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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Bertha Sligh B. Barwikowski, 2000

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Object ID: WV0188.5.001

Description: Barwikowski primarily discusses her experiences in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and her personal life following the war.

Summary:

Barwikowski discusses her ethnic heritage and her Polish ancestors. She then describes her experience in the WAC, including basic training at Fort Oglethorpe; encounters with Italian prisoners of war and Polish soldiers; her communications work with the North Atlantic Division Air Transport Command at Grenier Field in New Hampshire; negative experiences with the Red Cross; tragedies at the field; and VE Day. Barwikowski also discusses the negative reputation of the WACs and gender and racial discrimination in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Manchester, New Hampshire.

Topics related to Barwikowski’s personal life include her marriages; having to leave the service when she became pregnant; wishing she could stay in; the difficult adjustment to civilian life; one of her son’s experiences during the Vietnam War; and her career with the postal service.

Creator: Bertha Bielen Sligh Barwikowski

Biographical Info: Bertha Barwikowski (1923-2004) of Stamford, Connecticut, served as a teletype operator in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) from 1944 to 1945.

Collection: Bertha Barwikowski 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:

[Note: Dorothy Sullivan was also present during the interview.]

HT:

My name is Hermann Trojanowski, and I'm at the home of Mrs. Bertha Barwikowski?

BB:

Barwikowski.

HT:

New Port Richey, Florida, conducting an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

If you could tell me your full name, we will use as a test on the tape.

BB:

The full name with all the names?

HT:

Yes.

BB:

My name was Bielen, Bertha Bielen. My marriage name was Sligh, and from Sligh I went to Barwikowski.

HT:

Could you tell me a little bit of biographical information about yourself, such as where you were born and when?

BB:

Well, I was born in Stamford, Connecticut, September 3, 1923.

HT:

Where did you live before you enlisted in the WAC [Women's Army Corps]?

BB:

Stamford, Connecticut. In those days, when I grew up, people didn't travel like we do today. We didn't have cars. Stayed there until I was twenty years old, and I went into the service, and it was the only address and only home I ever knew was in Stamford.

HT:

Could you tell me a little something about your family before you enlisted in the service?

BB:

My family was small. We lived in the two-family house with my grandma and grandpa on the first floor and my Aunt Bertha, my mother's sister, and her husband and my cousin, Bill. Mom, Dad, and I lived upstairs. It was a family affair.

Of course, grandpa and grandma came straight from Poland. The girls, the sisters were the first born here. Then I was, on my father's side, the first born in the States. Grandpa had fruit trees. We had a 55-width block, 150 deep. We had seven fruit trees on there, a grape arbor, chicken coop, rabbit hutch, and we had geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits. If anything else was fit to eat, we found a way to fit it in there.

We had a garden in the back, which took care of the whole family. I grew up in Depression. That garden and that rabbit hutch and that yard fed us through some real bad times. It took care of some neighbors, too.

HT:

You said your father's family came over from Poland.

BB:

My father's family, but my dad came over here alone when he was fourteen years old, to his—which I was told was his aunt. We still haven't straightened that out.

He was orphaned. His father was a Polish soldier. He was killed in the service. His mother died when he was not quite fourteen months old. His grandma raised him. When she died, he came by himself from Poland to here.

HT:

What about the mother's side?

BB:

My mother's side, grandma and grandpa came—grandpa was here like ten years first, and then grandma followed. After they finally got together again, one, two, three, four kids right in a row were born, catching up on that. [laughs]

HT:

I assume you went to high school in Stamford, Connecticut?

BB:

I graduated from the Stamford High School in 1941, one of the largest classes back then. Over 585 students graduated.

HT:

What did you do after high school?

BB:

After high school, I went to work for this private fellow in the insurance, and I was supposed to be his secretary and whatever. That turned out to be a babysitter. That job lasted exactly ten days. [laughs] I was a babysitter. I applied, and I finally got a job in the Pitney Bowes postage meter company. They were doing strictly war work then. I stayed there until I went into the service.

HT:

When was that?

BB:

I signed up in July of 1944 and was sworn in on the fifteenth of August of 1944.

HT:

What made you decide to go into the WAC as opposed to the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] or one of the other branches?

BB:

Just think about it. Those years, when I graduated from high school, it was just before Pearl Harbor. There was no social life for us young people like young people know it today. Dating was from one furlough to the other. If your boyfriend came home on furlough, ten full days you were jostled dead on your feet, because you had every night of the week so you could be together. Then when they'd go back, you were back with a bunch of women all the time or the 4-F-ers—that's what they used to call them, and that's what it was. We really didn't have a social life as we knew it.

Three years in those younger years is a long time to you when you're younger. It got to the point that they started advertising that if the women came in, they could release the men and end the war sooner.My buddy, who was a telephone operator in Pitney Bowes, we got to talking, and we decided—she said, “Well, I'm going to join.” Her fiancé was killed in Iwo Jima. So she says, “I'm going to go in. Maybe I can get even with them in some way.” I gave it a little thought, and the day she left and went over to sign up, I went with her.

HT:

What did your parents think?

BB:

Dad didn't say much, but Mom was absolutely devastated.

HT:

Did they have to sign for you to—

BB:

Dad signed for me. Mom wouldn't.

HT:

That's all it took, just one signature?

BB:

That's all it took, because I wasn't twenty-one, yet. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in basic training.

HT:

You mentioned earlier that many women joined because it allowed men to enter combat and that sort of thing. Did you have any guilty feelings perhaps sending a man into combat and perhaps having him die or anything like that?

BB:

No, you're too young and an airhead, you know. You went in there. You didn't stop to think that maybe you were sending a man to his death. I mean, I thought about it later, but at that point in time, you didn't think that way. I didn't, and neither did any of the other girls.

DS:

I always felt that the men wanted it that way. Some of them wanted to go and fight. They were glad that there was—some of them didn't, but a lot of them didn't really go into combat because we were there.

BB:

A lot of them stayed back because there was heavy work to be done. Lots of heavy work, and the women couldn't do it.

HT:

How about your friends? What did they think about you joining?

BB:

Little bit shocked, because those were the days that women just didn't get up and go. You stayed home until you got married, as a rule. Well, there were always a lot of objections to whoever I was dating. My mom thought nobody was good. She was a little bit on the—not a little bit, a lot overprotective, and here I was twenty years old. I wasn't even allowed to go downtown by myself to buy anything. She wanted to be with me all the time.

I think the combination of the lonely life, the overprotection, and then hearing all of this, I needed that little bit of nudge to make me make the move. And then there again, there wasn't one Bielen in the family that we are aware of, even to this day, that was in the service. I have never found anyone else.

HT:

So your father wasn't in the service in the First World War?

BB:

No, because when he came here, in the First World War, he was considered an enemy alien, because he came here at that point in time, where he came from in southern Poland, it was under Austrian rule, and that was considered enemy. He always grieved over that, made him feel bad.

Then after the first—he was up there, an older man, and then he wasn't called for service then, but he was also plant manager for the company who was doing war work, they wouldn't have taken him, anyway, because of what he did and what his knowledge was in the service. He wouldn't even explain to us what he knew and what he didn't know.

But he was always so funny. The first leave I came home on—now, the years, he worked in this same plant, I was never invited to go see the plant, but what we were doing, he could care less. I came home in uniform, and he said, “Would you like to come and see the kind of work we're doing?” [laughs]

HT:

So he was telling you he was proud of you?

BB:

He was parading me through the plant to everybody, and people come over. Well, I was born and raised there, and I had people coming out of the woodwork so say hello, and the hugs and the kisses. Then the president of the company took us to a luncheon. He was so proud. He saw to it that my name was on the honor roll in Stamford.

We've never found another Bielen, that I'm aware of, on it. I don't think I've looked close enough, and I've tried. Contacted a family by that name in Youngstown, Ohio. There are some in Colorado Springs, and that's all we're aware of. And then the family in Stamford, but they're mostly girls. Of course, being of Polish extraction, it was, “Oh, my god, she's going away? Only bums go in there.”

HT:

What did people in general think about women joining the military in those days?

BB:

Well, they thought the navy was okay, but the WACs, you shouldn't go there.

HT:

Why was that?

BB:

Well, because it was all bums, you know, in there. They had a million bums or something. People were so ignorant back then. They really were ignorant. They just have to think, if you were raised up properly, you maintained that kind of life when you went in. Sure, we had girls got pregnant, got into trouble. But the same girl would have done the same thing. She didn't come in there innocent to start with. I was appalled, because I couldn't imagine anybody not married going out with a guy and doing that? Oh, my. [laughs] Today, it's a different ballgame.

HT:

Quite different. Right.

BB:

But you just sat there in shock.

HT:

There was a slander campaign—I think it was in 1943—against the WACs. Did you ever hear anything about that, about bad reputations—

BB:

Oh, I was there. I knew better. If I'd hear something like that, I'd just—by 1943, I was home. I had a family already. I met [my husband], and when I got up to Manchester, New Hampshire, in Grenier Field—they sent me up there from Georgia—G-r-e-n-i-e-r—They sent me up there from this hot climate in Georgia where you almost melted in the sun. I get up there in October, and it's freezing. I caught cold, and it went into pleurisy. I was only there about ten days.

