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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Viola Sanders, 2005

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Object ID: WV0323.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Viola Brown Sander’s career in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1943 to 1966.

Summary:

Sanders discusses the death of her father and her mother’s work to provide for the family. She talks about her admiration for her grandfather and older brother. She goes into detail about her education at Sunflower Junior College (now Mississippi Delta Community College) and Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University). Topics from her time teaching in Glen Allan, Mississippi, include: living with other teachers; her salary; demands of the job; and paying off her student loans. She recalls the attack on Pearl Harbor and volunteer work to support the troops.

Sanders recalls her brother, a navy serviceman, urging her to enlist in the WAVES, and swearing her into the service. Of her basic training at Smith College, she discusses intensive studies and becoming company commander. She describes being assigned to the communication branch and being sent to Naval Air Station, New Orleans, where she freed her brother for overseas duty. Topics from her time in New Orleans include: her work week; attractive sailors; serving as communication watch officer, officer of ship stores, and personnel officer; social activities; inviting Harry James to perform for the sailors.

Sanders discusses her transfer to recruitment and recalls studying so she could teach ships and airplanes. Other recruitment duty discussion revolves around the move from Naval Station Great Lakes to Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, Maryland. Topics from her time stationed in Japan from 1953 to 1955 include: rooming with a northern girl; being unable to discuss the intelligence work she performed; traveling in the country, and climbing Mount Fuji. Sanders also describes setting up the Washington, D.C., office of Admiral Richard E. Byrd and meeting many famous people while working for him.

Topics from Sanders' tenure as deputy to Winifred Quick include: a plane crash; speaking at the first NATO Conference for Women; and visiting Paris. She briefly notes her time stationed at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, mentioning Admirals Row and golf. She goes on to discuss her promotion to Director of Women in the Navy and her efforts to remove restrictions on women’s promotions in the navy. Other service topics include: her reasons for choosing a military career; men’s reactions to servicewomen; Lucille Ball doing publicity for the WAVES; memories of presidents; and an embarrassing moment.

Creator: Viola Brown Sanders

Biographical Info: Viola Brown Sanders (1921-2013) of Sidon, Mississippi, served in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1943 to 1966, the last four years as Director of Women in the Navy.

Collection: Viola Brown Sanders 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 Tuesday, June 14, 2005. My name is Hermann Trojanowski, and I'm at the home of Viola B. Sanders in Greenwood, Mississippi, to conduct an interview with her for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Thank you so much for talking with me this morning. I really appreciate it. If you would give me your full name, we'll use this as a test of your voice.

VS:

My name is Viola Brown Sanders.

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

Okay, Miss Sanders, if you could tell me a few biographical facts about your life, such as where you were born and when and that sort of thing.

VS:

I was born in Sidon, Mississippi, on the twenty-first day of February, 1921. I was born about 11:55 at night, and when Dr. [W. W.] Scott asked Mother if she would like him to put the time about six minutes later so I could be born on George Washington's birthday, and she said, “Let her make her own fame.” [laughter]

HT:

Can you tell me something about your family, your father and mother and any siblings you might have?

VS:

We had a wonderful family. My mother, my father, and my brother [who is] about two and a half years older than I, whom I adored. Of course, I always grew up thinking that both of them were far partial to Stanny, my brother. He's the one who had the cowboy suits and the boots. There were pictures of Stanny everywhere, and the first picture I can find of me in existence was when I graduated from high school. I could have thrown tantrums, I guess, but I decided that I was going to be just as smart and just as popular and just as worthy as my brother.

HT:

Did you idolize your brother?

VS:

I did. I adored him. We did not agree, and especially in politics. He was what you would call a real conservative, and I am a very moderate Democrat. How we got into this, I don't know, but we did not let it pull us apart. We just disagreed amicably.

HT:

What about your parents? Can you tell me something about them?

VS:

My father, unfortunately, died when we were both very small, and my mother had never really been engaged in any kind of making a living, and she just took hold immediately. I remember my daddy had an insurance policy. He left her $3,000, and that is exactly what the house we lived in cost. It was an old house built back in [the] late 1890s.

Mother had to make a decision about what to do with that $3,000, and I can see her right now. She went and sat down at that beautiful little desk that's out in that living room right now, and wrote that check for $3,000. Then she started selling the Commercial Appeal for eighteen dollars a month, and also, and this is grand, she set up an icehouse. In Sidon, we finally had an icehouse. We had an old beat-up Chevrolet, and she'd just go up to Greenwood and pick up two or three hundred pounds of ice and sell them, and go back and pick up more.

HT:

What is Commercial Appeal?

VS:

It's the Memphis newspaper. It was the only newspaper extant at that time that I can recall. It's the only one I knew anything about, the Commercial Appeal.

HT:

So that's how your mother made a living for you and your brother.

VS:

That's how she made her living, from the two of these. She knew we were going to college. She didn't know how. Mother brought us up almost demanding excellence. But now, I tell you, one of the greatest people in my life was my grandfather, very aptly named Solon, Solon Irvin Brown. He was just masterful.

HT:

So he had a great influence on your life.

VS:

A great influence on my life.

HT:

That was your mother's father.

VS:

My mother's father.

HT:

Would you tell me a little bit about him?

VS:

Solon, probably, was not an educated man, but he was a learned man, and I can remember now newspapers and the magazines, they were rare. Solon took the Saturday Evening Post, I can remember. He was determined that all of the men in our family, all his sons and grandsons, were going to be lawyers, and by golly, a great majority of them were. But now, I think—I wasn't a boy, but I was one of his favorites.

One day he said to me, “Now, Viola Brown, you are a woman, and you can't be a lawyer.” Isn't that amazing now these days? I can hear as if it were yesterday. But he says, “Pearl McClellan,”—she was the legal stenographer at the local courthouse. He says, “Now, Pearl is getting old, and she's going to retire, and you can go in there and you can be the legal stenographer.” That was his aspiration. Isn't that something?

HT:

Unbelievable. Tell me a bit more about your dad. What did he do for a living?

VS:

He was a tax assessor. Our family had been in politics. Solon Brown, this granddaddy, has his name on the courthouse. He was on the board of supervisors when that courthouse was built.

HT:

That here in Greenwood?

VS:

In Greenwood. Then years later, one of his grandsons, one of his daughter's sons, was—when the courthouse was renovated—D. I. Smith and his name is on the courthouse. Then my brother came along, and he was that lawyer at Ole Miss [The University of Mississippi], editor of the law journal when he was over there, and became the youngest district attorney in this district. So we've been in politics, and we've won and we've lost. That's what happens when you're in politics.

HT:

Tell me, where did you go to high school?

VS:

I went to Sidon through the eighth grade, and I had a wonderful—this is extraordinary. Judson Defoore was my teacher. My mother had taught with her years and years before when my mother was fifteen years old. Solon established this school way out in the country on a little place he had, because the kids were growing up out there, no school. So he sent my mother off to Grenada [Mississippi] and Ward-Belmont [College in Nashville, Tennessee]; it was just Ward Seminary then. She learned English and history and biology, and she and Judson Defoore started that school. Judson Defoore was still living and taught me when I got into the eighth grade.

HT:

Was Judson Defoore a woman?

VS:

A woman. She was a woman.

HT:

An unusual—

VS:

An unusual woman. A very formidable woman.

HT:

That's why we spell it Judson, I guess, yes.

VS:

By the time I got to Greenwood, and then we all rode the bus from Greenwood—from Sidon to Greenwood our last four years. Since I was one of three [students] that Judson had taught, well, I could have taught them. You know, I don't mean to sound smarty, but we just got a lot of attention down there.

HT:

Well, tell me something about your high school days.

VS:

They were grand. Had wonderful teachers. Greenwood always had a reputation. It was a normal high—nothing extraordinary. I remember I was—let's see, I made the speech at the junior-senior banquet, and Stanny wrote that for me. “Friends, juniors, seniors, lend me your ears. We've come to praise the seniors, not to bury them,” and words to that effect. It was great. Had a grand time. I think I was voted the most likely to succeed. I think somebody reminded me of that not too long ago.

HT:

Now, you were there in high school during the Depression.

VS:

Oh, was it depressing. We had nothing. We really had nothing. I can remember one day one of my dearest friend's mother came down and brought me some of my dearest friend's clothes, you know, two or three dresses. But we lived happily.

But now, we had—we called them then a black mammy and her husband, Emma, Emma Brayant. Then Daddy had built them a little house right out in the back of us. Between Emma cooking, you know, and all I really remember sometime were biscuits, and I didn't know there was any soup except tomato soup till I was grown. We just ate—you know, we had tomato soup, and we just called it “camel soup.” But Mother could go to Greenwood and get a big, old hen for twenty-five cents, and Emma could make magnificent chicken and dressing.

Strangely enough, most of the kids ate with us. Our house was the center of attraction. My growing-up days, even though it was the Depression, they were very happy. That little old town down there was an eden. It really was.

HT:

That's Sidon.

VS:

That's Sidon, yes. Unfortunately, I had to move away two years ago.

HT:

After you graduated from high school, did you go on to college?

VS:

Went into college. Now, everybody, all the young women, you know, went to MSCW [Mississippi State College for Women], the “W,” they called it. Mother said, without ever consulting me, “Viola Brown is going to Delta State because she's going to be a teacher.” So I went to Delta State Teachers College.

