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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Mary L. Sutton, 2009

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Object ID: WV0468.5.001

Description: Mary L. Sutton primarily documents her early life and military service during the World War II.

Summary:

Sutton describes living with her grandparents, education, and her time serving in the United States Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She tells of being stationed on several bases throughout the country, and describes the roles in which she served.

Other topics include her life with her grandparents, her father’s employment with the Pere Marquette rail service, her father’s death, and her marriage. Additionally, she describes the way females in the military were viewed, her later family life, and her personal views on women in direct combat roles.

Creator: Mary L. Sutton

Biographical Info: Mary L. Sutton (1924-2014) of Michigan served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) during World War II.

Collection: Mary L. Sutton Oral History

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:

Therese Strohmer:

Today is July 15th, this is Therese Strohmer. I’m in West Branch, Michigan. I’m here for—I’m here with Mary Sutton for an oral history interview for the Women’s Veterans Collection at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Mary, how would you like your name to be on your collection?

Mary Sutton:

Mary L. Sutton.

TS:

Okay, just a moment.

[recording paused]

TS:

Okay, Mary. Well, thank you for doing this interview with me. I would like to start out just by telling me where you were born, and where you grew up.

MS:

I was born in Bay City, Michigan. I grew up there until I was ready for first grade, I believe. And then my family took me to my grandparents in West Branch. I went to a country—I attended a country school there until I began my fifth grade. Then, I was moved back with my family and began fifth grade in Bay City.

TS:

Now, did you have any brothers and sisters?

MS:

Yes, I did. I never under—I never was told exactly why I was taken away from the family and moved to live with my grandparents. I think the only thing I was ever told was that my father thought a country school education was better. But I’m the only one who went to the country school. I guess my brother next to me, Harry, went for a short time. But it didn’t work out for him, so he went back with the family. I stayed with my grandparents.

TS:

So besides your brother Harry, how many other siblings did you have?

MS:

There are seven of us in our family. I am the oldest. Anna May Goff is the youngest—my sister. I have also a brother who is deceased: Fred White. And I have two sisters who are deceased: Ethel Dunn and Evelyn Rowell[?].

TS:

So you were living—you came up through fifth grade here in West Branch, and you were living with your grandparents. What did your grandparents do for a living at that time?

MS:

They were on a farm.

TS:

Okay.

MS:

And I—as I remember I was perfectly happy there. I did everything a kid on a farm would do: run from a turkey gobbler, go out to the barn to watch the milk, and go to church and Sunday school. Also, besides my grandparents there was a maid—a maid—old maid aunt, and a hired man. And I don’t ever remember being unhappy there.

TS:

Do you remember playing with other kids at that time?

MS:

Not too much, because they—you know—it would be a mile or so or farther. So I spent a lot of my time—they had creeks crossing their property and I would fish. I loved to fish.

TS:

Is that right? What did you fish for?

MS:

Oh, [chuckle] probably minnows back then.

TS:

[laughs]

MS:

Probably minnows.

TS:

Where was it that you—where around here was it that the farm was at?

MS:

Out in Edwards Township in a stone house. My parents also owned—about a quarter of a mile from that—a stone house. My father was a railway mail clerk on the Pere Marquette [Railway]. His run was from Bay City to Detroit. So we also owned—the house in Bay City and the stone house out in Edwards.

TS:

Okay. Besides fishing, what other sort of things did you like to do for fun?

MS:

Well, I loved to go to school. I liked school. I don’t know what other things, I mean—

TS:

Well, in school—was that like a one room?

MS:

Yes, a one room. My favorite teacher—I think probably that she was the one that I had the longest—was Mary Loney[?]. She was kind of strict, but you did learn from her a lot. And then I remember too that one of the teachers who I had earlier—she had a problem with the big boys in school, and actually she quit. But what I remember about her is that I got a book for being the best behaved child in the whole school.

TS:

Wow, that’s nice.

MS:

And I did remember the name of the book, but I can’t right now recall.

TS:

That’s okay. It might come to you. So how many kids were in that school then, approximately?

MS:

Oh, I am guessing probably anywhere from thirty-five to forty. And I have pictures of the whole group.

TS:

Oh, very nice.

MS:

Yes.

TS:

Now do you remember when you went back to Bay City? How did you feel about that?