So they put me in the hospital. In a man's robe, and I'm standing in line to go eat, you know, and this fellow behind me starts talking to me. It was on the seventeenth of October. I'll always remember that, because that was my father's birthday. He says to me, “I want to go sit by the radio and listen. There's a hurricane going across Florida, over Orlando.” He says, “My family is in the middle of it.”

So we huddled over the radio, and I said, “What's a hurricane?” He explained it.

Well, that was the seventeenth of October, and I married that man the fourth of January in 1945.

HT:

So you only knew him just a few months?

BB:

Only about six weeks, six or eight weeks. That was another, “Whoa!” [laughs] “What are you doing?”

“Getting married.” What are you going to say?

HT:

Where did you enlist?

BB:

In Stamford.

BB:

Where did you do basic training?

BB:

Basic training, I took that in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.

HT:

How long did that last?

BB:

Six weeks.

HT:

Can you tell me something about your first day? What was that like?

BB:

You were tired, hot. Carried a bunch of suitcases that you didn't need, and junk, because everybody told you to bring this and bring that and take this and take that. You really didn't need a lot of things that you took. I remember taking a box after I was there about two weeks and felt my way around, and I shipped a lot of things home again, because I didn't need a lot of what they said.

They said, “Bring your own underwear, because they won't give you any. Bring this. They won't give you any,” and all that went back home.

HT:

Speaking of underwear and uniforms in general, can you tell me something about clothing you were issued?

BB:

They issued us what they called “the blouse.” That's the regular uniform you wore, was “the jacket” is what I would call it today, and a skirt. A short while later, we got our off-duty uniform, a beige uniform. We were allowed to buy high-heel brown pumps to go with that uniform.

HT:

But everything was issued to you free of cost?

BB:

Everything was issued, from skin on out—except for a robe—in a nice olive drab. No zippers, no elastic, all buttons.

HT:

How did it fit?

BB:

I had no problem. I was very, very thin, then. I was a straight size twelve or fourteen, depending on who manufactured—some things were twelve, some were fourteen. Then when I went in, we still wore what we called the “wee-wee pot hats,” to be polite. The old Hobby hat.

We took basic training, and while I was there, they issued the—oh, what's called the overseas cap. I don't remember. The side one like they do it now in the legion. When we were off duty, we had to wear that. We couldn't wear the Hobby hat. They were just using up the Hobby hats in basic training with the peak on them, but with the sun in Georgia, it was so blistering hot.

Of course, Georgia was quite an education. They had a lot of Italian prisoners there, and they'd be working and donated all the maintenance on the base. We marched everywhere we went. I don't care what you did, you marched, whether you went to eat or relief or whatever. Of course, there were truckloads, and prisoners were coming by and, oh, my god, nobody restrained them. They were happy as prisoners, whistling at the girls and passing remarks.

We had two Italian girls in our company, and she says, “I'm going to complain.” She told us—I won't repeat it on the tape—what they were saying about us. So she went and complained, and they were disciplined. They were told if they made another comment to one girl marching, they'd be put in solitary confinement. I don't know if they would have done it, but it sure made them stop whistling.

HT:

These were all Italian prisoners?

BB:

All Italian prisoners. They had nothing else but Italian prisoners. Of course, they said some rough things to the girls. I didn't know any different. I didn't understand Italian. But the girls that did took great—they were very, very put out about it.

HT:

I can imagine.

BB:

Very much so.

HT:

What about the food during basic training? What was that like?

BB:

Well, I wasn't too fond of lamb, but they were. [laughs] When you went in to breakfast and you had lamb—I can't remember what it was, but it was something lamb for breakfast. You went back for lunch, and it was lamb croquettes. They ground it up and made croquettes out of it. Then you come for dinner, and you had lamb roast.

HT:

Must have had quite a few sheep around somewhere.

BB:

Somebody stole up a bargain deal with sheep, somewhere in the world.

HT:

What about your training? What type of training did you have to go through?

BB:

Well, a lot of our group was slated for overseas, because I spoke to other people about this. They concentrated a lot on my group, putting us through drills with gas masks. Quite a few times, we were put into this room, sent through, where they made us take them off for a second, to smell the gas, and get familiar, and put it back on. Did you have that too?

DS:

Yeah, sure.

BB:

And yet I talked to other groups who never saw the inside of that.

DS:

You're kidding?

BB:

Then they started this training about how to protect yourself. They only went so far with it, and one girl was hurt, and it stopped. It stopped. They never really pushed it. But I always heard, all these films they were going to show you about venereal diseases and explain all—we never had the first thing on that. It wasn't brought up in any classes, nothing, nothing. Never saw that. Yet, I heard of other groups being in that. We never saw any of that.

DS:

That was standard when I was in there.

BB:

There wasn't even a discussion on it anywhere. But there were other things, like we went through hazardous things. They showed us how to climb and how to crawl and whatnot.

HT:

So you had to go through obstacle courses? Climbing over fences and pulling on barbed wire.

BB:

I never had to go over fence. Somewhere along the line, we wore those—I call them, oh—the high boots—Li'l Abners. Whatever it was, it sure did something to my feet. About the third or fourth week, in about the third week I was there, my feet swelled out the arches, and I couldn't walk. It was really like I was bruised. They took one look at that, and they wouldn't let me go in to march. A motor pool car took me around classes for three days, after they stayed in the back.

DS:

Did you have high arches?

BB:

I guess I did.

DS:

The boots that they give you, they don't have arches in them.

BB:

Probably that was the problem. But you know something? I was lucky. I got to see something that a very few of the ladies got to see. Because I couldn't march, on Saturday they allowed me to go up high on the hill where the marching was taking place, you know, the parade grounds? And I got to see the women parading on a Saturday. That was the most beautiful sight in this world, just beautiful. I took some pictures. They let me take the camera. I was surprised that they did. But I can't find them. They might be somewhere in my junk here, but I don't know. I can really remember. I don't need a picture. I can shut my eyes and see that parade ground.

HT:

What was Fort Oglethorpe like? I've never been there.

DS:

Hot.

BB:

Oh, it was hot.

HT:

It must have been a huge base.

BB:

Oh, it was huge. Very beautiful base. Magnificent.

HT:

It's at Chattanooga, Tennessee, isn't it?

DS:

Yes. We used to go there.

BB:

We used to go there. Went to Chattanooga about three times. It wasn't hard to run around like that. It didn't bother me.

HT:

This was your first trip away from Stamford, Connecticut?

BB:

Away from home.

HT:

What did you think of the South?

BB:

Well, there are so many things about it that I didn't know what to think. But when I went into Chattanooga, and we decided we were going to have lunch, and we walked up to this restaurant, and there was a sign in the window: “No niggers, no Jews, and no WACs.”

DS:

Good grief.

BB:

I didn't have a very good opinion of Chattanooga after that. I never went back into town. Never went back there. I did go to Lookout Mountain. I remember some of that, but I wasn't too impressed because I had seen parks before, was my attitude. What impressed me were the mountains.

DS:

Yes.

BB:

Because I had never been in the mountains anywhere. We didn't have any mountains in Connecticut.

HT:

This would have been the foothills of the Appalachian chain, I guess.

BB:

Beautiful, just beautiful. Oh, god, it was at the hottest time of the year.

HT:

You entered in July, so you were there probably August of '44.

BB:

I was there for August, and then it was September, and it was sometime in October that I got into Manchester, New Hampshire, the very early part of October.

HT:

What about your instructors? What were they like?

BB:

Most of them were nice. We had one—we always had opinions about what we'd like to do to her.

HT:

They had female instructors or male?

BB:

All female. The only males we saw were the Italian prisoners.

HT:

Who were whistling at you?

BB:

Who were whistling and then shut up afterwards. But that was the only ones. We didn't see any males at all. But there was always something to do on the base. You had duties to do in the barracks. You had to keep them clean, and they were rough about that.

Then before basic was over, we went on this trip. I don't know what the river was called. I don't remember. But we went on this boat trip, and all the officers and everybody were just people when you got out there. There was no big, “This is a lieutenant,” this is this and that, you know, but I enjoyed it. Different ones said, “Oh, aren't you homesick?”

“Homesick? I don't have time to get homesick.”

My family was floored because I wasn't homesick, because I'm an only child and I always lived in this hometown. When I left, I cried my eyes out for about two hours, but when the excitement started on the train, I forgot about it. I just got right into the picture.

HT:

Did you ever have to do KP [kitchen patrol] during basic training?

BB:

Well, we all had to pull KP. It was never used as punishment on me. I never got in trouble. We came from an era where there was a lot of discipline in the home, so when you got there and there was discipline, it didn't faze you. It was expected. You knew there was going to be some kind of discipline, and you went ahead along with it.

Today, that's why you have so many people, GIs who have so many problems when they go in, because they were so free on the outside, and their mom and dad were afraid to raise their hand to them, afraid they would get put in jail for it. Our parents, when they said you didn't do it, they only told you once. The next time you heard about it, you felt it.