HT:

Where is that?

VS:

In Cleveland, Mississippi. It was in the middle of a cotton farm, and now it is one of the best—now it is Delta State University.

You know, if I may digress for a minute, when I got to be, as we say, the director of navy women, it was a big surprise to everyone. The first director of the navy women was Mildred McAfee Horton, president of Wellesley [College]. The second was Jean Palmer, the president of Barnard [College]. I went by to meet her one day. The third had a master's from Mount Holyoke. My predecessor had two master's from Stanford [University]. My successor had her master's from Boston University. They said, “Here you went to a rural college, a teachers college in rural Mississippi.” It was a joke. Isn't that something?

HT:

It is amazing.

VS:

In Mississippi—All of these Yankees and westerners—You see, I love the state of Mississippi. I came back to the state of Mississippi, and I don't like all the criticism that we've had. As a matter of fact, there was a letter in the paper the other day. You know, Ole Miss handled the early baseball [college] championship thing, and there was an article in the [Jackson, Mississippi] Clarion Ledger from the president of Maine University said, “My boys have never had the magnificent treatment they—the warmth, everything—from the people of Mississippi. It was just overwhelming.” And that's the way we are.

HT:

Well, tell me about your days at Delta State. What did you get involved with?

VS:

I was very much involved, and I might add, right now to round it up, I was selected as the first ever outstanding alumna of this [university].

HT:

Now, was this an all-woman's college?

VS:

No, no, no, it was not. I worked hard. I worked in the library every night for two hours. I've always loved books, so working in the library was a joy to me, and it certainly aided and abetted my education. I studied hard. I made wonderful grades. Wanted to be a teacher. My mother was a wonderful teacher. She knew everything. She read everything, and she wanted to teach everybody everything she knew, and I tried to do the same thing. I excelled in English and literature, and that's what I taught for two years.

HT:

I understand that you had gone to a junior college prior to going to Delta State.

VS:

I went—probably two of the happiest years of my life were at Sunflower Junior College [in Moorhead, Mississippi], and that's the reason I can remember your name so well. I was a Lady Trojan.

Hermann, this was a riot. About two weeks ago, I got a letter from the athletic director at Moorhead. Now, usually I get letters from them wanting money, but this one was from the athletic director telling me that the Lady Trojans had won the state championship, and he wanted to get them rings, and would I help collect some money.

Well, I got him some money, but I also wrote him a letter on ancient history. I said, “I, too, was a Lady Trojan. I was a Lady Trojan from 1939—belay that—from 1937 to 1939.” I says, “I must confess that the first year I didn't make the basketball team, but the second year I made the basketball team, and then that Christmas, I went dancing with my beau and broke my leg jitterbugging, and there went my basketball career. Only jitterbug break in [medical history].” [laughs]

HT:

You mentioned Sunflower Junior College in Moorhead.

VS:

It is now Mississippi Delta Community College.

HT:

What is Moorhead?

VS:

Moorhead, M-o-o-r-h-e-a-d, Mississippi.

HT:

That's in Moorhead.

VS:

That's in Moorhead. It's between here and Cleveland, as a matter of fact.

HT:

So after you graduated from Delta State, you decided to become a teacher up in Mississippi.

VS:

I went to Glen Allan, Mississippi, to teach; asked for grades seven through twelve. That's A-l-l-a-n, a beautiful little town on Lake Washington, which is a beautiful fishing place. We all lived together, all the teachers, in this one home, and that's where I was when I got the telephone call from my brother about joining the navy.

HT:

Well, tell me a little bit about your days teaching. Now, what was that like? What kind of a—

VS:

I loved it. I was busy, and as a matter of fact, it was so hard, and I went at it so, that I got so skinny, they were worried about me; put me on a malted milk diet. That's—five [grades]: seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve—that's six classes a day.

Also, I could handle the kids, and one day the principal came and said, “You're going to have to ride the school bus in the afternoon.” So after I got through teaching, I rode the school bus to be sure they were behaving themselves. Then we all had duties, you know. It was a hard two years, but, of course, I was just nineteen, I think, when I went. I was young and vibrant, and oh, don't I wish [I was still that young].

HT:

Do you recall what the pay was in those days?

VS:

I made eighty dollars a month, eighty dollars a month.

HT:

A month, not a week.

VS:

A month, eighty dollars a month. When I went off to join the navy, the principal said, “I'll give you $125 a month,” which was magnanimous. I said, “No, sir. I'm going into the navy.”

HT:

Could you live on it?

VS:

Well, we paid thirty-five dollars a month rent, I remember that very well. Then I had borrowed money. Mother, Mother never had to pay one dime on my four years of college. I remember I borrowed money from Field Cooperative Association, which all the students around here were doing at that time. They were just wonderful, and I know after I got out—seems to me I paid Field Cooperative Association fifteen dollars a month for a hundred years. But it got me through college.

But I made a lot of it on my own. I got up at 5:30 in the morning when I went to Sunflower Junior College and swept the floors in the dormitory. Went down often and waited on tables. So, really, most of it, I worked off.

HT:

That's really amazing. Well, tell me about how it came to be that you joined the military. What were the circumstances surrounding that?

VS:

We were driving around Lake Washington one Sunday afternoon when [we heard about] Pearl Harbor. Then, you know, we wondered what in the world could we do. We all got into the business of selling the sugar stamps and collected this and that, and I know we made speeches and things like that, and got all the community together to help the boys, and collected old coat hangers and things.

As soon as it happened, my brother got into the navy and was stationed at New Orleans. He was a communications watch officer.

So one afternoon I got a call from Stanny. You know, there was one telephone, I think, in the town, and they had to send for me. It was Stanny from New Orleans, and he said, “Viola, I think you need to join the navy.” He said, “We're getting some very attractive, very smart young women coming in here that have joined the WAVES [Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Service] coming into New Orleans, and I think you really should give it deep consideration.”

When my brother said it, that was it. I went and took the exam, and the first thing you know, I found myself on a slow train to Smith College to learn how to be an officer.

HT:

Many women in World War II said that they had seen recruiting posters and that sort of thing. Had you ever seen that prior to your brother talking about this?

VS:

I had seen it, and we had discussed it, and [I do remember] somebody told me somebody we had known a long time ago was thinking about joining the navy, but I really never gave it serious thought until Stanny [called].

HT:

What did your mother think about you—?

VS:

My mother thought whatever we wanted to do was fine.

HT:

What about your other teacher friends and the principal and friends and that sort of thing?

VS:

They gave me the biggest send-off you ever saw, but they didn't [want to go themselves.] Now, one of the women there did eventually join the navy, I think, that was teaching at the same time. I think she did. I don't think that my going in motivated her.

HT:

What type of test did you have to take in order to join?

VS:

I can't remember too vividly. Of course, a medical was the main thing. Then I think we were interviewed, as I recall.

HT:

Didn't you have to go through something like basic training?

VS:

Well, the basic training, it was officer candidate training. You wouldn't call it basic training. It was hard. We had to study naval law and naval orientation. We really had to study.

HT:

This was all at Smith College.

VS:

This was at Smith College. Of course, one day the [drill commander] said, “Now, you're not going to lead the troops, but,” [he] said, “you know, going into the navy, I think you should realize what it's all about.”

So I was out leading the troops—it was my time to lead the troops, one afternoon. After I got through, the drill instructor came up to me, and he said, “Seaman, where are you from?”

I said, “Mississippi, sir.”

He said, “That's what I thought. By the time you say 'Forward, march,' the troops have gone three steps already.” [laughs]

Listen, my southern accent has gotten me places. Of course, a lot of people say, “You're the fastest talking southerner I ever heard in my life.” But the Smith girls, you know, I was the company commander. They put me company commander up there. I guess I'm just loud, and they just thought, “Well, we'll let this—.” And, of course, I was so young, and I was straight as a die. I've got every—everybody in the Sidon United Methodist Church stands up. My neighbor one day when I first moved up here, she said, “They called to see what about you. I said, 'She walks like a girl, and she's the straightest woman I ever saw in my life.'” I make everybody stand up straight.

HT:

What was the training like?

VS:

Training was wonderful. We made a lot of good friends. But I'll tell you, the real training happened after my six weeks at Northampton, [Massachusetts]. Then we went up [to Mount Holyoke College]—see, I go to a rural teachers college in Mississippi, and then all of a sudden I'm in two of the Big Eight [Seven Sisters?], Holyoke, and Smith. I go to Holyoke, and that's where we learn how—I wanted to be in communications, because—guess why?

HT:

Your brother.

VS:

Of course. I told you I was competing with him all my life, so I did communications, because I made good grades, obviously, on my test. We have this—we called it “cooking and sewing,” and they had this huge cave. I can remember it right now. We went into that cave for our “cooking and sewing” classes. Learned how to code and decode messages, and learned the intelligence business.

HT:

What was a typical day like for you, if we can digress back to Smith?

VS:

Well, I can remember it pretty well. We had a wonderful, wonderful company commander. Unfortunately she died. We'd get up and, of course, you know, military, learn the military, everything military. Get the troops up, get lined up, and march to breakfast. Get the troops out in formation, military, and go. Then everything was school, study, study, study. Oh, and fire alarms and, you know, terror alarms, except it wasn't terror then.

