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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Frances Butler

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Object ID: WV0281.5.001

Description: Documents Frances Butler’s family, education at Woman’s College, service in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during WWII, and life as a Sister of Notre Dame.

Summary:

Butler gives a brief overview of her education, noting she was the fourth of her family to attend Woman’s College. She notes her sisters' service in the U.S. Navy and Red Cross, gives her reasons for enlisting in the WAVES, and briefly mentions her basic training at Hunter College and her assignments to Charleston, South Carolina; and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She recalls the drop of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and subsequently receiving enough points to be discharged from the navy. She shares her experience freeing a man to fight.

Butler discusses visiting Woman’s College and Dean of Students Katherine Henrietta Taylor, who convinced her to re-enroll in school. She gives some details about her last two years at WC, including serving on the Judicial Board. She also discusses receiving a French government assistantship, being mistakenly assigned to boys’ school, and seeing the destruction left by WWII. She describes attending Columbia University in New York; serving as a counselor at Woman’s College; and attending Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Butler discusses joining the Sisters of Notre Dame. realted topics include: living in Belgium for a year; teaching at Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University); working with postulates during the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican; traveling to Israel; and working with the Education for Parish Service.

Creator:

Biographical Info:

Collection: Frances Butler 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:

LEE EVANS:

—2003, and this is Lee Mahan Evans interviewing Sister Frances Butler, Sister Notre Dame de Namur, at Trinity College [now Trinity Washington University] in Washington, D.C.

Frances, I have known you since 1946, but I don't know all the details of your WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service—U.S. Navy] experience. And since this is a recording for the project of Women Veterans [Historical Collection at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG)] of World War II, that's our purpose here today, to share this with others who are interested in those women who served in the service. So tell us a little bit about you and where you're from and how you ended up in the WAVES.

FRANCES BUTLER:

Okay, Lee, I was born and bred in Savannah, Georgia. I was the fourth girl in my family to come to the college. My two older sisters had graduated and shortly thereafter went to Officers' Training School in the navy; Joey and Judy. People thought they were twins, but they were not, but they did room together all through college. Then Ellen went to the college, and she graduated in '44, on D-Day, June 6, '44. That was the end of my sophomore year. I went in '42 to WC [Woman's College, now UNCG]. You had to be twenty to go in [to the navy].

Then we spent the summer in North Carolina, and I had enlisted. I had to go to Nashville, Tennessee, to be sworn into the navy and then was called to active duty, beginning with boot camp in Hunter College in New York, which was the training boot camp for enlisted woman, which I was, since I had had only two years of college. So then I was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, which was very nice, not too far from Savannah. I had a lot of friends from Milwaukee and way up north in cold climates, and it was fun to take them home for Thanksgiving and Christmastime and things like that, because they couldn't go that far away.

Then we had an opportunity to sign up for overseas if we wanted to go to Hawaii. So I signed up the day the bill was passed. So did one of my sisters, but as she was an officer, their quota was much smaller. She never got there. But I went from Charleston to Hawaii, to Pearl Harbor. That's where I was stationed, and we lived in what had been a camp built by the Marines, but when they heard the WAVES were coming, they went back and painted all the cubicles light pastel colors for us when we took over their quarters. They later adjusted the showers.

So I did love being in Hawaii. In both of the places, I was in communications. I was a radioman, as it was said then, a radiowoman. In Charleston, I had a language billet. That's what they called it, a billet, assignment, but I didn't have that much business, so I just was given a lot of telegraphy work and studied. I learned all that without having gone to a particular school to learn that, but that's what I was doing in Hawaii, also.

Should I tell you that funny story about my father when I went to Hawaii?

LE:

Oh, do. That's a good one.

FB:

Well, it's kind of an embarrassing thing. I was home on overseas leave and then was getting on this troop train that was over from Savannah headed out west. So we had some time at home. And the family came to see me off at the train station in Savannah, and my father's last words to me were, “Well, we give you about two weeks to finish up that war in the Pacific.” And as fate or something would have it, two weeks later we did drop the atom bomb. And it's awful to think at this moment how people rejoiced so greatly, and I know I wouldn't rejoice over an atom bomb today, but to them, to all of us, it was the end of the war. A few days later, I got a cable from my father, said, “We knew you could do it.” [laughter] Terrible story.