DS:

My mother had a cat-o'-nine tails. She knew how to show it to you. If you didn't do nothing and she hit you on the legs. Boy that stung.

BB:

It only took once or twice. It only took once or twice, and you never did it again. This was nothing. I didn't think anything of it.

What always fascinated me, though, when we got in there, we had this big gal from Texas in my company, in my barracks, and she was a lulu. I mean, she was tough. I'd never run into anyone like that, you know. It was just a different world. Very bossy, and someone kept saying, “Oh, she's a fairy” or “queer.”

“What's that?” You know? I don't know what this is they're talking about.

One night we come in, and all of a sudden all the girls are giggling and giggling, and they say, “Stay awake. Stay awake.” Well, I'm going to stay awake, because I don't know what's going to happen. She comes in late, lights out already. She sneaks in. She gets in her bed, and all of a sudden I heard cussing like I had never heard in my life. Well, they not only short-sheeted her bed, but they put a bunch of rocks in her bed. It was unbelievable. [laughs]

They turned around, and all the lights went on, and the captain came in, and they took her out. We never saw her again. Never came back into our barracks or our company. We don't know what happened to her, why. You'd ask. “Don't ask questions, you were told.” That was it.

HT:

What about the other girls you met? What were they like? The other girls in the company, what were they like?

BB:

Very friendly. There was a mother-and-daughter team, which was a big surprise.

HT:

Mother and daughter both joined at the same time?

BB:

Yes.

HT:

Wow.

BB:

Yes, and the mother was thirty-eight or thirty-nine years old. That was sad for the daughter, though, I think, because they were together all the time. She never made other friends. The mother never made friends with us because we were kids to her. We often felt sorry for her. We would go out and do things together and go somewhere. “Oh, no, my mother and I are going to do this,” or, “We will stay in and read.” I always felt sorry for the girl.

HT:

That was probably not a very good idea.

BB:

No, they should have been separated.

HT:

Right.

BB:

Each one would have been an individual that way. But she was under her mother's thumb, plus under the cadre's thumb on top of it. Then they got sent to the same base somewhere together, too. I often wondered how it turned out. She was a very timid girl, very timid.

HT:

Did you have any unusual experiences while you were in basic? Did anything humorous happen to you?

BB:

No. Fort Oglethorpe was a big thing to me, because we didn't travel in those days like we do today. If we went to Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was twenty miles away, it was a big thing. Everybody said, “Oh, you went to Bridgeport Sunday?”

“Yeah.”

“How did you get there?”

“Well, my dad bought an old car.”

They've got a Studebaker. I'll never forget that stupid Studebaker. You'd go over a bump, and the axle would break. But we struggled. We went to Bridgeport, but then that was a big thing to go that far. For me to go to see another city in another state was a big, fascinating thing, in the mountains. Of course, to go to the PX [Post Exchange], and everything's so cheap. You're too fascinated. The world opened up for me. I've always said, “I went in like a lamb, and came out like a lion.” Believe me.

HT:

After you left basic training, you were sent where?

BB:

Manchester, New Hampshire. Up in Grenier Field. That was the headquarters for the North Atlantic Division of the Air Transport Command, ATC.

HT:

What type of work did you do there?

BB:

I was attached to Signal. I would take shorthand with the colonel. I would do filing, typing, working on the teletype. We had a huge teletype deal there at the division of the headquarters for the ATC. In the North Atlantic there was a lot of wires. Of course, you couldn't understand some of it, because it was code. Then you had to type code sometimes in. I was a very fast typist, they found out. I used to get that machine quite often.

HT:

So you went straight from basic to Manchester? No training period in between at all?

BB:

No, no, I never worked there. Of course, I didn't stay there that long. But I did have one unique experience there. A lot of overseas the Canadian troops would come through. They might have served somewhere with the Americans. Well, we got some young men from Poland, and there must have been eighteen or twenty of them that came into the office, and one of them had an aunt who lived in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was trying to find a way to go see her. Of course, they weren't going to let him off the base. They didn't want anybody to know that this large group of Poles were here.

So they're sitting there, and they're talking away in Polish, and they don't know how to do anything. They're lost, nobody to help them. They were only in there muddling. Well, I'm sitting there, taking it all in, and then I realized, “Boy, these fellows don't know anything. They don't know what's going on, where to go.”

So I stood up and start talking Polish to them, and they almost come over the counter after me. But when they found out that I could speak Polish, then I acted as an interpreter. They were only there three days. But we had a terrible time explaining to that one fellow. His mother's sister lived in Manchester.

HT:

Did he ever get a chance to see her?

BB:

Oh, no. They wouldn't allow him off, because he was being sent overseas, and they don't want anybody to know anything of it. We had planes coming in there all the times, so people weren't always that wise, that maybe, you know, it was a group going over. They wouldn't let him in out there. But I promised him that I'd go see his aunt. I took pictures of them. They let me take a picture of him in uniform and all, and he had some things. He went to the PX and bought her some gifts. I went to see her. I had to wait ten days, though, before I could go.

HT:

After he left?

BB:

Yes, after he left. To make sure that he got to wherever he was—not that anybody knew where he was going. But that was the funniest thing that ever happened to me there. That was really shocking. That was really shocking.

HT:

How long did you stay in Manchester?

BB:

I was discharged in May—May 10. I'm never too sure—of 1945, because I followed the rhythm system recommended by the priest. It didn't work. I didn't want to have a child; I really didn't, in the beginning. I wanted to stay in the service, but my captain—I was only married about three weeks, four weeks, at most.

I went to Florida, because my father-in-law passed away, and being a member of the family, I was allowed to go. Well, we came back. We were back two days. My husband was handed a discharge, medical discharge, which he had no idea was coming. Well, it was the talk of the base. We just got married, he's out, and she's in.

“What are you going to do?”

I said, “I'm going to stay here. What am I going to do? What can I do?”

In the meantime, the list came out of the girls that were expected to report somewhere for overseas training. Well, we knew what that meant. People on the list after me. I went in the office, very brazen, “Ma'am,” I said, “Why was I bypassed?”

“Well, you just got married.”

I said, “What's that got to do with it?”

Well, she said, “How would you feel going overseas, and your husband here waiting for you?”

I says, “It would feel just like the wives are left back here waiting for their husbands to come back from overseas. Why is there a difference?”

Well, she was appalled to think that I had that attitude. So I guess it wasn't bad that I got pregnant with this one, but it wasn't supposed to be. I'll never forget. I went to see the chaplain. I said, “I took your advice.” I says, “You know, you told me a fib.”

He said, “You're saying I lied? What do you mean?”

I said, “You told me to use the rhythm system because of being Catholic, you're not supposed to use anything to prevent a pregnancy.”

But he said, “The rhythm system works.”

I says, “It doesn't.”

He got to laughing. He thought it was funny. I didn't. I didn't. I would have stayed in.

HT:

How did you meet your husband?

BB:

In the breakfast line in the hospital.

HT:

Oh, that's right. You told me. Okay.

BB:

We were married at high noon on January 4 at the chapel. His fraternal twin brother was stationed there as well. He worked in the motor pool. Both of them did. It was the funniest thing. My friend who I went into service with at Pitney Bowes was going to be my maid of honor, and he was going to be best man.

Well, I wasn't supposed to get married in my off-duty uniform. Went downtown shopping around Christmastime, and one of my friends says, “Oh, look at that beautiful gown, that wedding gown. Isn't that gorgeous?”

I said, “Yeah.”

She says, “You know, that's so cheap.”

“What do you mean? Let's go in and look at it.” I walked out. I paid forty-five dollars for my wedding gown and nineteen dollars for my veil.

DS:

Oh, wow.

BB:

Then my buddy, she couldn't afford it, so I bought her gown for her, pale green, and I think something like fifteen dollars for her gown. So for that seventy-five dollars we were dressed. Nobody thought to tell my future brother-in-law that I was going to wear white. He was expecting me to come in uniform.

Well, the day of the ceremony, my father's there to give me away. He's waiting out back. They start playing, Here Comes the Bride. Well, he turned around to look. His eyes opened, and he just fell apart. When the ceremony was over, they were shaking hands with my husband and I, and they'd come to him, “Congratulations. You made it.” He got so unglued, you might say, his legs trembled all through the ceremony. You could see his legs trembling. He couldn't stand up. He was holding on to an usher, because he was so shocked to see me in white.

I thought his brother told him. I didn't realize he wasn't told. Of course, the chaplain could see him trembling, as he went and he handed my husband the ring, you know, to put on. I didn't see him. We laughed about that for years. For years.

HT:

After you got married and you were still in the service, where did you live? Did you live on base?

BB:

Oh, he was discharged, and I was able to live off base. We had to live somewhere, so we found a nice apartment way at the end of Manchester. The Scrinch[?] family owned a place, and they converted their attic over into a three-room apartment. It was ideal, ideal for a service couple.

HT:

Apartments were scare in those days.

BB:

Oh, they were. They were. But he advertised that apartment at the base, and my captain hung on to that, and she says, “I haven't advertised it, because I know you need to be there.” She was always so concerned about my husband and his health.

HT:

What type of work did your husband do after he got out?