I know I was mortified, but they didn't catch me. One time they got us up out of bed late, because of a fire alarm, and when I got the troops all lined up, I looked down, and everybody had on her shoes but me. I forgot to put on—I was still in my house shoes. If it had been one of the troops, it would have been serious business. So, you see, I will tell you this, young man. Luck has a great, great, great deal to do with what a person becomes. I have been so blessed.

My granddaddy, I can remember, when I was a very young person, said, “Viola Brown, I want to tell you something. There's nothing in this world like good timing.” My timing has been so good, and that's [a real plus].

HT:

You joined the navy in 1943, I think?

VS:

Nineteen forty-three.

HT:

Do you recall what month it was?

VS:

March? I was sworn in in March. I'll show you. I've got a wonderful picture.

HT:

It must have been rather cold in Smith in March of 1943.

VS:

Well, I didn't get there until August, see. I was sworn in, and then—March. Now, you see, as I told you, my brother swore me in. I have a wonderful picture of that. It's out at Cottonlandia [Museum], my uniform. If you have time, I want you to run out there. My uniform is on display at Cottonlandia, with my tiara and everything, and a huge, blown-up picture of Stanny. I'm on the board out there. Here's a picture of him swearing me in. We had a wonderful relationship. [The tiara was a new formal hat for WAVES adopted during Viola Sanders' and Winifred Q. Collins' tenures as WAVES director]

HT:

Another thing in World War II, in the recruiting posters it mentions that women could join to free a man for combat. Did you have any thoughts about that?

VS:

I would have done whatever I was required to do. Of course, that is now, with the war in Iraq—that very unfortunate war, I might say, in my opinion—it's coming back to the forefront. I just read last night where Admiral Elmo [R.] Zumwalt had to appear before the DACOWITS, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services [to explain the combat duty decision]. I don't know if you've ever heard of it.

The DACOWITS was a very formidable thing. That was a way that each president of the United States could pay back some political debts. These very prominent women from all over the United States were members of DACOWITS, and they were wonderful people. They really helped us out along the way, because they saw some of the problems, where we, you know, we weren't getting our share, the women, and we should have gotten more of this, that, and the other.

That's something else I want to bring up. Now, this is very important. When I first joined the navy, when all of us, the early—we were the ones who—we were the vanguard; we were the start. Okay. At the time, Mildred McAfee, when she was the head of the WAVES, as it was then called, she was a lieutenant commander. When I left, way after the war was over, I was the only woman four-striper to—only the head of the WAVES—it was only the assistant chief of naval personnel for women who could be a captain. When I made commander, there were four—only three others [to be selected at the same time.]

I railed throughout my naval career, “We have got to remove all of these restrictions on promotions for women in all the services.” So, luckily, [General] Jeanne Holm, who went way up in the WAC [Women's Army Corps], she was director [of women in the U.S. Air Force] when I was, and the air force and then the army, we all worked on a committee. I think it was the Bolton Committee, and the only reason I remember that is because of this Bolton thing here for the president. But I'm not certain. But we had us this committee, and we worked, and we worked, and we worked.

I have a letter right now in my files written from the White House. About three or four months, or maybe six months, after we retired, Congress removed all restrictions on all promotions [for women] and Lyndon Johnson invited all of us back to the White House for a big reception, now, which I thought was wonderful. I have a picture, and I can't find it, of him and me, and all the others, all of us. We were a bunch of us involved.

HT:

Do you know why there was—I guess it's called the glass ceiling—for women in those days?

VS:

Oh, it was just like television [and other professions]. Can you remember when Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley were the only women in television? Now you can't find the men. And the same way with Wall Street. But finally, men are beginning to accept the fact we're not trying to push them aside. We just want to join them. We want to be who we are.

HT:

Many people think that women who joined the various military branches in World War II really pushed this forward, people like yourself who pushed and pushed and pushed from the forties up to the sixties until it finally happened.

VS:

It's just like in recruit training. We were officers in charge of [women] recruit training. The men were commanding officers in recruit—well, we changed that. In Bainbridge [Maryland], we were an officer in charge, you know, head of our recruits. My successor up there was the commanding officer. And I know they wouldn't let us become warrant officers, and we changed that. I'm saying “we” very carefully, “we.” I don't want anybody to think that I am an “I” person. But I'm going to join all of those others to make that “we” work.

HT:

Seems a very long, hard struggle, very much like the civil rights struggle.

VS:

Exactly.

HT:

Long and hard.

VS:

No question about it.

HT:

Well, if we can go back to the World War II period for just a second, do you recall what people in general thought about women who joined the military in World War II?

VS:

There were different opinions. A lot of people felt we had no business there, a lot of the men. But listen, all of the young sailors were just [fine about it]—I never did run across any of the [sailors who resented us], but I know it was that way.

HT:

I think I have read where women who joined the WACs had more problems than any other branch.

VS:

In particular, they did. They did. They did.

HT:

For whatever reason.

VS:

Well, of course, in the first place, there were more of them. And they're WAC. It's just like right now, I don't know why, but the army is the only service that doesn't have its own museum. I just got a letter from Tommy Franks, General Tommy Franks—I mean a form letter, not a personal letter—saying, “We're the only service who doesn't have our own museum,” and I don't know why it is. So they're going to start getting one.

HT:

I guess this will be in Washington, [D.C.].

VS:

Yes, it's going to be in Arlington Cemetery, where our navy—our women's is.

HT:

After you finished officer—I guess it's Officer Candidate School—

VS:

Yes, Officer Candidate School.

HT:

Could you have your choice of what—

VS:

No.

HT:

—field you're in, or were you told what field to go into?

VS:

I had already been told I was going into communications. Then you know what my next druther was. My brother was in New Orleans in communications at the Federal Building. He was on the admiral's staff at the Federal Building. I wanted to go there. Well, guess what? In October—now, this is pretty good for an old eighty-four-year-old [to remember]—on October the nineteenth, I left Mount Holyoke.

HT:

Nineteen forty-three.

VS:

Nineteen forty-three, en route to New Orleans, as we called it—one word; New Orleans, one word—with a stop in New York City. Four of us. I've got pictures of us right now in Jack Dempsey's Restaurant. We went to hear Lucille Ball sing, and when we walked in, she stopped right in the middle of a song, looked at us, and then started singing again. She was—I'll tell you about her later.

And guess what? Stanny got his orders to Espiritu Santo [Vanuatu], and even the New York Times had a headline, “WAVE Relieves Brother for Sea Duty.” That was the purpose for women, they thought, in the first place. Get the women in there so the men can go out and fight the war. So that was a personification, right there. That was it. We've got a WAVE. She does just what he does. She's going to do it where he was, and now he's gone out to the Pacific [Ocean]. Good timing.

HT:

Were you happy about that headline?

VS:

Yes, I thought it was terrific.

HT:

When you said you stopped in New York, you stayed there for several days?

VS:

Yes, we had two or three days, two or three days.

HT:

A furlough-type situation?

VS:

Furlough type, yes.

HT:

Did you see any of the sights?

VS:

Oh, of course we did. We just—you know, none of us was from New York. We weren't sophisticated people. I remember a cute little girl from Oregon. We were just wide-eyed, you know, first time. Here we are. Of course, everybody looked at us. It's odd. We were different. But, you know, looking back, isn't it wonderful that we had that opportunity?

HT:

Well, how did people treat you? I assume you were in uniform.

VS:

A great deal of respect. Oh, and everybody inside and everybody I know, they're so proud of my career and what I've accomplished. Now I am getting the total fulfillment of it, you see, at this stage in my life. It's just wonderful.

HT:

One of the reasons I'm here.

VS:

How would I have known you? How would I have made the contacts I have? I've just got to teach these youngsters and tell them. I've got a lot of young great-nieces, and I make speeches to them all the time. I don't know whether they're listening or not, but I hope so. You see, this drive came from my mother. “Be somebody. Do something. Make a difference.” I don't want to sound preachy, but I guess when you're eighty-four, you can do anything you want.

HT:

Just about. [laughter] So once you got to New Orleans, tell me about your work there.

VS:

Well, it was just grand. I was in Com 8, as we called it, and I lived in a lovely little officer's quarters right across the street from Building 8 on the naval station at Algiers [Louisiana]. Some wonderful other CWOs [communication watch officers], women in the navy. I remember Maxine Hunter from Oklahoma, and Martha Perry; I don't know where Martha was from. Sometimes I'm not sure Martha knew.

But we had three days on—let's see—8:00 till 4:00; and then three days, 4:00 to 8:00; and then three days, 12:00 to 8:00; and then we had three days off. On those three days off, hallelujah. We had a lot of Swedish, young, good-looking Swedish officers there, just learning from our boys, and on ships coming in and out. I loved it—the commanding officer was very nice. I had my own little jeep to go down to the dock and deliver my top-secret messages. I remember after I'd been there two or three weeks, I went in to see Captain Wrenn, and I said, “Captain, when I get down on those docks, those sailors on those ships are whistling at me and cat-calling and carrying on.”

