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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Sylvia Kenny Swink, 2003

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Object ID: WV0273.5.001

Description: Primarily discusses Sylvia Kenny Swink’s service in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) as well as her pre- and post-war personal life.

Summary:

Swink discusses growing up during the Depression in Minnesota, and her father and brothers working for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and CCC {Civilian Conservation Corps). She shares her memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor; her brothers’ military service; and her desire to join the WAVES.

Of her service, Swink discusses her enlistment in the WAVES and her parents’ reactions. She recalls the navy’s background checks and her feelings about freeing a man to fight. She details the ride on the troop train to Hunter College, including a stop in New York City. Topics of discussion from her time at Hunter College include: living in a dorm; poorly fitted uniforms; and daily activities. Topics from her time in Washington, D.C. include: details of her clerical office; social activities; the death of President Roosevelt; and her supervisors. She also briefly mentions VE Day and VJ Day celebrations and a frightening moment in D.C.

Post-war discussion includes her courtship with and marriage to Colon Swink; their moves to Texas, California, Minnesota, and North Carolina; her career with Guilford County; her family's military service, and her participation in veterans activities and organizations.

Creator: Sylvia Irene Kenny Swink

Biographical Info: Sylvia Kenny Swink (1924-2010) of Burtrum, Minnesota, served in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1944 to 1945, and later worked for Guilford County, North Carolina, from 1953 to 1989.

Collection: Sylvia K. Swink Papers

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

Full Text:

EE:

My name is Eric Elliott, and I'm with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and this is an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project. Today is February 5, 2003. I can't believe we keep adding months and years, but so it is, 2003, February 5.

We're here at Greensboro today on a gorgeous morning, and I'm here at the home of Sylvia Swink. Ms. Swink, thank you for having us out here. I know you're an active member of the local WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] unit, and you all at that group have been such a supporter of our program, so I'm glad to sit down here with you, having talked to a number of your friends in that group.

We start everybody with the same simple question, so if you could just tell us, because you've already told me before we started, where were you born and where did you grow up?

SS:

I was born in Burtrum, Minnesota, and I grew up in Burtrum until I finished high school.

EE:

Burtrum's someplace in the middle north part of the state?

SS:

Center part of Minnesota, about 100 miles north of Minneapolis.

EE:

You're talking about a town of what, a thousand folks, two thousand? How many folks?

SS:

About 250.

EE:

About 250? In other words, it was where the farmers came in to—what kind of work did your family do?

SS:

My father worked for the county. He was a county engineer, road maintenance.

EE:

And what about your mom?

SS:

She stayed home.

EE:

Do you have any brothers and sisters?

SS:

I had four brothers and one sister.

EE:

Where are you in that mix, oldest, youngest, in the middle somewhere?

SS:

Third from the youngest.

EE:

So was your family from that part of the world from way back? You said both sides coming in.

SS:

Yes, sir.

EE:

When you were little, the Depression started. You're already in a rural part of the state. Do you remember the Depression changing your household any?

SS:

I remember that my brothers, older brothers, went to CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp. And also, my father was a foreman for the WPA [Work Projects Administration].

EE:

So in other words, his regular county salary was supplemented by doing this other work for the government?

SS:

Well, I believe he was WPA first, and then he was county.

EE:

I know down here WPA and CCC built the Blue Ridge Parkway.

SS:

That's right.

EE:

What were they doing in Minnesota? Was it close by, the work he was doing?

SS:

They also—they worked in the northern part of the state up in the woods.

EE:

So they were building roads up there?

SS:

Like Itasca State Park, you know, which is the headwaters of the Mississippi [River].

EE:

So they were developing that as a park. Because that's what they did, they just kind of made projects for folks to give them work at that time.

SS:

That's right.

EE:

So that meant that your dad was away from home a lot when you were growing up.

SS:

No, he wasn't with that. He was local maintenance.

EE:

Oh, so he was the foreman that sent folks up that way?

SS:

The WPA, yes. He did road work.

EE:

Right. You went to school there. Now, if the town has 250 folks, tell me about that school. Was it all grades together or did you have a—

SS:

They had the grades in the high school. No, they had like first to second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth; seventh and eighth; and then the high school was in one big auditorium. They had freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in it.

EE:

See, North Carolina didn't have twelve years of high school in the thirties. It was a little bit late on that. You graduated from high school when?

SS:

[Nineteen] forty-two.

EE:

Forty-two. Did you have a favorite subject when you were in school?

SS:

Geography and history.

EE:

Not a bad thing to have as your interest, considering what's going on in the world when you were growing up. I guess that would make you interested in geography and history, wouldn't it?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

Do you remember the first time you heard anything about what was going on in Europe, the war?

SS:

Yes. They had a military camp not too far from up there. It's still there, Camp Ripley. It's up north of Burtrum. It's near Brainerd, Minnesota, and it's still there. The soldiers and stuff go there for summer camp.

But anyway, there used to be the military go through Burtrum during the war, people going up to this camp, and it kind of frightened you because you'd see—

EE:

People with guns and—

SS:

They had trucks and things, and they'd go up that way. They'd go through town.

EE:

Do you remember Pearl Harbor Day?

SS:

Oh, yes.

EE:

What were you doing Pearl Harbor Day?

SS:

I had a couple of friends, and we were sitting in my living room, listening to the radio, and it came on, on Sunday afternoon.

EE:

Yes. And what was the reaction in your household, because you had brothers.

SS:

See, it was '41, so my brother was in the navy then, because he graduated in '39.

