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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Sheila K. Smith, 2005

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Object ID: WV0317.5.001

Description: Primarily documents Sheila K. Rathbone Smith’s service with the British Women’s Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1942 to 1946 and her post-war modeling career in England.

Summary: Smith discusses her service in the RAF with a detailed description of the living conditions; uniforms; and daily life of barrage balloon operators. Other significant topics include Smith's return to England from Germany when war was declared and a visit from American Red Cross "donut dollies." Smith also describes her transition to modeling after the war and her work with fashion designer Hardy Amies.

Creator: Sheila Katharina Rathbone Smith

Biographical Info: Sheila K. Rathbone Smith (b. 1924) of Oxford, England, served as a barrage balloon operator with the British Women's Royal Air Force during World War II.

Collection: Sheila K. Smith 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 TROJANOSKI:

Today is Monday, January 24, 2005. My name is Hermann Trojanowski, and I'm at the home of Sheila R. Smith in Greensboro, North Carolina, to conduct an interview for the Women Veterans Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Beth Carmichael, who is the curator for the Women Veterans Historical Collection, is also here with me this morning.

SHEILA SMITH:

You have R. Smith? It would be K., Katherina. I was just thinking you probably would like to have a correct name. I was christened one thing and then called something else, which parents should not do, because it causes such confusion.

HT:

Mrs. Smith, thank you so much for talking with us this morning. If you would give us your full name, including your maiden name, we'll use that as a test to see how your voice sounds on this machine.

SS:

Sheila Katherina Smith.

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

Mrs. Smith, would you tell us a few things about your background, such as where you were born, and when and where did you live when you were growing up.

SS:

Hamstead, London [England].

HT:

That's your birthplace.

SS:

I was born up in the North Country, but just briefly [pause] and Hamstead.

HT:

When were you born?

SS:

8/31/24.

HT:

Where did you live when you were growing up? Was that London?

SS:

Partially, but partially Oxford, too.

HT:

Can you tell us something about your family?

SS:

My mother was German, and my father was English.

HT:

What was your maiden name?

SS:

Rathbone.

HT:

Where did you attend high school?

SS:

In Oxford.

HT:

Did you attend any schooling after high school?

SS:

When war was declared, my mother was in Germany, and my sister and I were with her. [Clears throat] She was very, very ill. She had cancer, and she was in the hospital there, and my sister and I were staying with friends. Those troops started coming in all over the place, and our friends said, “You've got to get out of here. You've got to get out of here.”

Our mother was in the hospital. She was set to have an operation, and it was when they had discovered radium, and they had burned her back. It was the color of charcoal. I was sixteen, and my mother was—my sister was seven, I think. They took her out of the hospital on a stretcher, and we got to the boat train, and they laid her on a seat.

She had all the details, you know, passports and everything, with her, and we had to go to another entrance and lost her. My sister's screaming, and they said we couldn't go through without the passports. I finally tried to explain what had happened.

Then the train was just like sardines. It was packed, packed, packed. But that train was the boat train that goes straight through to England and London. Then they took her to the hospital straight from the train. That was, of course, the end of schooling and everything else, because she finally came back—she was dying, and I was the one to take care of her.

HT:

So this was about 1939, perhaps, that period of time?

SS:

Yes.

HT:

What made you decide to join the military, the RAF [Royal Air Force]?

SS:

Well, just reading and hearing and getting angry and wondering why it was going to happen, they were going to take our little island. I guess—I don't know, at sixteen, seventeen, how deeply you think about these things.

HT:

Many American were influenced by the posters they saw. Did the British have recruiting posters for women and that sort of thing?

SS:

I was living in Oxford, and you wouldn't know that there was a war going on. My sister told me something very strange the other day. She said that she had read somewhere that [Adolf] Hitler was going to move to Oxford when the war was over, and that's why none of those marvelous old buildings were bombed. Oxford was never bombed. Now, I don't know how true that story is.

HT:

Do you recall where you enlisted to join the RAF?

SS:

Oxford, I think.

HT:

Do you recall if you had to take some sort of test to join, either written or physical?

SS:

Well, I wasn't accepted at first, because my mother was German, and so I had to wait while they went all through my background, I suppose, and then they finally said yes.

