think he cared about it.

HT:

You have daughters, right?

VR:

I have one daughter; three sons, but the other two were too young.

HT:

How do you feel about women serving in combat positions?

VR:

I do not think it's a good idea at all.

HT:

That's something that happened during the Gulf War, I believe.

VR:

Yes. I don't like that. I don't—well, there's a lot of reasons I don't like it. Do you want to hear them? You don't want to hear them.

HT:

[Laughs] Sure. Why not?

VR:

Well, I think—one thing, I don't see how the men can fight—I would hope they'd have some protective feelings toward women. I don't see how they could just concentrate on the battle per se if the women were right there. They'd be—wouldn't you feel that way?

HT:

Yes. Sure.

VR:

I just think it's a very bad idea. Men and women are different. Women don't want to hear that, some of them, but they are. Anyway, just put me down as “No, I don't like it.”

HT:

[Laughs] That's fine. Well, we talked earlier, and you were going to think about some humorous situations that you might have had. Have you been able to think of any that you'd like to mention?

VR:

I remember when they were inspecting us at Bowman Field when we were in flight training, and they were very GI, and we had to stand at the foot of our bed and beside our bed, and we couldn't have [unclear] or anything, you know. We had said all these things we were going to say, because we had our clothes so straight, like the cadets were supposed to do, and [unclear] very sloppy.

He came in, and he hit the bunk, and he said something about not being tight enough. We started giggling, and we couldn't stop when we tried. I mean, this was very unmilitary. I remember when we went down, he said the two that thought it was so funny, he would take away weekend privileges for two weeks or something like that. It wasn't very funny then.

Oh, gosh, we had a lot of funny things happen, but I don't know. I don't know whether you'd think they were funny or not. We had a warped sense of humor.

HT:

Well, you'll have to tell us about some of these—

VR:

Yes.

Ginny Shipley:

Aunt Virginia, tell him about the time when the bombs were just coming all around you, and you put your dog tags on because you—

VR:

Oh, that was when I was in London that time, and they were dropping those V-2s, and I got up and got dressed. I put my dog tags on so they'd know who—if they found me. But also, I got my clothes on. I wanted to be found in my clothes, too.

[Pause] My mind's a blank.

[Unclear conversation due to cross talk.]

HT:

That's fine. Well, can you think of any other thing you'd like to add to the interview? I've run out of questions.

Oh, I know what I was going to ask you. What was life like in California, since you lived there for fifty-two years?

VR:

Yes. Well, I loved California, too. After Clay got through college, then he was recalled, and then we had to come back to—they gave him a squadron at Smyrna Air Force Base. So we were there, in Tennessee, and he had the third two-target squadron, and Stephen was born here. We came back. He was sent back to Langley Field for training, and then Stephen was born in North Carolina. He was our first one. We were there for a couple of years, and then they sent him to Korea, so Stephen and I went back to California.

When he got out—he had taken his entrance exam to law school and was going to start that fall when he got recalled. So he was already in, so he went to law school. By that time, we had Carol. He worked a year, and then he went back to law school. So by that time, Carol was born.

He was going nights, working days, and finally we decided that I would work—relief work, two days—and then he could stop and go full-time, because he had the GI Bill still. So he did that. Then after he graduated—his senior year, Russell was born, so I didn't work anymore after that. We lived in Garden Grove, and then we lived in [Unclear] Park. Then I did volunteer work. We had four children by that time. I worked for Legal Aid and just kept up with the family.

After the children were all grown and just Roger was home, I went back and took some refresher courses. Then I got back and I worked with the developmentally disabled for about a year, did the medical work with them [unclear]. I enjoyed that. That's about it.

HT:

And here you are back in North Carolina.

VR:

Here I am back in North Carolina. We had a bad accident, and I think Clay decided then that we would cut back—because he still worked—and we would cut back, and we'd come to North Carolina. He said I had lived out there fifty-two years, so it was time to come back here. He likes it back here. He doesn't like mosquitoes, but he likes everything else.

HT:

He's a lawyer, right?

VR:

Yes. I told him I didn't think we'd last but two years out here. [laughter] I think we should have [unclear] it sooner.

HT:

Well, I don't have any more questions. So if you'd like to add anything more, I'd be glad to leave the tape recorder on.

VR:

No. I think that about covers my life, don't you? Then I'll get those things out for you.

HT:

Thank you so much.

[End of interview]