EE:

So he went ahead and joined the service already? He was already in the service?

SS:

Yes. He was in the navy.

EE:

What was your brother's name? This is the one that came visited you later in [Washington] D.C.?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

What was his name?

SS:

Patrick. And my older brother Tom went in the army.

EE:

But he didn't join until after Pearl Harbor?

SS:

He was drafted.

EE:

Had you dad ever been in the service? So this was a new experience for your family, then?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

All this stuff. You're in Burtrum, and you graduate in '42. Is this when you moved to Minneapolis?

SS:

I enrolled in the University of Minnesota after graduation, and then I decided that I was going in the navy when I got old enough.

EE:

Because you had to be twenty-one.

SS:

You had to be twenty at that time. I graduated when I was eighteen. So I went to the university, and then I dropped out because I wasn't going to finish. I went into the navy when I was old enough. I was sworn in the Navy on my twentieth birthday in Minneapolis.

EE:

So now, what did your folks think about that?

SS:

Well, I had a hard time with my brothers, and my father and my grandmother thought I was going to war.

EE:

You couldn't tell them otherwise, because they weren't going to let you near the combat in the WAVES.

SS:

No. But my aunt—

EE:

Aunt Bea.

SS:

Aunt Bea. She was all for it, and she said if she was young enough, she'd go with me. And so she was encouraging my dad to sign for me.

EE:

Your folks did have to sign for you when you were twenty?

SS:

When you're twenty, yes.

EE:

Where were your brothers stationed? They were already in the service and didn't want you to join. Where were they?

SS:

One brother was stationed, I remember, stationed down in the South, in Louisiana, and I don't remember where else he went. He didn't go overseas, though. But my brother Patrick went all around because he was in the navy.

EE:

You showed me a little article that talked about that the work you were doing was what the advertising was. You were “freeing a man to fight.” Was that really part of your thinking going into it? That you wanted to do that?

SS:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I was going to go help, you know. I was going to do that. I was in Minneapolis, you know, and being in the big city you saw a lot of different things, and, of course, it widened my—

EE:

Did you have other friends there at school who were thinking about doing the same thing?

SS:

I did it on my own.

EE:

This was your own idea. Independent you.

SS:

Reading the papers, and I saw some WAVES in Minneapolis.

EE:

A picture or something.

SS:

Yes. And then I met one on the street one day, and I thought, “That's what I want to do.”

EE:

So you talked to her and asked her how she liked it and that kind of thing or you saw her and just got inspired?

SS:

I went to the navy recruitment, and so I had enlisted, but I couldn't be in until I was twenty. And so I was all ready to go.

EE:

Did they make you go on and take a physical and get ready?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

You just had to wait for your birthday?

SS:

Yes. And then, at that time, you had to have some references, too, and I had given the local postmaster, as you know. During growing up, he was a good friend. So anyway, and then somebody came up to Burtrum to investigate me.

EE:

See if you were worthy of the service.

SS:

Everybody was wide open, you know, and wanting to know what I was doing, going to do, you know.

EE:

So I imagine that got around town pretty quick that the government was coming investigating you. I can only imagine.

SS:

Yes. And also, in Minneapolis I lived with my father's cousin, and they came to the landlord's house, too, to see what.

EE:

Now, the last I checked, there was not a harbor in the middle of Minnesota, so what made you decide to go navy as opposed to any of the other branches?

SS:

Because my brother was in the navy and he came home with stories. And I was very close to my brother.

EE:

He was your buddy?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

Because I know some of the people I've talked with, not all the branches of the service got a good reputation. Did you ever get any static about—

SS:

Not up there. My father was very proud of me, and I guess the way I was brought up, you know, no one thought that I'd do anything but good. But when you got to Washington, D.C., you heard static, but I could tell them off in a hurry.

EE:

Well, I think that might be the difference. As I go through, there's a difference between living in the big city and living in the country, and I think folks in the country are a little bit more sensitive to each other. In the big city, they tend to brush you off a lot, no matter what's going on in the world.

SS:

I know it. Well, you know. No, I never had any problems.

EE:

When you were at Minnesota, I guess you were in a dorm. No, you're not in a dorm, because you're living with your dad's cousin when you're going to the university.

SS:

Yes.

EE:

When you signed up—I'm curious because I talked to a woman who was a WAVES recruiter, a woman who was a recruiter. When you went down to that office in Minneapolis, was there a man who signed you in or a woman?

SS:

A man.

EE:

A man. So they didn't have a woman in the office to handle WAVES?

SS:

Not yet, because the WAVES was only about two or three years old, I guess.

EE:

It's pretty new.

SS:

Yes, because they were celebrating their birthday, and they invited me to a luncheon.

EE:

Right about the time you joined would have been the second birthday.

SS:

Yes, July was the second birthday, yes.

EE:

When you signed up, I guess you were signing up for the duration?

SS:

There for the duration.

EE:

Did you get a chance to express a preference on where you wanted to go or what kind of work you wanted to do?

SS:

Yes. We filled out applications what we were doing, because when I was waiting to get old enough to join, I went to work for Sears, Roebuck [and Company for a time, and I was doing clerical work.

EE:

So you knew you could do that and thought you could do that to help out.

SS:

Yes.

EE:

Had you ever traveled much outside the state before joining the service?

SS:

I had this aunt, this old maid aunt, and she lived in Chicago, and she took me on some trips with her. I went to Canada one time.