HT:

You said you were very young, about seventeen, seventeen and a half. There were some age limits, I understand, for joining the RAF; I think about seventeen and a half. Did you have to have your parents' permission to join? In the United States, if you were under twenty-one, you had to have your parents sign.

SS:

No.

HT:

Nothing like that.

SS:

Well, my mother had died in the meantime, before I joined, actually.

HT:

In the United States, many women joined because they wanted to free a man for combat. Was there a similar experience in Great Britain at that time?

SS:

I don't think I have any deep thoughts on that.

HT:

You thought I was going to ask you if you felt guilty about perhaps sending a man to the front because of the work that you had taken over or anything like that.

SS:

You've forgotten how seventeen-year-olds think. [laughter]

HT:

How did your immediate family and friends and neighbors feel about you joining the military?

SS:

I don't think there was any—my father had gone, and it was just me and my sister. I don't know if anybody paid much attention.

HT:

Do you recall what the general public thought about women who joined the military? Was there any kind of attitude problem?

SS:

No, not at all.

HT:

In the United States, there were some problems from time to time with women joining. It caused reputation problems and that sort of thing. There was some slander going on and very negative rumors going around about women who did join the various branches of the military.

SS:

That's very unkind.

HT:

Did you go through some sort of basic training? Can you just tell us about that?

SS:

Well, it was mainly to do with learning how to handle a balloon and stuff like that, you know, and marching and physical exercise and stuff like that.

HT:

How long did the training last?

SS:

Seems to me about three weeks.

HT:

Then after the basic training, you went straight to a duty station?

SS:

Yes.

HT:

Where was your first duty station?

SS:

Eastham docks in London.

HT:

Can you describe a typical day for us?

SS:

Well, we lived in Nissen huts. I think you call it—

HT:

Quonset huts, yes.

SS:

Quonset huts. We all lived in this one thing. We had a little stone place where there was water. There was an air raid shelter underground that would hold about six, and there were eight of us in a crew. We did have tin hats, but I think that was all we had in the way of protection and I had a—I'm translating—the nightstick, is that what the policemen have?

HT:

I think so.

SS:

The truncheon that we had. So I would go on guard, then, with a tin hat and a truncheon. [laughs] It sounds so silly now.

HT:

Could you describe how you actually got the balloon into the air and that whole process?

SS:

Well, they were attached to the ground in the center, and it was a huge gravel area that went all the way around with these very heavy concrete blocks and cables and stuff. So they were all moored down on this. But then, as the wind changed, that balloon had to be kept with its nose in the wind, or else it would do things it wasn't supposed to do. It was very unwieldy, especially when I was in the north of England on a cliff, where we've had ninety-mile-an-hour winds. It was hard work.

HT:

I probably heard in conversation, you mentioned that the balloons were not up all the time.

SS:

No.

HT:

That you only sent them up when there was news of a raid or something like that.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

How much warning time did you have?

SS:

Well, they would just say, “A raid is about to [unclear],” so we all flew out and did what we had to do as fast as we were able at any time or weather.

HT:

What was the height that these balloons could go?

SS:

Oh, that's something I should have looked up. I don't know—very high to prevent enemy aircraft from bombing the ships we were guarding.

HT:

Quite high, in other words.

SS:

They had armaments on them, too, and one of the main things was that planes wouldn't come in and bomb, because they'd get caught in these things, so they couldn't do any actual bombing when we were in the docks. There were ships there, so we were guarding them. Very often, too, there was a lot of gunfire from our side that would shoot holes in our balloons, which we didn't appreciate. [laughs]

HT:

Would the balloons blow up?

SS:

No, they didn't blow up, but we'd have to bring them in fast, because they'd start losing air, and then they'd be over the highway or over in the next field.

HT:

Well, tell us about the food and the uniforms and the instructions that you got during what we call your basic training. I think it's called disciplinary training in Great Britain.

SS:

Oh, we did physical exercises. We learned how to march. The physical exercises were done in our underwear. We didn't have gym clothes. Queen Mary came to see us during our physical exercises, which was—I have to laugh about this now, but it was very serious then. [laughs]

HT:

Were you issued uniforms later on?