At some stage, shortly after the final surrender of the Japanese, we earned about twenty-eight points. I don't remember exactly how you got those twenty-eight points, by different assignments or something, but we had to have twenty-eight points to go home—I mean to leave the navy. It seems at a certain point I had my twenty-eight points, but I didn't think my family knew much about the twenty-eight points, so I didn't pursue them, and I just stayed longer in Hawaii. It was very much less tension, of course, after that, and it was nice because the men going through were no longer headed out to combat, but were being relieved from their services overseas and were headed home.

When I did leave Hawaii and came home, I spent some time with my family and kind of went on a little trip to Canada with my mother, and then I had to start thinking about what I was going to do next. I did want to see my classmates, class of '46, so I went to Greensboro for a short visit. I was not enthusiastic about going back to school, because the people that I had been living with were all enlisted women, and I was so impressed with them because they had had careers of their own before they went into the navy. It made me feel a little frivolous at having just had a wonderful student life and so many advantages, and I thought maybe I shouldn't go back to school, or not now yet, because I felt motivated to try and see what I could do on my own. But I did want to see the college and my friends.

So I talked to Miss [Katherine] Taylor [dean of students] a little bit, and she had just returned, I guess, not long before that either, from her service in the navy.

LE:

Wasn't she a long-time friend, Frances?

FB:

Oh, yes. We had known her since my sister's freshman year in '37, so she kind of—what's the word I want?

LE:

Encouraged you?

FB:

Encouraged us all through college. I think she could read what was in my mind, and before I knew what had happened, she had me all signed, sealed, and delivered to back to the college in September of '46.

LE:

Well, that was my lucky day, too.

FB:

So that's when we got together. Didn't I know you as an undergraduate?

LE:

Yes.

FB:

Yes, you were an undergraduate then.

LE:

Right. And you were Barbara's roommate.

FB:

I was Barbara Parrish's roommate, senior year. So, of course, I did love being back, and once I was there, I was very highly motivated, especially that first year.

LE:

What did you major in, Frances?

FB:

I majored in French and double majored in Spanish.

LE:

Oh, my goodness. You were motivated.

FB:

The French held up pretty well, but Spanish was kind of a struggle after two years being away from it, you know, because I had only had two years before. So I ended up having a wonderful time, because I really stayed a semester longer than I needed to. I had gone to summer school at Chapel Hill and thought I should graduate sooner and all that stuff, you know, but then I didn't want to leave. I was on the Judi Board, as we called it, the Judicial Board that senior year, so of course I didn't want to leave.

So my last semester was just wonderful, because I was able to take some classes and things that I'd I wanted to take some more. I took some more Shakespeare, and I took philosophy, and just good things, some more art appreciation and that kind of thing. I loved it. So I had a great time my last semester. So I graduated with the class of '48, which was a very wonderful class, too.

LE:

Frances, you've had some wonderful experiences as a result of being in the navy, but let me ask you again. It can't just have been because your sisters were in the service and in the Red Cross, and your father was known as Colonel. What else kind of inspired you to join up?

FB:

Well, I just think it was the whole war effort, and I think you just wanted to help. I know the four of us, I'm sure we were very influenced by the fact that we had just spent two years in France studying with a family, and it was very hard. We didn't leave France until after the war had started. In fact, we came back on the last ship that was sent by the American government for Americans to come home. That was in October of '39.

So I had gone to kindergarten with the same about twenty young men that I graduated from high school with after I came back. I wasn't there for eighth and ninth grade at home; I was in France. But when I came back in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade, I was with the same fellows that I had gone to kindergarten and grammar school, all through school with. And they were out there, you know, getting killed and everything on the front. And you just didn't feel—well, what could you do? I mean, what was available? And so I really just kind of naturally thought of the service, since they had begun, you know, to take women. We chose the navy, I think maybe because the army started first, and we thought maybe, well, the navy would profit from whatever mistakes the army made. [laughs] Anyway, we all three were in the navy, [and Ellen was in the Red Cross].