He said, “Viola, let me tell you something. When you go down on that dock in your jeep and those sailors don't whistle at you, then come see me. We've got a real problem.” [laughter]

Before I left New Orleans—and, of course, it was hard work; we had a hurricane there, as I recall. Messages came in at night, and we decoded them and—I remember my brother one night was on duty when he got a message learning about the [USS] Juneau blowing up, and Fred Smith, one of our best friend's brother, was on that ship. He couldn't tell anybody for days and days. It took a toll. It takes a toll, wartime things.

But eventually the war at New Orleans, it wound down while I was there. Finally [most of] the people were leaving, and in addition to being the CWO, the communication watch officer, I became the officer [in charge] of the ship's stores, and then the personnel officer left, and before his replacement came, I had to take that on. Then I remember the commander, he was a gentleman. He was a wonderful guy; his name started with a B. He had to leave, and before his replacement came, I took on the executive office [responsibilities].

Well, one day, I'm sitting at my desk, and Captain Wrenn walks up. He said, “Vi, I have got to go into the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.” He says, “You're going to have to be the old man for a week.” [laughs] So I ran the gamut. Well, you know, I had been there so long, and I loved it, and I knew every square inch [of the place]. It was just great. Isn't that something?

HT:

That's amazing. Now, what did you and your fellow navy women do for fun?

VS:

Oh, listen, we danced. I am a dancer. I think I told you about breaking my leg jitterbugging? [I'm still dancing] at eighty-four; there's a beautiful dancer out at Indywood, a magnificent home out there. It's not a nursing home. It's just where folks go when they need to be somewhere, [to be taken care of]. He dances, and we just entertained everybody at the cabarets all the time. I've got a picture—ran across a picture of me dancing with somebody. I love to dance.

Harry James, one night when I was at New Orleans there, I read in the paper where Harry James and his orchestra were going to be at the Roosevelt Hotel. So I called his manager, and asked if he thought that he could get Mr. James to send over a couple of clarinetists and a trumpet and a drum, and maybe have them put on a dance for my sailors. I was in charge of the sailors. See, people think we went in just taking care of WAVES; far from the truth.

What do you know? Harry comes over; brings his whole band. I was dating Bill Campbell, the most beautiful dancer, next to this guy out at Indywood. He was from West Virginia, and his father owned the Coca-Cola works there. He could dance like crazy. Well, Harry fell in love with Bill and me. I've got pictures of Harry and me, and after he left, he sent us a cute little flyer—I think I've got that somewhere—with Bill and me, only he wanted us to go and join his band. We took him to supper [at the naval station].

We just had a glorious time. We had a wonderful time. The social life was excellent. We had our own little Mardi Gras. I've got wonderful pictures of that. I was dressed up like the Queen of Sheba, I think, or something. New Orleans was probably as much fun as I had in any assignment.

Had a lot of responsibility. I also was the WR, as you call it, the women's representative. We had a huge contingent of enlisted women, and I had to [supervise them]—but I'd find me a good CWO—CPO, chief petty officer, and that's something else I learned. Pick you out some good people, put them in charge, and trust them, and they're going to do it for you.

HT:

Did you ever want to go to another duty station other than New Orleans?

VS:

You know, I'm one of those people, wherever I am, that's where I want to be. Wherever I'm billeted, that's where I want to go. I thought about it, and this is the strangest thing. One day the woman I succeeded as head of the [navy women] came [on an inspection trip]. She was personnel officer at BuPers [Bureau of Personnel], and she was making a tour of all the navy installations. She came to inspect me and my crew. She hadn't been gone six weeks when I got orders to recruit training. She sent me to recruit training. Then many years later, she selected me as her deputy, because I had experience in recruit training, and she didn't.

HT:

What was recruit training like?

VS:

It was wonderful. That's where I was back to my love, teaching. It was wonderful.

HT:

So this is where you would teach the new recruits?

VS:

Teach the new recruits.

HT:

What type of thing?

VS:

All [about the navy]. When I first reported, I told the officer-in-charge, “I want to teach. I want to teach anything, except ships and aircraft.” I was dying to teach naval history and naval orientation.

She says, “Sorry. The only vacancy we have is ships and aircraft.” But, of course, this is all in my oral history. I had to sit down over the weekend. I didn't sleep, and I looked at tapes, and I looked at pictures, and I looked at books. I had to learn displacement of battleships, displacement of this, size sixteen-inch guns. I had to learn about airplanes, F-15s, everything. I can tell you a P-23 patrol right when I see it. I taught ships and aircraft, and I loved it.

Then after I taught for a while, I got into the military side of recruit training. I started out as a company commander, then battalion commander, then regimental commander, and [finally] officer in charge, instead of commanding officer. Midway through my recruit training period at Great Lakes [Illinois], the navy decided they were going to move women's recruit training to Bainbridge, Maryland. So I got orders from Joy Bright Hancock in Washington at BuPers, the Bureau of Naval Personnel, to go to Bainbridge and set up the facilities for the [women's] regiment at Bainbridge.

HT:

That's like setting up schools.

VS:

Setting up from scratch.

HT:

Wow.

VS:

I was a lieutenant, two stipes. Well, the commanding officer and I just got along famously; not quite as famously as he would have liked, you understand. But he just let me do whatever I wanted. He got the barracks set up, [furnished the] administration [building], built the hangings for the clothes and all of that stuff, got the school rooms fixed [furnished properly].

Then I had to stay at Great Lakes until each [recruit left]—we'd move them out, company by company. Finally it ended up, it was I and a chief petty officer. Her name was Ardath Jo Green, and I had a letter from her last week. She had just heard about this new honor I got, and wrote me about it. We stayed at Great Lakes until every company was moved from Great Lakes to Bainbridge.

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

HT:

No, not at all. I loved hearing you, but, you know, I've read some of this.

Let me see. You were talking about Skirts Ahoy!, the movie, and Vivian Blaine and Esther Williams, I think you said.

VS:

Esther Williams.

HT:

This movie was made in Great Lakes.

VS:

In Great Lakes, that's right. Right.

HT:

About in the late forties sometime, I guess. Is that right?

VS:

No, it's later than that. It's fifties. [reads] Great Lakes, 1949 to 1951. Right. Vivian Blaine went right straight from us to New York to be Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and she sent me tickets for the front row. So I saw Vivian Blaine opening night on the front row in Guys and Dolls in New York. I don't know how I got up there, but I did.

HT:

So after you—

VS:

So I went to Bainbridge.

HT:

You went to Bainbridge, Maryland.

VS:

Bainbridge, Maryland, and I became the regimental commander at Bainbridge. Rusty Davis, good friend, was the officer in charge, and that's the reason now that I still, you know, seethe about that. Today they go up and it's the commanding officer.

We ran Bainbridge, and I was there just about one year. It was time for me to leave recruit training. I had had my fill. I had run the gamut. There's nothing else I can do for the women recruits. I went to Washington and moved in with a bunch of friends until I could find out what my future assignment was going to be.

One day, Dorothy Joyce, who was officer candidate distributor, so to speak, [in charge of officer assignment] called me and said, “Would you like to go to Japan? We need somebody in Japan”. So I went and had three wonderful years in Japan.

HT:

If we could back up just a second—

VS:

You can do anything.

HT:

When World War II ended in August of 1945, many women got out of all branches of the service.

VS:

I [almost] did. I didn't get out, but I was going to get out.

HT:

You were going to get out.

VS:

I was going to get out.

HT:

What happened? What's the story?

VS:

Well, I just wanted to go back and teach. Then I heard—I got letters. “The navy wants to keep 288 women officers on active duty, and we want you to be one of them.”

I said, “I've already got a job teaching school.” I got home, and I stayed about two weeks, and I said, “I'm going to leave this.” About that time, the women's—now, this is why we're no longer WAVES. The Women's Armed Services Integration Act by Congress. We were thoroughly, totally, completely integrated into the United States Navy. We weren't WAVES anymore.

HT:

And that was in 194—

VS:

Eight

HT:

Forty-eight.

VS:

Nineteen forty-eight.

HT:

So it sounds like you didn't give it much of a second thought—

VS:

Well, you know, I just—

HT:

Because you were commissioned, so you had never resigned your commission.

VS:

Oh, no, no, no, I had not resigned my commission. I was probably on leave, you see. So I went back, and it was just grand.

HT:

No regrets?

VS:

No—oh, I wouldn't take anything for my life, nothing. Obviously, sure I had bumps in the road. I'm sure I made a lot of goofs, but all in all, I look back on it, and I'm blessed in my life.

HT:

You said there were 228 officers?

VS:

Two hundred and eighty-eight.

HT:

Two hundred and eighty-eight, sorry.

VS:

Listen, all of these numbers are coming out of my head from a hundred years ago, so—

HT:

And there were, I'm assuming, several thousand enlisted women [unclear due to crosstalk]

VS:

Oh yes, at least five thousand. They wanted at least [that many], especially at recruit training. I can remember [Admiral] B. J. Semmes. When I was getting ready to get out of the navy, B. J. Semmes was talking about, “We want to keep—.”

Of course, we had a Hospital Corps of WAVES, and they were a formidable part of the navy. The navy could not exist without the medics, the women medics. That's one of the reasons—a lot of times, when I was trying to help us get equal rights, so to speak, I used the Hospital Corps women as examples of how important we were to the navy, and all of the commanding officers says, “If we didn't have women in our medical facilities, we couldn't make it.” So there you go.

