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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Maxine Pierce, 2006

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Object ID: WV0348.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Maxine Newcom Pierce’s background; her twenty-year career in the WAVES; and the impact of her military service on the rest of her life.

Summary:

Pierce briefly discusses growing up in Southern Illinois in the 1930s, including her family and their musical talent; and working in personnel at the Illinois Ordnance Plant in the early 1940s. She primarily describes her twenty-year career in the navy, beginning with her decision to join the navy in 1943; the influence of her friends; and her parents’ reaction to her enlistment. Pierce also talks briefly about her basic training at Hunter College in late 1943, including the food and her living arrangements.

Pierce recalls most of her assignments, particularly her service in Philadelphia at the Navy Recruiting Station during World War II. Topics include her clerical work; her public relations work and meeting Arthur Treacher; work schedule and social life, especially dancing and songs she danced to; making recruiting speeches at high schools and colleges; seeing President and Eleanor Roosevelt in an open-car parade; and singing in an all-navy musical.

Pierce describes her other duty stations in Philadelphia immediately following the war, and her decision to make the navy a career following a temporary active duty training assignment in Charleston, South Carolina. Other topics include working in the recruiting office in Charleston; completing a recruiting training course in Norfolk, Virginia; enjoying her tour as a recruiter in Illinois; and meeting several WAVES officers, including Captain Louise Wilde, Captain Winifred Quick, and Captain Viola B. Sanders, while stationed in Pensacola. She also discusses her work as chief yeoman to Capt. Quick while she director of women in the navy in the late 1950s.

Other topics include: how women in the navy contributed to the war effort during World War II; changes in the navy during her career; the impact being in the navy had on her life; working for a retired U.S. Air Force major in the Office of Research Development and Administration at Southern Illinois University; and her travels.

Creator: Evelyn Maxine Newcom Pierce

Biographical Info: Evelyn Maxine Newcom Pierce (b. 1922) of Herrin, Illinois, served in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) from 1943 to 1964, and then worked at Southern Illinois University until the mid-1980s.

Collection: Maxine Newcom Pierce 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:

Hermann Trojanowski:

Today is Thursday, June 8, 2006, and the time is 11:20. My name is Hermann Trojanowski, and I'm at the home of Maxine Pierce in southern Illinois to conduct an oral history interview for the Women Veterans Historical Project in Greensboro, North Carolina. This is for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Thank you so much for talking with me today. If you'll give me your full name, we'll use it as a test to see how we both sound on this recorder.

Evenlyn Pierce:

Evelyn Maxine Pierce.

[Recording paused]

HT:

Well, Ms. Pierce, if you could tell me something about yourself, some biographical information, such as where you were born and when you were born.

MP:

Okay. I was born on the twenty-first of September, 1922, in a little coal mining town, Freeman Spur, Illinois. It's, oh, about ten miles from where we are at the moment.

HT:

Where did you grow up?

MP:

In Herrin, Illinois.

HT:

Is that spelled H-e-r-o-n?

MP:

No, it's H-e-r-r-i-n. It's just about three miles from here.

HT:

Oh, okay, so you're definitely from southern Illinois.

MP:

Oh, yes.

HT:

Can you tell me something about your parents and your siblings?

MP:

Yes. My father was a coal miner. My mom, a housewife. I'm the youngest in the family. I had three older brothers and three older sisters, and I am survived now by one brother who is next to me in age. We had a good family. It was wonderful.

HT:

What was it like growing up during the latter part of the Depression in the late 1930s?

MP:

Well, we were lucky. My sisters, two of my sisters, had jobs in department stores in Herrin, and my brother, younger brother who's next to me, was a musician, and he played around here in little orchestras, dance jobs, and they got five or six dollars a night, something like that. So we were all right. We had no problems.

HT:

Now, did you live on a farm or did you live in—

MP:

No, I lived in town.

HT:

Where did you attend high school?

MP:

In Herrin.

HT:

Do you recall what your favorite subject was?

MP:

Let me think. Journalism.

HT:

Did you plan to become a journalist at one time?

MP:

At one time, yes.

HT:

Did you ever practice that profession?

MP:

Well, when I was in the navy, I got lots of practice on that profession. [laughter]

HT:

Okay. But you were never a reporter as such?

MP:

No, no. No, no.

HT:

What did you do after you graduated from high school?

MP:

World War II—I graduated from high school in 1940, and World War II started shortly after that. Out here where Crab Orchard Lake is, the government built an ordnance plant called the Illinois Ordnance Plant, or Sherwin-Williams Defense Corporation. So I got a job in the personnel office, and I worked there until I got old enough to join the navy, and that's what I did. I joined the navy.

HT:

So you didn't attend college or take any classes between high school and then—

MP:

No, there was no money for college.

HT:

What made you want to decide to join the navy?

MP:

Well, two of the kids, twins, that I went to high school with, they went, and then one of the ladies who worked in the office at the ordnance plant was made—she joined and she went in as a lieutenant, and I got propaganda from all sides. “You have to join, you have to join.” And of course, I'm dancing up and down. I was dating a sailor at the time, and that helped, too. [laughter]

HT:

What did your parents and friends think about—

MP:

My parents, no, no, no, no, no, no. “No, no, no, you can't leave home.” So I says, “Well, when I'm twenty-one, I'm going to go.”

