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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Erma Hughes Kirkpatrick, 2001

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Object ID: WV0213.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Kirkpatrick’s work in naval intelligence as both a civilian and an officer in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II; and her personal life after the war.

Summary:

Kirkpatrick discusses her civilian work in naval communications in Washington, D.C.; her decision to join the navy; her training at Smith College; her work in naval intelligence reconstructing Japanese coded messages, training new personnel, and conducting research; the Mount Vernon Seminary facility; her social life and schedule; and VE and VJ celebrations in Washington. She also briefly describes some of her post-war activities, including her travels across the United States; attending a management training program at Radcliffe on the GI Bill; remaining in the reserves; and her volunteer work and quilting.

Kirkpatrick also reflects on patriotism in Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country during the war; the atom bomb and how her feelings about the Japanese have changed since the war; feminism and being a stay-at-home mother; and her quilting and volunteer activities.

Creator: Erma Kathryn Hughes Kirkpatrick

Biographical Info: Erma Hughes Kirkpatrick (1920-2012) of Washington, D.C., was a cryptanalyst in a naval intelligence unit while serving with the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II.

Collection: Erma Hughes Kirkpatrick Papers

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

Full Text:

HT:

Today is Saturday, May 12, 2001. My name is Hermann Trojanowski. I'm at the home of Mrs. Erma H. Kirkpatrick in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I'm here to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina [at] Greensboro.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick, if you could give me your full name, we will do a test to see how your voice comes out.

EK:

My name is Erma Kathryn Hughes Kirkpatrick, and for a short time McCurty.

HT:

Mrs. Kirkpatrick, thank you so much for meeting with me this afternoon. Could you tell me a few things about yourself? Where were you born and when?

EK:

I was born in downtown Washington, D.C., at 45 M Street on September 10, 1920, and then moved, when I was three years old, to Chevy Chase, Maryland, where I lived to adulthood and attended Washington, D.C., public schools.

HT:

Could you tell me a little bit about your family, about your siblings and your parents?

EK:

My father was a bricklayer. His father was also a bricklayer who emigrated from Wales. My father had a bricklaying contracting business in Washington, D.C. My mother was from a farm in nearby Loudon County, Virginia. They were married in 1912. First they had two girls. I was the third girl, then three more girls and two boys. So there were eight of us, six girls and two boys. We all grew up in the same house in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

HT:

Where did you go to high school?

EK:

Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.

HT:

Did you attend college?

EK:

I went to the University of Maryland from 1938 to 1942.

HT:

What type of degree did you receive?

EK:

B.A. [bachelor of arts] in psychology.

HT:

After you graduated from college, what type of work did you go into?

EK:

Well, I immediately went to work for the U.S. Navy. Nineteen forty-one and forty-two were my senior year in college. Nineteen forty-one, of course, was Pearl Harbor. I had a psychology professor who was going on active duty in the navy and knew about some work in naval communications, and steered me to take a correspondence course is cryptanalysis.

After that, I was qualified for a civil service job [in the Navy Department] and ended up in the unit that was reconstructing Japanese codes. It was a naval intelligence unit that was largely responsible for our winning the Battle of Coral Sea, because we were reading the naval traffic and knew what ships were going to be there. So that unit was very proud of that work, in doing that.

I was there for about a year. It seemed desirable for me to go ahead and get a commission in the navy. There are certain things that it's easier for officers to do than for civilians. Officers are allowed access to certain types of materials not available to civilians. I went away for training, knowing all the time where I was going to be stationed. I went to Smith College [in Massachusetts] for training and then returned to the same unit.

HT:

When you decided to enter the service, what was your family's reaction?

EK:

I don't really remember. I guess when you have eight children, whatever your kids say, you respond, “Okay, if that's what you want to do.” So they felt good about it, I think.

HT:

Were any of your siblings in any of the branches of the service?

EK:

No. Later, both brothers served in the air force, but they were much younger, so it was at a later time, not during World War II.

HT:

When did you actually join the WAVES [Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service—U.S. Navy]? Do you recall?

EK:

February 13, 1943. I left from Union Station in downtown Washington, D.C., to go to Northampton, Massachusetts.

HT:

What do you recall about—I'll call it “basic training,” for lack of a better word?

EK:

Well, I learned how to make a bed in a more precise way than I had in the past. I learned how to march. I learned that whatever an officer says, if you're a midshipman, is right. Whether it's right or not, you'd better treat it as if it's right. But you have no choice.

HT:

Does anything stand out in your mind about the exercises and instruction you received at Smith College?