HT:

So you went to Japan for three years. What was life like in Japan?

VS:

I lived out in a beautiful little Japanese home in Hayama, Japan. H-a-y-a-m-a. It was right next door to the emperor's summer palace, but, of course, I never got close to the emperor. I was rooming with a girl, a Yankee if ever there was a Yankee in this world. She was a civilian. She had graduated from Boston University, or Boston College. Yankee Phyllis, and she was—to this day, I remember Phyllis.

I'll never forget the first day I was in Japan, and I had moved out with Phyllis. We were walking down the road, and I was homesick as I could be. I saw a soldier, an American soldier in American uniform, coming toward us. As we got to him, I said, “Hello, there, young man.”

He says, “Hello, there,” and walked on.

Phyllis, I can just see her right now, just as precise and prissy, she says, “Who was that?”

We walked, and I said, “Phyllis, I have no idea who he was.”

She walked a few more steps, and she said, “You spoke to him.” Yankee. [laughs]

HT:

Now, were you in uniform at that time?

VS:

I was not.

HT:

Did he not have to salute you?

VS:

I was not in uniform. I can't talk too much about what I did in Japan.

HT:

Okay, so it was top secret.

VS:

It was top secret.

HT:

I've never been to Japan, but the country sounds beautiful.

VS:

I was with civilians [unclear].

HT:

Oh, okay. Even after all these years, you can't talk about it.

VS:

No.

HT:

I've talked to other women who were in the naval intelligence and that sort of thing, and to this day—well, when they got out, they said they were sworn to secrecy, and they still will not utter a word. It's just amazing that after sixty years, they just will not utter a word. That is just absolutely amazing.

Well, did you do any kind of traveling while you were in the Orient?

VS:

Yes.

HT:

Where did you go?

VS:

Hong Kong a lot.

HT:

What did you think of—I'm talking about vacation times and that sort of thing.

VS:

We had a wonderful time. Oh, and I climbed Mount Fuji. I want to show you a picture of Mount Fuji, and look, I've got the stick. I have saved it. I found it in my attic when I left. You know how the Japanese love to stamp everything. Every level I made. I've even got this old filthy thing.

HT:

This is a walking stick. Boy, [unclear].

VS:

You could climb. You take it, and then you could go to a different elevation. But let me tell you, this was a changing thing. I got within probably forty feet of the height, and I was tired, and the wind was blowing, and I said, “You know what? You've climbed this far. You can quit.”

A little old Japanese woman behind me, she was twenty, maybe thirty years older than I was, she said, “Young lady, if you don't go on to the top, you will always regret it.” And you know what? I did, and I am so proud. That's just timing again.

HT:

That's so true.

VS:

Isn't that wonderful?

HT:

Did you have much contact with Japanese civilians?

VS:

Not a lot, no. No, not a lot. But we had wonderful little Japanese maids, Wokakasan was one. I've got a beautiful scarf and that little thing that she embroidered for me. Let me see anything that happened in Japan beside that. Oh, the last bunch of us, on the way home, got in my car, a Chevrolet Bel Air, and we filled up the trunk with oil and an extra tire or two, and we traveled in that car all the way down to Kobe. We went over the whole darn place. I've got pictures like crazy of it.

Of course, I'm the only person in the world who spent three years in Japan and never took a picture. I've never had a camera in my life. I'm not into the technical part of living much. [laughter]

HT:

So after you came back from Japan, what was your next tour of duty?

VS:

It was 1955, the International Geophysical Year, and the navy called me into Washington and said, “Viola Brown, go set up an office for Admiral Richard E. Byrd.”

HT:

Whew.

VS:

They gave me a beautiful little office at Blair House, right across the street from—right next door to Blair House, across the street from the White House. I had a male chief petty officer who, I give him credit for the whole thing. He helped me set up that office like nothing you ever saw.

HT:

This was something brand new.

VS:

Well, this is a brand-new, finished—just going to be there three years, as long as Admiral Byrd's in this expedition.

Did you ever hear of Paul Siple? Paul Siple was his executive. He was the kid, he was the person, who, as a young man, spent a year in Antarctica with Admiral Byrd. He grew—his reputation—when he died with a massive heart attack, he was probably one of the leading geologists in the world, Paul Siple. I adored him, and he was there when Admiral Byrd left to go to the Antarctic. He joined him there at Christmastime.

But that was a wonderful three years, because I got to meet so many people, National Geographic, all their leaders and friends. I don't want to get this wrong, but I met either—and I can't remember, and I don't want to misrepresent—it may have been the first American who climbed [Mount] Everest. I don't know whether I met the first man who climbed Everest or not. But I just met some wonderful people. Admiral Byrd knew everybody.

I shall never forget one instance. He was giving or having a big reception in the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Mrs. Byrd, unfortunately, became ill, and I had to go and be the hostess. That was quite wonderful, because I got to meet all of his New York friends. But I remember I was standing there kind of at the door, close to the door, greeting people, and I felt a little hand on my shoulder.

Somebody said, “Commander,”—I was a three-striper then—“Commander, would you take me to the admiral?” I looked up, and it was Eleanor Roosevelt. It took me at least fifteen or twenty minutes to find the admiral, because I had [wanted] a good visit. [laughter] That was a wonderful experience.

HT:

Was that the only time you ever met Mrs. Roosevelt?

VS:

Yes, that was the only time I ever met her, yes.

HT:

Of course, you knew her from—

VS:

Oh, of course.

HT:

—her reputation in World War II.

VS:

Well, everybody says I can talk just like her. You know, when I say, “Commander, would you take me to see the admiral?”

HT:

[laughs] Oh, my gosh. This was probably in the late fifties by this time. What came for you next?

VS:

Winnie Quick, who had sent me to Great Lakes years and years ago, was then the Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Women; director of women in the navy is what we called it. Miss Winnie asked me to come over and be her deputy.

That just shows you how it's a whole—Hermann, it looks as if the script had already been written, and we were just actors walking with many players. I love [William] Shakespeare. I quote a lot of Shakespeare.

I went over, and I was the deputy.

HT:

This is in Washington.

VS:

In Washington, yes. I mean, I worked. She was a wonderful personnel person, and she had a lot of things she wanted to accomplish, and she did, and she had me help. And I had to ride airplanes. As a matter of fact, Winnie and I were flying into Boston once on an inspection in a navy plane, and that thing crashed, and both of us walked off of it without a scratch. When it landed, tore up the plane. It just dragged, you know, and it was just-then on my way to Japan, we had lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing on Wake [Island], and that's the reason I don't fly anymore. I don't want that third incident.

But we traveled. We traveled a lot. And one of the greatest things that happened to me, and this is real worth talking to you about, Winnie had just married Admiral [Collins]—I'll think of his name in a minute—and the first NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] Conference for Women ever to be held was in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1960, and Winnie says, “You're going. I don't want to go back to Europe.” She'd spent a month over there on her honeymoon.

I said, “Winnie, I don't want to fly across the ocean.” I've got wonderful pictures of it. I had a glorious time. The king and queen, [King] Frederick [IX], they had a huge sit-down dinner for us, about two hundred of us, in Hamlet's castle on gold plates, yet. Just a wonderful experience.

HT:

Can you tell me something about this conference for women?

VS:

Well, they were trying to establish—we had a wonderful reputation in assimilating our women into the military, and I'm sure they wanted to try to help do the same thing. We all got up [and talked], and it was a wonderful experience for me.

Winnie had just sent me about two or three months ahead of time to Omaha, Nebraska, which is the last place in the world anybody wants to go on a trip. But it was the headquarters for the Naval Reserve, and I loved the admiral who was up there. I've got a wonderful picture of him and me. I really learned the Naval Reserve, which is wonderful, because I had to go to Norfolk [Virginia] right after this. Everything just fits in like it's a Cinderella story.

We got to this NATO Conference for Women, and I was the only deputy, and there were all of this— Mildred Bailey, I think—no, I think she was not the WAC [Women's Army Corps] head then. I was just quiet as a little mouse, just sitting there, minding my own business, and all these four-stripers were up. All of a sudden, another head of the outfit, [the Danish] moderator, said, “We need to know about the reserve program in the United States.”

They looked at each other, and then I remember my good friend, Jo Riley—[director of the] air force; I loved her—and she said, “Vi, do you know anything about the Naval Reserve program?”

I said, “I know a great deal about it.” Now, this sounds bragging, and it is not. I'm just telling you the facts. You see, my mother and my grandfather had the most marvelous retentive memory in the world, and I got a lot of that from them. I got up, Hermann, and I talked fifteen minutes. I talked fast. Nobody understood a word I said, they tell me, and I got back and Winnie said, “[I hear you] got up and talked without a note, without a script for fifteen minutes, and outlined the Naval Reserve program.” I got a round of applause on that.

HT:

That's amazing.

VS:

But, I mean, the little old deputy, and they had totally ignored me, see?

HT:

Wonderful story.

VS:

I don't know why I thought of that. But anyway, we had a grand time, and on the way back [to the States], this nice old Italian fellow sat by me, and he had just taken his father to the old country. But anyway, we just had a grand time. He talked me into stopping off in Paris. He says, “I want to show you Paris.” So we stopped off, and we had a wonderful time. He owned a restaurant in San Francisco, and I've had a lot of people go out there, and to be sure they go—you know, when I hear they're going to San Francisco. I've got his name somewhere. That was a little highlight. We had a grand time; put his daddy to bed, and we toured the restaurants. I stayed in that gorgeous King—what is it—hotel [George V Hotel] in Paris.