HT:

Because when you were twenty-one they didn't have to sign.

MP:

That's right.

HT:

You could go in.

MP:

So maybe a few months before I was twenty-one, I got my consent papers signed.

HT:

Do you recall seeing the recruiting posters about joining any of the branches of the services?

MP:

No. Mine was just input from—

HT:

Input from these girls—

MP:

Yes.

HT:

When did you join the WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service] then?

MP:

I was sworn in in St. Louis, let's see [pause], probably September or October 1943.

HT:

Was this the first time you'd been away from home? I mean because St. Louis is—

MP:

For an extended period of time? Yes, it was.

HT:

Do you recall what kind of tests you had to take in order to join the WAVES? Was there some sort of physical exam or written exam that you had to pass?

MP:

It was a written test, yes.

HT:

Do you recall anything particular about the written test?

MP:

No. Must not have been too hard. [laughter]

HT:

Well, getting back to the posters we just mentioned a few minutes ago, many posters at that time said, mentioned something about you could join various branches of the services to free men to fight and this kind of stuff. Did you view your enlistment as anything like that?

MP:

It didn't influence me to free men to fight. I just wanted to join the navy. It sounded exciting to me, and I wanted to go, go, go.

HT:

After you signed and were sworn in in St. Louis, where did you go for basic training?

MP:

I went to Hunter College in the Bronx, New York.

HT:

What did you think of New York and the Bronx and all those places?

MP:

Well, we didn't get much of a chance to see New York, and out in the Bronx, we were either marching or running up the steps to where you lived or back down again to go to eat food or something like that. I got one liberty in New York, and a couple of my friends and I went into the city, and of course, we're typical Midwesterners for the first time in New York.

HT:

Just kind of gawking at all of the big skyscrapers.

MP:

We were told one place you must not go is Harlem. So we got on the bus and got off where we thought it looked interesting, got off and hear “Welcome to Harlem,” they said. Oh, my lord. We're not supposed to be here. But there was nothing wrong with Harlem. So it was just a month, and then we were assigned whatever school we were going to be assigned to.

HT:

So you had, what, about four weeks of basic training?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

Do you recall what a typical day was like?

MP:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. The people with stripes lived downstairs. We were all in apartment buildings, and my place was on the sixth floor of an apartment building. The civilians had been displaced. This particular apartment had two bedrooms, a foyer, and one bathroom, and in each bedroom were two double bunks. So now we got eight women and one bathroom, and let me tell you, taking a shower was an experience. I remember I had to shower with three other people at the same time, but you had to do it. You had to keep clean. But I learned to run up six flights of stairs, and so by the time I left boot camp, I was in real good physical condition.

HT:

So that would have been in the fall of 1943, I guess, that you—

MP:

Yes, late fall.

HT:

Late fall?

MP:

Yes. I know we marched a lot because we were marching also for the Navy Day Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York, so we got a lot of marching time in. It was an experience.

HT:

Do you recall anything spectacular or any kind of eventful events that might have happened during that time during those four weeks?

MP:

No, nothing particular, no.

HT:

What did you think of the navy uniform, the WAVE uniform?

MP:

Loved it. I thought it was the prettiest of all the armed services.

HT:

What about the food? Do you recall anything in particular about the food during basic?

MP:

At boot camp. Well, lord, we had people having the chow line serving the food who didn't want to be there in the first place, so you go through with this metal tray with all the little compartments in it and it was [mimics sound of food being put on tray]. You wondered what it was, but you ate it because you were hungry. So it worked out all right.

HT:

You didn't starve.

MP:

No, I didn't starve. I didn't get fat though.

HT:

Did you ever serve KP, kitchen patrol or anything like that?

MP:

No.

HT:

I was in the air force and I did.

MP:

No, we didn't do stuff like that.

HT:

After you left Hunter, where was your first duty station?

MP:

Well, I went to yeoman school first, and that was three months in Oklahoma, in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

HT:

What is yeoman school exactly?

MP:

It was—you learned—you studied navy reg[ulations]s and procedures and how to write letters navy style, you know, and navy rules and regulations, naval etiquette, the ranks, you know, what all these stripes meant, and stars, and this, that, and the other. And again, another parade in Stillwater for some reason or other. But it's just like a secretarial school, except it was only you learned a lot about the navy.

HT:

You said that lasted about three months.

MP:

Yes, it did.

HT:

By the time you left Stillwater, it would have been early 1944, I guess.

MP:

Yes.

HT:

Where was your first official duty station at?

MP:

Navy Recruiting Station, Philadelphia.

HT:

What type of work did you do there?

MP:

Well, when I first started there, see, I was a third class yeoman, and all of the WAVES were typing up service records and health records. That's what we did. But we kept adding stripes, you know. We'd take an exam, we'd pass it, we'd get another stripe, and finally, I got up to first class. I left that typing thing, and I went into public relations there. So in that respect, it was wonderful. If we'd hear of a celebrity coming into town, going to appear on this place, why, I'd grab my photographer and go down during the day, and usually we could get an interview and a photo. Sometimes, the Philadelphia Inquirer, they would come down with us, too. While we were interviewing them, they would too, and get their photos for the paper.