MS:

Yes, I do. I know I took it in stride. I know that when I started fifth grade I felt that I was one of the smaller—I wasn’t very tall, and I was one of the smaller kids. They all sort of—you know—“she’s so young,” or “tiny,” or whatever. But I guess I took it in stride, because I did graduate.

At that time, Park School was the elementary school that I attended. Then I attended T.L. Handy, which at that time was a junior high. I attended seventh, eighth, and ninth grades there. Then I had to take a bus to cross the river and go to Central High School for ten, eleventh, and twelfth, and graduated from there in 1941—June of 1941.

TS:

Now, you were living out in a farm out in West Branch. And then in Bay City—what—you’re in the city then?

MS:

Oh. Just—yes—on East North Union Street. I think it was 1000 East North Union Street. 

TS:

So you had your whole family back together again basically?

MS:

Yes.

[tape interruption]

TS:

Okay, we had a short little break. We’re back now.

You were talking about how all the family was together in this house in Bay City.

Now, you were talking about how you really liked school. Did you also like it in Bay City?

MS:

Yes. I always liked school.

TS:

Did you have a favorite subject?

MS:

Yes. [chuckle] Grammar, English—I’m better at that than anything else.

TS:

[chuckle] Now did you have a sense back—when you were going to school—for yourself—about what maybe the future held for you?

MS:

Probably not, except that I found out that my parents—I think—thought teaching would be a good—and so I took the college preparatory courses.

Then, in 1941—the same—almost—it was the same week that I graduated. My father sensed that he was ill. He resigned from being—from the mail service. All of us—our whole family—moved to our stone house in West Branch. Later, he found out in Ann Arbor that he had cancer of the liver. When I came back—and the family was back here—I went to County Normal in West Branch to be a teacher.

My father died in 1942.

And while I was going to County Normal—or shortly after I moved back to West Branch—I became acquainted with my husband Cameron. And I—first I taught the hay makers’ school. And I found out that I didn’t—I wasn’t overjoyed about teaching.

TS:

Oh. [chuckle]

MS:

It was a country school. I was still young. I had a lot to learn about teaching at a country school. I boarded with some people that were near the school. You had to do your—I had to wash—you did your own janitor work. And it just—I don’t know then—I think after I quit teaching, I worked for a while as sales clerk for the Blumenthal store in town, as a sales person waiting on people.

And then I believe that I went to Dow Chemical—not in Midland, but in Bay City. It was a branch of the Dow Chemical. And I worked there for awhile. From there, I went to Defoe Boat Works.

TS:

What did you do for them?

MS:

I was part of the telephone crew. We put the telephones in the boats that they were building. And from—At that time my husband was, of course, in the service.

TS:

Had he enlisted or was he drafted? Do you know?

MS:

He enlisted.

TS:

Okay.

MS:

He enlisted. And before then—I sort of forgot exactly.

TS:

So when did you get married?

MS:

August the 2nd, 1943.

TS:

I see.

MS:

So I was married when I worked at Defoe Boat Works. And decided I was going to join the WACs [Women’s Army Corps], and I did.

TS:

That was a couple of years later then—in 1945—that you joined?

MS:

Yes.

TS:

What made you decide to do that?

MS:

[chuckle] I probably thought that I might get some place where—I don’t know why I would think that, because I knew he was in Africa. I mean it would—I don’t know. I don’t know.

TS:

Because there were a lot of posters at that time trying to recruit, do you remember being influenced by posters or what?

MS:

No. It was my own—my own decision. I knew that there were several people—probably my own mother—certainly my mother-in-law—who did not—back then it was not very fashionable for girls to join the service. Right now, I mean, it’s a blessing, but back then it wasn’t. It was just my own idea.

TS:

What did your mother-in-law think about it then?

MS:

She didn’t like it.

TS:

Do you remember anything that she said to you about it?

MS:

She probably thought—you know—I don’t believe that I even told Cam, her son, before I decided. I don’t know. I can’t remember that.

TS:

How did he feel about it?

MS:

If he was disappointed he never said so.       

TS:

I see.

MS:

And I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it.

TS:

Well, let’s talk about that. So then it’s 1945—it’s like the spring of 1945.