EK:

Well, one of the things was people were arranged by height. So I, being short, was in the last row. People in front keep changing their steps, so you do a sort of a little gallop, if you're in the last row, to keep up with the way everybody else is walking. You know when to put your left foot down and when to put your right foot down. So that was kind of interesting. I had a good time. It doesn't seem very real now.

HT:

Do you recall how long the training lasted at Smith?

EK:

It was supposed to last, oh, I don't know, maybe eight weeks. I was pulled out, because we were very necessary, and they wanted me back where I was. They had the authority to pull me out of basic training, so I didn't ever complete the whole basic training.

HT:

What was your rank when you were commissioned?

EK:

Ensign. I do remember another thing. I learned how to salute. Naval personnel do not salute uncovered. So you have to have your hat on before you salute. And you don't let your thumb be “adrift,” as they call it, because the first group of WAVES that trained at Northampton, which is before I was there, were reviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt. They were ordered to hand salute, and they put their hands up like this, and then “eyes right,” and then a lot of them passed thumbing their nose at Mrs. Roosevelt, which was not their intention. So you tuck that thumb right against your finger. You never let it drift.

HT:

Do you recall how long you actually did basic training? Was it four weeks? Six weeks?

EK:

It was not over four, but I don't recall.

HT:

But I assume you learned enough to become an officer in those four weeks?

EK:

Well, there were certain things about naval procedures and things that I didn't need, and most women didn't. We had to climb a rope. I remember that. Or climb down a rope.

HT:

So you did have to undergo some sort of physical exercises each day, I assume?

EK:

Yes.

HT:

Calisthenics and that sort of thing?

EK:

Yes.

HT:

Now, this was in February of '43, so this was in the middle of the wintertime in Massachusetts.

EK:

Indeed, it was.

HT:

I imagine it was rather on the cold side.

EK:

It was very cold, and I was not quite used to so much cold. We got out in the gray dawn in formation. But it was cold. It was a very cold winter, snow on the ground.

HT:

After you left basic training, did you go back to D.C.?

EK:

I went back to D.C., and by that time this naval intelligence unit had taken over Mount Vernon Seminary. We said we served on the “USS Mount Vernon Seminary.” They took over this girls' school in Washington, and that's where I served. In fact, it was just several blocks from my high school. So I lived at home.

HT:

With your parents?

EK:

With my parents, yes. I bought a car, and I lived at home with my parents. It was an easy trip to work, and I really was home the whole time.

HT:

So did you spend your entire navy career at the—

EK:

Yes.

HT:

You got out in 1946? Do you recall?

EK:

It was about March of '46, when I got out.

HT:

Can you describe a typical day at the naval intelligence unit?

EK:

Well, our days were loosely defined. When I was first there, there were three shifts. There was one 8:00 to 4:00 in the daytime, the day shift; the evening shift, which was 4:00 to 12:00; and the night shift, which was 11:00 to 8:00. We'd work two days on each shift. So we had to learn to sleep whenever you were off. We'd sometimes party in the morning. If you work those kinds of hours, then your social life revolves around the people at work, because they have the same weird schedule.

One thing I remember is that—this isn't a typical workday, but let me say it before I forget it. The other women there, almost without exception, were women who had gone to women's school in New England. I was the only woman, as far as I can remember, who had gone to a coeducational school.

The United States Navy, if you'll pardon my saying so, is pretty snobbish. They recruited at the Seven Sisters. They're very conscious, I think, of social standing, or were at that time. My husband was a Marine, and he said that in the Pacific that the Marines would take a certain island or atoll, and then the [U.S.] Navy would take it over, and the first thing they'd do is build an officers' club. There was a rivalry between the Marines and the [U.S.] Navy, I think, that encouraged that.

But what we were doing—and they would hang me if I'd told all this earlier, but when messages are sent from ship to ship, from naval unit to naval unit, they must be encoded. One job, if you're a cryptographer, is to decode from the codebooks you have. If you're a cryptanalyst, you try to reconstruct the code they're using, which they change occasionally. You try to build it up and reconstruct the code so that future intercepted messages can be read.

One of the things I did at one time was to do research at the Library of Congress, because a message would come through, and it would refer to a ruler of a certain country or a certain world event involving a person, and they couldn't tell what the word was. So I'd look up like whom they might be referring to, what official, and find that in the Library of Congress or New York Times or in some other records book. So you sort of do it backwards. You figure out what the codes were.

There was a group who did the brainwork of that, a nucleus of people that included Oswald Jacoby, who was a big bridge expert, and they would reconstruct it. Now, we would do the somewhat mundane job of copying out these messages, which were five-digit numbers of numerical code, and we would copy them out, and then we would do some of the rather mechanical work.