HT:

So you actually did the interviewing of people when they came to town.

MP:

Yes. They were all very gracious and didn't mind at all, and I took my photographer with me.

HT:

Do you recall any famous people that you interviewed?

MP:

Arthur Treacher is the only name I can remember. Remember him?

HT:

He was a movie star from the thirties, as I recall, very tall?

MP:

Yes, he always the butler. He was always the butler. He was very nice, very nice.

Let's see. We covered various things that might be of interest to the general public, the navy stuff, and I'd send those over to the newspaper and I'd call a radio station. I did some radio work about the navy and in the interest of navy recruiting, stuff like that. Boy, it's been a long time ago. I'm sorry. I'm blank right now.

HT:

That's fine. Well, it sounds like you really enjoyed your work.

MP:

I did. I loved it.

HT:

It sounds fascinating. How long did you stay in Philadelphia?

MP:

Until about three years. The war was over and they were releasing WAVES to inactive duty, so I was back home for a little while.

HT:

Did you get out or did you go home on leave?

MP:

I was on inactive duty, yes. Oh, man, that chronology of this. Let me get something here.

HT:

Okay. I'll turn this off.

[Recorder paused]

HT:

So after you left Philadelphia and then—

MP:

Well, I was in Philadelphia. I left the recruiting station because they took women out of recruiting after the war was over, so I went to Commandant 4th Naval District [COM 4] in Philadelphia and worked there. I've forgotten where I worked, but with COM 4. Then I got out and went on inactive duty in the naval reserve.

I got married and I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, and I decided I didn't want to be married anymore. So I got two weeks training duty orders to COM 6, that's the 6th Naval District in Charleston, and when I got down there, I had a good job and really [unclear] working, they asked me not to leave, so I stayed for the rest of my time, career in the navy. Not there, but—

HT:

Back to World War II, now you were in Philadelphia during VE [Victory in Europe] Day and VJ [Victory in Japan] Day, which was in 1945. Do you recall anything particular about those days?

MP:

Oh, lordy. VJ Day, there was just a lot of whooping and hollering and drunks and stuff like that, and I stayed home. I stayed home.

HT:

Where did you live in Philadelphia?

MP:

I had an apartment.

HT:

Did you share that with someone or did you—

MP:

Yes, one of the other WAVES, who was also at the recruiting station, and I shared an apartment.

HT:

What did you ladies do during your spare time? What did you do for fun while you were in Philadelphia?

MP:

I don't know. There was a cocktail lounge that—we knew everybody there, and we'd go down there for a while, stuff like that. But there wasn't a lot to do in the city, and we really didn't know our way around in the city.

HT:

Did you work five days a week?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

Or during the war did you have to work seven days a week?

MP:

It depended. Sometimes you'd have to—never seven, maybe five and a half but never seven. See, in Philadelphia, it was recruiting and PR [public relations], and so none of that was a seven-day-a-week job. Neither of them were.

HT:

In the PR section, were there both men and women, or just women in that particular naval station?

MP:

It was in the recruiting station. There was one sailor and me, and that was it. That was it. It wasn't a big deal at all.

HT:

What was the hardest thing you ever had to do during that period of time, physically?

MP:

Physically? Nothing.

HT:

How about emotionally?

MP:

Leaving friends was hard, and one of our old chiefs died at the recruiting station in Philadelphia, had been a World War I re-call. He died, and of course, we went to his funeral, and that was not nice, really. When you make good friends at certain places where you're stationed and they leave or you have to leave, it's hard to say good-bye, because you don't know if you'll see them again, if your paths will cross again.

HT:

Do you recall any embarrassing or hilarious moments or anything like that while you were in Philadelphia?

MP:

No. I'll tell you when I did though, at Moffett Field, [California].

HT:

Okay. That was a little bit later on, I guess.

MP:

Yes. I was up at the chief squadron, and, you know, [when] you're working in the CO's [commanding officer] office, you know an awful lot of people. So I went to the chief's club and there were some chiefs there with their ladies, and I was just trying to be nice. One of these chiefs introduced me to his wife, and she was kind of fat, and the way she was sitting, I said, “And when is your baby due?” She says, “I'm not pregnant.” Oh, man. Oh, man. So I whisked out the door. Oh, my lordy.

HT:

I guess that was embarrassing. After you left Philadelphia, you went to—let's see, you were put on inactive duty, as I recall, then you went to COM 4, is that correct? Am I getting the chronology correct?

MP:

Yes. Well, COM 4 is Philadelphia.

HT:

Then you went to?

MP:

Then from there, I went down to the Aviation Supply Office in Philadelphia, and there I was the I&E officer. There's nobody else, so that was me.

HT:

What is that?

MP:

Information and education. At that point in time, they didn't have any of the military personnel there taking any of these USAFI, United States Armed Forces Institute, courses. USAFI we called it. So I started putting out a little station newspaper with a little humor to it and everything, and before it was all over, we had everybody involved taking some kind of course, which pleased me no end. But a lot of times they didn't know what was going on, and we're this little newspaper spreading it around and they see what they can get, and it worked out quite well.