MS:

Yes. It was in March, wasn’t it,

TS:

Right. Okay, almost spring in Michigan. [chuckle] And so you joined up in Bay City. Do you remember that process at all? Of going in and—

MS:

No. The only thing I remember about it is the physical examination. Now, I don’t know if that took place in Bay City or if it took place in Detroit, but I think I left from Detroit. But anyway, the only thing about it is that my feet were not in real good condition. And they, at first, didn’t know if I would pass because of that, because of the marching you had to do and the work you had to do on your feet a lot in basic.

But I did pass.

TS:

What was wrong with your feet?

MS:

The same thing that’s wrong today.

TS:

[chuckle] What is that? Got a bunion?

MS:

Yes, and hammer toes.

TS:

Oh, I see, hammer toes [a deformation of the proximal interphalangeal joint of the second, third, or fourth toe, which results in a permanent bend].

MS:

And it has gotten worse.

TS:

Mary is giving me a visual here of her feet.

MS:

And it has gotten worse since I—

TS:

Yeah. I see the toe now. Okay.

MS:

—since I’ve gotten—

TS:

But you were able to march with that?

MS:

Well, it wasn’t this bad then.

TS:

Yeah.

MS:

They just didn’t know whether, you know, I would be able.

TS:

What kind of discomfort you might have from it.

MS:

Right. Right.

TS:

But you passed then.

MS:

Yes.

TS:

Now, did you have a sense of what you were going to be able to do?

MS:

No. No.

TS:

Did you care?

MS:

I went to classes and they gave me tests, and then when they moved me—of course my basic then was Fort Des Moines, Iowa; where I think most of them go for basic training. Then I had no idea whatsoever where they would send me next, but I knew that I would be sent some place.

While I was at Des Moines I became very friendly with Virginia Stockton. She was sent to a different place, and I still write to her. She is out in Arizona now. And she has visited me in Michigan, and I have visited her several times.

I was sent to Pyote [Army Air Field], Texas. It was a B-29 [Boeing B-29 Superfortress] airfield. While I was there I heard that they had to kill a lot of rattle snakes before they built the base there. I wasn’t there too long, but I just can’t remember how long I was there. I know while I was there another girl and I took a trip to the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

TS:

Oh yeah.

MS:

And enjoyed that. Then I was sent to Jefferson Barracks in St Louis, Missouri. I really liked and felt that I was doing something worthwhile there.

TS:

Before we get there, I want to back up a little bit. First, when you were in basic training do you remember anything being particularly difficult for you? How did you remember that experience at all?

MS:

No. No, I didn’t.

TS:

Nothing was particularly—

MS:

No.

TS:

So you did marching and I think you said something about KP [kitchen patrol] duty.

MS:

And classes. Yes, KP—yes.

TS:

Was it something that you enjoyed doing? Was it—

MS:

I would say that I didn’t not enjoy it.

TS:

How about being away from your family? Was that—

MS:

No, because I had been away from my family when I was younger from first— kindergarten to fifth grade. I mean until fifth grade.

TS:

So that wasn’t something that concerned you too much?

MS:

No. No.

TS:

Okay. Now then, when you went to Texas—that place where they killed all of those rattle snakes, right—you were telling me earlier before we started the tape about the job you were doing. Do you want to explain that a little bit?

MS:

Well, all I remember is that we would sit at something. And we were expected to tell planes when they could come in and land—when it was okay—or, when they could take off. And that is all—I don’t think I was there very long. Because I can’t remember too much about it, except knowing that it was over my head and something that I wasn’t trained to do. And I didn’t know what I was trying to do.

TS:

Were you a little nervous about that?

MS:

Oh, I suppose so.

TS:

Now was it on a radio that you were—

MS:

I don’t know.

TS:

But you were in a room, and you were telling the planes it was okay to land.

MS:

Yes.

TS:

I see. So it was kind of like an air traffic controller, sort of?

MS:

I think so. That is what you might call it, yeah.

TS:

Do you remember anything else about being there in Texas?

MS:

Just that I met friends there too, but don’t keep in contact with them. Then the incident that I wrote about: having to get used to the real hot weather in Texas.

TS:

Right.

MS:

And coming back and going to sleep on my bed—cot—bunk bed, it was.

TS:

Right.