SS:

No, I had a uniform then, but you couldn't do anything in a uniform. I mean, we had a battledress, which we wore most of the time when we were working on the balloons.

HT:

I think I forgot to ask you when you joined. Do you recall the date that you joined the RAF?

SS:

I was seventeen and a half. [laughs]

HT:

What did you think of your fellow crew members in the barrage balloon units?

SS:

Very strange group. Oh, you know, we were all from such different backgrounds—farm girls and office girls—but everybody got along very well. There were eight of us to a crew, and one always had to cook. If you could get out of it, you did, but just not many of the girls liked to drive that winch [that raised and lowered the balloon], so that seemed to be my job.

HT:

Now, who was in charge of each unit?

SS:

One sergeant.

HT:

Did you man the balloons seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, basically?

SS:

Yes.

HT:

Did you ever have any time off?

SS:

Not too much, not in the height of things, no. We were in isolated places with no transportation. What would we do with time off? We were always in such crazy places that people couldn't go anywhere anyway. Funny, nobody seemed to object, though.

HT:

The morale was good.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

I read somewhere that some of the units gave nicknames to their balloons. The one I read about was nicknamed “Romeo.” Did your unit have nicknames for your balloons?

SS:

No, no. “Damn thing,” maybe. [laughter]

HT:

Now, you mentioned that you were first stationed at Eastham. Exactly where is that?

SS:

That's where the docks are.

HT:

Eastern part of London.

SS:

Yes. They had aircraft carriers, which were way above our heads. You know, they [unclear], and the guys on the aircraft carriers would throw chewing gum down to us. That was a novelty treat to you for doing your part. [laughs]

HT:

Well, it sounds like you enjoyed your work, so at least you made the best of it.

SS:

I can never remember feeling nervous, and we were always so busy, I think, that there wasn't time to sit around and moan and groan. We always had so much to do.

HT:

When the war first started, I understand that men manned the barrage balloons, and later on, of course, the women came in.

SS:

On D-Day, when they went over on the boats, they were all men.

HT:

So the women never got the chance to go over to France during D-Day.

SS:

No. But we were right down on the docks.

HT:

Did you ever encounter any kind of discrimination because you were a woman handling these barrage balloons?

SS:

No.

HT:

Because I know early on some of the men thought that the women were not capable physically of handling them, or it would take twice as many women as men to handle these balloons.

SS:

Well, that's just male thinking. [Hermann laughs.] We proved them wrong. I had no idea what I was doing, really. You know, I mean, when you think about it, you were suddenly presented with this enormous thing and had to take care of it, put the docking down, and—they would send the men to do the armament part. They didn't let us ever touch that.

HT:

Now, when you say armaments—

SS:

On the cable, the main cable, there was an armament, which, if it was aflame, [unclear].

HT:

Some sort of explosive or something?

SS:

I think it just broke the cable, but it would take part of it and bring the flame down. But then it was awful, because all you had was a cable to get down, and no balloon up in the air, and that was almost impossible.

HT:

Did you ever lose a balloon?

SS:

Yes. In fact, down across the street in the next field, there was a whole male balloon operators, and they were wiped out one night. I can't understand now why I didn't feel any fear. What happens, do you think? That is strange, isn't it?

HT:

Well, I was reading that some of the balloons were up to sixty-two feet long and twenty-five feet in diameter. Were yours about that size?

SS:

Yes. I think they were all standard size.

HT:

And they were filled with hydrogen, which is highly explosive, I think.

SS:

Yes. We had a rack of these long tubes, but we did fill them up, after all, but I don't think we'd been told too much about being careful—but we had to drag them across the field. But if the winch broke down; they did send a man to repair—it was a Ford V-8 engine, and I was able to take it apart and put it back together again. [unclear]. [laughs]

HT:

Oh, gosh. I was reading about the air commander of the WAAF [Women's Auxiliary Air Force], W-A-A-F, which is the Women's RAF, and her name was Jane Trefusis-Forbes. Did you ever meet her, by any chance?

SS:

They were always men, the commanders, I thought.

HT:

Overall.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

I think she was the head of the whole organization for the women.

SS:

Yes, maybe.

HT:

Did you have officers, line officers above you, above the sergeant? I guess I'm asking about the [unclear] structure.