EE:

Oh, okay. Was this on your dad's side or your mom's side?

SS:

My dad's.

EE:

Is this Aunt Bea?

SS:

Aunt Bea, yes. She was very good to me.

EE:

She's your buddy, too, it sounds like. One of the things, when you come from a big family, it's nice to have somebody who knows as you as opposed to a relation to somebody else.

SS:

She stayed a very close friend, until she died, to my children, too. But she took me to Canada, and then she took me to Wisconsin to. She introduced me to things I didn't get to see in Burtrum.

EE:

Oh, yes.

SS:

I remember she took me to a tea at Marshall Fields [department store] in Chicago.

EE:

Yes. I imagine that was a wide-open impression to all the stuff that was out there in the world. You joined in, I guess signed up in July and then called up in August.

SS:

I enlisted in July. Then I was sworn in, in August.

EE:

That was just after the D-Day invasion. Do you remember that?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

June of '44.

SS:

Forty-four.

EE:

Did you ever think—because right now it's easy to go back and look at the books and say, “Oh, yeah, we were going to win that war.” Did you ever think we were not going to win that war?

SS:

No, although I read a lot. No, that didn't enter my mind, because World War I—I remember looking in the encyclopedia about World War I one time. My dad used to be very well read. And I saw pictures of battlefields and stuff, and that frightened me, you know. And I think that when these troops would go marching through Burtrum up around the lakes there, pitch a tent and stuff, you know, that used to frighten me, because I was afraid they were coming over there.

EE:

Well, you had been to Chicago. You've seen a big city. And I guess you would get on a troop train to Hunter [College]. How did you get to Hunter?

SS:

We went on a troop train, and this was frightening, because I know that we all got full of smoke. And there were a lot of girls there. There were some country girls like me, but they were also mostly city girls from Minneapolis. And then we went to Chicago, and they got some more in Chicago. Some of these girls had never been anyplace, either. And so when we got there, it was all full of smoke.

EE:

Now, were you a smoker at that time?

SS:

No. Oh, no. I learned that in the navy. I can tell you why I started smoking, because all the girls in the office, they couldn't smoke at their desk so they'd go to the rest room.

EE:

So this was their break?

SS:

No, they took smoke breaks. And I had to work all the time, so I decided to start smoking.

EE:

So you could take a break, too. You figured out you were getting extra work because you didn't smoke.

SS:

I didn't do that. I mean, I don't smoke now.

EE:

This is the first time I guess you've been off and living with a bunch of people who you're not related to, too, isn't it?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

What was that like?

SS:

I was frightened and I was homesick and I wished I'd never done it, and called my dad and called my aunt. My mom, you know, she just went along with them. And so my dad said I had to stay. That's what I wanted.

EE:

Once you signed on the line, they couldn't come get you. That was your decision.

SS:

Yes. But then the first day I entered Hunter College, my roommate was a girl from Alabama. She was [from the] Deep South, and I'd never heard a deep southerner, and she was just storming and it was hot. It was very hot, and she just complained and everything. And I thought, “Oh, no, what is this? What am I going to do now?” But anyway, we got to be real friends. And, of course, in August in New York it's very hot, and marching around on the fields, some of the girls passed out.

EE:

Was that one of the hardest things for you, was the physical stuff?

SS:

I guess it was just the heat. I remember seeing that, you know. But I just learned how to handle it, I guess.

EE:

What was a typical day like for you? What do you remember about—

SS:

Where at?

EE:

At Hunter.

SS:

I remember going to classes and I remember we had to do some exercises, we had to march, but that's about all. We had different classes in different—I don't even remember what subjects, but I know it was about the navy.

EE:

I know at different times the instructors are different. Were all your instructors at that time women?

SS:

Yes. This one here was from West Virginia.

EE:

Oh, the one who's your platoon leader?

SS:

Yes. You should have heard her say, “About face.” “Aboot face.”

EE:

I imagine that that's one thing you guys got to do was to compare accents, didn't you?

SS:

Oh, see—

EE:

I guess everybody at Hunter was basically on the East Coast. Or was that the whole country? Did they have people from the west?

SS:

No. At that particular time, they were from the Midwest, too, because there was a lot of them on that troop train, you know. We ended at Grand Central Station, and someone met us there and lined you up like cattle.

EE:

Yes, you lose your personality pretty fast, don't you?

SS:

Yes, and you get aboard.

EE:

Did you get a chance while you were there to get out and see any of the city?

SS:

Yes. When we were at Hunter, after two or three weeks we would have the weekends off, and they would have different tours and stuff. We went to the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island.

EE:

Did they have a tour just for WAVES to take them over there or do you just go find a spot?

SS:

No, we went without. But there was several WAVES in the group, though, but it was just go with the crowd.

EE:

Now, that's the first time you go out in public, when you're up there, with a uniform on. What was that like? What kind of response did you get?

SS:

Well, the uniforms didn't fit, and, you know, you didn't show anything. They were all one size, you know. I guess two sizes, big and small.

EE:

That's funny. I hadn't heard anybody complain about it not fitting, because everybody says they loved that WAVES uniform. But yours, it wasn't the right size?

SS:

No, it wasn't. But after I got to Washington, I got one that fit there. I guess they'd run out. Otherwise, I did enjoy it.

EE:

When you're there, you'd already signed up and said you wanted to do clerical stuff. Did you have a preference on where you wanted to go? Did you want to go back toward Minnesota or did you want to go someplace different?