They worked in what we call the “booby hatch,” the big minds, and the people who really could do the figuring out. I didn't do any of that. What I did was very routine. There are certain rules the navy has about certain materials that can be handled only by a commissioned officer. So we trained the new people who came, and I did some of that.

Also, all the trash in our unit had to go in burn bags, which are stapled and then burned. They were escorted by a member of the unit to be burned. We did our own char force [janitorial service]. Nobody was allowed in there. We had two badges. One would get us into the building, and one would get us into our own little unit. The whole theory was that all the different units in that building—I don't really know what they all did. They weren't all Japanese. Some were German codes. But you didn't talk to anybody else about what you did, so there were very few people who could put the whole thing together.

HT:

Had you joined that to read Japanese?

EK:

No, I didn't. I know a few Japanese words. I know “ganmaru[?]” is “gunboat,” and a few things like that, but I have in my recent incarnation become a quilt maker and in that connection have taught quilt making to several hundred Japanese women, and I never tell them that I know the Japanese words that I do know, like “gunboat.” I never tell them what I did in the war.

But in 1990 I had the privilege of visiting Hiroshima with Japanese friends and visiting the Peace Park, and that was a very, very emotional experience for me, to go there with Japanese friends, and remember how we had felt about the Japanese. We were working to destroy them. I was glad when they dropped the bomb, because it meant that my friends were coming back from overseas. Today I have a totally different attitude.

I was in Japan as the guest of about seventy-five of my Japanese students and ex-students, who gave me a trip to Japan. I was in their very, very loving hands. The whole tone of the Peace Park was, “this must never happen anywhere again,” and I could subscribe to that. There was never any attitude overtly expressed to me, “This is what you did to us.” Most of them were too young to have remembered, certainly, but it was a very moving experience, and it certainly changed my attitude about the things that went on. I wonder now how I could have been so callous.

HT:

I think we were caught up in the moment.

EK:

Yes.

HT:

There was a lot of patriotism and war fever in those days. Let me just backtrack a second. When you decided to enlist, did you have to take some sort of test, either physical or written? Do you recall?

EK:

Yes. In fact, I didn't pass the physical at first. I had to have a waiver on dental work. I don't know in what way. It wouldn't be like the Civil War where you had to bite the bullet off. Anyway, I did get a waiver. But yes, I had a pretty thorough physical exam.

HT:

What about written tests? Were there any kind of written tests involved?

EK:

I don't think so. Certainly written applications, and there were security checks. They came down into my neighborhood, and they were very careful, because of the unit I was going into. They did that before I was employed as a civil servant. They were careful about whom they employed—I guess it was the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation].

HT:

Was it unusual, only in your case, where you basically knew that you were leaving a civilian job to go into the military, going back to the original civilian job? Or was that quite common in those days?

EK:

I don't think so. I don't think so. I was with people who had taken potluck, and sometimes forcibly so, in order not to be drafted. I was with a lot of people who were from other places or away from home, who were lonely. I made some very, very good friends in that time, most of them men, because there were just a very few women in this unit.

HT:

I was going to ask you whether there were many women in that particular unit.

EK:

No. Definitely a minority. But I made some really good friends, and they'd have stag parties, and I was included, and they never thought anything of it. They had stag parties, and I came, too. So I had a good time. I made warm friends, and wartime Washington was very friendly to an unattached young woman. It was a very rich experience.

HT:

Were there any civilians in your unit after you got back from Northampton?

EK:

A few. I was briefly employed at the same place. I kept up my naval reserve and went to monthly meetings, but then I left that job after about a year and a half. But it was a good job. It was a civil service job, and that was the most natural thing for me to do. Then I had the GI Bill, so what I did was to go back to school and left the navy department forever.

HT:

What did you study under the GI Bill?

EK:

I went to Radcliffe, which had a management training program for women, a one-year program leading to a certificate. Women were not allowed in the Harvard Business School and places like that, so a very far-sighted professor, the son of Professor Alfred North Whitehead of Harvard, T. North Whitehead, who was director of this program.

We had one month of orientation, then a month of fieldwork, because they felt if you were going to learn to administer, you needed to be administered upon. Most of these women were younger than I, had not spent a lot of time in the workforce, and for them the fieldwork was particularly valuable.

I spent a month working in a Massachusetts GE [General Electric] plant in West Lynn, Massachusetts, on a conveyor belt, during my first month of fieldwork. We had fieldwork, followed by coursework and seminars. Some of our instructors were Harvard Business School professors, and some were people who were in business. Then in the spring, a month of fieldwork, working with people not doing administration but out in Birmingham, Alabama. We concluded with a month of tying it all together and writing reports on our fieldwork.