SS:

The men officers would come to inspect to see that everything was done right. Then after the balloons were finished, I was sent to an air force station to send people around the country and I had no idea what I was doing there, but it seemed to work.

They did invite me to be an officer, but in England you have to buy all your own clothing. You have to have a billet to go live, and you have to put out quite a bit of money, and I just didn't have it, so I had to turn it down.

HT:

This was after you left the barrage balloon units.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

How long were you with the barrage balloon units?

SS:

About three years.

HT:

What did you do next after you left the barrage balloon units?

SS:

I went to an airport. [SS added later: It was bliss to be able to take a shower, to eat, and to meet people.]

HT:

Airport.

SS:

Air station, and did this—where you'd have to get hold of people and trains and stuff, organize and get them all—they had to be moved from one place to another. I did that for a while.

Then I was sent to another place, and I cannot tell you the name. It was an airport where they were bringing back our prisoners of war, and there were four male officers and just two women. Just out of the blue; I thought I'd done something really terrible. I was shipped off from my job to this place, and that's what it was for. They'd just bring POWs in, and we had to take all their numbers and the details and talk to them. It was sad, really sad.

HT:

Do you recall how long you did that?

SS:

Not very long, I think.

HT:

I'm assuming this is toward the end of the war.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

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

SS:

Oh, in a gale, go out and take care of that balloon.

HT:

Your friend, the barrage [unclear].

SS:

What was probably the hardest part, because it was lying around, and it would be hitting the ground from side to side, and if you got caught in those tangles—I was dragged once and they had to pick the gravel out of me. [SS added later: Doing that in a storm was very frightening! And took a lot of strength.]

I wish they'd designed an outfit that would have been better with the sleeve. Because we were always working above your head and had big sleeves, all the rain would come down, and we were in our pajamas underneath, because there wasn't time to get dressed. We had to move very fast. We'd go back to bed absolutely soaking wet.

HT:

So did most of the raids take place at night, then?

SS:

Yes. Well, they could take place anytime. You just had to be ready even if it wasn't a raid, but the wind had changed, you had to go out and do all the turning of the balloon. I never heard anybody complain. The main complaint was lack of hot water.

HT:

So you had to boil all your water for washing and [unclear]?

SS:

Yes. [There was no shower, just two galvanized wash bowls.]

HT:

You say you lived three years in this Quonset hut?

SS:

No, in several different.

HT:

Oh. But I'm [unclear] they were not very large huts.

SS:

About the length of this house, I think. Yes, with a window at each end. I know I had to step over the water, which came through the window, to get into my bed. Of course, the food was terrible. We did complain about the food. It was just awful because nobody knew how to cook.

HT:

Of course, there was rationing going on so the quality of the food was probably not very good, as well.

SS:

Yes, it was awful.

HT:

Terrible. And did you take turns cooking, or did you—

SS:

Well, we were supposed to, but as they liked me to drive the winch, I got out of cooking. [laughs]

HT:

A minute ago I asked you what was the hardest thing you ever did physically. What about emotionally? What was the most difficult thing that you had to do emotionally while you were in the service?

SS:

Well, knowing that the crew across the street had all been killed. When I was back on the air force campus, I had a romance with an Australian pilot, who was also killed.

HT:

Do you ever recall being afraid?

SS:

I don't think so, no.

HT:

Do you think you were ever in any kind of physical danger?

SS:

Oh yes.

HT:

You mentioned earlier about being dragged by the cable or something.

SS:

Oh, you were endangered every time you went out there. They'd buzz the bombers [unclear]. You'd wait for them to cut off, and down they came.

But it's strange. It really is odd. I think about it now, and I can't ever remember being really frightened. We were always busy, too, I think, which is—and, of course, it's so long ago. Maybe I was scared [unclear].

We would get very, very tired, and then go and sleep in an underground air raid shelter, which was cold with six iron bunks, I think, in rows. Sometimes we'd get so tired, we'd go and just sleep in there. It wasn't very pleasant. We didn't have days off or anything like that.

HT:

You couldn't go out to London to a dance or anything like that.

SS:

No. We were like caged animals. [laughter] I guess they did that so we shouldn't run away.

HT:

Do you recall any embarrassing moments while you were in the service, either manning the barrage balloons or later on at the air station?