SS:

No. We were going to go to school, and then they chose a group. There was a class they chose and said that these will not be going to the schools, they will go for on-the-job training.

EE:

And that's what you did. You went directly to D.C. for the on-the-job training.

SS:

So there was a trainload of us would get in Washington at the same time.

EE:

So if you went in, in August, that means you were getting out of training probably in October, something like that?

SS:

Yes, something like that.

EE:

Now, were you a seaman first class when you came out of training?

SS:

I don't know. I think just seaman.

EE:

And made first class when you got down to—

SS:

But see, at that time they were telling us that the ranks were frozen, you know, and so they only could have so many yeomen. They were called yeomen then. This was before I got out. My roommate got to be yeoman. I went to school after to work, and I went to business machines, typing.

EE:

So you got extra stuff while you were still in the WAVES?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

Did the WAVES pay you to get this extra training? Were they helping or you just took that out of your paycheck and did that?

SS:

No. We went to school. We had instructors there at the annex. We could sign up for different things. You could sign up for IBM, too. That's about the time IBM came out.

EE:

Right. Now, you were showing me you've got a couple of nice pictures of you and your roommate down in Washington, Jean Haff. Did you meet her down in D.C. or was she from Hunter?

SS:

I met her in D.C.

EE:

And that's just by the luck of the draw? You all were living in a barracks there at the annex?

SS:

In Arlington we lived there. Someone else was assigned to my room and she was assigned to another room, and her roommate moved out. So then she wanted me to move in.

EE:

Now, the kind of clerical work you were doing, what kind of subject matter were you all doing? Just processing paperwork within the navy?

SS:

Yes. What we did, we worked in the personnel, and each individual was assigned a certain group of names. I remember mine was GR to something at the end of the Gs. This section, all the mail that came in that pertained to these individuals, you'd have to follow it and answer the letters and so forth, and this was your section.

The Marines were further down the hall, and I was the last cubicle at the end, I guess because I was SW. In that case, I shouldn't be. I don't know why. But anyway, the Marines would go past the cubicles. Since I was the last one, I always got the last say. Have you heard of Bob Crosby, Bing Crosby?

EE:

Yes.

SS:

Well, he was in the Marines. He was an officer.

EE:

So he was working there?

SS:

Yes, and he'd come by and talk to us.

EE:

Did you ever see any celebrities while you were there in the service?

SS:

Bob. I saw Gary Cooper.

EE:

Where was he?

SS:

He came to visit the navy at Hunter College.

EE:

Okay. I've heard a lot of people say that D.C. was a fun place to be because there's a lot of clubs that you can go into that had good music and were affordable.

SS:

But you couldn't get in until you were twenty-one.

EE:

You still had that problem, didn't you? You had to wait till '45 to be legal. They didn't have things like fake ID in those days, did they?

SS:

Yes, they had people that would fix you one. I know some girls who did. But I was scared. I was from the country, and I didn't do things. I remember being with a group in Maryland one time, in Baltimore, that they took them underneath the light.

EE:

Just to check to see if they were legal or not?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

So I imagine this is how you and your—was Jean the same age as you?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

So you were both too young to legally get in these places, so this is why you were willing to shuck corn for your dinner and that kind of thing.

SS:

Yes, shucked corn. Then we went on trips. We went to Mt. Vernon. We did a lot of sightseeing.

EE:

I guess about not too long after you were there, six months or so, when President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt passed away.

SS:

Did what?

EE:

Do you remember when President Roosevelt passed away?

SS:

Yes. I thought I had that paper, but I didn't. I had a newspaper of [Harry S.] Truman taking the oath of office. But anyway, yes, when we got off from work and we were standing on the street.

EE:

So you remember when the coffin came by. I guess that was a caisson, too, where it was horse drawn, because I remember the pictures of a lot of folks standing along the street there. What did you think about him and Eleanor as a team? What did you think about President Roosevelt and his wife as a team and as politicians and leaders?

SS:

Well, she was very active in things. I had some friends from the office ran into her someplace, and she took them all to the White House, and she was very gracious to the women in service.

EE:

Just went and took these girls into the office?

SS:

They were walking down to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

EE:

Said, “Come on in.”

SS:

By the time they got back to the barracks, they were pretty excited, you know.

EE:

I'm sure. I'm sure.

SS:

We really didn't want to believe them at first. But see, they were different. They had a family. You know, that's when things started, when she was looking after the poor people and she'd help them. She was a very good first lady, though. She opened a lot of people's eyes.

EE:

I think she sort of had her own style. I think she's probably one of the first first ladies that was distinctively her own person, and you knew her personality and what she stood for.

SS:

Yes. She wanted it to be known that she was part of the—

EE:

The team, I guess. The work that you were doing, you said you all were in cubicles. Was your supervisors—I know some WAVES, and women in general in service, they don't get assigned as a company to something. It's the individuals doing different tasks. Everybody in your office, were they all military personnel or were there some civilians mixed in?

SS:

Some civilians.

EE:

Was your supervisory a military or a civilian?

SS:

She was a white old maid. Her name was Miss Fortune.

EE:

Miss Fortune, okay.

SS:

But she got the work out. She was very tough on you.

EE:

So she was not a WAVE herself?

SS:

No, she was a white lady.

EE:

Did you have any men that your reported to or just her?

SS:

Well, there's a chief was in charge. When you wanted to go on leave or something, you had to fill out the papers and take them to the chief's office.

EE:

Chief petty officer?

SS:

What?

EE:

What would his rank have been?