That gave me some good training, and training I put to good use in my volunteer activities. I was not employed during most of my married life, was fortunate enough to be able to be a full-time mother and community volunteer. But that training was good. So I felt as if I really benefited from it.

I kept up my naval reserve status for the year and a half I was in Washington after the war. It was necessary to take courses to keep up the active naval reserve. I signed up for target practice at the National Rifle Association range near Union Station. We were shooting a .22 on a .45 frame, and that frame is a bit large for me. I'm not very good, but I did make a bull's eye. Unfortunately, it was on the target next to mine.

So the instructor suggested that there was an opening in the Russian class, that I might benefit from taking another class rather than target practice. I did switch over to that. And I kept my inactive reserve well after I was married; kept that up just with no particular—I don't know why I kept it up.

It benefited us one time. It was during the Korean War, and as I mentioned, my husband had been a Marine. We were going to Washington, where I have a lot of relatives. Driving up the road, he decided we would detour to Quantico to show his three young children—I was in the backseat with two little kids, one little kid beside him—where he had trained as a Marine officer.

So we got to the gate, and security was very high because it was during the Korean War. He didn't have any identification, but I did. So I showed my naval reserve identification, and the guy saluted, and we went through Quantico on the fastest trip you have ever seen, with a very awkward silence. It was not a happy time in C.A. Kirkpatrick's life. I couldn't help but be kind of tickled at that.

HT:

Had he just forgotten his—

EK:

No, he wasn't in the reserves at that time. Being in the reserves was really not meaningful. They never would have drafted me, if they were pulling people off reserve to go to Korea and all, but with three little kids, they wouldn't have done that. Anyway, that was one of the, to me, lighter moments. But you don't do that to a Marine.

HT:

Do you recall what the positive aspect of being a WAVES officer was?

EK:

That's hard. I learned to take some responsibility. I think I learned that although some rules seem meaningless, that there is a great deal of benefit from having order and a system, even though you might rebel against it and think it's worthless. Somebody has got to be in charge of a situation like that.

HT:

What about negative aspects of being an officer, particularly a woman officer?

EK:

The negative aspects, one of them was that you were not supposed to fraternize with enlisted people, and that is one rule that I thought was not important or relevant. One of my best friends was a Harvard graduate, and he hadn't gotten commissioned, so it was somewhat capricious. Some of them later went on to get commissions. But that caste system was very difficult for me to agree with. So we socialized together. Plus, in wartime, nobody is going to pick you up for that. Peacetime, it would have been another thing. We'd go out dancing, and we'd be a group of enlisted men and officers.

HT:

Were you in uniform at that time?

EK:

We had to wear a uniform except for on active duty. We had to wear the uniform. The only time I didn't wear a uniform was when I took a trip to Mexico—because my sister lived there, Mexico City—[and] took my first airplane ride. They preferred that we not wear a uniform when we traveled. In foreign countries, there was no need to call attention to a military status.

Otherwise, the only thing, night clothes or tennis clothes, or some kind of active sports clothes, swimming, were the only time we were ever allowed to be out of uniform—and there was one positive aspect, it seemed to me. You didn't have to decide what you were going to wear. It was all decided, and you knew you were appropriately dressed. There was something comforting about that.

HT:

The only time you changed was winter, summer—

EK:

Yes, yes. And you knew you were doing the right thing.

HT:

That was all probably prescribed for you?

EK:

Absolutely.

HT:

It seems like you enjoyed your work very much.

EK:

I did, and I enjoyed the friends I made very much.

HT:

Do you think you were treated equally with the men or by the men. Did you ever encounter any discrimination because you were a woman?

EK:

I didn't feel that. I haven't felt a lot of discrimination. I recognize that there is discrimination. Partly, it's because I accepted the role of women. There were six girls in my family. My two brothers, who were the youngest, didn't understand why women were clamoring to be equal. They thought they had grown up under sort of a little suppression themselves. They didn't see why women wanted equality—they already had it. My husband never treated me as anything but an equal, so I've not felt keenly discriminated against. Maybe I'm just not sensitive to the things that are happening.

HT:

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

EK:

I don't know that I can answer that.

HT:

Did you have any problems with calisthenics or physical training?

EK:

Because it was very moderate once I got on active duty, and that was just a few weeks, no. I learned to climb up and down off a balcony on a rope, climb down. That was it. We didn't have to climb up. We climbed down. But I was young then.

HT:

What was the hardest thing you ever had to do emotionally?

EK:

I don't think I can answer that without thinking about it a whole lot. I don't want to answer it casually. My mind tends to blot out the unpleasantness.

HT:

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

EK:

No.

HT:

Do you recall any unusual humor, embarrassing moments?

