The history of World War II, the
war that we won, is always writ large, (the “Flying Fortress”), with
heroic action (D-day), bringing world changing events (the Atomic
Bomb). Is there any space in The Good War’s history for a 17 year
old girl who was never taught to kill, or fly, was never on a ship
but who still believes she played a part in that war?
There was only enough money for me to have one year at West Virginia
Tech. My father had been furloughed from his job “for the duration”
while his corporation was absorbed into the War Department. I saw
flyers posted on campus “Young Women Needed to Work in The War
Effort”. Was this the answer to my money problems and I could be
The recruiter described all the “perks”—engineering training, safe
new housing, vacations and regular pay increases. The Dean of
Engineering had told me “Girls aren’t ready to be engineers” but now
I was being courted to become an “Engineering Aide” at Wright Field,
the aircraft development site of the Army Air Corps, in Dayton,
Ohio. I signed on.
The ten week training course was intense. The 200 girls, and the
conspicuous 2 handicapped men, came from Virginia, North Carolina,
West Virginia and Ohio. (In 1943 we did not notice that all of us
were white.) Classes began at 9 am and finished at 9 pm, six days a
week. I found the courses fascinating—Strength of Materials,
Aeronautical Engineering, Mechanics. All except one—model building.
I had selected the P 47 kit because my brother was flying one in
North Africa. I could sew, knit, can food, bake cakes but I had
never built a balsa wood model airplane. It went to Dayton with me
in two parts—the fuselage and the wings, never to be joined
housing, which sprung up overnight, was a totally new development
being built on the famous Miami River levees. The “working girls’
dormitory” was not yet complete. But 175 Engineering Aides needed
the promised safe housing. Portable toilets, aluminum wash pans, a
sidewalk water tank arrived and with an elderly night guard
substituting for doors, we moved in.
Monday morning, at the appointed time, we arrived at the Wright
Field Identification Quonset which was way too small to handle such
a sudden crowd. The finger printing, the picture taking and forms
created a madhouse. Suddenly the door flew open and an Air Corps
Colonel called out “What the Hell is going on here?” A Lieutenant
replied, “It’s another group of G__ D___ hillbillies from that
training program in West Virginia.” I was stunned. It was the first
time I heard the classification Ohio would give me --“hillbilly”. My
new friend and roommate immediately spoke up, “We’re not all
hillbillies. I’m from Cincinnati”. I was impressed with her bravery
to correct the officer but my heart sunk to know that she had agreed
that I and most of the others were indeed G__D__ hillbillies.
My job was to carry out mathematical computations for three
aeronautical engineers in the Aircraft Laboratory. I was issued a
20” slide rule, a Marchant calculator, a mathematical handbook with
logs, square roots, etc., legal size yellow tablets and pencils with
erasers. My salary leaped from a trainee’s $105 a month to a
Computer-Class 1’s $120 a month. I was now “Working in The War
My first assignment took me 3 weeks to compute. I handed it to the
design engineer. He had forgotten who I was or what he had given me.
Soon he took out his slide rule and began looking at charts and
tables from a 3-ring notebook, then finally cleared his throat and
said, “I don’t think your airplane is going to make it.” Every
engineer in the office turned to look in our direction. “It seems
that your plane disintegrated from flutter at an altitude of 30 feet
and a speed of 15 mph.” It was comedy central time. There was knee
slapping, guffawing, smart responses from every desk. I was
mortified. My first job. I couldn’t do the work. I would be fired.
My father had died in a hospital accident. I was an 18 year old
orphan. What would I do?
“Take this back to Betty.” the engineer said. She’ll show you where
you made your mistake. Run it through again and then bring it back.”
Betty had been the only computer there when I arrived. She had 20
months’ experience. She immediately found where I had gone off the
tracks and also showed me a series of check points that I could use
along the way to detect errors. “Don’t mind the guys,” she added.
“They were just razzing the engineer—they do it all the time.” I
tried to believe that the humiliation was for him. Soon I was
completing an assignment in two weeks time with no more razzing. Day
after day after day I filled the yellow tablets with computations.
Working girls’ dormitory life was not too different from the college
dorm. One of our favorite Sunday recreations was hiking down the
levee to The Dayton Art Institute which had a big banner across its
face reading “Dayton’s Living Room”. We would sit on the marble
floor in one of the galleries and listen to 78 rpm classical music.
It was wonderful to hear, in that beautiful setting, after a busy,
noisy week of listening to radio news from the battlefronts.
Each evening we wrote v-mail letters to our brothers or our friends
who were scattered around the world. Together we rejoiced when the
captured were freed or the lost found. We cried when the first
brother was killed and his sister, our classmate, was given a few
days leave to be with her family even though there could be no
funeral. Our work consumed our lives. We were participating in World