HT:

Then where was your next duty station after that? Because it sounds like you've been in Philadelphia quite a long time.

MP:

Charleston. I worked, let's see—I'm trying to think of the name of the office. It was 6th Naval District Reserve Recruiting, is what it was, and my boss was the recruiting officer for the whole 6th Naval District, but it was reserves for these reserves units. So I was never involved in anything like that. I just [was] in the office and records and stuff like that. So I was in Charleston.

HT:

Did you live off base in Charleston?

MP:

Yes, I did. I did. No, I lived in the barracks for a while, then I moved off base. I never liked to live in the barracks. I just didn't like it.

HT:

I was stationed in Charleston, too, when I was in the air force.

MP:

Were you?

HT:

Yes.

MP:

That's a strange place.

HT:

I liked it.

MP:

Well, yes. But I kind of think of that saying that they used to have about the Charlestonians, something about you had to be born there or something else. I don't know what it was. My boss was a Charlestonian, so he and I got along just fine. He was something else.

So after Charleston, yes, I went to recruiters school in Norfolk, Virginia, and then I finished that and went to a navy recruiting station in St. Louis, which was great.

HT:

Because you were very close to home.

MP:

Oh, yes, home every weekend. I finished my tour there and I went to NAS Pensacola [Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida]. That was good duty. Pensacola was wonderful duty.

HT:

Was it?

MP:

Oh, yes, yes, yes. Yes, indeedy.

HT:

It sounds like it's one of your favorite places.

MP:

It was. It was wonderful. The people were nice and, lord o'mercy, I was in the officer personnel office and you meet all these pilots, and pretty soon you get to know quite a few of them. Lord o'mercy, if you wanted to go someplace and they were going in that direction, free ride. That was great.

HT:

If we could backtrack, you said you went to a recruiting school?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

What, was that just a short like four-, six-week course?

MP:

It was about six weeks.

HT:

What type of things did you learn?

MP:

You learned about the forms you had to fill out, and what you couldn't promise, and actually you couldn't promise anything. You just learned a lot about the navy, what the various schools that were open, the advantages of doing this, and, you know, PR stuff.

HT:

Were you ever a recruiter? Did you actually go out and recruit people?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

Oh, you did? Okay.

MP:

Yes, I made speeches at high schools, colleges, at civic organizations if they invited you, and I did radio and TV stuff, and it was fun. I liked it.

HT:

So I imagine you did quite a bit of traveling?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

Within the—

MP:

Within the district.

HT:

How large was the district usually?

MP:

Well, the Philadelphia one went up to—it was just the eastern half of Pennsylvania, but then you had the small states north of it, New Hampshire and Connecticut and whatever else is up there. My geography is—

HT:

The New England area, it sounds like.

MP:

They would have career days, a lot of high schools and a lot of colleges, and they would invite members of the armed services recruiting people to come up and do their spiel and I did that.

HT:

So you recruited only women, I assume. Is that correct?

MP:

Yes, just women. Yes.

HT:

It sounds like it was a wonderful duty.

MP:

I had good duty everywhere I went, except—when I first went to Charleston the duty was good because my boss was real nice. And then he retired, and every now and then you get someone who's usually enamored with themselves and it doesn't work out too well. So when he left, I wasn't too much interested in staying in Charleston.

HT:

How did you meet Captain Viola Sanders?

MP:

I got lucky. When I was in Pensacola, Lieutenant Commander Mary Baker worked over on the CNATRA staff. Do you know what that is? Chief of Naval Air Reserve Training, we called it CNATRA. Every time they would have, like, admiral somebody's wife would come in, and they have a tea, or some other high-ranking woman officer would come in, they'd have a tea. I never poured so much tea in my life. I poured tea for all these folks, and that's how I got to know Mary Baker.

Well, she went to Washington, D.C., and Captain Wilde, Louise “Billie” K. Wilde, was then the head of the WAVES organization, and I had met her, too. Eleanor Sauers was her deputy. I had met her, too. So the captain's chief yeoman at that time was being reassigned, let's say. So Mary Baker said, “Set your transfer orders to Washington, D.C.” I called her and I said, “I don't want to go.” “Oh,” she said, “you'll love it here.”

So I went to Washington to be the chief yeoman for the director of the WAVES, and it was wonderful. Capt. Wilde retired, as did [Lt.] Com. Sauers, and Capt. Winifred Quick and Viola B. Sanders took over as one and two. It's the best duty I ever had, with those two ladies. They were absolutely wonderful, and we enjoyed each other's company. We had a good time up there when there was nobody else around, you know, and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

HT:

Do you recall when this was, what year, by any chance?

MP:

[pause] Okay, I'm going to have to start subtracting, probably about 1959 or something like that, the 1960s.

HT:

Late 1950s, around there?

MP:

Yes, early.

HT:

In this position, did you do a lot of traveling?

MP:

Not there. No. No, I minded the store.

HT:

Because I remember Capt. Sanders saying she did a lot of traveling—

MP:

Yes, she did.

HT:

—during her tour of duty.

MP:

She did.

HT:

So I was wondering if you had done the same thing.

MP:

Isn't she wonderful?