EK:

The only thing—it had nothing to do with being in the service. I drove a little Ford, and the tires were not very strong in those days. I got out in the parking lot, and it had a flat tire. Well, my daddy had taught me to change a tire, but this was the first time I had done it on my own, and I wasn't sure where the axle was until I stopped a man going by, and I said, “Is this the axle?”

He said, “Yes,” and walked on.

I felt chivalry was certainly dead. But I changed it, and I got to where I could change a tire in eleven minutes. I don't do that anymore. That doesn't have anything to do with the service, though.

HT:

How did you and your fellow officers spend your spare time? What kind of off-duty recreation were you involved in?

EK:

One of the big things we did was canoeing on the Potomac River. We could do it in the daytime, when we were off in the daytime. There were several of us who were good canoeing buddies.

HT:

I think you said earlier, you were actually stationed in Mount Vernon Seminary?

EK:

Yes.

HT:

Was that in Virginia somewhere?

EK:

No, it was in D.C. near American University, near Ward Circle and Massachusetts Avenue.

HT:

That was your base? You were not stationed at a military base at all?

EK:

No. The largest WAVE barracks in the world was across the street there. It was built subsequently. I think that land is now owned by American University. I don't know whether the navy still has Mount Vernon Seminary or not.

HT:

You mentioned before that you did go out on dances and things like that, as a group.

EK:

Yes, small groups within the group. At that time, there were places with dance floors. There was a roadside place called “River Bend” in Virginia. That was a very racy place to go. But there were different places. Like hotels would have dance floors and live music. They were always crowded. The dance floors were crowded.

HT:

This was the height of the swing and jazz era?

EK:

Yes. Exactly. And jitterbug.

HT:

Were you a good dancer?

EK:

I like to dance, a lot.

HT:

Do you recall any songs or dances?

EK:

It was the big-band era. When I was in college, we had big bands come, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw that played for the prom. The only one that comes to mind is Bing Crosby was big then, and I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas was big, except there was a parody on that, supposedly put together by the folks stationed in North Africa. This is racist, it's awful, but at the time we thought it was quite risqué, and it was, I'm Dreaming of a White Mistress, “like the ones I used to know.” But the music just is not—I can't remember right now.

HT:

Do you recall where you were when VE [Victory in Europe] Day was announced?

EK:

I do. I was in Washington, and what we did was, I got in my car, and we had three other people, and people were driving—it gives me the shivers to think of it—drive around and stop—there'd be traffic, and you'd stop and get out and hug people from the cars all around you, and if you were in uniform, they'd just get the best hugs. Just driving around, just absolutely ecstatic that the war was over. It meant that all our friends were coming home.

When I graduated from college in May of 1942, the men were sworn in to active duty. The ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] members of our class were sworn in to active duty. They went on to become paratroopers. They were just forming the paratroopers. They were sworn in to active duty. My age group, the attrition was great. The war was very real to us. It meant our friends, who were overseas, who we exchanged letters with, we sent packages if they were in prisoner-of-war camps—probably they didn't ever get—and we had the correspondence.

There was a ton of intense feeling, and you felt like you had to live today. So you were aware of feelings. People would go off for a weekend. I remember one young woman, enlisted woman, came back all dreamy-eyed. She had been engaged to somebody, came back all dreamy-eyed, and said she had had a seventy-two, which is a three-day [leave], and she said, “Guess what I did. I got married.” People would know each other for that short a time, and the intensity of living your life right now, and the threat of not knowing what the future is going to be, it made for a lot of immediate relationships. If two people in uniform fall in love, they don't go to each other's homes. I wonder how some of those marriages turned out.

In fact, I will say if you had four dates with somebody and they didn't ask you to marry them, you thought you really bombed with him, because it was just the way you did it.

HT:

[Unclear]

EK:

Yes, exactly. Exactly. Part of that was—I think it was hard on a lot of people who couldn't quite—I was at home and kept my balance more, because of that. But these people put in these whole new situations, living in barracks, like the women across the street did, I think sometimes lost sight of their own life's framework. So there were some sad things, I think that happened in that regard.

HT:

Do you regret not ever having been elsewhere other than the D.C. area so you would have had different types of experiences?

EK:

No, I don't. At that time, they were just beginning. There was a unit in Hawaii called FRUPAC, Fleet Radio Unit Pacific, that did the same thing we did, reconstructed codes. We had some guys who had been there and came back and some who went out there. There was some talk we would be sent there, but by and large there was not an opportunity for me to go anywhere else. So I didn't fret over it. I had the world coming to me, so I had some world experiences and didn't have to leave my home.

HT:

We talked about VE Day, but what about VJ [Victory in Japan] Day?

EK:

It was the same thing.

HT:

Same reaction on everybody's part, or was it not quite as intense?