HT:

King George, maybe?

VS:

King George, yes. Yes, I think so. But anyway, I came back, and I was just full of it when I got back. I had been abroad to Copenhagen, and it was a gorgeous city. I've got a beautiful picture of the whole group of us.

HT:

What was your next assignment after becoming deputy for Miss Quick?

VS:

I was sent to the headquarters for the Atlantic Fleet, Norfolk, Virginia. Winnie says, “Where do you want to go?”

I says, “I want to go to Norfolk. They've got a wonderful golf course, and I've been working hard for twenty to twenty-five years, and now I want to play golf.” So Admirals Row, you know, you meet all the top people in the navy. I had some civilian friends that I had met, a commander that I liked, and then I met his wife, and she was just great. So I went, and I spent a whole year in Norfolk, not working too hard, but it was mostly Naval Reserve. I had just a group of fellows that I had traveled around eight states. We were responsible for eight states in Com Five in the reserve program. I got that pretty well organized. We'd keep and preserve records, which was real important. But I was just there one year.

HT:

Was this Naval Reserve for both men and women?

VS:

Oh yes. Mostly men. Mostly men.

HT:

That's right, because by this time, the navy had fully integrated—

VS:

That's right. Right.

HT:

—so they were not separated anymore at all.

VS:

That's right, yes. Mostly men. Then I got called to come into Washington to try out to see who was going to be the next “Big She.” I understand from the enlisted people after I retired, that my nickname was “The Big She” when I was director.

HT:

“Big She?”

VS:

“Big She,” S-h-e. That's what they called the director. I guess all of them; I don't know whether that's just me. But I got along famously with the enlisted people, I'll tell you that.

HT:

Can you tell me what—

VS:

We went to see—we all had gone to see the secretary of the navy, and I went in to see Fred[erick H.] Korth, who was secretary of the navy. I think there were six or eight of us up for it. He was aware of this. I guess that somebody had told him I had just been to this little rural—this little teachers college in rural Mississippi, and he was looking at my resume.

I said, “Mr. Secretary,” I said, “I know all of those young women.” I said, “I can quote as much Shakespeare as all of them put together. I can assure you that my usage of the English language is just as impeccable as theirs. And I've got one thing that not another one of those women has, all those directors, former directors, or whatever. I have a southern accent.” He thought that was great. He thought that was real funny. Bud Zumwalt was his number two man.

But anyway, Admiral [William R.] Smedberg called me practically in no time down at Norfolk. Said, “Vi, you're coming back.” And guess what? When I got there to be assistant chief, head of the women in the navy, guess who came in as chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel? B.J. Semmes, who was a commander, a lieutenant commander, of one of those destroyers down on the docks of New Orleans, to whom I had delivered top secret messages years and years before. But he was a TOB; he was a tough old bird. He thought lieutenant commander was about the highest a woman should be, and I had a time with B.J.

HT:

Lieutenant commander is equivalent to what in the army?

VS:

A major. I'd say, “B.J., we need to remove these [restrictions on promotions for navy women].” He said, “You need a lot more lieutenant commanders.” He was saying, you know, instead of coming in here and wanting captains and commanders, you need to get more of these lieutenants up to lieutenant commander. We just fought him tooth and toenail.

But anyway, they put on—and this is the first time this happened, I have to be honest with you. When I retired, they put on the most beautiful reception in Lutze Park in the navy yard at Washington you ever saw. Admiral Arleigh Burke was there, sitting on the front row. I've got a picture of him, lots of pictures. They brought the whole regiment down from Bainbridge to pass in review at my retirement ceremony. It was an excellent parade, and B.J. was there and gave me a kiss as he pinned the Legion of Merit on me.

HT:

So you retired from the navy in 19—

VS:

August the thirty-first, 1966.

HT:

So you'd been in twenty-two, twenty-three years?

VS:

Twenty-three years.

HT:

Which is not a great deal of long time in. Did you ever think about perhaps going for thirty?

VS:

Well, yes. Had I got out, I would have reverted to commander, see? What else could I do? I had been in every—if you go over it, I had been in personnel, communications, recruit training, intelligence, Naval Reserve, Admiral Byrd, administration. I had been in every phase of anything anybody could be in. What was left for me?

HT:

So you decided to come to Mississippi [unclear due to crosstalk].

VS:

No, I did not. I stayed in Washington a while. I had a lot of good friends there. Loved the city; had a beautiful apartment. Then, the first thing you know, everybody I knew had been transferred, so I had met some people down in Southern Pines [North Carolina] on some of my visits, and I went down to Southern Pines, and I was there just about a couple of years when my brother died totally unexpectedly, in his sleep, massive heart attack. I had always intended to come back to Mississippi, but I wanted to play a little first.

HT:

I think you missed—you loved golf, and Southern Pines is—

VS:

And I love Southern Pines.

HT:

—noted for that. How did you learn to play golf, just as a passing fancy?

VS:

I'm so glad you asked. Down in Sidon, Mississippi, was a family named Scott Ware, the Scott Wares. They had a huge cow pasture. Scott Ware's uncle, Willy Ed Ware, was state champion for years. They built a golf course in that cow pasture for us kids. We had to do a lot of sidestepping out in that pasture, but they put the greens out there and sand, and we played golf out in that cow pasture every afternoon for years. Now, isn't that marvelous? I learned to play golf in a cow pasture. As we jokingly said, we didn't have to buy any tees. [laughs]

HT:

So you've been playing ever since, I guess.

VS:

I've been playing ever since. I love it. Now, of course, the last two years I haven't. I was right in the middle of it. Look, I've got trophies all over the place with my golf. I played well. Even when I was there, everybody said, “We're going to miss you.” We had a national tournament for all the services up in Pawtuxet [Maryland].

You know, I think golf is—you meet wonderful people, but it was not my life. As a matter of fact, I was playing golf the day I heard Jack [John F.] Kennedy was killed. I was out at the Army Navy Country Club.

HT:

Speaking of John Kennedy, what are your personal thoughts about President Kennedy?

VS:

I voted [for him], and guess what I've got in that closet. I've been thinking about maybe letting you have it. It is a guidon. Now, that is the little flag that the right guide takes in a parade to determine the line of march. From the Bainbridge regiment, it was the guidon both in his inaugural parade and in his funeral procession. Years after I retired, the commanding officer at Bainbridge sent it to me. Said, “You deserve it.”

HT:

Do you recall where you were when you heard about his death?

VS:

I was out at Army Navy Country Club, yes, with the head of the WAC. We were both on leave, and she was a golfer. It wasn't the head of the WAC; it was the head of the [Women's] Air Force, Betty [Elizabeth] Ray, Colonel Betty Ray. We were out playing golf.

HT:

That's W-r-a-y?

VS:

No, R-a-y. Elizabeth Ray. She's still living. She lives in Southern Pines.

HT:

Well, let me ask you what you think about these following people. We talked about President Kennedy. What about President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt? That's going way back.

VS:

I adored him, of course. My mother, I can remember my mother and me when television first came in. I just thought he was superb. He was for all the people. To me, he was not arrogant. He felt for people. He was not just a rich man who wanted all of his corporate buddies to be rich. He really, truly wanted America to be the greatest country in the world, I think, and with all of his handicaps.

HT:

Of course, they were not well known at that time.

VS:

Of course, I adored Harry Truman.

HT:

Oh, really?

VS:

I thought Harry Truman was a solid person. He did what he thought was right. He was incapable of telling a lie. He wasn't the brainiest man on earth, but he turned out very well. I think his legacy is going to be very good.

HT:

What about President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower?

VS:

Nice man. I thought he had no personality, but, of course, he was great for us in the war. Ike was not the one to inspire to me as much as, say, a Kennedy or a Roosevelt was. Jimmy Carter, bless his heart. He's proved how great he is post-president. I've got books—of course, as you know, I read everything in the world. I've got a whole storage space out there; books, nothing but books in it, next to my magazine and TV stand.

HT:

How about Lyndon Johnson?

VS:

Now, this is not going to be printed.

HT:

Shall I turn the tape recorder off?

VS:

Yes.

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

We were talking about various people that you've known over the years or thought highly of. Do you have any idea of who your heroes and heroines were in your life?

VS:

Of course, my mother was my total heroine. I've had some teachers. Mary McCain, my twelfth-grade teacher, was magnificent. There were some men I met in the navy that I thought were wonderful, honest, good family people.

Of course, the British ambassador. He called me “Britannia,” because, you know, she rules the waves. He sent me a coin with—I got it—Britannia. His name was Bush, Admiral Bush, and he was the naval attachê in Washington from England, and I met him and his wife at functions, and I got a letter from him, which I have in my files with this—I think I still have the coin. “I will always call you 'Britannia,' for she was the ruler of the waves.”

HT:

That's so cute. [laughter] Oh, my goodness.

VS:

Of course, Lucille Ball.

HT:

Yes, you mentioned her before.

VS:

Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance portrayed two navy women, in one of their sitcoms.