SS:

He was a chief, chief of the navy. He's one step below an officer. My brother was a chief.

EE:

As far as the workplace goes, other than Miss Fortune maybe being a little aggressive, you didn't have any problems or static with other officers or anything like that? One of the things, especially if you're going in to free a man to fight, some people did get resistance from folks, maybe girlfriends who didn't like the fact that WAVES were freeing and forcing their guys to go overseas. But you never had that kind of experience yourself?

SS:

No. The chief told me that he was going to do me a favor and not sign my leave papers so I could get married. He said, “You'll look back on it someday and thank me.”

EE:

You were willing to work. Did you like to work when you got in there and what you were doing? Did you like what you were doing?

SS:

Yes, I did. I enjoyed it. In fact, my husband, he was from North Carolina. That's why I'm here. And so he wanted to leave Washington. He was already out of the service. But I could have stayed in Washington and do my same job as a civilian.

EE:

Right.

SS:

They asked me if I wanted to do that after I got discharged. I said no, I was going out of town.

EE:

Tell me how you met your husband.

SS:

On a blind date.

EE:

When was this, the summer of '45? When did you all meet?

SS:

Yes, summer of '45. My roommate introduced me.

EE:

We've got a picture of you. Your brother came to visit. That must have been earlier in the spring, is that right?

SS:

Yes. He came several times. I don't know when. Well, neither one had boyfriends then, evidently.

EE:

But a blind date. Was your husband already out of the service when you met him?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

He'd just gotten discharged. And he was from the Greensboro area to begin with?

SS:

Greensboro, North Carolina, yes.

EE:

What kind of work did he do in the service?

SS:

He was a boatswain mate. He was on a ship.

EE:

And he had a compelling reason for staying in the D.C. area or was he just passing through and decided to linger once he ran into you?

SS:

I think he was making up his mind what he was going to do, and he was just passing around.

EE:

So how long before you decided to take the plunge and to get married? A couple months?

SS:

About four months. You know why don't you? Because it started getting cold in Washington, and it was too cold to sit in the park.

EE:

He said, “Can we go inside someplace? Let's move on with it. I'm freezing out here.”

SS:

So we got married. Well, we could be in the lounge but, you know, you've got a hundred-and-some people sitting there around there, too.

EE:

So did you all get married there in D.C.?

SS:

Yes, the First Congregational Church, [the minister was] Howard Stone Anderson. He committed suicide. I read it in the Washington paper. Later, I read it in the paper.

EE:

But in no way related to your getting married.

SS:

I was living in Greensboro when I saw that. I told Colon, I said, “You're not going to believe this.” I said, “You recognize that name?” They found him in the belfry at the church.

EE:

That's kind of strange.

SS:

He must have been pretty old then.

EE:

So you write off and tell the folks. Did the folks get down for the wedding or did they just send their best wishes?

SS:

They weren't very best. Well, I told him to call my dad, and he said, “No, you're too young. You don't know what you're doing.”

“Oh, yes, I do.”

And he said, “Well, you need to wait.”

I said, “Well, I have to get married.”

And he said, “What?”

And I didn't know what he meant by that, but I said, “I have to, because I'm deeply in love,” you know.

EE:

It was a love thing, not a have-to thing.

SS:

But he thought—he said, “You're not in a family way?”

I said, “No! Don't talk like that. No.” But that was shocking. So at that time, he sent me fifty dollars.

EE:

That's a lot of money.

SS:

That was a lot of money then. He said he wanted me to wait till I come home to have a wedding, but we just went to the church there and talked to the preacher.

EE:

So had your husband not wanted to come back to Greensboro, you might have stayed there in D.C. working at the same job, just as a civilian?

SS:

No. No, then we went to Texas. He had a sister living in Texas. Her husband was in the service. We just kind of wandered around, like we didn't know what we were doing.

EE:

So how did you get back to Greensboro?

SS:

Well, we started having a family, and it got too cold in Minnesota and he couldn't take it.

EE:

Oh, so you all went from Texas up to Minnesota, then, for a while?

SS:

We went from Texas to California, and I worked for the Department of Employment in Sacramento. I lived about three blocks from the governor's mansion. I think some Brown was governor of California then.

EE:

Right, probably—

SS:

Jerry Brown's father.

EE:

Right.

SS:

And I'd walk to work every day. But then I became pregnant and went back to Minnesota, and we stayed, well, from '48. We stayed till '50.

EE:

So '48 to '50 is when you were back in Minnesota, and then it got too cold and you said, “Let's come on back to North Carolina.”

SS:

He told that we'd live in Minnesota, but when I brought it up to him, he said but he didn't say how long.

EE:

But at least you got the chance to see your folks again and do that kind of stuff. You've got a picture you showed me of your brother who was in the service, and you had another brother in the service. Your sister did not join the service?

SS:

No, my sister's a schoolteacher. She was a schoolteacher for about forty years, and then she was a principal. She's passed away now, though. She lived outside of Rochester, Minnesota. And my older brother, Tom, he's deceased, too. He stayed in Minnesota. But then I had another brother, Carroll, he's retired. He lives in Augusta, Georgia, now. He was a sergeant major in the army, and he had the Silver Star. He had two tours of Vietnam. And then my youngest brother went in the navy. My sister's the only one that wasn't [in the service] in the family. My youngest brother was in the navy, but he said that the navy wasn't cracked up like we said it was. Anyway, he didn't retire from there.

EE:

Do you remember the end of the war, either the VE [Victory in Europe] Day or the VJ [Victory in Japan] Day celebrations?