EK:

For us, it was very intense, because that's what we worked on. So it was very intense. It was just one long party. They weren't wild parties, really, if you look at it today.

HT:

What was your reaction when you heard about the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan?

EK:

I was happy. As I say, it meant that some of my friends and my fiancé would be coming back. We started dating when he was at Quantico. He was a professor at University of Maryland when I was an undergraduate. I worked for him.

He was writing a book, a textbook, and I was taking dictation and transcribing it. He went into the Marine Corps, and then when he came back to Quantico, he called me, and we started dating. We didn't date before that. So I was glad he was going to be coming back.

HT:

What was your rank when you were discharged?

EK:

Lieutenant, full lieutenant. It goes ensign, lieutenant junior grade, and lieutenant, which is comparable to captain in the army.

HT:

What impact do you think the military has had on your life, immediately after you got out and in the long term?

EK:

Well, I'm glad that I know something about the way the military operates, and I didn't have the unpleasantness that probably a man might have had. But it seems like we're talking about another incarnation, that life has gone on to a lot of other things.

HT:

I'm sure anything a person undergoes has an impact on their life. Do you think your life might have been different if you had not been in the military? Would you have met your husband if you had not been in the military?

EK:

I would have. Yes, I would have met him. I think I was pretty much of a homebody, and it might have been hard for me to—if I hadn't come across all the outside world coming in the way it did, it might have been harder for me to make the break from home. I knew I needed to do that. When I heard about this program from somebody I met in the service, who had been a Radcliffe graduate, she went through it and recommended that I do it. I knew I had the GI Bill, and that breakaway was very good for me.

HT:

That was really the first time you were away from home, because you had gone to school locally?

EK:

Yes, and I was what they called “day dodger” from my home in Chevy Chase to College Park, because it was 1938. My father's business was not good. He had eight children to take care of. A college education at the University of Maryland cost, including books, maybe $300 a year. He sold a lot in Alexandria to send me to college, which I didn't know until later. But all eight of us have college degrees, and I thank my parents for that, very much. So I went back and forth to school. I didn't live at the dormitory. My later sibs did. But at that time, Daddy couldn't afford it. So, no, I was very much tied to home.

HT:

Did you ever consider making the military a career?

EK:

No. It's kind of an unreal world, in some ways.

HT:

Were you encouraged to do a more traditional female-type role after the service, or did you decide to do that on your own? Made you want to get out of the service?

EK:

Well, I guess I've always been brought up somewhat in the traditional female role, but as I say, I've never felt—I don't know how to answer your question very well.

HT:

If you had it to do over again, would you join the military again?

EK:

Yes.

HT:

It sounds like you had some positive aspects.

EK:

I think I did.

HT:

Can you describe your adjustments to civilian life, once you got out?

EK:

It was not particularly difficult, because my life wasn't all that different. What I did do, as soon as I got out, a friend of mine and I took a trip, a long trip. We stayed at military bases, because we were on terminal leave; therefore, we could stay. Like we went to Mardi Gras. We started at the Mardi Gras, and we could stay in some WAVE barracks.

As each person was leaving to go back home, they'd say, “Well, if you're ever in Ponca City, Oklahoma, I'll buy you the biggest steak in town.”

We'd say, “Now, just what's your telephone number?”

So we went around seeing people we'd known in the service. [We] ended up going to Alaska on the Inside Passage. So we took two and a half months, spent all our money on our terminal leave, and came back home. That was a good orientation to civilian life. We had the best of both worlds then, because we had some slight military standing, as far as places to stay.

HT:

Did you go by train or by car?

EK:

Car, my little Ford. Went to California.

HT:

You must have put quite a few miles on that Ford.

EK:

We did.

HT:

And it wasn't difficult to get gas?

EK:

The gas had eased up by then, a good bit. We didn't have any particular trouble.

HT:

You and your friend were never apprehensive about—I assume it was another female. You were never afraid of driving around—

EK:

No. I would say we weren't prudent about it, but no, we weren't.

HT:

You say you drove all the way to Alaska?

EK:

We didn't drive to Alaska. We wanted to, but the Alcan Highway would not have been open to us. You had to have like a four-wheel-drive and probably be a male to go on the Alcan Highway. But there's a boat that leaves from Vancouver, British Columbia, and goes up the Inside Passage, just as far as Skagway, which is sort of where Alaska starts. Then we just went up and back on the boat. We went up with a boatload of people who were looking forward to moving to Alaska and a new life, and so hopeful and cheerful, and came back with the boatload of people who had been there and it hadn't worked, and were coming back home, so two totally different atmospheres than the other passengers.