BB:

Well, he was a butcher by trade to begin with, before he went in. His brother-in-law was training him. So he couldn't find a job in a store butchery, and money was short. I mean fifty dollars a month. He didn't have much when he left.

So he took a job in a slaughterhouse, and I think that made him worse than if he had stayed in the service, because he loved animals. It almost drove him crazy, to see what they were doing. In a way, it was a blessing that we had to leave. He stayed there, and he worked. He stuck to it, because he knew we had to have the money to pay our rent and all, knowing I was pregnant, we were going to leave. But that was a shock to him, because he never knew how brutal they were at these slaughterhouses. They have no feeling for the animals, nothing. Just a piece of something off and up there was going to get killed. He said they'd hit them and everything. They'd hit them, and they would smell, and blood and everything. He said the poor animals would cry, plus when they would kill the younger ones for veal. He walked out of there a couple of times. But they tolerated it because they knew some men couldn't handle that. So they took him away from that area and put him in further where he was breaking it down afterwards, where he wouldn't hear that, because he couldn't handle it. If you're an animal lover, that's a terrible thing to witness. I couldn't handle it. He started telling me, and just telling me, I was crying. I didn't need to see it.

To be honest with you, if all those things hadn't come down like they had, I would have made a career out of that service, married or not married. I loved it. I was very pleased with that. You know, I was raised in a family by myself, very small family. Small family downstairs, no brothers or sisters. I had a cousin only. Almost like a party for me with these people around me, and always something happening. I didn't know what that was like. Sat down to eat dinner or at breakfast, it was a party to me. You had a whole table full of people.

HT:

Of course, in those days, you didn't have a choice. You had to get out once you became pregnant, whereas today it's quite different.

BB:

Yes.

HT:

It sounded like you really enjoyed your work.

BB:

I asked her to see if they wouldn't let me take like a leave, a leave of absence and come back. “Oh, no.” She says, “You have family. You need to stay home and take care of your child.”

Today, this great economy that they talk about, yes, it's great. People have families, but the women still have to go out and work in order to maintain that great economy. So what's the difference, when you think about it?

HT:

This was a different mindset fifty years ago.

BB:

Oh, definitely. Definitely. Definitely.

HT:

While you were in the service, do you think you were treated equally by your coworkers who were men?

BB:

Not really. Not really. We had a—I don't know what you'd call him. They called him “Mister.” They didn't have a title like “Captain.” He was called “Mister.” A warrant officer, a warrant officer. He hated women, I swear to God. He was entitled to a salute, but he would put himself in every position possible so you'd have to salute him. God forbid, if you didn't see him, if you just missed him because you didn't see him. He'd go create all kinds of havoc about it.

He was a handsome as God could make a man handsome. He married one of our nurses on the base, and we found out he was nothing but a bully. He was married and she got pregnant, and she come out of the service, and he started beating her. He put her in the hospital twice while she was pregnant, which was so shocking, because he never looked like he'd be that type, you know. A handsome man, you'd think he was going to do everything nice. But he was a bully.

It was my first experience with somebody like that, you know. We never had had that in our home, in our family, that a man would hit a woman. God forbid. The rest of the men would have killed him. It just wasn't something they would have done.

HT:

Did you work with enlisted men? Were there only women?

BB:

The only time I would work with enlisted men would be when they send me to the warehouse, because I worked with Cardex systems and Pitney Bowes, and a lot of the girls hated that work, and I didn't mind it. I liked it. Of course, you know, anytime you gave away anything, the inventory had to be kept up to date.

We would get a huge, huge group of planes come in that were going overseas, and they were furnishing them right from our warehouse with radio equipment and clothing. They would go to a cold climate, because we were issuing parka hoods and all that. I would go to the warehouse, and I would help with that. Then I would stay there for two, three days afterward, getting all the Cardex system updated for inventory, so they could really know what they had to order.

There would be enlisted men there, and we had a tough old sergeant there, and he tried to play tough, but it was just his way of fooling around, you know. He'd laugh afterwards, when he'd say something. Sometimes he'd say something to one of the girls that would be there, and she'd get all uptight and excited, you know. “What did I do wrong?” He'd laugh. So we finally told him to cool it. One girl ended up crying.

I just stayed out of his way. I'd look at him from a distance. I didn't know how to handle him. I kept out of his way. He wouldn't bother me. I wasn't sure how to handle him. I didn't know if he meant it or not.

HT:

Did you see any discrimination against women in the service while you were in, from men or officers, either one?

BB:

Well, the officers' barracks were before ours. In other words, we were behind them, because they were the gentlemen. Well, one of these gentlemen tried to break into our barracks one night. So we weren't as safe as we thought we were. He was Mr. [unclear]. So we never really knew which one. Some of the girls who saw him knew who it was, but they had to promise they wouldn't say. But he happened to be a captain, and they wanted it kept quiet. We never knew which captain. There were a lot of captains around that base, and there were a lot of them up in headquarters, but I never got into headquarters to see anything. Had nothing to do with it. I wasn't interested.

It just fascinated me, though, to be there with all the airplanes and all the excitement and the GIs coming from all over the country, passing through, going overseas. Then while I was in the hospital that time with pleurisy, I fell asleep in the library, and the loud speaker came on telling us all to clear out and get back to our wards, now. Well, I didn't hear the message. I knew something woke me up. I sat there and was reading. Then I began to hear an excitement in the hallway, so I went out to investigate and promptly passed out. They were basket cases from the Battle of the Bulge.

They had released some men from prison, prisoners of war from Germany, and these were fellows that were captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Some of them were nothing but skeletons. They couldn't walk. They couldn't do nothing.

HT:

These were Americans?

BB:

Yes. They were bringing them in. They had a big hospital there, very large hospital, and they put a lot of them there. They brought them closer than their homes. Some went to different areas, but these were fellows who were close, you know, New England, and their families could get to them. But when they brought them here, they realized they couldn't let the families come see them in the shape they were in. It was pathetic. Pathetic.

HT:

Exactly what did the Air Transport Command do? You said you were stationed at the North American Transport Command in—

BB:

North Atlantic Division of the—

HT:

You said they brought planes in?

BB:

The planes came in there for servicing, came in there to furnish the fellows with their uniforms for wherever they were going, their equipment. If they were going into a tropical climate, they were issued this, or going in a cold climate, they were issued other clothing.

HT:

So it sounds like almost a staging area for going overseas. Is that right?

BB:

When those planes came in, we were all restricted to base, whether they were going overseas or not. Nobody could leave the base. So that's when the USO [United Service Organizations] would come in, and there'd be movies, there'd be dances, and there'd be picnics.

Then we had a crash at the base. It was a pretty bad one. Oh, it was so bitter cold, dear God. This is the time when I went against the Red Cross, and I've never lifted that feeling, believe me. They're out there with body bags. Now, that's pretty rough. These are young men anywheres from nineteen to twenty-five, picking up bodies and pieces and putting them in bags, in this bitter cold.

I went down there. My husband was on the line. This was just before we were married. He said, “Honey, get some hot coffee.” He says, “We're so cold. There's nobody—.”

I said, “The Red Cross is here.” So I went over and got this box, you know, and put the coffee in there. Oh, doughnuts. I said, “Let me have some doughnuts. Some of these guys never even got to eat.” I turned around to walk away.

She said, “Oh, that'll be—” so much. She gave me a price.

I says, “What?”

DS:

Can you believe that?

BB:

“I thought you were donating this.”

“Oh, no,” she says, “You have to pay.”

I says, “Here.” Of course, my husband worked the motor pool. I turned around. One of the fellows knew me. I says, “Take me over to my barracks.”

I went in there. There was a sergeant in there. She and I didn't have no love lost for each other, but I knew she'd listen. I told her what had happened. I won't say what she said. You can guess. She was a toughie.

“Get that thing going. Get this thing.” She got a big coffee urn, made coffee. We had cakes there. We had biscuits and different things. She made a whole bunch of stuff. The motor pool was shipping in, and the Red Cross went bonkers.

DS:

Really?

BB:

They didn't like it, because this was a chance to make money. These are GIs making fifty dollars a month, picking up their buddies in body bags, and they want to charge them?

DS:

The Salvation Army wasn't like that. The Salvation Army was good.

BB:

Yes. Well, comes time for me to be discharged, and I'm a GI, right? Every GI gal, whether married or not, if she's going home pregnant, she's supposed to get a starter thing with a layette from the Red Cross. Well, I went over with my little slip.

“Oh, we're all out.”

I said, “Gee, you discharged that many ladies?”

“Well, they had some civilian workers on the base.”

I said, “I thought it was just for the GIs.”

“Oh, no. We take care of our civilian workers, too.”

“Okay. They're making ten times more than I am, but they're getting a layette starter.”

Then they came in again, and somebody says, “Get over there now. They're in.” I go over.

“Oh, we're all out already. You're too late.”

I says, “You just got them in this morning.” I go back to work in the office, and my feelings are hurt. I look, and here's this gal sitting there. “Oh, what's that?” She had two of them.

DS:

Oh, my word.

BB:

She was leaving that following Friday, because after three months you couldn't work. They made you leave. She was leaving that Friday. She got two.