HT:

She's a great, great lady. She truly is a wonderful person.

MP:

I tell you, I remember I was somewhere with her and she was—I can't remember who she was talking to, this group, and then when she gets going, she gets wound up, she's really going strong, and I'm sitting there trying to keep from laughing. Finally, when she finished, she turned around and looked at me, “I believe in telling it like it is. I'm like that old country preacher. When I get started, I preach the word. I'm going to tell them like it is.” I said, “You go to it.” I like her. I like her. Every time I go south, I drop in to see Miss Viola.

HT:

I'm sure she appreciates that very much.

MP:

Oh, I think she's wonderful.

HT:

I know another friend of yours, whom I've never met in person, but Irma Jean [Brooks].

MP:

Irma Jean.

HT:

Tell me how you met her.

MP:

I knew her just in passing. She was a lieutenant when I was in Washington, and she was the barracks officer there at Quarters K, and from time to time she'd need to come over to talk to the captain about something. Of course, she'd call up and, of course, I'd get her right in. And that's how I knew Irma Jean Brooks.

HT:

So you met all these ladies in Washington?

MP:

Yes. Except not Mary Baker, I met her in Pensacola.

HT:

Yes, right. How about Rebecca Lloyd, how did—

MP:

No, I never met—didn't know her.

HT:

You never met her?

MP:

No. She's a nice person, Rebecca Lloyd is.

HT:

Well, if we could backtrack just a little bit back to World War II, do you recall what your favorite songs and dances were from the war years?

MP:

Yes. Stardust. [pause] And I probably danced a thousand miles to In the Mood. [pause] And Sentimental Over You, Tommy Dorsey. Those are the ones I think I liked best. Loved to dance.

HT:

So you must have done quite a bit of that, dancing.

MP:

I did. I did. In Philadelphia, in the middle of the town, they had a big open square, and they put that aside, and every Saturday night there would be a dance band there, and they'd have a big dance there. Oh, man, I loved that. Mostly service people.

HT:

This was in the open, I guess?

MP:

Yes. So I'd go there with some friends, of course, and just dance all night long. It was wonderful.

HT:

Now, when you were off duty, did you have to wear a uniform, or could you go in your civilian clothes to go dancing?

MP:

Usually—During the war, it was usually in uniform, but in peacetime, no, civilian clothes.

HT:

Do you recall what the general mood of the country was during World War II? What was it like living during that time?

MP:

It's hard for me to say because of the fact that, well, before I entered the navy, of course, it started, what, in 1941. Before I entered the navy, it was everyone was apprehensive, you know. You didn't know what was going to happen next, or where it was going to happen. And then families were being broken up because the boys and men were going to war. When a fatality in your hometown was reported, the whole town—

HT:

Especially from a small town.

MP:

Yes. Herrin, I believe, is probably about ten thousand people, and you know a lot of people lived like that. Everyone did whatever they were supposed to do as best they could, you know, with what little was available.

HT:

Did any of your brothers or sisters join any of the services?

MP:

My two older brothers were in the occupational exempt thing, and my younger brother went up for a physical, heart murmur, they wouldn't take him, and he went around to the recruiting stations and just tried to join, you know. They wouldn't take him.

HT:

Your sisters didn't join, I assume?

MP:

No. Let's see, one of them, two of them were married, and everybody was older than I. So I went off to war. [laughing]

HT:

Well, after the war, many women were discharged. The services were really cutting back and that sort of thing. What made you decide to stay in the WAVES?

MP:

I liked it. I had good jobs, I was learning a lot, and college couldn't have done as well for me as the navy did, as far as interaction with people, situations, and stuff like that. What I learned was useful.

HT:

Did your family try to discourage you from staying in?

MP:

No, they tried to discourage me from going and enlisting, but once I was in, my mom was very pleased and very proud.

HT:

Who did you admire and respect a great deal from that period of time? Who were your heroes and heroines?

MP:

In the navy?

HT:

It could be anybody.

MP:

I don't remember, I really don't remember. I'm trying to think. Blank.

HT:

What did you think of President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt?

MP:

I thought he was wonderful. Excuse me.

[Recorder paused]

HT:

I think before we turned the tape recorder off, we talked about heroes and heroines. What did you think of President Roosevelt?

MP:

I liked President Roosevelt. You're not going to ask me about the current president [George W. Bush], are you?

HT:

Well, no, [laughing] unless you want to tell me. Now, you were in Washington quite a bit. Did you ever have a chance to see him in person, or Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt, by any chance?

MP:

I saw them in Philadelphia in that open car. I can't remember what was going on, but we were on the—the recruiting station was at 13th and Market Street. Have you ever been to Philadelphia?

HT:

I've never been to Philadelphia.

MP:

Market Street is a huge wide street and a lot of shops and what have you and a lot of traffic. So there was a parade or something, I don't know, and so we were all at the front windows, you know, with our noses pressed against the windows, and Mr. Roosevelt went by in that open car. He looked up and waved to us, and we waved to him. That's the only time I ever saw him. It was thrilling for me, though. I thought he was wonderful.

HT:

How about Harry Truman?