SS:

I remember when I was doing the transportation job, sending them somewhere where they shouldn't have gone, and having to go to a male officer, and his being very furious. He said, “Well, we'll have to give you some kind of punishment.” Then he said, “What I want you to do is get a toothbrush and clean the perimeter track at the airport with it.” That I remember.

HT:

Did you do it?

SS:

No. It wouldn't be possible. [laughs]

HT:

You had sent some people to the wrong station?

SS:

Yes. Well, they assumed you could do these things. You know, they really didn't—it was a Bradshaw. Do you know what a Bradshaw is?

HT:

No.

SS:

It's like a giant phone book, and it had all the times [of the trains]. I don't think it was very up to date. It was easy to make a mistake. And I had never done any such thing before, so—

HT:

Can you tell us some other humorous, unusual events that happened while you were in the service that happened perhaps to you or a friend?

SS:

Well, one of the girls was married to an army officer, and we'd keep—each piece of her clothes, one of us would keep. When her husband could get leave, we'd gather all the pieces up and dress her up and sneak her out.

HT:

So it sounds like you were not allowed to leave without permission.

SS:

Oh, no.

HT:

She would have gotten into a lot of trouble, I guess, if she had been found out.

SS:

Yes. Then we stole [unclear]. Because she was not allowed to go out. He had to come in all normal clothes. He couldn't come in a uniform, because you were not allowed to be seen with an officer if you were not an officer. That was one [unclear].

HT:

He would come by the Quonset hut to pick her up, and then they'd go—

SS:

No, he'd wait outside the Quonset. Yes.

HT:

Well, how did you girls spend your spare time?

SS:

[We had no spare time, no music, no books, no candy.]

HT:

None whatsoever. You were always on duty.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

The next question I was going to ask was about your social life, but apparently there was none.

SS:

I think about once a month we were allowed to go out if we were anywhere near a town, because there was no transportation. It was something you had to be able to walk to. I remember Spam and chips, it was like gold dust. If you could have Spam and chips, that was so memorable; that could keep you going for three months.

HT:

Now, Spam is a form of ham, is that correct?

SS:

It's American.

HT:

Oh, it is. Oh, oh. Well, I thought it might be just a British thing.

SS:

No. [laughs]

HT:

Chips, of course, is like French fries.

SS:

Yes. But Spam is very American. You were kind enough to send it to us. [laughter]

HT:

That was your favorite treat.

SS:

Oh, that was just absolutely—and then our favorite drink was a shandy. Do you know what a shandy is?

HT:

No. How do you spell that?

SS:

S-h-a-n-d-y.

HT:

Is that a brand name?

SS:

No, it's a mixture of lemonade with a dash of beer in it. [laughs]

HT:

That doesn't sound that good.

SS:

No. Oh, well, anything sounded good to us then. There weren't any treats. Oh, and then we did have one place we could walk. I think it was three miles to the village church hall, where they'd have a dance. The vicar would be there supervising it, so it was very wild. Then we'd have to walk the three miles back.

HT:

Since you mentioned dancing, what were your favorite songs and dances at that time?

SS:

Songs and dance, I haven't a clue.

HT:

Did you have big bands and that sort of thing?

SS:

Oh, this was a little village church hall about the size of this room with a vicar there, so it wasn't wild or swinging or—no alcohol. [laughs] But that was a treat for us then. That was a—

HT:

Did you ever get a chance to see movies during that time?

SS:

I think in London we went to one movie, and it was in the very foggy times when you couldn't see in front of your hand. The smog would come down, and they would close the cinema, because we couldn't see the screen. Then you'd come out, and if you've been in the thick fog, it's very hard to figure out where you are and the bus was on the sidewalk, and the conductor had a flare and was trying to get it off the sidewalk. It was very awful, and then we would have to walk home and find our way, which I'm sure we did. Had so much energy when young.

HT:

Do you recall where you were when you heard about VE [Victory in Europe] Day, which was in May of 1945?

SS:

You know, I was in Upper Heyford [Oxfordshire, England] then, away from the balloons.

HT:

How do you spell that? Upper—

SS:

Heyford, H-e-y-f-o-r-d.

HT:

Where is that?