“Oh,” she says, “the girl over there—.”

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

BB:

I thought it difficult, what I said when I had that problem with my feet, the marching. It was so hot. My legs started to ache so, and I didn't realize what was happening, and I guess the arches fell, I don't know. I had a great big bruise, lumps in my arches. It took over a week before that went down. I wore my regular shoes. They wouldn't let me wear my Li'l Abners. Even afterwards, I couldn't wear them. They didn't take them away from me, but they made me wear my regular issue shoes, the oxfords. We didn't do anything so special, only ran a few times. Whoopee, you know. You do that at home.

HT:

But no rifle training?

BB:

No. It's just that they showed you how you would scramble under a wire fence, and how you would stay low, but there was no live ammunition or nothing. No guns, nothing presented to us, nothing like that. You'd be crawling along, and you'd hear one of the cadre yell out, “Keep your ass down.” [laughs] And you knew somebody was watching. She'd call you by name, you know. Or she'd say along this and this row, if she didn't know your name, and you weren't in that row, so you knew you were safe. But that's all you would hear. But we only did that about three times, and it didn't last too long. It was just to give you a taste of what you might run into.

HT:

What about emotionally? What was the hardest thing you had to deal with emotionally?

BB:

Leaving home. That was hard. I mean, I was so excited to go. When I got on that train, I realized, “I'm leaving home.” You don't really get that into your head. You've been so comfortable in that home. You're a part of that city. You knew it backwards, forwards, upside down. All of a sudden you're going, and your family's going, and you're watching them, and they're getting smaller and smaller on the platform. That was the hardest thing.

Coming home was the most exciting thing, the first time. I took the first bus I could get out of New Hampshire when they gave me a three-day leave. I didn't care what time it got into Stamford. They stopped for a layover in Boston. I says to the bus driver, “My family don't know I'm coming. Where can I call?” He says, “when you get in Boston, we've got a forty-minute layover. I'll let you off the bus first, so you go to the first telephone booth; otherwise, you won't be able to call.” I was the only GI on the bus. That was the funniest part.

DS:

Really?

BB:

The only GI. It was the middle of the night. I got on there, and I called home. It was around, I'd say, about eleven, eleven-thirty at night. My dad answered. I knew he had fallen asleep in the chair, which he used to do a lot, and he answered because he'd expect calls from the plant.

He says, “Yeah?”

I said, “This is Bertie. I'll be in at four-thirty in the morning in Stamford.”

He said, “You will what?”

I says, “I'm on my way home for leave. I'll be in at four-thirty in the morning.”

“I'll be there.” He was. Four-thirty in the morning, he had his pajama tops on, a jacket over that, and a little cap on, but he was there. Mom stayed in bed. She was still angry with me.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid while you were in the service?

BB:

No.

HT:

No physical danger or anything like that?

BB:

Never once did I have that feeling.

HT:

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

BB:

Not so much hilarious. I feel this anger when I had—“No niggers, no Jews, and no WACs.” Then when I got to Manchester, New Hampshire. Same sign. “No niggers, no Jews, no GIs at a restaurant.”

DS:

Really?

BB:

There were three restaurants in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, that did that. Then I ran into the blue laws, which I knew existed, but I didn't know what they meant. No wheels could turn on a Sunday, so no bus travel, nothing. The only thing we could depend on was the bus from the base. If you missed that bus, you were AWOL [absent without leave]. They'd take you downtown, but they'd caution you, “Be here.”

DS:

Oh, yes.

BB:

We'd come in, we'd stopped, we roll, when we're full, we go. He says, “If you're standing out there, we've got to put you into the walls and expand them. We'll get you on the bus. But be here.” I never missed the bus on a Sunday, but after walking into that restaurant—we were going to go out there and going to have dinner, and everybody told us about this place, how nice it was. When I saw that sign, that turned me, and that was it.

I did have one experience that I had forgotten about. Our colonel would want something in a hurry that they might not have on the base, and they sent us downtown, like to a stationery store, or whatever you had to go to. Motor pool was sent to go over with you. Well, they sent this big, strapping black man. He wasn't black-black. He was kind of mulatto, on the mulatto side. He did the driving. I didn't think anything of it. I'm born and raised up North.

The Jeep comes up, and I jump in the front seat with him, and we went downtown. We're walking along, we're talking, and he had knapsack with him to carry some stuff, because there was going to be a lot of stuff to carry. I had a book with me. We went into the store. We ordered all the stuff, and they got it all together, put it up. They were used to seeing GIs come in and buying.

We get back, and we're laughing and talking, got in the Jeep. He jumps in, and I jump in, and we're going back. We were sent out on a mission.

I get back, and the colonel calls me in the office. He's from Virginia. He said, “Did you walk in town with that nigger?”

I said, “Beg your pardon?”

He said, “Did you walk downtown alongside of that nigger?”

I said, “I walked alongside of the man you sent me with.”

He said, “We've had three phone calls that one of our girls is fraternizing with a black man.” I was floored.

HT:

This was in Manchester?

BB:

Manchester, New Hampshire. Three phone calls. I was dumfounded, because you went to school with them. We just never gave it a thought. They were black. I know enough to know that. I never went to live with them. I mean, my cousin Bill had a very good friend. He used to come in the house and eat with us and everything. We thought nothing of it. We grew up that way. All of a sudden this man became a “nigger.” He was more of a gentleman than a lot of other guys I met on that base. I want to tell you something. Especially that captain that tried to get into the barracks. I was floored.

So the next time we went down, he says, “I'm sending you down with the same fellow again. But, please, sit in the back of the Jeep, not up front with him.”

I said, “Is that a direct order?”

“Yes, it is.”

I told him, I says, “I was ordered to sit in the back of the Jeep.”

He said, “Yeah, I heard all about that stuff.”

But you see, there was segregation then. They had their own barracks. I never even saw where they lived. I had no idea where they were on the base. We just didn't go there, because we weren't supposed to.

HT:

Were there any black WACs in your unit?

BB:

I never saw the black WAC the whole time I was either in training or anywhere, nothing. Never. Some of the girls said yes, they did, but I never saw one. There were a lot of girls. At parade time on Saturday, if there were any there, you'd see them. I never saw them. Never saw the first black girl.

I didn't realize until later that they even took the men, but they were separate. I guess they sent them only one place. Some of them still resent it. They still resent it, because they were given all the menial jobs afterwards. But they were not at Manchester.

HT:

I talked to some black nurses, and they were given menial jobs, and they were professional nurses. They were given menial jobs at the hospital.

BB:

The dirty work was theirs.

HT:

Bedpan duty, that kind of stuff.

BB:

Same thing. They said, wherever they would be sent, they did the KP. Like the white girls never got any KP. They did it all.

DS:

I heard that.

BB:

Which makes you feel a little bit ashamed, to have that backwards. Again, when we signed them up, we're giving them so-called equality now. What's going on? Our prisons are loaded with black men, black women. Is it our fault that they don't know how to handle it? Really, you wonder. You wonder. We never gave them a chance to get accustomed to it, to feed them. We never taught them how they should conform. I don't know. It's a difficult thing for me to understand.

HT:

Tell me something about your social life while you were in the service. What did you do for fun? Tell me about the dances and the movies of the time.

BB:

I thought they were great fun. We got acquainted with this one group. They were coming over, the second wave of GIs that come on the planes. Oh, there were millions of them. It seemed that way, anyway. We didn't sleep all night, because they were coming in all night long, and right over our barracks that night as they were landing. Couldn't sleep unless you'd died.

They all came on a plane called the Schlitz. They were out of Milwaukee. The whole group were from Milwaukee, and the plane was called the Schlitz. It was shot down after it left. I was sitting at the teletype, and they didn't use those names, you know, and the Schlitz was down. But it didn't say if there were any fatalities or what happened. I never did know what happened with the fellows.

But they were gentlemen every bit of the way, and some of the fellows were married in that group. They'd dance with the girls, naturally. We'd go to the PX afterwards. We'd have something to eat, and we wouldn't let the fellows pay for us. I mean, they got fifty dollars a month, and so did we. We'd go and buy our own snacks and sit, laugh and talk, then they'd close down.

“Okay, all you GIs. Get out of here. We're going home.” Just all good fun. They'd walk us close to our area, but they wouldn't cross that one miserable line.

They wanted company. But nobody touched anybody. Nothing was off-color. Nothing. I mean, I just never saw anything like that, and I mingled with quite a few different groups. Just that one warrant officer, I never could forget him. He was such an ornery cuss.

Take, for instance, we were downtown this one day in Manchester shopping, and it was so bitter cold. You went from one store to the other to stay warm, even if you didn't want what was in that store. It was warm in there. We didn't see him coming. None of us did. He insisted that we saw him coming down the street, that we ducked in that store so we didn't have to salute him. They went back and made such a big fuss over it.

The colonel from the signal, we had a signal there, he called me in, and he said, “Did you see that—” I can't remember what he called him. Something that would come right through there, that you call somebody in Virginia, “galoot,” or something like that.

I says, “No, I didn't see him.”

He said, “Well, why did you duck in the store?”