LE:

What were some of the best lessons that you learned from being in the navy?

FB:

Oh, my goodness. I don't know. Get everything done a little faster than I was used to doing anything at all. I don't know. And then living with all kinds of people, all kinds of people, and finding how wonderful just anybody is, you know, just out of the blue. No matter what their backgrounds or anything, you were in there together, and everyone was, I found, very kind and very open and everything. I was very happy there.

LE:

How did the men in the service react to women?

FB:

It was interesting. Even in the radio shack, where I worked in Hawaii, I actually was replacing somebody who did leave, and he was very nice to me. He said, “Well, the least you can do for me is to pray for my family.” I promised him I would do that. His name was Noel, and I still pray for Noel. I don't know where he is or anything.

But anyhow, but some people, you know, had a hard time. Like, I know one of my friends, when the fellow was called that she was replacing, and he said, “I wouldn't be going out to combat if you weren't here.” And he was not happy to be replaced. But there again, all kinds.

LE:

Different.

FB:

Yes. Just different. But I felt very blessed in the navy. I appreciated the appreciation for religion, also, and the chaplains. As a Catholic, I was concerned about being able to have Mass and all that, and they were very, very solicitous, and we did have wonderful services. Almost anywhere, there would be a priest when needed, and sometimes the services were very ecumenical, and I went to those, too. So that was a good experience.

LE:

Did it help you plan for after graduation? What were your thoughts then?

FB:

No, I didn't have any intention of staying in the navy, because I was there because we were at war. I hadn't thought of it as a career, and I still never thought of it for that. I admired people who went into the reserve, but I don't think I ever gave it serious thought. I think it would have been a very good idea. It would have been something else in my background that I would be proud of and that would have helped me, you know. I probably would have enjoyed going back to reserve a couple of—I forget how long it was, two weeks in the summer or a month, I believe, but I never did really investigate it.

When I finished college, I knew if I were going to teach French someplace, I would need a lot more preparation, so I applied for a French government assistantship in France, and that was very early on after the war had ended in Europe, so this was '48, '49, because the war ended in, what, '46? '45, '46. I never expected to receive the things that I did. I expected to be in a girls' school, and indeed, I was in a boys' school, and they expected a young man.

LE:

Because of “Frances.”

FB:

And it would have been my father, who was [unclear], and I don't know if he was this ignorant or if he was just joking, I will never know, but the envelope came from the Êcole des Garçons, and Daddy said to me, “Well, I don't see why you're going to a school for waiters.” [laughter] But it was a little town near Nancy, a little town in a very gloomy part of France, in the north, in Lorraine. But that's Joan of Arc country, so I did love being around there and going into all of her places.

But they did expect a young man, and they were completely discombobulated by my appearance, because they had put a little cubicle up in the middle of a great big dormitory, you know, about forty boys, twenty beds lined up, you know, on either side and me in the middle. So they had to make some new arrangements for that.

Then I taught a little bit down the street at the girls' school, too. But it was hard. It was very, very cold, and that little town had been almost completely—the center of it, completely bombed out. It had been one of the bishopers of Toul, with the three bishops in France, the last to become part of France. They were little Episcopal towns, and gorgeous churches with four or five beautiful abbeys. The beautiful Cathedral had one tower completely bombed off and the roof and other things. It was very much, very much post-war. There was one kind of bulldozer or something, that was there from the Marshall Plan, if you remember the Marshall Plan, that was rebuilding that little town. It was a little walled town.

FB:

So you went from Pearl Harbor to bombed-out France.

FB:

Well, no. I went from Pearl Harbor back to school, then two years, then went to France.

LE:

Amazing.

FB:

Then I went to Columbia [University].

LE:

You went to Columbia. And then when did you come back to the college?