SS:

Oxford. Just outside Oxford.

HT:

Is that where you were stationed at the air station?

SS:

Yes, which is now a used car lot. A friend in England sent me this newspaper clipping. Our beautiful airport is a used car lot. [laughs]

HT:

Is that where you were working in, I guess, almost like transportation, sending out returning prisoners of war, I think you said, is that correct?

SS:

No, that was two separate things. This was just moving people around that were on the airport that had to go to other places. Then I was up in the north, too, on a cliff over the Newcastle [England] coast there.

HT:

This was afterwards.

SS:

No, this was in between. VE Day was almost the end part, so it was well before that. That was being in the middle of the field. It was just—you know, you could see some ships down below, but—and cold and windy. [laughs]

HT:

I haven't asked you before, but what was your rank while you were in the military?

SS:

Leading aircraft woman, LACW. That is practically nothing.

HT:

Is that equivalent to corporal, perhaps?

SS:

No.

HT:

Below sergeant or above sergeant?

SS:

Below.

HT:

What was your rank at discharge?

SS:

Same thing. [SS added later: I don't think any one was ever promoted in the balloon department.]

HT:

Do you recall what you were paid?

SS:

Seems to me it was something like five shillings a week, and we were paid every two weeks. I'd have to check, because I don't remember. It just seems that we never had any money [unclear].

HT:

Probably not a great deal of money to [unclear].

SS:

No, there was very little.

HT:

But you had food, clothing, and that sort of thing.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

What impact do you think having been in the military had on your life, immediately after the war and in the long term?

SS:

Made me grow up, I think.

HT:

Because you were very young when you joined.

SS:

Yes. I had no family to go back to, so I immediately had to start thinking. Of course, my sister was—I think she was living with an aunt. Then she got polio. So it was a very eventful life. There was always something happening.

HT:

Did you have the option to remain in the military after the war, or did you have to get out?

SS:

Yes, we had to. Then nobody wanted us to stay, you know, especially being a barrage balloon operator was—I mean, that was gone. That was during the wartime.

HT:

But there was no opportunity to make a military career at all.

SS:

Can't say I ever thought about it. There may have been.

HT:

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

SS:

Yes.

HT:

Can you describe your adjustment to civilian life after you left the service? I know you went on to modeling school. Could you tell us about that?

SS:

Well, I started out with just the bare bones of clothing, and, of course, a lot of the women that would enter this modeling school were—well, I almost gave up, because they arrived in mink coats. It was a three-week training. That's what it was. I had enough money for the three-week training. I couldn't think of anything else to do. [SS added: We were given coupons for clothes which was enough for a coat, a suit, and shoes and half a sweater, which I knitted.]

So I did take the training and learned how to walk. It was—I don't know, it seemed so much more dignified than it does now to be a model. If you were caught showing underwear of any kind, you wouldn't be hired. Now they walk down and do that funny walk, and they put hardly any clothes on them. It's totally different. It was a very sort of ladylike thing.

HT:

Where did you go to receive your training? Did you go into London?

SS:

The training was, yes, at Lucy Clayton's [Modeling School] [unclear].

HT:

After you finished the training, did you have to get an agent or join an agency, or how did that work?

SS:

I did have an agency for a while and did sort of odd things, and then there was an audition or something for Hardy Amies, and I went to that and was picked. He said I had nice shoulders. He was the dearest man in the world.

HT:

Could you tell us about the time that you spent at Hardy Amies?

SS:

How do you mean that?

HT:

Well, the type of work you did. Tell us a little bit of something about him and his work and for whom he designed and that sort of thing.

SS:

He designed for the Queen [Elizabeth] and Princess Margaret. Most of the people were titled ladies, duchesses and some American film stars. The clothes were always made on us, and then we'd have a show, and it was all very nice.

HT:

Did you have a specialty? Did you model, perhaps, only dresses or coats or—

SS:

No, everything. And then a lot of American film stars, big name film stars—whom I, obviously, didn't know too well, but—would come.

HT:

How long did you do modeling?

SS:

Three years, I think. His house was on Saville Row in London.

HT:

After you left modeling, did you ever meet him socially or anything like that afterwards?

SS:

No. He was very gay. He loved [unclear].