HT:

I've never seen that. I'm surprised, because I've seen so many of those shows.

VS:

I've never seen it, but we gave them their uniforms. Well, one day my yeoman came into my office, and she said, “Captain, Lucille Ball is on the telephone.” Well, it was she, telling me that she was going to be in New York City the next month at the Plaza Hotel. Was there anything she could do for us?

I said, “Yes, ma'am. You could do some publicity for us.” So I got the best-looking little WAVE ensign I could find, WAVE chief petty officer, and WAVE seaman. See, I took care of the enlisted people. And we went to the Plaza Hotel and spent the morning with her, and she did all sorts of publicity for us. I've got millions of pictures of us. She had that orange hair, and she was just as cute as a button. Timing.

You know, I told this to the guy who interviewed me the other night, and he had never heard it before, and I'm certain I've used the expression many times. Two women from Washington wrote a book about women in the navy, and I don't even have a copy of it, but they kept calling me over the year and down in Sidon, it seemed for two or three years, at least, on information. One day on the phone, I happened to say to one of them, I said, “You know, when I was real little, my mother looked at me one day and said, 'Viola Brown, you've got instinct like a lead mule.'” Well, they thought that was the funniest thing they'd ever heard in their lives. Like the bell cow or the lead mule, and they put it in their book. Well, this guy the other night thought it was the funniest thing.

HT:

I've never heard that expression, either.

VS:

Well, it says a bunch, doesn't it?

HT:

It really does.

VS:

[laughs] I love it.

HT:

Now, we talked a great deal about how women were treated during your time in the service.

VS:

We weren't beat around, but we had a hard time. But a lot of men—listen, let me leave you this [thought]—a lot of the men thought we were wonderful. But we did have problems.

HT:

Did you ever encounter any personal discrimination because you were a woman in your twenty-three years?

VS:

Not that I can think of, no. I think the only thing was while I was trying to get things done for the women to get them up [promoted], but that's not personal discrimination. It's just the way they thought about it.

HT:

Things really have changed in the last forty years or so.

VS:

They have, and they're making their mark right now. The men are saying now they'd just as soon fight next door to that woman as anything else. You don't hear it anymore, even in Iraq.

HT:

Well, speaking of that, what are your thoughts about women serving in combat?

VS:

I am all for letting women do anything they can do within their physical strength. Now, the only place that I think a woman could not serve is aboard a submarine, and I have always felt that way. The quarters are too cramped, and there would be absolutely no privacy whatsoever. And I certainly don't approve of an all-woman submarine crew. Now, I may be off base with that, but that's the only—if a woman doesn't have the strength, the physical strength. But I just think if a woman wants to serve, let her do whatever she and her commanding officer thinks she can handle at the time. That's right.

HT:

Speaking of physical strength, what was the hardest thing, while you were in the military, that you had to do physically?

VS:

Boarding an airplane is the only thing I really dreaded. Of course, your life was a series of three years at a time, usually. I've always said the Methodist Church is just like the navy. After two or three years, they reassign the preacher. That's the closest any religion has to the military. We had to be reassigned. You meet the citizens and the citizenry, and you get to love where you were, and then the first thing you know, you're uprooted.

Then getting sent abroad. My mother was quite ill at the time I had to go to Japan, and you know, your life is disrupted. My life, probably, had I not gone into the navy, I'd have fifteen grandkids, who knows.

HT:

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

VS:

I think to leave for Japan when my mother was ill. I did. The navy was precious in giving me a six-month stay so I could try to make some arrangements.

HT:

You didn't try to get your orders changed?

VS:

No, no, I didn't. She didn't want me to. I knew she'd be all right. It was not a death kind of thing, it was just she had depression. I knew she wasn't going to leave me, and I knew I was leaving her in good hands. But just having to leave, because we were very close.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid?

VS:

I think maybe when I knew the hurricanes were coming, and I had troops down there, down south. I never felt physically afraid. I'm not a person of over self-confidence, but, well, I'm a great believer in the Lord. I'm totally a Christian woman.

HT:

Do you recall any embarrassing or hilarious moments?

VS:

Yes. One of the worst moments I had was [concerning] the supply corps admiral, whom I adored. His wife had hurt her legs or something, and I had promised him, or I wanted her to come to this event, and I promised him that I would see to it that she'd be all right, and in helping her get up to her seat, I let her fall. I will never forget that incident. That seems minor, but it's something I have never forgotten all these years.

Let me see. I am certain there were other times when I was totally embarrassed to death. I can't think of them. I'm sure I goofed many times along the way. I know I got far too heavy one time; put on too much weight, I did.

HT:

While you were in the military?

VS:

While I was in the military, I put on too much weight.

HT:

That was frowned upon because we always—

VS:

It was frowned upon, and that was very bad. First thing you know, I was skinny as a rail.

HT:

Those things can happen if you do a lot of traveling because you have so little control over your food and that sort of thing, and before you know it, you've gained ten, twenty pounds.

Well, if we can go back to the Second World War for just a second, you talked about the social life in New Orleans and that sort of thing, a lot of dancing and that sort of thing. Do you recall what your favorite songs, movies, and dances were during that time?

VS:

Oh yes. You mean my favorite movie?

HT:

Yes.

VS:

Well, looking back over movies, Shawshank Redemption right now, of course. Let's see. Of course, Casablanca. I don't remember when that happened. As Time Goes By is one of my favorite songs of all time. I love it.

Of course, I could do a mean Mississippi shuffle, and I love to sing. Mississippi Mud. [sings] “When the sun goes down, the tide goes out, people gather round and they all begin to shout,” and I'm doing the shuffle. I can really do a little shuffle that I made up, and I taught everybody in the navy how to do the Mississippi shuffle, singing Mississippi Mud. Everybody in the United States Navy was totally aware that I was from the state of Mississippi. I love this state. The greatest move I ever made was coming back.

HT:

There's no place like home.

VS:

No, and I'm still happy at this rather mature era. I hope I've told you the significant things.

HT:

I was just looking over my notes to see what—we've covered so much.

VS:

Of course, I think my brother swearing me in the navy was absolutely [the greatest]—we've never heard of another. Now, I've heard of men, admirals swearing their sons in, and colonels, but as far as we've been able to ascertain, no brother in any of the military ever swore in his sister.

HT:

How did that happen?

VS:

He was in New Orleans, and that smart recruiter down there realized what a coup it would be.

HT:

For publicity.

VS:

Publicity-wise.

HT:

So you went down there to join? You didn't join locally here somewhere.

VS:

No, I joined locally, but I went to New Orleans to be sworn in. At that time, there was not a lot of money, and gasoline, even gasoline, you know, buying gas [was very expensive]. I was making $80 a month, and going to New Orleans was expensive.

HT:

Did you go down by train or by car?

VS:

By car, and my mother and my grandmother went with me. I had one picture [taken on the swearing in]. He [Stanny] was dating a girl down there, and she's now my sister-in-law. In one of the pictures we had made, she was there. She was present.

HT:

Is she still alive?

VS:

Oh yes. She's alive. It's the strangest thing. She and Stanny had three daughters. Those three daughters had seven daughters. The first of those seven daughters had a daughter, and then six weeks later, her baby sister had a little boy. We have got one boy in our family. He's redheaded, of course. Stanny and I were both as redheaded as you could be. We now have—I saw these [pictures] last month—a little redheaded boy named Sam, and that's his sister, Mary, whom he adores. No, his cousin. They are soul mates.

HT:

It's unbelievable that it took that long to have a boy.

VS:

One boy. One boy, and he's a hotshot. They have bought him his own fire engine, and I mean five people can get in it. I've got a wonderful family. My name, to the family, I'm “Pinky.” Stanny was a redhead; I'm a redhead, and years and years ago, Dorsey Curry [a cousin]—and I loved him to death, but Dorsey nibbled all the time, all day long—[One day he saw Stanny and me walking in tandem and he remarked, “Well there go Red and little Pinky.” It caught on!]

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

VS:

Now, there's a few things like this. I'm in the Leflore County Hall of Fame, the only woman so far. They honored me with that not too long ago. I just got honored the other night by [MDCC, formerly Sunflower Junior College where I went to school]. I'm quite active in the alumnae associations of both of my schools, and I certainly help them financially as much as I possibly can.

I try to be extremely active in the community. I've been on the board of Cottonlandia for years. I'm an active member of American Legion Post 29. I love it. Got my little [legion] cap in the car. As a matter of fact, Flag Day, if you weren't here, I would be out at Golden Age [Nursing Home] right now with the veterans out at the Golden Age Nursing Home. We go out every Flag Day and put on a reception for them and give them money that we take up ourselves, [which we collect from post members].

I want us to drive by the monument. Marsh Pickett, a veteran here in town, several years ago, eight or nine, called a group of us to the chamber of commerce one day and said, “I want to build a monument.” We sold bricks for two or three years, and with the aid of a very rich couple here in Greenwood, we built this wonderful monument over on the river, a veterans' monument. Then we have put a beautiful gazebo over there, a veterans' gazebo, and its right between the [legion hut and the monument]. I was financially able; I gave them the flagpole.