I said, “Well, I was shopping. I was going home for leave, and I wanted to bring something home from New Hampshire, a souvenir for somebody, they asked me for one, and this five-and-dime had them. We ducked in there. We were cold.”

He says, “It wasn't cold that night.”

It was twenty-seven below zero. It was cold. But these three women ducked in there so they wouldn't have to salute him. He caused a lot of trouble for us. The captain, she called me, did we do it deliberately?

I said, “No, ma'am.” I says, “You know, my colonel over there is bugging me. Now you're asking me.” I says, “What's the harm if I salute him or don't salute him? Ducking in there doesn't do anything.” I says, “We ducked in there because it was so cold.”

“He said that you did it all deliberately.”

I said, “I think the man is just—.”

Well, he was very power mad. He was an officer and wanted everybody to know that he was an officer. He really wasn't an officer.

DS:

He had a problem.

BB:

He was just entitled to a salute. But other than that—

DS:

Probably nobody ever noticed him before. This way he was noticed.

BB:

Well, he married that nurse, and he pulled that. There were a lot of talk about him, a lot of talk. Whatever happened to him after that, we don't know.

DS:

Very childish.

BB:

You wish you could figure out, you know. But to put her in the hospital when she's pregnant, there's something wrong with a guy like that. Maybe she didn't salute him or something. You do wonder. You do wonder. Somebody like that is sick.

HT:

What kind of impact did the military have on your life immediately after you got out and in the long term?

BB:

When I got home, I was the most lonesome cat you ever saw. For a year, I was with all these people. Always something going on, friends around you, all kinds of excitement. To me, everything was exciting. I didn't find anything so boring. Even work was exciting for me. Then to go home, and all of a sudden, plunk, your husband goes to work, your father goes to work, your mother's waiting for you to help with housework. What's housework? Why do I have to do this? I was miserable. I was miserable.

DS:

No roll call.

BB:

I just felt like the bottom fell out of my world.

HT:

I've talked to several ladies that it took them anywhere from six months to a year to readjust. It was very difficult for them. They felt lonely, depressed, just out of sorts.

DS:

You feel detached.

BB:

Well, I was married, so depression really didn't set in. But what had happened while I was pregnant, I had kidney problems, and they had given me too much—what do they call it? Too many shots for pain before they realized I was pregnant. I had kidney stones, and when they moved, you nearly—oh, I was in big trouble. I can't remember what it was they gave me shots of. But anytime I had a pain, somebody would give me a shot. Well, I was getting reactions from that while I was carrying the baby. My doctor knew about it, but I didn't know what it was causing it.

But I was so busy being pregnant and being sick at times, but that added some to the sadness. I couldn't adjust even to the marriage when I come home, because just this one person was around me all the time, and then he had to go to work. When he'd come home, he wouldn't move a muscle to want to go out. “What are you going out for? Where are you going? I've been out all day. Stay here.”

Like I say, being so lonely all my life, being an only child, and then suddenly having all this excitement. It seemed like my world stopped and stood still suddenly. After the baby was born, well, I was so busy, I didn't have time to be lonely. But he was a sickly baby. Come up with colic, and when he was five months old, he came down with whooping cough, and the doctor didn't recognize it, and I almost lost him. He'll be fifty-five years old next month. You look at him today. It's hard to believe it's the same child that was so ill. But they wouldn't take babies into the hospital, you know, with diseases like that back then. I was a busy chicken, busy.

Then we moved back to Florida, because they didn't want him to take the winters up there. They didn't think he'd make it in the winter. We moved back to Orlando. First time in forty years they had sleet in Orlando. Hit a cold spell. I would have been better off up north. At least up there they had heat in the homes to keep yourself warm. We often laughed about that, but he survived it. Big, strapping guy today with gray hair coming up and mustache gray, beer belly. All that goes with it. The boys often ask him, did you enjoy it?

Now, my middle son, the younger one, Bob, the one who lives in south Florida, he was drafted, and he hated it. He absolutely hated it. He was so miserable in the service, it wasn't funny.

HT:

So you have two sons?

BB:

Three.

HT:

Were all three of them in the service?

BB:

No, no. Just Bob. Don had a family during Vietnam. Every time they reached him, they just bounced him. He had two children already. They didn't want him. Bob was married, but he had one child. When things got real tight, they took him with the one child, because they found out he was divorced, and they took him in. Oh, he hated it. God, it was awful.

They finally gave him a medical discharge, because he had problems. He was very seriously injured. He was mugged one time in Fort Lauderdale, while he was fishing. Someone hit him in the head, and he had a skull fracture. He also was struck in the head with a baseball bat when he was a little kid about ten years old—when he was six years old, rather. Don was ten.

From those two skull fractures, he'd get a lot of headaches, lots of headaches. He still gets them to this day, but not as severe as they used to be. I even asked for limited service for him, because I knew he couldn't fly. He'd go up in a plane, and he'd black out. They wanted to make a paratrooper out of him. Every time they took him up, he'd black out. They thought he was goldbricking. He was sick.

Finally, he went unconscious one time. He was unconscious so long that a lieutenant, who came from my home town, he called me, and he says, “Don't tell anybody how you found out, but he's a very sick fellow, and I think you should come up here and look into it.” Boy, I tell you, that was on a Sunday around ten o'clock in the morning. I'll never forget it. I called the guy who takes care of the credit union. I knew him very well.

I says, “Emergency. I have got to get to Georgia, and I need money.” I didn't have a checking account that I could draw out. My money was in savings. I said, “I need about a thousand dollars. I'm going to Georgia.”

He said, “I'll be right down.”

He come down, and he opened up the credit union, gave me my cash, right from the credit union. I was packed, grabbed [unclear], and we headed for Georgia. He was still unconscious when I got there. They come, they talked to me. I says, “You know, I wrote, I told the draft board, everybody. I didn't say, 'Don't take him in service,' but I said to give him limited service. He likes to work around motor pool and on cars. He was very good at things like that. Maybe an air base somewhere.” But they wanted to make a paratrooper out of him.

I says, “You'll killing him. You don't have to go out to be killed. You'll kill him up in the airplane.” They discharged him. I talked to our congressman back there. I can't remember his name. He interfered with a letter. Then there was a senator who interfered. So they let him go.

That wasn't the intent. I didn't want him out. I said, “Let him stay there. It would be good for him.” He could learn a better trade than what he was doing. Plus, he always made good money. I don't care what he did. He always made good money. But I always felt that maybe they could find an answer to all this from him.

[Continued discussion of Bob's childhood injuries.]

HT:

Well, do you think your life has been different because you were in the military?

BB:

Yes, I do.

HT:

In what ways?

BB:

Well, if I had stayed in Connecticut, didn't go in, I'd probably still be in Connecticut, because I was with family. I wouldn't dream of going away from family. Didn't mean a thing to me. Once I was in, I had itchy feet. I wasn't afraid to stand up for myself after that. Before that, you're so timid, you know. I mean, you were raised timid, and your parents were always right there to tell you, “No, you can't, yes, you can.” I said my mother was overprotective. Going in there taught me that, hey, I have a mouth, and I can use it.

HT:

Do you think you were an independent person before you went in, or did being in the military make you independent?

BB:

No, I think that made me more independent. Maybe as life wore on, I might have. But to me, I was more aware that there's a world out there to look at, to see. What am I doing hiding here? I mean, there's more than what goes on in Stamford.

Of course, when I was raised, it was such a different world. The Polish lived in one neighborhood. They had their church. They had their dances. You wouldn't even date an Italian fellow, because your parents would probably kill you. You were very cautious. You had friends, girlfriends that [were] Irish, or German, or Italian, or Jewish, but not boyfriends. It just wasn't supposed to be. You were supposed to stay here with the Polish. I found out that, hey, the others speak English, too, and they've got feelings. I mean, I was so—everything arranged—

DS:

There was a lot of prejudice in many communities.

BB:

Everything was so different for me, and I couldn't see enough. I wanted to keep going. When I got to Florida, oh, my god, I married a Floridian. He went down there for his father's funeral. Well, after the funeral was over, he says, “You've never been to Florida.” We went to see Silver Springs, and we went around some of the attractions. I was in a different world, you know. I mean, look at me, this wonderful place in Florida. I really was so pleased.

HT:

What line of work did your husband do once you came to Florida?

BB:

He was a butcher.

HT:

Even here in Florida?

BB:

Yes, he was a butcher all of his life. Believe it or not, my second husband was a butcher. [laughs] I didn't even realize it when I met him. I had no idea. We dated several times, and finally, I says, “You know, we never talk about it. What do you do?”

He says, “Oh, I'm a butcher.” It was amazing.

HT:

That is amazing. What did you do besides have a family and take care of them?

BB:

Well, the first marriage turned bad after five years. He was an alcoholic. So I went back into my work, working in the office. Couldn't make any money in that, and I had a family to take care of.

So I started looking around. I was good at office work. I could type and all, but they don't want to pay, and they wanted you to dress like you just stepped out of a magazine. I couldn't do it on my paycheck and take care of my family, so I decided I was going to be a waitress. Well, just to show you how dumb I was, I went into this hotel and applied.