MP:

I liked Harry. Old “Give 'em hell, Harry.” I liked Harry. I liked him. I liked Mr. [John F.] Kennedy, too.

HT:

How about Mr. [Dwight D.] Eisenhower?

MP:

Oh, he was all right, but he was a general. He didn't do much. He was just there, I think. But he was all right. He certainly was better than what's there now, if you'll pardon my saying so.

HT:

That's fine, that's fine. Now, you were in the military a little over, about twenty years, right?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

What international events stand out in your mind from that twenty-year span?

MP:

All the invasions had already happened.

HT:

Well, you saw quite a bit going on, because you saw the end of the war—you were already in the WAVES—the end of the war, and then, of course, the peace after the war, and then Korea and everything that happened during the fifties.

MP:

The fifties, was that the Korean War?

HT:

Yes, early 1950s.

MP:

Yes. I never really knew why were in the Korean War, and so many kids were killed and in my hometown there were a few of the boys that I knew were killed, and that's not pleasant, you know. That's not pleasant at all. There must be a better way of settling things than shooting each other's heads off, but I don't get to vote. This war in Iraq now, I think, is awful. I think it's terrible.

HT:

During your twenty years, what kind of changes did you see in the navy and in the WAVES?

MP:

When we first came in, we were only in the reserves. We were just a temporary addition to help out, you know, what we did. And we evidently did so well that we were made a part of the regular navy and we had the option of getting out or shipping into regular navy, which I did. But the women in the navy during World War II did an awful lot of different things. Like in Philadelphia, down at what was then a little place, Mustin Field, for aviation—of course, they had prop[eller] planes then and not jets. One of the little gals I knew was small, and what she did when they'd pull an engine, she was small enough to crawl into the nacelle and fix whatever was going wrong in there, and that's what she did.

HT:

So she was a mechanic?

MP:

Because she was little.

HT:

Was she a mechanic?

MP:

Yes. Yes, they had WAVES machinist mates, a few, a few. No boatswains mate or anything like that, but the little ones like her, they served a purpose, as the men were too big to get in there.

Let's see. What other things? The hospital corps, storekeepers—WAVES. Aviation, what have you. I'm trying to think. Oh, parachute riggers, aerographers. They did a lot in aviation and a lot in supply. The storekeepers worked in supply and stuff like that, and the yeomen, well, they did an awful lot of different things. You weren't exactly pencil pushers, you know, just taking shorthand and stuff. I never could take shorthand. I didn't know how. I got a lot of practice in originating correspondence, which served me well.

I'm trying to think of some more of those WAVES. Hospital corpsmen.

HT:

Well, it sounds like the navy used women in a variety of duties.

MP:

Yes, they did.

HT:

They really did, yes.

MP:

They did.

HT:

As the years progressed on from the late forties into the fifties and early sixties when you were in, how did the navy change its view of the women?

MP:

Well, when I went in during the war years, we were only reservists and—

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

MP:

When the wars ended and some of the women enlisted wanted to stay in and we did, we finally were allowed to ship over into regular navy, which I did, because I knew I wanted to make a career of the navy. I liked it. I liked the things I did, the people I met, and I learned an awful lot. So when we could ship to regular navy, I did it, and a lot of women did.

HT:

Did you ever think about becoming an officer, or did you have that option?

MP:

No. You had to have a college degree, and I didn't have one. I had some awfully good duties, and I worked with some very nice people. I made chief early on and so I was a chief yeoman most of my time in the navy and then—which was pay grade E-7. So then before I got out, a couple of years before I got out, they decided that there were a lot of us—not only the women but the men—that we were capable of going onward and upward, so they established two new pay grades, E-8 and E-9. I was an E-7. But if you took the test and passed and made the next grade up, E-8, say, you had to obligate yourself for two more years of active duty.

[Telephone ringing. Recorder paused]

MP:

Established two more pay grades, E-8 and E-9, and as I said, if you took the test and passed, say, for E-7, you obligated yourself for two more years of active duty. So after you did that, did your duty, and you wanted to go for E-9—that would have been senior master's duty—you would have had to hook on three more years. Well, I took the test for E-8 and I passed it and added my star, but I thought, “No, I'm going home after these two years are up,” and I did.

HT:

So you came back to Illinois.

MP:

Yes. My mom was not in good health, and as I said, I'm the youngest in a family of seven. She wasn't in good health and I wanted to go home, spend the time with Mom, so I did. Then when I got home, I knew I couldn't live on—I could exist on navy retirement, but I couldn't live on navy retirement. So they weren't paying much then. They are now, but they weren't then, see.

So I had a friend on the faculty over here at Southern Illinois University, and she said, “Why don't you come over here and see if you can get a job over here.” So I did, and fortunately, the place where I applied, the office, it was part of the graduate school. I can't remember the name of it, but any rate maybe it will come in. Office of Research Development and Administration, that's it. The gentleman who was head of that department was a retired Marine colonel, but he was leaving and being replaced by a retired [U.S.] Air Force major. So my friend told me, she said—and the secretary who was there was going someplace else, she was leaving—so he told her, he said, “I don't know what I'm going to do. I've never worked in a university before, and that secretary's leaving.”

She said, “You're going to be replaced by a retired chief yeoman.”