SS:

Oh, yes, lovely time, VJ and VE. Washington was just acres and acres of people.

EE:

Everybody out in the streets celebrating?

SS:

You couldn't get home.

EE:

Somebody told me that the first place they went was the liquor store, and it was all sold out.

SS:

Yes. Well, everything, the clubs and stuff were all closed.

EE:

I'm sure. Even some of the bases, they had orders to stay on the base because they were worried about people getting too rowdy in celebrating.

SS:

Well, I was already out. That was before I met Cole. I met him, I think, about a week or so afterwards. But I was out in Alexandria, Virginia, out there, and we got stuck out there.

EE:

What did you do? Did you hear it on the radio or did you hear it from people talking?

SS:

That's where it started. There were two couples, and it took us forever to get back to D.C.; and then when we got back to D.C., we couldn't get back up to the—but, anyway. And I remember my first taste of Southern Comfort.

EE:

Was that that day?

SS:

That day, yes.

EE:

It's got to have been a great feeling, knowing that this was so close, so hard fought for and so much hurt. And nobody expected it, because nobody expected the bomb.

SS:

No.

EE:

Everybody assumed we were going to go invade Japan, so that was all new.

SS:

No, because if anybody had known it, they wouldn't have been, you know, where they were. I know I probably would have stayed home. I wouldn't have been out.

EE:

Right. When you think back to that wartime, are there heroes for you? Who's a hero for you in that war day?

SS:

I saw General Westmoreland. When these dignitaries came to Washington, we looked forward to it because we got the afternoon off to go see the parade. And also, Eisenhower. I think those are the only two I can remember. [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur, I remember seeing him.

EE:

Well, you told me that you were afraid that first time getting on a troop train. Was there ever anything else in your time during service that got you afraid or scared to do what you were doing?

SS:

I didn't understand you.

EE:

You told me that when you first got on that troop train you were scared.

SS:

Yes.

EE:

Was there ever another time afterwards in the service that you were scared?

SS:

No. No, I caught on fast.

EE:

Well, it seems to me like you were a pretty independent person to begin with. Did the service make you more independent, do you think?

SS:

I think so, yes. Yes. Even to this day, I have a friend in Minnesota, and she said, “Well, you go ahead and do it. You're not bashful.”

This was about last summer. And I said, “What do you do when I'm not here?”

She said, “Wait for you to come.”

But anyway, I've never been too bashful.

EE:

You've already told me about a couple of funny folks. One of the things that I'm supposed to ask of people—I don't always do it, but I figure I can get away with it with you. What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you while you were in the service?

SS:

The most embarrassing thing that happened to me? Oh, hey, which one? I don't know if I want to tell or not.

EE:

Well, we can censor it out. Maybe one that you could share?

SS:

Okay. It was frightening that I lived through it. This Jean and I, we were all the time looking after each other, and she said, “I met this guy, and he wanted me to get somebody and go to dinner. His landlady is having a roof party.”

So we met them at a restaurant. It was walking distance, so we walked to this big building. I forget the street. We went up the steps. We got the elevator, and the elevator went as far as it would, and they said they had to walk the rest of the way. Well, it didn't sound like much fun to me.

But anyway, we got up there, and the roof was dark. So, we didn't even look at each other. We just turned and ran. We ran down the steps and she broke her heel, and when we got out on the street, just about the time this sports car came out, convertible. This convertible came out in the street and was running, and they stopped and said, “Get in.” Well, we got in. We were young.

EE:

I was going to say, out of the frying pan, into the fire.

SS:

Well, and we turned around, and these two guys were coming out of the building, nonchalant. Well, it was the less of two evils, I guess. Then we got out to Maryland. I wasn't picking apples either. Anyway, we told them we had to get back, we passed our curfew. She broke her foot, was going to be in trouble.

I bet they were just teenagers. They'd just got the car. So they said, “Well, give us your phone number. We'll call you, and we can get your shoe fixed or something.” So they took us back, and we gave them different numbers, somebody else's.

EE:

You learned a little bit.

SS:

But, you know, I thought about that. It was a long time for them.

EE:

Well, I've talked to a number of people who said that they did things they felt safe in Washington, whereas today they would not feel safe being out there in Washington.

SS:

You couldn't do it, you know. I wouldn't think of even going to it. But, you know, we were green and party gullible. Roof party, you see that in the movies.

EE:

Oh, yes. It sounds very enchanting.

SS:

To go on one, to be there. That was one of the—not embarrassing, it was frightening.

EE:

Well, it made you realize how nave you might have still been.

SS:

I don't even believe I shared that with my family.

EE:

You probably would have scared them.

SS:

I told something else that was a frightening one. Oh, yes, this is another one. Some of the girls, we had skirts that had gores in them, so some of the girls were putting pleats in their skirts. They put the iron and made pleats, and they kind of shortened them a little bit, too. And to get away from the brogans, they had a pair of pumps.

So anyway, I met this guy someplace, the USO [United Service Organizations club] or something, and I gave him my phone number. But he was a good dancer and this and that. And it was like, oh, several months after that. So he finally called me, and I forgot all—

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

EE:

The dress uniform is where you carry your pocketbook.

EE:

You've got a picture of you carrying that.

SS:

Yes, those pocketbooks there. And so I had to carry the pocketbook underneath my arm and my hat in hand and get in the cab. Well, I just about get in the cab and here comes this officer. She said, “Ma'am, you might get in the other cab and go home, because you're not going.”