HT:

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

EK:

I think it was different in different parts of the country. I took a trip to Florida on my vacation, or on my leave, so I could go someplace else. I went to Florida one winter.

In Washington, we were pretty close to the war and national and international news. We felt we had our finger on the pulse. Everything seemed immediate. In Florida, they were worried about whether they were able to get a train back to New York and other things, which the war seemed so remote to them. I felt it was shocking, and I felt they didn't know we were at war, because Washington was very intensely aware that we were at war. We were patriotic. So that's what the atmosphere was: red, white, and blue, all the way.

HT:

Particularly in Washington, you say?

EK:

Yes.

HT:

It probably would have been true for anyplace that had a large military presence.

EK:

Yes. I don't know how even the military bases in the Midwest would have reacted, whether they were aware. They must have been more aware, because they'd be shipping out. People would be going abroad.

HT:

Do you recall who some of your heroes and heroines were from that time, people that you particularly admired?

EK:

I've always been an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt.

HT:

Did you ever have the opportunity to meet her?

EK:

Well, she spoke at our high school.

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

EK:

I remember three occasions on which I saw Eleanor Roosevelt: one, when she spoke at the high school assembly; another when she parked in her Eleanor-blue coupe down at Union Station. I was meeting somebody, and so was she, and she parked her little car next to mine.

HT:

She drove herself?

EK:

Yes, all by herself. And the third time was when the king and queen of England came to visit, and there were two cars, open cars. One had the king and Franklin Roosevelt, waving to the crowd. I was standing on the curb, on Massachusetts Avenue, in front of the British Embassy. The same with the queen and Eleanor. Totally—not totally unprotected. I suppose there were Secret Service around. But these two open cars.

I was standing a very short distance away. I was standing on the curb, and they were in the middle of the road. They'd never do that today. But I could see her and the queen, with her regal wave and her hat that went suitably off her face, so she wouldn't be hidden from the crowd. In fact, I have snapshots of that, I think, somewhere.

HT:

What did you think of President Truman, once he became president, after President Roosevelt died?

EK:

I came to admire him more and more as a rather unassuming and straightforward person.

HT:

He was quite different than what Roosevelt was.

EK:

Quite different. Quite different. I think Roosevelt was a very valuable leader. I don't particularly admire him as a person, but I think we have leaders who are not personally admirable, who are good leaders. I put Franklin Roosevelt in that category. I never knew he was crippled as bad as he was. That could never be kept from anybody today. I think he brought the country together. I've always had a conviction that he knew that Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed and this was enforced by the fact that we had files of navy messages, and every once in a while, I had to go down to a different department, to look up something.

There had been a statement that there was going to be a message sent, a “winds” message. If Roosevelt had a message saying the winds were coming from a certain direction, it would mean Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed. People in our unit were called in when they did the congressional investigation of this whole thing, after the war was over.

I know that in that file there was a missing number. In the file of messages they were all serial numbered. There was a message missing. I just happen to be personally convinced—and I can't document it—that he knew, but it was such a short time before it was bombed, that his decision was to go ahead and let it happen, and that that mobilized the country, and in the long run it would be a better thing. I don't know that, but I think he did things for a reason, and I think he was a good leader for us to have then.

HT:

Do you consider yourself to be an independent person?

EK:

In some ways.

HT:

Do you think the military made you that way?

EK:

It helped.

HT:

Do you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer, a trendsetter when you entered the service? I've talked to several ladies who, looking back now—not many women had been in the business world, been out in the world, so they considered themselves pioneers.

EK:

I think a good many of the women—there were about forty-five of us in the management training program, which then went on to be absorbed into the Harvard Business School. The first women to go to the Harvard Business School were graduates of this one-year program. Then they went to the business school. I think a lot of the women, who were in my class and in preceding and subsequent classes of that program, did become pioneers. The first woman treasurer of the Metropolitan Museum was a graduate of that program. They put into practice good business practices. I think then women—like hospital administrators, that was the field opening up to women, because after the war, fields opened up to women that had not been open before. So I know some pioneers, I'm associated with some, but I don't think I would consider that I was a pioneer.

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be a feminist, in the sense of the word, say, from the 1970s, the feminist movement?

EK:

Somewhat, but the first feminist movement dismayed me, because they, it seemed to me, devalued the role that I had had as a full-time mother and community volunteer. My husband never put me down. We considered we were partners. This was a division of labor. I never felt that I was not an equal partner in earning the money that came in through his job, and he never made me feel that way. So I'm fortunate.