“Oh, wonderful.” So it was a good office, and I liked working for him. We had a good time.

HT:

So how long did you stay at the university?

MP:

Twenty years.

HT:

Oh, my gosh.

MP:

I retired from there, too. Worked out fine.

HT:

So you retired from the navy in 1964 and retired from the university in 1985, 1984, something like that?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

So what have you been doing since then?

MP:

Nothing.

HT:

Traveling, I know.

MP:

Yes, I've done some traveling. Irma Jean and I went to Spain, and we had a good time in Spain. She knew enough Spanish to get us fed someplace, but that's about it. We smiled a lot, you know, wherever we were. We had a good time. As I said, I have a timeshare and it can go all over the world, so we got one. I took a timeshare there. Boy, I'll tell you, you wouldn't believe that place where we stayed. It was wonderful. It was on a golf course and right near the ocean, or whatever you called it, Mediterranean or something, where you go across and you're at Gibraltar. But it was an apartment, and it had—each of us had a bedroom and a private bath, and a large living room that faced the mountains, and you can't beat it.

HT:

Sounds wonderful. Oh, gosh. What else do you do to keep yourself busy these days since you retired from both the navy and the university?

MP:

I don't know. We travel around quite a bit, you know, saying one of these days, one of these times, hey, let's go to so-and-so, we haven't been there in a long time, like Tennessee, Kentucky, someplace. Okay, and we're gone.

HT:

Do you usually drive or fly or—

MP:

Yes, we drive. We usually drive and call up the lady who feeds the cat and say, “Hey, we're going to be gone,” so she takes care of Thomas. It's great.

HT:

Oh, that's wonderful, yes. Do you consider yourself to be an independent person?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

Do you think being in the military made you that way, or have you always been that way?

MP:

I think I've always been that way, but being in the military just underscored it.

HT:

When you joined the navy, or the WAVES rather, in the mid-1940s, women had not done that sort of thing to a great extent beforehand. Did you consider yourself to be a trendsetter or pioneer because of that?

MP:

No, no, not that way. I guess perhaps in a sense we were, because we were reservists and not regular navy. We weren't allowed in the regular navy. But in that sense, no, I didn't consider myself a pioneer.

HT:

What kind of impact do you think having been in the navy for twenty years has had on your life?

MP:

It's the best thing I ever in my life did. It's one of the wisest decisions I think I ever made, because it gave me a lot of confidence in myself. It gave me an insight into my identity, what I could do and can do. I was a bit shy when I went in, and that disappeared, because the kinds of jobs I had I couldn't be shy. I met an awful lot of nice people, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world.

HT:

So I assume your life has been different because you were in the military?

MP:

Yes, it has. It has. As I say, it gave me the experience I need to get better jobs, and the interaction with all different kinds of people to make me confident in my ability to talk with whoever, it didn't matter.

HT:

I think I recall you said you gave speeches to high schools and colleges, and that's quite difficult for most people, so that's quite an accomplishment. It really is.

MP:

Well, you go into something like that, and you feel that, if they already knew what you know, they wouldn't have asked you to come there. So I'm there to tell them what they might want to know about the navy and stuff like that, and I just answered their questions. There's only one thing that I was asked to do that I would not do in a high school. Some smart-aleck kid said, “Would you march for us?” No. [laughing]

HT:

What did he want? Did he want you to march across the stage for—

MP:

March up and down, yes. Idiot.

HT:

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

MP:

You bet I would. I think that if you can't, if you don't have the money to go to college, if you join one of the women's military services with the right attitude, you're going to help yourself an awful lot. People, some people, not all people, but some people where you're applying for a position, if they found out that you were in a branch in the military service and what you did, the kind of work that you did, which would be relevant to what you were applying for, you won't have any trouble getting a job. The fact that my jobs—oh, man, I was lucky—working for this commanding officer at the Naval Air Station, the head of the WAVES, and stuff like, man, that didn't hurt me at all, not at all.

HT:

Gosh, you met some wonderful people.

MP:

Yes, I did. I did. I had a good time while I was doing it, and it just—working like that for all these people as I progressed with the stripes and stuff gave me all the confidence in the world in myself, that I could do anything I set out to do, and I think it was wonderful.

HT:

Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions?

MP:

No.

HT:

In your day, when the women were still very limited as to what they could now, but now women are doing everything a man can.

MP:

I don't think that's right. I just don't. [pause] Sometimes I think of the terrible things that could happen to women if they're captured that wouldn't happen to a man, and I just don't think they should be in combat.

HT:

Women today, as I mentioned, are going to have many more opportunities. They become admirals, generals, and that sort of thing, which they couldn't in during the time that you were in. I think that Captain Sanders said that she could only progress to a captain.

MP:

Yes, that's right.

HT:

Whereas, I think, shortly afterwards she retired that women could become admirals and that sort of thing.

MP:

Yes.

HT:

So the military has improved in certain respects.

MP:

Oh, yes, indeed they have. They found out that these women like Viola Sanders are perfectly capable of making the same kind of a decision that a male four-striper is making sitting in an administrative position. Like combat, no, we don't have that kind of training or experience.