“Oh, yes,” she says, “We could use you. They're always hard up for waitresses.”

I go in there, and my hostess called it a “station.”

“What's a 'station'?” I didn't know what they were talking about.

“You've got that whole row there to take care of.”

Oh, my god. I almost had a nervous breakdown the first night.

She says, “You don't put the tablecloths on right.”

Well, I was so tired, when everybody went home. She showed me how to put a tablecloth on. I says, “Oh, that's nice. You just fluff it out, and you put it on the table, right?”

Well, it had to have corners in a certain way in that restaurant. So the next table come up. I says, “Show me again. I didn't get it last time.” Now I'm being cocky and smart-mouthed. So she showed it to me. I says, “Oh, that table, show me again. I didn't get it right.”

She says, “Are you pulling my leg?” And I start laughing. She did four tables before she caught on that I was using her.

I says, “You know, while you show me, I can sit. I'm so damn tired. I don't care if those tables ever have a tablecloth.” I stayed there about three weeks, and then I got hired in another nice place. I worked there, and then I went to this Italian house. I stayed there with him a lot of years. They were very good to me, that family. They even pulled my husband in to work.

[Discussion about the reason for her divorce.]

HT:

You had three by that time? Three boys?

BB:

There were two boys. Then the second marriage. Of course, I was always told I married an Irishman, and that's why it was so bad. They says, “If you married your own kind, it would be different.” So I took their advice. You've heard this one, I'm sure.

I says, “Yeah, when I married my own kind, it was different, all right. It was a hell of a lot worse.” [laughs]

That was it. The second marriage, when we divorced, that was it. I wouldn't commit myself. I wouldn't get tied up with any commitments, nothing. I went back to work in Fort Lauderdale, waiting tables. Then I started applying for jobs. I had to have money, so I did whatever I could do to bring in money, because I had three kids now to take care of.

I applied in the post office. I applied to the state. The state was a riot. They offered you $37.50 a week, and no moonlighting. Yet, they wanted me so bad, because I aced the test, and then my five points on top of it, I had a score of 105. Sure, they wanted me. They should have paid me more money.

“Oh, you have to start from the bottom.”

I says, “I can't live on $37.50 a week.”

In the meantime, the post office called me.

DS:

That was a break.

BB:

I spent twenty-four years there. I had to leave, because my mom came down with Alzheimer's, and I couldn't afford to put her in a nursing home. It was sad, but I retired too soon. It made a big difference in my pension, but I'm still here. You just watch your P's and Q's, and watch what you spend. You make it.

HT:

If we can backtrack a minute about your military time, do you recall where you were when you heard about VE Day, Victory in Europe, which would have been in May of '45?

BB:

I was in the hospital that day, testing, because I almost lost the child. Why, I don't know, but they had me lying there straight, quiet, and it came over the air. No, that was when President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt died. Where was I VE Day? What date was VE Day?

DS:

May 8.

BB:

I was in the hospital. I was in the hospital. I was discharged right after. That's right, because when I come home, my Uncle Bill met me at the door. “She won the war, and they sent her home.” But they were still celebrating when I got home. They were still excited.

Then when the war ended in Japan. Oh, my god. That was on August 15, '45. I thought the world went mad, and I was so pregnant. Oh, my god, I was so pregnant. Everybody wanted to go running around. I says, “I can't get in that crowd.” I thought people went crazy. They were drinking. Everything was drink, booze. The beer flowed. There are other ways to celebrate. I thought it was crazy. We didn't have television, so I went over to my aunt's house that night. She had a TV, the only one in the family who had a television, and we were watching.

You know that famous picture where the GI was kissing that nurse?

DS:

Yes.

BB:

They kept showing that on TV, the live thing. I'll always remember that. They showed it. They caught him with the television camera. Oh, yeah, Aunt Fran, she had a twelve-inch television.

DS:

Oh, wow.

BB:

Oh, she was special.

HT:

That was a rarity in those days.

BB:

Oh, was it a rarity. Oh, god, the excitement of it. I'm watching this. “That's going on in New York right now.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, that's going on.”

When I think today I watched the war in Iraq while it was being shot up. But I was dumbfounded that here, forty miles from my hometown, I'm watching what's happening in New York. Today, I could watch it overseas, a world away. It's amazing what we've seen in our lifetime. It's amazing.

HT:

When did you get out of the service, exactly? You made mention of it, but I can't remember.

BB:

I think it was May eleventh of 1945.

HT:

You were discharged. You were still stationed in New Hampshire at that time?

BB:

Yes.

HT:

What was your rank at that time?

BB:

Buck private. Everyplace I went, they kept saying, “The TO is full. We can't give you no ranking anywhere.” None of our girls got anything, none of us, the whole group, because I was in touch with a lot of them. They went to other bases. One buddy of mine, she was my bunkmate. She went to Orlando, and she got sent overseas. When she got sent overseas, I lost touch with her. I never knew what happened. But she got in Orlando, and she didn't get any kind of ranking of any kind. Nothing.

She says, “No matter what we did, the TO's full.” She says, “I don't know what this 'TO' is, but I wish they'd get a new one.”

HT:

What is a “TO”? I'm not familiar with that.

BB:

I don't know. Table of Organization, they used to tell us. They were allowed so many sergeants and, I guess, so many captains. Us poor souls got there late in the war. There was no room for us. We were the cattle, in other words, you know.

DS:

You were the enlisted man.

BB:

Yes.

HT:

What was the general mood of the country in those days? Do you recall?

BB:

A lot of patriotism. A lot of patriotism. When the GIs would could home, there would be such excitement over it. People would come out to see them and visit and, oh, they'd have parties for them. I never ate so much potato salad and ham in my life when I come home. Here I come home from New Hampshire. They weren't excited that I was expecting a baby; they were excited because two GIs got off.

The funniest thing was, we went home. My husband was going to go to work in a butcher shop, but this butcher shop wanted the men to wear a shirt and tie. So we go in this store where my family had shopped for years. He's still in uniform, because he hadn't changed yet. No, that wasn't while we were discharged. That was while we were still—he was discharged, but I wasn't. We come home on leave. He had to go to work.

We go in this place to get some of these dress shirts, because he didn't have to wear them while he was in that slaughterhouse. The clerk behind there says, “You can have two shirts.”

I says, “Two shirts? That's not enough. I think I'm going to get a half a dozen.”

“Don't you know there's a war on?” Two people standing there with uniforms on.

“No, nobody told me,” my husband said.

The owner of the store came out. He says, “What a stupid thing to say to those two people.” I'll never forget that. “Don't you know there's a war on? Two shirts.” We took the two.

We got back up there, and a week later, my mother ships me two more. When she went in to buy something, they found out who I was. They didn't know who I was, as she was telling them. She says, “I wonder why you couldn't sell them more.”

He says, “I didn't know that was your daughter.”

So you see, it wasn't what you knew; it was who you knew. So I got two more shirts. So we came back home. I go in there, and I could buy all the shirts I wanted. I could have bought the store, if I wanted to.

Same way with meat rationing. When we come home, they were still rationing meat. My husband was a butcher, went to work, and half of the town, he suddenly became bosom buddies to everybody. They were all running in there, “Hey, could you get us some meat?”

He looked, he says, “I can't do nothing. I don't even have enough meat at home.” We did. My family ate well.

The boss told him, “You take care of your family, not all your friends. Not all your friends.” Because there was always a little extra to be had, and they'd let everybody get a little more, you know. We weren't exactly blessed with meat. There were a couple of meatless days we had, too. That's when the war was still on. When I think back to the rationing, I think some of this ought to be done today, teach some of these kids a lesson about how good they have it. That's what they need, to know what they could lose.

HT:

But you always had plenty of food while you were in the military?

BB:

Never any problem with food.

HT:

They always fed you well?

BB:

Always.

HT:

Was the food halfway decent in Manchester?

BB:

Food was fine. Food was fine. The only thing is, sometimes you'd see something you'd like, and they'd give it to you, and you couldn't eat it all because it was too much. You had to wise up, you know, take less. The sergeant there would tell us, she'd say, “Take less, but come back, and I'll give you more if you want it.” You couldn't throw your food away.

I've seen many a girl take a napkin and put it in their jacket and go home and have to clean up, because she got food all over herself. She'd say, “I couldn't eat it.” I mean, when they got something, she didn't like the taste, too. You tasted it, and you expected it like Mommy used to make it. It was not like that, and you went, “Oh.”

But one thing I discovered was peach pie, in the service. We never had such a thing at home. My family were very down to earth. We had apple pie, chocolate pie, pumpkin pie, and banana cream pie. That was it. No other pie existed in the world. I'd go there, and they were putting peach pie out. I thought I fell into heaven. I couldn't get enough of it.

But I learned one thing the hard way. You sat at this long table, right? Never say, “Pass me that.” You got up, and you picked it up yourself, because if you say, “Pass me,” everybody grabbed their share, and by the time it got to you, there might not even be any left. You did it once. Everybody got that dinner lesson. Don't say, “Pass it.” Go get it yourself.

I used to learn not to try to sit at the end of the table, you know, closer to the wall. Try to get in the middle. Everybody wanted the middle. But it was still a lot of fun. It was still a lot of fun. I didn't find it no chore, no problem. Nothing made me unhappy. I really enjoyed it.