I was out of uniform, because I didn't have my pocketbook on, and I had pleats in my skirt and I had pleats in my hat, and the pocketbook wasn't on. Anyway, she said, “You need to go upstairs and get dressed over again and report down here if you're going anyplace.”

See, I didn't know those guys were going to be waiting on me when I got back. So I went back upstairs. Well, they thought it was hilarious. I didn't have a skirt that didn't have pleats in it, so I had to get someone's skirt, someone's hat, borrow this and that, and get dressed. Well, the skirt was too long, the one I had. So anyway, so I went on out, and very humiliated. I wasn't in the best mood, you know, just to get there to see someone I hadn't seen.

EE:

Was he still there?

SS:

Yes, he was still there. Well, he thought it was funny. It helped for conversation.

EE:

Oh, yes.

SS:

But when I got back—see, you had to be home by eleven or something. When I got back there, the message in my box—you always checked your box, and it told me to bring my—that I was out of order. My shoe's heel was too high; to bring my shoes in a box, ready to go to the post office to mail them back home, because I wasn't allowed to have them.

EE:

This is your pumps?

SS:

What?

EE:

This is where you didn't wear brogans; you were wearing pumps instead?

SS:

The pumps were just too high, high and sexy. I'd go back, and the girl on duty said, “Yes, we have that. One of us has to go to the post office with you.”

I said, “It's my only pair of pumps.”

They said, “They're too high.” So I sent them home.

EE:

It seems like a strange mix. You're independent, but at the same time you've got a mother hen standing over you, keeping you from being independent, don't you?

SS:

If I had that pocketbook on, she would never have seen me swinging it around.

EE:

But it seems like the girls helped each other.

SS:

Oh, yes. Well, I'd been in Washington, so I ran into the lady, to the officer, at that drugstore in Washington. But anyway, I saw her up there, and I ignored her. I knew she really cared.

EE:

You all socialized together. It seems like the girls hung out together.

SS:

Oh, yes.

EE:

And supported each other.

SS:

We always went places together. But anyway, that was another thing that was pretty embarrassing in a way, but I kind of brought it on myself with being out of uniform.

EE:

But it's not unlike having a bunch of sisters, is it?

SS:

No.

EE:

Sort of just paling around together like that. You had a daughter yourself?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

Did she ever have any interest in joining the service?

SS:

No. But my husband and I both tried to talk her into it, but she's not as forward as I am.

EE:

Is that something you need to be to be in the service, do you think?

SS:

I don't know. Cheryl lives with me now. My family always wondered where I got her.

EE:

We were talking about you were independent, and it made you more independent. If a young woman comes to you today and says, “I know you're involved in the WAVES, and you've been there. I'm thinking about joining the service,” what would you tell her?

SS:

I'd tell her—I ran into this past spring—

EE:

You've already been talking to ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Crops] girls, so I know you've had this conversation.

SS:

Yes, I'm talking to them. But this girl, a beautician, her daughter just graduated, and she was going into the Marines. And so I had never told her, Sue, before that I had been in the service, so I said, “Well, Sue, that's a great idea. You know, I was in the military at one time in my young days.”

She said, “You were? Well, I'll tell whichacallit.”

So I had a chance to tell the young lady that I thought it was a good idea. But her mother left the beautician shop, and she lived in Edenton [North Carolina], so I don't know whether the girl—she was supposed to go last fall sometime.

EE:

When you joined, you did the same kind of work that you could have been doing as a civilian.

SS:

Yes.

EE:

The services gradually opened up and let women do different kinds of work that they couldn't do in civilian life, and I'm sure right now we've got some fighter pilots getting ready to do something in Iraq.

SS:

Oh, yes.

EE:

What do you think about that? Do you think it's a good thing that women are able to do different kinds of work, even combat, in the service? How do you feel about that?

SS:

Well, more power to them, because I think I'd be a little sheepish about combat.

EE:

It sounded like the World War I pictures kind of scared you off of that.

SS:

Do what?

EE:

When you were talking about those World War I pictures you looked at, that might have scared you off of that.

SS:

Yes, they did. I would not—I can't see doing combat. I liked what I did. Now, you know, back then most of the women that did like men's work were WACs [Women's Army Corps].

EE:

Right.

SS:

And they would be out there doing men's work. All the ladies, the military that I was around was all office.

EE:

You were in the military, your husband was in the military, your brothers were in the military. Your son, who you named after your brother, I guess—

SS:

Yes. He was born on his birthday.

EE:

He served in Vietnam. So you're a vet, married to a vet, mom of a vet, sister of a vet. You've got some military family.

SS:

Well, now, my husband was in the navy, and he had five brothers and they all were military. He had two that were retirees from the air force.

EE:

Not all families today, because we haven't had wars and the armies are all volunteers. There are a lot of families that grow up that don't have any connection with the military, and they don't always understand military life or military people. What do you think people who don't know anything about the military by family experience, what do you think they misunderstand about military folks?

SS:

Well, they're missing a whole lot because—you know, they should be understanding because as much as they see on TV and stuff like that and the books that's written on pilots and heroes and stuff, you know. They should not be—

EE:

The space shuttle folks that just gave their life, most of them were military folks.

SS:

Yes. See, my son, Pat, had nine uncles, and they all were military.

EE:

I know you're proud of them.

SS:

Yes. This is off track. I bought a lot of brick at the—

EE:

At the memorial?