We have marvelous veterans groups. Strangely enough, everybody in the town but the young couples [attend our patriotic get-togethers]. The children all come, and the older people, on, you know, Fourth of July and Flag Day and Independence Day. But young couples seem to be totally unaware, those who've never served or had veterans, obviously, in the family, which is something I'm trying to do something about that. They should be there.

This is a very strange thing, and I've talked to a lot of veterans about it. All of a sudden, the last three or four years, people have been totally aware of veterans. Now, what brought it about, I don't know. I have been asked. Of course, I stayed with my mother a long time, and people probably didn't know I'd been in the navy. And I lived down at Sidon. Now it seems that everybody the last four or five years has found out that I was head of women in the navy, and I've been much sought after to talk and do this and that. But not before. The veterans, the other veterans and I, think it probably is because of the impetus in Washington. You know, we got that brand-new national—[Many of us think much of the new attention to veterans was brought on by the building of the beautiful new national monument in Washington.]

HT:

Right, WIMSA [Women In Military Service for America].

VS:

—and it created—and now I just found out I got a [grand honor]—on my eighty-fourth birthday, and I have a copy of that [letter] I'm going to give you from General [Wilma L.] Vaught, telling me that a group of my peers—and I didn't know I had that many lived still—bought me a chair in the huge [amphiteater at the Women's Memorial in Arlington with my name on it]—a plaque on my chair in the huge—put up $10,000, which was nice.

HT:

I know it's amazing. We started our project in 1998, and we did a lot of work, because people had to put everything on the computer. Your collection is on the computer as well. And we have thousands of hits every month, but it seems like people are just more aware of women veterans and their contributions. We really push it, because for fifty years, it was almost neglected. It really was.

VS:

True. I'm a fine example.

HT:

So it is being pushed from a lot of different areas, which is amazing to us.

VS:

Well, I've never really pushed it.

HT:

Well, many men and women didn't push it. I mean, you can talk to men, and you sort of realize that they might have been in the war, or some in Korea, or Vietnam, or World War II, but sometimes they'd talk about it, and most of the time they wouldn't. You almost had to pull it out of them sometimes to get that information [unclear].

VS:

For instance, we're having a huge Fourth of July celebration out at Whittington Park, and I'm going to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. They ask me every year now, and then I'm just, you know, the leader of the flag.

HT:

That's wonderful. Sounds like your life has really been great—

VS:

Totally. Totally full.

HT:

—for the last few years since you retired.

VS:

Well, about the last ten years I've been [involved], and I still go to my church in Sidon. When I left Sidon, I had my home torn down. For eighty-two years, I had lived there, and I loved it. It had to have a lot of work on it if I'd sold it, so I just tore it down, but strangely enough, there's a beautiful new restaurant downtown, and the hardware floors from my home in Sidon are now in that restaurant. So my home still lives.

But I still go to that church, and I've been teaching the adult Sunday school. I just finished teaching the Book of Revelation. You're talking about hard work; that's harder than I've worked since I got out of the navy, teaching Revelation.

I stay busy. I need to do things. But we have a wonderful group of the more mature. We're still playing bridge, and we help each other. Strangely enough, I'm one of the youngest of the oldest. We take care of each other. Everybody, of course, has a large family but me, but my nieces are just like my daughters, granddaughters. We're very close.

HT:

Earlier before the tape cut off, we were talking about your challenges when you became director in 1962. Can you expound on that a little bit?

VS:

Appearance, I wanted to get the appearance of the women top-notch, everybody. I just wanted to get the best circumstances for them, best living conditions for them. Wanted to be certain that things were going well with them; their welfare. I was in charge of them, and their welfare was [an important part of my] job.

Of course, always [good] behavior. Code of conduct was always very important to me growing up. It was [still] important.

Of course, getting the best done for them, for the chiefs, [was primary]. I know the male chiefs had a few prerogatives that the women chiefs didn't. Well, I got that changed. I had met them; along the way, I had met [a lot of people, especially the men, who could help me in these endeavors]. Now, I got along wonderfully well with the guys, and that's the secret. You've got to do that. Because, you know, let's face it, young man, men are afraid of women sometimes, and I just made them comfortable around me.

HT:

You knew they had the ultimate power.

VS:

I knew where I had to go to get it done.

HT:

They had the top rank. Well, during your military service, what accomplishment or accomplishments were you most proud of?

VS:

The fact that when I left I felt that I had done the very best I could and the most that I could. I held the feeling—it's not as if I made a speech, and I said, “Gee, I wish I could do that over.” I have never had the feeling—now, I don't want this to sound unusually, totally [arrogant]—you know what I'm saying. But I really believe that I did the best I could do, and the way that I left it proved to me that I was well accepted. I have no doubt.

HT:

Is there anything that you wish you could have done that you didn't do?

VS:

Oh, I wish that what was finally accomplished had been done earlier. I wish a lot sooner than it was done, it had been done. But it finally got done, and I think there is no question that women right now are just about as on equal field with men as they can be. I just wish it had been done sooner. “But when 'tis done, then 'tis done. It were well if it were done more quickly.” Lady Macbeth. [laughs] Now, to answer your question.

HT:

I'm not sure if I'm asking this twice. How has the navy changed its attitude toward women, or how had the navy changed its attitude toward women in the twenty-two years that you were in the service? Or twenty-three years, 1943 to 1966. How did the navy change its attitude during those years?

VS:

It finally came to the conclusion that it might as well take us in, because they've got us. That's what happened. After they took us in, they found why they decided to accept us. That's it. They found out we didn't challenge them in any way. We just wanted [to do] our part. We loved the navy. Now, of course, women can show this well, and men can't. But we loved it, and they should have seen we would do anything to make the navy it.

Of course, we just always thought we were the [smartest in appearance]—I have had more women from other services, and especially the air force, said their generals are asking, “Why can't y'all look like those navy girls?” You see, Mainbocher designed our uniforms. Our dress uniforms, now, Winnie Quick and I came up with the new dress uniforms on our watch.

HT:

How was it different from the Mainbocher?

VS:

Well, it's just the same [still Mainbocher design], except it's a little bit different [additions to the blouse, changes in the jacket, and a tiara for head covering.]

HT:

More up-to-date.

VS:

More up-to-date, and the material is totally different. And we had little shirts and—I hope we get time to go out to Cottonlandia to let you see it. Did you bring your camera?

HT:

I did not.

VS:

Well, then there's no point, no point in going to see.

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be an independent person?

VS:

Yes.

HT:

Do you think the military made you that way or—

VS:

No.

HT:

You've always been that way.

VS:

Yes. I fought. I fought because of my brother, and it was marvelous. I had to try to—you see, it was kind of like I was doing growing up, what I had to do in the navy. I thought my parents thought my brother was the center of the world, and I wanted to show them that I could be just as much of a centerpiece in that world as he was. I think that's why I was equipped for the navy. I never really thought about that until you asked me that question.

HT:

Amazing. Did you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter when you entered the service?

VS:

I consider it now, definitely. I didn't then, because it never occurred to me I'd stay that long. But there's absolutely no question that we were the trail setters, and trail set we did. Listen, I've met some magnificent women leaders, everywhere I went. Youngsters taking over as brand-new ensigns. They just came in with a [different attitude]—they knew it was different, and it was the military and the discipline.

I think military discipline—I think it would be absolutely wonderful—John Kennedy came up with it, and I'm sure some others have. I think two years of service to your country, whether it be on the civilian level or the military level, would be the greatest thing that could happen in every country in the world. It gives you an inspiration. It gives you perimeters and parameters. I just think it would change your life.

HT:

I think we need it more today than—

VS:

Any other time, absolutely, [I agree]. I just wish I could start all over again. I've heard my mother say a million times, “If I could just start all over again, knowing what I know now.” Oh, I would love it. I would love the challenge. I still don't feel that my contributions are over yet. I'm still going to contribute as long as I can breathe.

HT:

Well, it sounds like you're quite active in the community, which is wonderful.

VS:

Oh, I'm extremely active in the community.

HT:

That really keeps you going.

VS:

Oh yes.

HT:

Can you describe your adjustment to civilian life once you left the navy in 1966?

VS:

No problem. You kind of had wound down, you know. You know you're not going to war.

HT:

But you were very young at that time.

VS:

I was still forty-five or -six, yes. Yes, and fully intended to start doing [other] things, and then, of course, my brother died, and that just changed things. I just wanted to take time off for a while, because, you know, when I work, I work, and I was really tired. You can see pictures of me, and I look tired. My whole life changed. But you just learn to adjust to any situation.

HT:

When you came back—let's see. You were in Southern Pines for a little bit. Did you work there or—

VS:

No.

HT:

You were completely retired.

VS:

No, no. Strictly retired.

HT:

After you moved back here, you took care of your mom and didn't work at all.

VS:

No, that's right. I worked, but I didn't work. Yes, yes. No job.

HT:

Well, Vi, I don't have any more formal questions. It's been a wonderful interview. I've enjoyed this so much. Do you have anything you want to add, anything that I may not have asked?

VS:

I hope that I—would you like any little pieces of paper I've got?

HT:

Yes, I'd love to, but let's go ahead and finish the interview first. Let me just thank you one more time. It's just been a real pleasure to have met you this morning, and I just want to thank you so much. Thank you.

VS:

Well, it's been a privilege for me. I love talking about the navy.

[End of interview]