HT:

Well, Ms. Pierce, I don't have any other formal questions. Are there any things you'd like to add to the interview that we haven't covered, like any kind of stories or humorous stories from your twenty-odd years that you were in the military that you can recall?

MP:

Oh, I was in a musical. In Philadelphia, we had an all-navy show, musical, and I was in that.

HT:

What part did you play?

MP:

I sang. I had a solo part, so I sang. That was when we had a lady who had been in show business that was directing it, and oh, heck, we had about a four months' run in Philadelphia. When we first started out, we'd go to various military installations in New Jersey and the states around in Pennsylvania, and we'd have to pay our own way. Well, evidently, the word must have spread around, so the admiral at COM 4 authorized transportation for us so we didn't have to buy our own tickets, you know, stuff like that. We had a wonderful time.

HT:

Was this a variety show of some sort?

MP:

Yes. It had kind of a theme, it didn't amount to anything, and heck, we had a dancing chorus, the gals kicking their legs, and it was good.

HT:

All military?

MP:

Oh, yes, everybody was military. Everybody was navy.

HT:

Did you perform for military only, or did you perform for civilians as well?

MP:

Just military.

HT:

So it's almost like a USO [United Service Organizations] show type thing.

MP:

Yes.

HT:

You say it ran for four months?

MP:

Yes.

HT:

That's amazing.

MP:

Yes. Well, we got around and, of course, it wasn't seven days a week or anything like that. This was in our off-duty time on the weekends or something like that. But it was funny. When we gave the command performance for the COM 4 and his staff, that's when we started getting free transportation. They had one number, though. These were all original navy songs that you or nobody else ever heard of. But there was one, I Need a Guy to Tie My Tie, was one of them. We had a chorus, a dancing chorus, and the gals in the chorus would, when they did that number, after they did the thing, would come down off the stage and go around to, it was mostly military people, men, and tie their tie. So when we did this for COM 4, we went to the good-looking ones down there, and he got his tie tied, too, the admiral did, you know. And transportation looked much better after that.

HT:

That's wonderful. You said you sang in this? Do you recall what the name of the song was that you—

MP:

I'm the Missing Link in the Chain of Command. They were all original songs. Yes, I appeared on stage in a pair of pajamas and did my thing and walked around to the orchestra. We had a wonderful orchestra.

During World War II, a lot of these orchestras were shipboard orchestras, and they were professional musicians, and man, could they play. I mean they were out of bands like Artie Shaw's or Glen Miller's or something like that, drafted to do their duty. We had such a dance orchestra playing the music for our show, and man, it was good.

I know, these idiots—as I say, I did my number in a pair of pajamas, and at the end I took my bow, you know. So the night of the admiral's show, I did my thing and I took my bow, and when I took my bow, one of the men and the guys in the orchestra had a piece of cloth, and when I bent over [makes ripping sound], he ripped that cloth. Oh, lord, I didn't know he was going to do it.

HT:

Had you had prior experience in singing and performing before?

MP:

Yes, I sang, gosh, in high school and in the choruses, and we had a trio of women that we used to sing, or a girls' trio used to sing, around the civic clubs and things like that. Yes, I sang all through the navy, first one place and then the other.

HT:

You must have a pretty good voice.

MP:

I don't know. I came from a musical family, all of them. My mom could sing, my dad could, he played the, what's it called—way back when in Kentucky where they lived he played the fiddle for dances, and my brother Dick played the guitar, my brother Walter played saxophone. My brother Merle became a band director, and so he played a variety—he was a brass man, but he played a variety of instruments. My sisters all sang, and my one sister played the organ and she could play guitar. We sang. We sang.

I remember one story they told me. My oldest sister, Alberta, was more like a mother to me because of the distance in our ages, that I think I was about four years old, and she went crying to Mama, “Oh, Mama, what have I done? I've sinned. God's punishing me.”

“What's wrong now, Alberta?”

“She's four years old and she can't sing harmony yet.” [laughter].

HT:

So when all you children were together, did you sing and, of course, in those days there was no TV or anything like that, so did you entertain yourselves and the rest of the family with singing and that sort of thing?

MP:

We'd sing, and at parties—People used to have parties in their houses, and at the parties, why, the boys would be there with the guitars and what have you, and everybody would sing. If they brought in some of the men with these little pickup dance bands that used to play in these nightclubs in southern Illinois, you had a dance band there and danced. Mama didn't care. Roll up the rugs and dance.

HT:

That's wonderful.

MP:

Yes. It was good. It was good. I grew up in a good time, good family, and I enjoyed every one of them. There's only two of us left.

HT:

Yes, I think you said a brother was still alive.

MP:

Yes, my brother.

HT:

Well, I don't have any other questions. Thank you so much for talking me today. It's just been wonderful listening to your stories and I look forward to having lunch with you in a few minutes.

MP:

I thank you for doing this, and I'm honored, really.

HT:

It's we that are honored to be able to listen to these wonderful stories and your great service to the country and the military, so again, thanks.

MP:

Well, I loved the navy. I really did like it. There were not-so-good spots, but they weren't all that bad. It's just like anything else. Nobody's perfect. [laughter]

HT:

That's right. Well, I'm going to turn it off. Okay.

[End of Interview]