SS:

Out there for Patrick, and I haven't seen it yet. They were going to tell me when it was ready. But back in the fall, September, I bought one for Patrick, and my daughter said, “Why didn't you buy one for you and dad?”

I said, “Because we didn't do nothing.”

EE:

I'm sure you've had to tell the story about how you and your husband met to your kids. What do they think about you being in the service? Do they believe it?

SS:

Well, they question me a lot. They don't believe a lot of things I do.

EE:

When you came back here, you were raising the kids when you first came back to Greensboro. Then you were telling me that you retired. When did you retire?

SS:

Retired from the county.

EE:

When did you retire from the county? [Nineteen] seventy-eight? Eighty-eight?

SS:

Eighty-nine.

EE:

And when did you start working back with the county?

SS:

Okay. I went to work part time in '53, and I worked for thirty-six and a half years.

EE:

Did your military experience help you, do you think, get jobs?

SS:

I believe. I know it did with the Department of Employment. But see, I don't know what helped me get the job at the county, because I hadn't worked in seven years because I was home having babies for a while. I went part time, and so I didn't know how it would work with the children. But I was fortunate. I found a lady that stayed with me for about six years.

EE:

To help take care of the kids?

SS:

Until the last one went to school.

EE:

That's good.

SS:

She felt bad about leaving. She cried. I said, “You know, the only way I could keep you is have another baby.”

She said, “No, no, no.”

So I was fortunate to have someone I could tend to.

EE:

And you were doing clerical work through your career?

SS:

Well, I went clerical, and then I was secretary to the supervisor for I don't know how many years. And then a gentleman retired, a man retired, what they called a tax collector. He retired, and since I was familiar with the payroll—he made much more money. They said there has never been a woman collector. I said, “Well, you know, there could be.” And so he said he had to have a secretary. But anyway, so I got the job as a collector. Then I stayed for seventeen years, and I retired.

EE:

That's great.

SS:

I started at clerk, and then I was a secretary and then a tax collector.

EE:

Great. When we turn on the TV these days and we look at it, I guess, ever since September 11 we've got worries about war, but we've also got more patriotism, probably, than we've had in a while. How do you compare patriotism now to patriotism back then?

SS:

Well, I imagine it's got a lot of people's attention more so now, because I think there's a period between the wars and people were bitter about Vietnam, which I was very unhappy about being bitter because I had a brother and son over there. But then after a while it kind of—after 9/11 [September 11, 2001] people got to be patriotic that had never been before. I imagine some of them never had [unclear] before.

EE:

That's right.

SS:

So it called their attention to it. I used to be really proud, but I go to this Baptist church over here on Yanceyville Road and when they have Memorial Day, Fourth of July, any other for the military, they say, “How many military in here?” And the first time I stood up, they looked at me like—

EE:

Did she hear the question right?

SS:

And this one lady said, “Were you really in the military?”

I said, “I wouldn't have stood up if I hadn't.” So there isn't too many of us at different places. I think I'm the only one over there.

And this guy over there, he's kind of a cut-up anyway, he said, “Just what did you do in the service?”

I said, “Why ask?”

EE:

When we first started doing this project, we just assumed that there'd be more women who were American Legion members or VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] members. There's very few that are.

SS:

Well, this guy I know, he's an American Legion, he works up with this hot dog thing. I asked him if there was any women up there, and he said, “There's about two or three, but they stay in the bar all the time.”

I said, “Well, that's not exciting. They don't make hot dogs?”

He said, “No.”

Well, there's one lady that's in our group, Ruth Picard, she's a chaplain down here someplace with VFW. I don't know why they don't make it. I've never wanted to go. I don't know why. Maybe because I'm a widow.

EE:

When did you get involved with WAVES National in their local group?

SS:

Okay. It was only about a year old. Carl read it in the paper, and he mentioned it to me. I said, “You know, I don't have too much time,” because I was working then.

He said, “Well, you need to check on it.”

I said, “Well, I will,” and I never did. And then the next year, it was in People and Places, and they said to come out and bring a picnic or something.

Patrick and Colon both died in the same year. Colon died in July, after Pat got killed in March. I went out to the cemetery for the memorial service on Memorial Day, and I saw the group out there putting the flag, putting their flowers on that. And so I went to speak with them. I spoke to Ginny [Mattson]. And so she invited me.

EE:

So it wasn't just something in the paper. It was somebody did something for you.

SS:

She and Eleanor Morehead. Eleanor is kind of an inactive member now, but Eleanor and her came out to the house and brought the paper. So I've been in about, what, ten years or so, more than that.

EE:

More than that. Fourteen. Fourteen or so. Did you all sing WAVES in the Navy when you were going through?

SS:

Yes.

EE:

You had so many good times with your friends during this, just listening to you, is there a song that, when you hear it, takes you back to '44 or '45?

SS:

Yes, Anchors Aweigh. And then there's one I saw in the back of the Havalot Navy magazine where they sing about WAVES. I can't think of that. I'm trying to think of that song. I don't remember the song they used to sing.

EE:

“And I don't have a man to tie my tie.”

SS:

See, I can't sing. I'm not a singer.

EE:

Well, you have done a great job in sharing with me today, and I really appreciate you opening up and talking about some good times and some scary times.

SS:

I believe I talked too much.

EE:

Oh, no. Is there anything I have not asked you about, about your service time, that you want to share with us?

SS:

No, I don't think so.

EE:

Well, I know that even though you're all of across town from us, I do appreciate you sitting down here this morning. Thank you.

[End of interview]