MS:

And then getting up and deciding early in the morning or something and deciding to go take a shower, and saw this large tarantula spider. It was the first one that I had ever seen in my life. I thought “whoa,” and used a different shower of course.

But after that these friends of mine would kid me. I think—if I can remember correctly—they even bought a toy one to tease me about. But I will never forget that.

TS:

[chuckle] That’s funny. So you had heat and you had bugs and rattle snakes to have to contend with in Texas.

MS:

So and then I remember how awfully hot it was. And how, you know—

TS:

What did you think about the war at that time? Did you have any thoughts about that?

MS:

No. No, I don’t think so.

TS:

Because your husband is over in Africa?

MS:

Yeah. Of course, we wrote faithfully.

TS:

Did you know what he was doing at that time?

MS:

Oh yes. He was a code operator—a radio code operator.

TS:

And what’s your job—your husband’s name?

MS:

Cameron.

TS:

That’s right, Cameron.

MS:

Actually, his name is Lewis George Cameron Sutton. The Lewis George is the same as his father’s name. And his mother put Cameron in there because she liked it. And he’s been known as Cameron.

TS:

I see. So he had joined up probably in ’41 or so. Was he in the service when you guys married in ’43?

MS:

Yes. Yes, he was.

TS:

Where did you meet him at?

MS:

I met him when we moved as a family to West Branch the year I graduated—1941.

TS:

Oh, I see. So then you moved back to Bay City?

MS:

No.

TS:

You got a job in Bay City later, that’s right. And you were teaching here.

MS:

And we were married when he came home on a furlough in 1943.

TS:

Okay. All right, so then—were you happy to get out of Pyote, Texas?

MS:

Probably, but I don’t have any recollection, you know, just probably wondering, “Well, what am I going to be doing here?” or something like that. I really can’t tell. Just take everything in stride like I always do [laughs].

TS:

So then you got to go to Jefferson Barracks. And you were starting to say that you really enjoyed that. What was it about this particular place and job that you liked so much?

MS:

Because I knew what I was doing, and I knew how to do it. When the fellows came to the separation center—they were going to be discharged—and we would have to figure out from their records how much they had coming.

TS:

So like kind of a payroll person.

MS:

Yes. Yup.

TS:

Where there a lot—kind of describe, if you remember, the work area.

MS:

Well, it was a large room and a lot of tables, and about six of us at a table. We were all doing—I don’t—I can’t remember now if we were all doing just one person’s, or each of us was doing a person. I can’t remember that.

TS:

I see. So the person wasn’t there, you were just doing paper work?

MS:

That’s right.

TS:

I see.

MS:

We never saw the person. We just did the paper work.

TS:

So you processed a lot of people I imagine. Now you did that and then you were saying that FDR was—died.

MS:

Franklin Roosevelt died while I was at basic training.

TS:

Oh, at basic training—okay. Oh yeah, because that was March, right? Did you—what did you think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

MS:

Probably, I didn’t have politics on my mind too much back then, but today I think he was a good president.

TS:

Yeah.

MS:

Yeah.

TS:

Do you remember the mood of the country or the people you were around at all?

MS:

No, not really.

TS:

Not particularly.

MS:

No.

TS:

How about with President Truman—when he took over—what about that?

MS:

Well, the first thing—I had no—but I know that he made the decision to drop the bomb on Japan.

TS:

What did you think about that?

MS:

I don’t remember.

TS:

Yeah.

MS:

I—

TS:

Do you think about it today at all?

MS:

I would think it would be a hard decision to make.

TS:

Now did you have a—so politics weren’t anything that you were thinking about?

MS:

No—not—and then when the war in Europe ended, of course Cam had enough points. And I don’t know how they established the points. I don’t know anything, except he had been in for several years and was ready for discharge. Of course, they had also discharged the wives—those that were married to them.

TS:

So you—that’s in December so you have a little bit of time here. I was going to ask you if you—what you thought about being in the military at that time.

MS:

I liked it. It gave me the discipline I think I needed. It gave me the maturity that I needed to grow up a little bit. I think it was good for me. I’ve never been sorry that I was in the service—never, never.

TS:

Was it something that you have talked about with people since?

MS:

Oh yes. I don’t know why, but a lot of them are so surprised when I tell them that I was in the WACs. I should ask them, “Why are you surprised?”