FB:

When I was at Columbia. My father died, and Miss Taylor, who we called K.T., called up one time and said, “Now that your father's not in Savannah with your mother, wouldn't you like to be a little nearer home than in New York, nearer to Savannah?” And she said, “In other words, wouldn't you like to come back and be a counselor, even maybe for a year?”

I was concerned that my GI Bill was running out and that I would indeed have to do something about finances, so it seemed like a good idea. It's always nice to go back to one of your favorite places.

LE:

And what year was that?

FB:

It must have been '51 or something like that. Yes, '51, I think. I did like it, and I stayed for three years.

LE:

So I met you the second year you were back.

FB:

Yes.

LE:

When I came back for two years.

FB:

That's right. Yes.

LE:

What a happy circumstance that was.

FB:

A very happy circumstance.

LE:

And from there, you went to Catholic University.

FB:

Oh, that's right. Then Miss Burns. Remember Miss Burns?

LE:

Yes, I do remember, Hellen Burns [dorm counselor].

FB:

She used to give me a ride to church often on Sunday morning [to] St. Benedict's, and not have to stand on that windy corner down there to change trolleys or whatever it was. And she gave me this pamphlet one time that she picked up at church about counseling fellowships or scholarships, two-year things at Catholic University. I had never been in a Catholic school. All of my education was in public schools in Savannah and in France, too. That was a two-year deal, and I really was very interested in it, and I did apply for that, and I received that as a two-year thing.

So I really left college on, I think, a leave of absence or something. I was supposed to come back. Then when I was up here, I ran into people over here at Trinity, and that's a whole other story, in and out of here on different assignments, [?].

LE:

And that's when you made another life-changing decision.

FB:

Yes. It sort of snuck up on me. It had not been in my plans.

LE:

And perhaps you'd say what that was, because you have a different address for yourself now.

FB:

Yes, I have a different address now.

LE:

Sister.

FB:

I ended up in Sisters of Notre Dame, and I entered at our mother house in Belgium, because they knew I knew French, and so they wanted me to go over there, where some of our sisters used to go before the war to make their perpetual vows, I think it was, or maybe it was novitiate. I forget. Anyway, I was there as a novice for a year, and six months in the novitiate. Then I came back to our novitiate here, [unclear], where you came one time. Then other things came up. So I taught French at Trinity here for a while, [six years].

Then I think the next thing was I was sent to Rome. No. First, I was in charge of our postulates for three or four years, summer of Vatican II [Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican], a very difficult time, because everything was changing. But anyhow, then I was sent to Rome, and I was in Rome for five or six years, went back to Rome, and then back here.

LE:

To do a wonderful program.

FB:

That's when I got up the courage to ask for a leave of absence, because I felt it was second journey time. I had been in for twenty-five years. What did I just say? Did I say leave of absence? That's not what I meant.

LE:

Second journey.

FB:

Yes, okay. Not leave of absence. Sabbatical year, when I realized how close I was to the Holy Land. I didn't realize that, or I would have done that during my traveling days. But I didn't say that. That's what I used to do in the summertime, you know, come to Europe. And so I had this wonderful, marvelous year in Jerusalem, went all over, went all over Israel, of course. I lived right in the old city on the Via Dolorosa and had wonderful scripture classes and theology and all that for a year.

And then they telephoned me from here about this program that we were starting, Education for Parish Service [EPS] program. That's twenty-five years ago.

LE:

And it's going strong.

FB:

And they said, “Frances, have you made any plans for when you come back?” I said no. “We have plans for you.” So that's when I get attached to EPS all that time. And I took thirty-three groups of pilgrims to beautiful places around Europe and the Holy Land, [as director of EPS Faith Vacations.]

LE:

And my husband and I are two of them. We went in the footsteps of Paul.

FB:

Wonderful.

LE:

And your friendship and your progress in French and the world, in loving the whole world, has been such an inspiration.

FB:

It was absolutely wonderful, a very great blessing in my life. Marvelous people.

LE:

Thank you, Sister Frances Butler. Your story is wonderful, as is your friendship with me.

FB:

Our friendship is indeed wonderful. That will continue. Thank you, Lee.

[End of interview]