But I felt that the early feminists felt that a career was the way for a woman to identify herself. I see that in my daughter-in-law, who is a teacher. The last year she stayed home, because she had a young child. But she defines herself by her work. I had worked enough years, not a whole lot, but I had worked, oh, seven or eight years, before I got married. I didn't have any career, as such, any field that I was interested in pursuing. I knew that all work, all jobs are not fulfillment. I felt fully fulfilled in doing what I did, and volunteers can sometimes cut through the organizational stuff and accomplish things that if you're a staff member you can't. So I felt that I was able to make a good contribution to this community.

HT:

What type of volunteer work did you do?

EK:

Well, I worked in schools, volunteered. At that time, Chapel Hill schools did not pay substitutes, so I would occasionally substitute teach, as a volunteer. We had our thrift shop that [was] developed by the PTA [Parent-Teacher Association], and I was chairman of that board, a nonprofit corporation. We had something they called the Drug Action Committee, when my children got to be high school age and the drug situation in the sixties was frightening, and we had a community committee. I worked with the Interfaith Council. I worked with free clinics. I belonged to something called the Junior Service League, and I worked with clinics for children as a volunteer, you know, greeting people, keeping the records.

With two people, I helped set up the first soup kitchen in Chapel Hill at the Wesley Foundation. I felt that was useful. Now the Interfaith Council has taken that over. You feed the people who come, who are hungry, and that's their credential for being fed, that they're hungry.

I worked in the community kitchen here, in more recent years. What else? Oh, the Junior Service League when we needed, as all nonprofits do, to raise money. I edited a cookbook, which was the first one. I've done several since then. I edited that. I felt that the skills I had were well used in doing those, and things I enjoy.

I worked on the board of then the Community Chest. Two of those volunteer jobs, I felt that by doing that, I was keeping my hand in how things happen, so if I were left and needed to get a job, I would be more qualified. In fact, two of those led to temporary jobs, which I did not want to have permanently; one, the executive of the Drug Action Committee. I served a salaried position there for a while. Also, the Community Chest, I was the executive director for a while there, part time.

HT:

You were quite busy.

EK:

Yes, and I liked that. Then my husband could be somewhat more flexible about his hours. He was good about keeping the children occasionally, while I wanted to do things.

HT:

Earlier in our conversation, you said you were involved in quilting. How long have you been involved in that?

EK:

Since 1972. That's led to a sort of a career in writing and speaking and collecting and documenting quilts. I'm doing a course now collaborating with two other women doing a course in more or less history of quilt making with the Duke Institute of Learning in Retirement, DILR. I give a lecture there next Tuesday. I've taught a lot.

HT:

I think you said you probably oversee—

EK:

I do, and I go to California once a year for a quilting event. That has led to a great many friendships, and they haven't all depended on the quilting, but quilting is kind of a catalyst. When I say I'm a quilt maker, people say, “Oh, you know, my grandmother used to make quilts,” and then we'll talk about other things than quilt making. But it's a nice opening link with a lot of people, and I've met some wonderful people in that line.

HT:

I think you said you're a writer, and you've written how-to books?

EK:

Well, I've written—no, I'm a coauthor of the book on North Carolina quilts. I've written articles for one book. I've had papers published with the American Quilt Study Group, and in that connection I've made a study of certain aspects quilts and quilt making, and have had three papers published by that organization, and then magazine articles.

HT:

I've watched Georgia Bonesteel a couple of times.

EK:

I've been on her show twice.

HT:

Have you really?

EK:

Yes. She's a friend.

HT:

Does she live here in Chapel Hill?

EK:

No, she's in Hendersonville [North Carolina]. She comes down here to do her shows, but she's in Hendersonville. Her shows, I don't think—I think, as a teacher, I would say she goes so fast that it would be hard to learn from her, but she has engendered more interest in quilt making all over this country than a lot of other people. She's done a lot to raise people's awareness of quilts and quilt making.

HT:

Is she equivalent to Julia Child?

EK:

Yes.

HT:

In the quilt making world?

EK:

Yes. Yes, I think so. I think so.

HT:

I just have to ask a couple more questions. Have any of your children ever been in the military?

EK:

No. One of my two boys was a CO [conscientious objector], and the other was lucky enough not to be drafted.

HT:

How do you feel about women in combat? In the Gulf War women were right at the front, they flew airplanes, fighter pilots. Do you have any feelings about this?

EK:

Well, I'm just against war.

HT:

Well, we've covered a variety of topics this afternoon. I don't have any more formal questions. Do you have anything you'd like to add about your service in the military?

EK:

I don't think so.

HT:

It sounded like it was quite fascinating and very interesting work.

EK:

It was. It was. As I say, you did feel like you were right in with the war and what was going on in the war.

HT:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate you talking with us this afternoon.

EK:

My pleasure. It really is.

HT:

Thank you so much.

[End of interview]