HT:

I assume you lived in barracks in Manchester?

BB:

Barracks in Manchester and in Georgia both. Some of the girls lived in hotels and stuff like that. I never knew anything like that. I didn't even know that existed anywhere, because you didn't hear about what other people did other places.

HT:

So how many girls lived in a typical barrack?

BB:

Actually, I don't know. I know there were a lot more in basic.

HT:

One story? Two stories?

BB:

There was two stories in Georgia? I don't remember if there was two stories or not.

DS:

Where I lived was two stories.

BB:

I don't remember. It had to be, because there was such a mob of us. But I know Manchester, the upper floor was for those who worked nights, and then finally that didn't work, so then they took one barracks and threw all the night workers in there, because the others would come in, and loud talk, and laugh.

HT:

So you only worked in the daytime, I guess?

BB:

I worked the daytime only.

HT:

Eight-to-five-type job?

BB:

Anywheres from eight to five or ten to seven. I mean, different hours for different jobs. But mine was a—I had to be there from nine, nine to six. Then, of course, if I had to pull duty at night, it didn't matter. No such thing. I mean, you only worked eight hours. If you had to work, you had to work.

I'd go home, and there'd be a message at the day room. We always had to check the day room on the job I had. They called, and to come back, because somebody had to man the teletype. I seemed to get that duty quite often. I was fast with it. I was fast with typing. I had worked at it in Pitney Bowes a few times.

I also did some work at the Western Union office a couple of times. I was asked to come in there. They had trouble getting out. I worked extra there. Sometimes on the weekend, I'd work for them. So I was used to it. I knew how to handle telegrams, and what to do, and how to get back and forth. There was nothing so big about it, important. It's just that certain people knew something, so they kept choosing them over and over and over, and it made some people feel like it was such a special job, but it wasn't. It's just that you had the experience in it, and they kept sticking you in there.

My buddy, she was a telephone operator, and that's where she ended up. She had an unhappy life, though. The Red Phone was there. That was the one, if there was a crash, that phone, we always knew it was a big emergency when that phone would ring. That phone had a different ring to it. The whole office would stop and hold their breath. That's what happened the day they had that crash there.

She was involved in another crash, which really threw her into problems. She had this lieutenant. They gave him permission to talk to his wife before he was going to go overseas. She had to listen in, and if he said anything that he wasn't supposed to say, she was trained to cut off the phones, censoring, in other words. She was listening in to the conversation. She said the wife cried so, and she says, “Where are you?” He couldn't tell her where he was. He was only about forty miles from where his home was. She says, “You're so clear. You must be close.” He didn't answer.

So then he left, and he come over to her, and he thanked her, because she didn't normally say a sound, to let anybody know that she was on there listening. He had tears in his eyes, and he got in the Jeep, and he went back, and somebody got careless going across the field, and got right in front of an airplane. He was decapitated, and so was the driver.

DS:

Oh, my lord.

BB:

She was the one who got that call. Well, that threw her. That blew her mind. Oh, that blew her mind. She was in the hospital from that. She couldn't handle it, couldn't handle it. She said he was such a nice guy, you know. He'd been around the base for about two weeks, so she met him a few times.

She said she just couldn't handle it, because they wouldn't let him call his wife and talk to her or anything. I don't know if it was some kind of work that he couldn't. We never did really know. Nobody questioned it. So then he called her, and there was such crying, and this and that, and “I'll be home before you know it” and stuff. It wasn't fifteen minutes later he was dead. That's sad.

HT:

That is truly sad. Well, do you recall having any heroes or heroines in those days, people that you thought a great deal of?

BB:

No. Somebody that would be a hero? To me, they were all heroes who went overseas. I felt sorry for every fellow who I knew was going overseas. I always felt bad for them, especially in an airplane. He's way up there. He can't get out and walk when things got too tight. No, I don't remember anything, anybody I knew that did anything fabulous.

HT:

What about President Roosevelt? What did you think of him?

BB:

I grew up with him. He was the world's biggest hero. I still think to this day he was one of the finest presidents we ever had. Pulled us out of Depression. Kept us out of the war a long time. I don't know if that was good or not, but he did keep us out.

HT:

What about Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt?

BB:

I don't want it on tape what I would say about Mrs. Roosevelt.

HT:

Okay. Well, what about General Dwight Eisenhower?

BB:

I thought he was a glamour boy. I don't think there was any heroism about him. I still don't. He hid back. He didn't get into the fight where he belonged, like a lot of the other generals did. He stayed back, way over here in a comfortable place, he was pushing buttons. I may be wrong, but that was my impression of Eisenhower. As a president, I don't want that on tape, either.

HT:

What about Harry Truman?

BB:

He's a tough guy. I liked him. I thought he was good. He told it like it was. His wife, she was just an old-time farm girl who wasn't going to get involved in politics, and she stuck to it. She just wasn't going to put her neck out there. Now his daughter got a lot of notoriety, but not Bess. Bess stayed out of it. But him, he told it just the way it was. If he wanted something, it was damn or hell, he said it. I like that. Down to earth.

HT:

Not many women had been working outside the home prior to the Second World War. Do you consider yourself to be a pioneer, or a trailblazer, or a trendsetter for having—

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

BB:

I'm very, very much against that, politicians getting into abortion and all that. It's none of their business. Wrong. It's a woman's choice. The woman has to put up with it, in more ways than one.

HT:

How do you feel about women in combat positions? During the Gulf War, which was almost ten years ago now, women flew combat missions, airplanes, and that sort of thing, which is quite different from what you were allowed to do during the Second World War. You were very limited, what you could do.

BB:

Oh, god, yes.

HT:

How do you feel about that?

BB:

Kind of down the middle of the road. It's hard for me. There are so many women who are not capable of doing something like that. I mean, I'm the first to say that. I couldn't do it. I don't have the strength for these things. Well, a woman is so much more emotional than a man. She's putting her life on the line every time she goes up there, in more ways than one. Not from the bullets, but from other ways. If they've got so much in life, why go to that point where they're not capable.

DS:

They have to learn to be capable. What you don't realize, there's going to be a war here. We have to learn how to protect ourselves. I think they should have combat training, not that they should have to go in. But I believe that they should have combat training.

BB:

Have more combat training so they have more sense to it.

DS:

You're always prepared that way.

BB:

But as a woman, I don't think every woman is capable of this.

DS:

No, that's for sure. That's for sure.

BB:

More men are more capable in that direction that the female side of it. I end up with the limited type of person in that, because I know I couldn't do it. I never had the strength. Never had the strength in my arms or in my body. I was a big girl. I looked like a bull, but I had the strength of a flea. When you do get into these things, they expect you to have everything that goes with it, and I don't think all women are capable of it. As I said, women have the tendency to be more emotional, and they look at things in a different way.

I don't know if I could get up there and shoot another man, whether I liked it or not. I don't think I could—it would be very difficult. It would be a very difficult thing for me. To me, I always felt if I had to shoot someone, I'd be caught off guard doing it, rather than thinking. Then after it's done, they have to carry me out, too. I don't think I could—I don't know. Maybe it depends how threatened you are, if it means you or him. That's probably the time I would be able to do it. It would be a you-or-me deal. Just to aim, because he's standing there, and he's got another color uniform on, and just to get rid of him.

DS:

There's a lot of men like that, too. They just don't want to kill anybody. Most people are like that.

BB:

It seems anybody I ever talked to, the men that were in the service couldn't wait to get out there and shoot. I guess it was just all talk. I don't know.

DS:

It's self-preservation, and the best way to do is to be—

BB:

If they made a woman president, there wouldn't be as many wars. Women think a little different. We're different. We've got to face the fact: We are different.

DS:

I hate fighting. I hate all this commotion.

BB:

And if she's qualified and she proves she's qualified, fine. But I wouldn't want to be told I must do that. When you're in the service, “You must do that.” See, that's the part I would object to.

DS:

To be prepared is one thing. To be ordered is another.

BB:

I mean, take the little one over here. She's so little. What would she do? She doesn't have the strength.

DS:

Oh, I can win, just like you do, and I'd be a fighter. If I had to be, I would.

BB:

Yes, if you had to be, in that sense.

DS:

That's why I say, always should be prepared.

BB:

But to have someone tell me that I'm going to carry that gun, or I'm going to do this or that.

DS:

Oh, no, I'm not talking about shooting or anything.

BB:

That ain't good. That ain't good. Absolutely not.

HT:

Well, we've covered quite a bit this afternoon. Do you have anything you want to add, any story that you feel that you haven't told me, yet?

BB:

No, I think I've kind of covered some of the things that I remembered, as I was talking. Just that they I'm very pleased that we were recognized this way.

HT:

Well, as I mentioned earlier in the conversation, you'll get a chance to review this transcript, and you can add things at that time. So in case something jars your memory as you're reading it through, you can make a little addition to it.

BB:

Oh, okay.

HT:

Anyway, thank you so much for talking to me this afternoon. It's been a pleasure.

BB:

I've enjoyed it more than you think.

[End of interview]