HT:

I understand that you married an American. When did you meet your husband and come to the United States?

SS:

Fifty—I've got to look at my book.

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

You say you married in 1951?

SS:

Yes.

HT:

Then you came to the United States.

SS:

We came every three years as a vacation, and then finally came to live. He was with the Associated Press.

HT:

So you lived in a number of places then, England and various places in the United States, obviously, for his work.

SS:

No, we came back to England only on vacation, when we had vacations and then came back to England. He was the news editor in London, and then went into a wild thing of thinking of buying a newspaper with somebody else. The other person backed out, and he lost the whole—a great amount of money. So then he came back and he was with NBC, the Today show.

HT:

So you must have lived in New York for a time.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

If we can backtrack just a minute about World War II, do you recall what the mood of the country was like during World War II in England?

SS:

Well, we had no newspapers. We had no music. We had no television. We had no radio. I really don't know. Everybody seemed very upbeat. They would complain about being hungry and all the Nazis, but apart from that, I don't recall anybody being—

HT:

You mentioned earlier in our conversation before we started the interview about the doughnuts at the American Red Cross. Could you tell us that story again, please?

SS:

Well, that was before D-Day, and I was in the docks then, and we were like caged-in animals. Well, of course, there was a lot of equipment there, and you know, gases and stuff, and they had to keep equipment safe—but we did feel rather like animals. These gals came by, and [we were behind] wire meshing you could see through. She came with this wagon, and she said, “Would you like a doughnut?”

I said, “Oh, gosh, would we.” Then we tried to figure out how she could give them to us, because [our cage was] high. So then they wrapped them in something and throw them over to us, and oh, it was like manna from heaven. It was just so unbelievably good.

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

SS:

We were all so hungry. They were so nice. I thought they were in the army or something. I didn't realize they were Red Cross. But it was funny, seeing that picture there. Here we are, the animals in a cage, being tossed doughnuts. [laughter]

HT:

Was that the only time you had a connection with the American Red Cross?

SS:

Yes.

[Tape recorder paused]

SS:

I wondered why the balloons were being put on the boats. We knew enough not to go asking a lot of questions. We knew something was going to happen, and it happened, and it just was horrible, as you know. Then sometime afterwards, they brought back our men bleeding and injured and they let us out of our cage to go onto the docks so we could just hold hands and talk [to the wounded].

I think the worst thing, if I'm thinking of awful things, was they'd say, “Please call my wife and let her know I'm all right.”

I would say yes, and I didn't have a dime; I didn't have a telephone; I didn't have anything. But I thought, “Well, words are all I can give.” But that was really sad. That was awful. I didn't like that.

HT:

Whom did you admire and respect in those days? Who were your heroes or heroines? It could be an individual that you knew real well or perhaps a public figure.

SS:

[Winston] Churchill.

HT:

Did you ever get a chance to meet him?

SS:

No.

HT:

You mentioned earlier that you did meet Queen Mary. She came to your training session. Did you actually get a chance to meet her and talk to her, or was she just—

SS:

No, she just looked, yes.

HT:

How about the King? Did you ever get a chance to meet him or be in his presence in London?

SS:

No. But we did go to Buckingham Palace to a garden party, and the Queen came by and did her thing. And Princess Margaret, she used to come to Hardy Amies' to look at the clothes. I remember once she said to me—she was talking to me—“I love that, but I couldn't wear it. My bottom's too big.” [unclear] [laughter]

HT:

That's all right. She's long gone. Oh, gosh.

SS:

Oh, dear.

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be an independent person?

SS:

Since my husband died, yes, very independent, and certainly a lot more independent since my doctor put me on this new medication, which I have to take once a month now, else I would never have given this interview. My son comes for coffee with me four days a week, usually, and he says he can't believe that I'm the same person. I was just—I know this has nothing to do with the war, but—

HT:

So you don't think joining the military at age seventeen and a half made you an independent person.

SS:

Oh yes, I think much more independent than I would have been.

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be a pioneer or a trailblazer or a trendsetter because you did join the military at such a young age?

SS:

No, I don't think that. I think there were hundreds of us doing the same thing.

HT:

Would you consider yourself to be a feminist?

SS:

I don't quite know what that means. Explain to me what is a feminist.