TS:

That’s right. Did you feel like maybe you were helping out the war effort?

MS:

Probably—partly. I think most was just because my husband was in.

TS:

Yeah? Do you think that had a lot of the reason to do with why you might have gone in?

MS:

Yeah.

TS:

Now looking back, do you feel like you were any kind of pioneer for women in the military at all?

MS:

No. No. [chuckle]

TS:

Not really? Well, you were saying how it wasn’t the normal route that people took.

MS:

I just knew that back then, people sort of looked down—now this is just a blank statement I’m making—that some people thought, “Well, they just go into the service to get a husband.” Well, I already had a husband so that certainly wasn’t my—but, I know how important women are in service today.

TS:

So what do you think about some of the—what you were able to do at that time and what women can to do today? What do you think about that?

MS:

I think it’s remarkable.

TS:

Do you think that there is anything that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to do in the service.

MS:

I don’t know about the actual fighting. But any other way—any other way—yes, if they can do the job.

TS:

I think Africa there were probably some of the nurses that went along with your husband there.

MS:

No doubt. No doubt.

TS:

They were close to the fighting, I’m sure, even at that time.

MS:

Yeah.

TS:

So what would you have to say to women who are in the military today? Maybe—you had five daughters, would you have supported them if they had wanted to serve?

MS:

Certainly. Certainly.

TS:

Any of them have any inclination to do that?

MS:

No [chuckle]. In fact, I will tell you—this is going to be bragging.

TS:

[chuckle] Okay.

MS:

Cammie—the oldest—was CPA [Certified Public Accountant], and manager of her office at an accounting firm in West Branch. It was Lane Apple and now it’s—what is it?—isn’t that awful?

TS:

Oh, that’s okay.

MS:

I can look that up later. Alright, Chris just—and Cammie retired. She’s the one that moved out to Arizona. She’s in Michigan right now, though, and will be here until the end of September I think, and then will go back.

Chris is next, and she was a teacher right here in West Branch at Surline [Middle School]. And she retired last fall.  Then is Cheryl, she retired after thirty-two—or, thirty-four years of teaching kindergarten—most of it at Ross Common. Then there is Kay. She is not retired. She is still teaching fifth grade at Ross Common. Then there is Susan. Susan lives in Troy. She’s—the rest were all in this area. But Susan lives in Troy and she is an attorney.

TS:

She got away from teaching, huh?

MS:

She’s been an attorney—she’s a junior partner. She’s been an attorney for quite a few years. I did know her firm too. I don’t know if I can—

TS:

Well, that’s all right. So you had a lot of teachers. They followed in your footsteps.

MS:

Three teachers. There’s a lot of teachers on both sides of the White family.

TS:

I believe that one of your brothers was one of mine.

MS:

Oh yes, two of my brothers.

TS:

Yeah, two of them. I don’t know if I had both of them in school.

MS:

Fred and Ed.

TS:

Yeah. I had Ed. I’m pretty sure that’s who. He’s coming to pick you up in a little while too, isn’t he?

MS:

Ed is. Fred died.

TS:

Yeah. Well, let’s see. Now, is there anything that you would like to add to your story about what you were able to do while you were in the service and growing up that we haven’t talked about?

MS:

Well, I’m a Christian. That’s very important—especially—in 2006 when I moved from the—I moved from the upper peninsula [of Michigan] six years after my husband died up there in 1997. I moved back here in 2003. And in 2006 I was diagnosed with lymphoma, and because of my faith I’ve been able to just know that the Lord is with me.

TS:

And you got some good news this week, right?

MS:

Yes, I did. I had a PET [Positron Emission Tomography] scan and blood work a week ago. And yesterday I heard that the news is good. Everything is fine, and they won’t need to see me now until January 2010. So I have a lot to be thankful for.

TS:

That is good news.

MS:

Many blessings. I have a wonderful family of girls, and I have good health. Yeah.

TS:

That’s really good news, Mary. Well, I really enjoyed talking with you.

MS:

Well, I certainly enjoyed you, Therese. And I’ve known your mother and father for a long time.

TS:

[chuckle] Well, I thank you again and we’ll go ahead and turn this off. And I will go over some of these other things with you.

MS:

Okay.

TS:

Okay? Thank you.

[End of interview]