HT:

Well, Beth, maybe you can explain it better, because I've always had a difficult time explaining that, exactly what a feminist is.

BC:

I think that the way we talk about it is in terms of women having the capability and the opportunity to do anything that they want to be able to do, as opposed to being [unclear] into more traditional roles. I think that's how we mean it when we ask that question.

SS:

Well, that sounds pretty good. I think it's a very different situation now than it was when I was seventeen. I know women were women, and you cooked and you cleaned, and you had babies. But I wouldn't have wanted to miss being in the RAF. I suppose it did make me a different person. I certainly learned a lot in the air force.

HT:

Well, have any of your children been in the service? You mentioned a son. You just have the one son?

SS:

Yes.

HT:

Well, how do you feel about women in combat positions? You know, in the last few years, women have been allowed into combat, whereas in your day, they were not actually allowed to go to the front and carry rifles and guns and that sort of thing. That's changed not only in the United States, but also in Britain, I assume. How do you feel about that?

SS:

I don't know. I have a feeling that the relationship between men and women is such that women in a really serious situation would be in the way, that men would be constantly thinking, “This is a girl. I can't let her be shot.” I don't know. Unless they were doing a separate thing in a war. I really can't answer that. I think there are a lot of things they can do. I don't think they have to go out shooting people. In fact, this man that abducted a woman from Kmart or one of them, and they found her body. He apparently had had to shoot three men and was really shaken up about it. How do you sort that all out? I don't know. Thank God, I didn't have to shoot anyone—I didn't have any guns. All I had was a nightstick. Couldn't do much damage with that.

BC:

Did you ever have to use it?

SS:

No. But I had to stand out at night with a tin hat on, holding this thing, so, you know, if somebody had come along—

HT:

This is while the other women were asleep.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

You were sort of standing guard, and this happened every night. A different person stood guard.

SS:

Yes.

HT:

You mentioned earlier that it sounds like you were in a cage. So was your Quonset hut inside of some sort of caged area?

SS:

Yes, we were. Except in some places, like on the top of the cliff in northern England, we weren't caged in, but it was in the middle of a field.

HT:

What was the purpose of the cage?

SS:

Because all the boats were down on the docks we were on a high bank, and the boats were below, and they were at risk of being bombed. So if they saw planes coming that way, we did our thing.

HT:

Well, I don't have any other questions that I can think of. Beth, can you think of any questions that I might have missed?

BC:

No.

HT:

Oh, I happened to just think of it. When were you discharged, do you recall?

SS:

[Nineteen] Forty-five, was it?

HT:

Well, the war ended in—

SS:

That's the hardest thing to remember, dates.

HT:

It was in '45, so were you discharged shortly afterwards?

BC:

Look [unclear].

[Tape recorder paused]

HT:

Well, Mrs. Smith, I don't have any other questions. Is there anything that you'd like to add that we haven't covered about your military time?

SS:

No. Going on leave was pretty difficult, and rare.

HT:

But you did go on leave every so often.

SS:

Not often.

HT:

Did you visit family or go to the country or something like that?

SS:

Yes. The transportation was terrible, and it would take three days to get from the north of England to the south. Can you imagine? [laughs] It was hardly worth doing.

HT:

What was the most enjoyable thing that you did while you were in the military?

SS:

Enjoyable. Well, there were times it was enjoyable being with all these different girls and knowing them. Once at base we had a horse, and we all learned to ride this poor horse. [laughs] [And when I was on a large camp at the end, there was some social life.]

HT:

You mean you usually had a sort of mascot?

SS:

No, we were in a field, a farmer's field, and there was a horse. So one girl was a very good rider, and she was teaching us all to ride this horse.

HT:

How did the farmer feel about you girls?

SS:

He didn't mind. But we all got along so well together. It was all very nice. Sort of reminds me of Brownstone [subdivision], because this is such a delightful place. Everybody is so friendly. Dr. Baumgartner used to live here. [unclear] you know?

HT:

I've heard the name.

SS:

He just moved to a retirement home.

HT:

Well, Mrs. Smith, thank you so much for talking to Beth and me this morning. We do appreciate it.

SS:

Well, thank you for listening.

HT:

You're welcome.

[End of interview]