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Interview on experiences in World War II

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World War II Remembers Project:


Oral History Interview with Polly Payton

Note: Ellipsis (...) indicates a fragmentary or introductory utterance. Square brackets enclose information such as [unintelligible], or the best educated guess at what was stated.

Interviewer: This is Karen Bentley and Polly Payton, on May 26, 2003. Ms. Payton what role did you play in the American effort during World War II?

Payton: In the American effort? I would say that when I enlisted in the Women Marines. I and a very good friend of mine were both telephone operators at a big defense plant. And it was during.... It was, of course, World War II. My brother was a pilot in China. We didn't have TV in those days, but we would go to the movies, and we would see newsreels, and I always broke up and got very emotional cause my brother was flying over there in China, a fighter pilot. The two of us—Lynn and I—we.... Matter of fact, I just talked to Lynn. She lives in Florida. She's 82. We just decided that this was something we wanted to do. Her story is that she wanted to go in the navy and be a navy WAVE, and I just didn't like those uniforms. I liked the Women Marine uniforms, and she claims I dragged her to the recruiting office and that we enlisted in the Women Marines. It was just this overpowering patriotism we had in those days. From there went to New York City to the naval headquarters—marines were under the naval department in those days. There we were given physicals and sworn in, and then we were told to go home and wait until we got our orders, which is what we did. But it was.... The primary drive was the patriotism that we all had in that period of time.

Interviewer: Where did you receive your orders at first?

Payton: I was living at home. I showed you the paper that I got. It came ... A matter of fact, I think it says Corporal Eleanor Peterson and telling us when to report for duty. We left in May 1945, and we had a list of instructions. We left from Pennsylvania Station in New York City because I was from the east coast. We were all girls from the east coast, all twenty years old. A side effect [note?]: in those days you had to be twenty years of age and [have] parental consent. My parents had to sign a piece of paper that it was all right for me to do this. With these orders came a list. We had to have short hah"—our hair was to be cut short—we were to just bring a few simple, plain clothes with us until we got to boot camp. We were to meet at Pennsylvania Station in New York City on this day of May 1945, and all of us got on this train and headed for boot camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

I: What did you do when you got to boot camp?

P: Oh, at boot camp? Well, the first thing we did, we got assigned to our barracks. Lynn, my friend, [and I], we didn't want to be separated because we didn't know what we'd .. .what was going to be ahead of us, so we were always lined up [together]. You were

always lined up all the time, and so Lynn and I would always line up together. We met a lot of these women that I'm friends with today. But we had classes, eight hours of classes. We studied naval law We studied marine history, [and] hygiene. We had drilling, which I liked to do when I was in junior high. We used to ... .My gym teacher, she used to have us march and drill in the gym with this march music. I always loved it, so I fit in real well with all this drilling that we did. But it was all these classes, and then we had duties we had to do. Like before you ever went to your classes, our drill sergeant would wake us up like at 5AM, and we had to be showered and dressed to go to the mess hall. There we would get breakfast, and then we would have time to go back to the barracks and brush our teeth and get ready to go. We marched every place. We marched to our classes that we went to. We marched to be fitted for our uniforms. They were green— green seersucker—[which] seems to be popular today in some summer clothes, and every time I see it I think of my uniform I wore. The marines wanted us to look our best, and they were tailor-fitted to us. Revlon even came up with a lipstick in a bright red that matched the red on our caps. Yeah. That was called Marine red. We were not allowed to wear any civilian clothes. We wore our uniforms, and we had funny little seersucker bloomer-like things that we wore for physical education. Kinda laugh about that. We had kind of a green cotton overall thing with straps that we wore when we were during duty jobs. If you didn't do something correctly, you got what they called extra duty. And your name would go up. And that evening there would be a whole bunch of you marched off to clean a bunch of toilets and things. And most of us had never done anything like that. But we sang everyplace. We just loved to sing and harmonize, and it didn't make any difference what we were doing. We loved to do that. We would... like our bunks... we had to make our bunks a certain way, the sheets had to be a certain way, our towel had to be in behind a cross bar a certain way, and you'd be out doing drilling or a class they'd would come through and inspect the barracks. And they'd find out you didn't have your towel a certain way, up your name went and you had to go out and pick up cigarette butts in those days or clean these toilets. In the evening you had time you were to study for you had to learn a lot about naval law and Marine history. Then we had quiet time, when we could write letters. Mail would be delivered. And this was big 'cause a lot of the girls had boyfriends at home. That was our time, and lights were out 10 o'clock until the next day started. And we had six weeks of this boot camp. We had a parade inspection when we graduated, and it was just a thrilling moment for me. And, I have pictures of... To pass what they call end review all of you marching into a perfect step. And those drill instructors, by the time they finished with us we could drill perfectly. Would be officers, our Marine woman who was head over everybody.... There would be a reviewing stand of officers and the band, the Marine band. And, it was just a really emotional moment to hearing the band strike up and parade down in front of this reviewing stand. We all used to gripe about having doing it, you know. "Oh, we got to polish our shoes" and all that. But once you got up there, on the parade ground, we'd have signed up for anything. We were so proud to be a Marine. After that six weeks then we were assigned to a duty station.

Int: Where were you assigned?

P: Well, I was very fortunate. In that six weeks of boot camp a bunch of us really bonded. We became very good friends. Now we have met girls from Ohio and New England and the West Coast. We've not too many from the West Coast. Mostly girls from the East coast, Pennsylvania. And, we became good friends, and we were very lucky. We all went on to Cherry Point Marine Air station, in Cherry Point, North Carolina. We were assigned a barracks. We had interviews, and.... I and my friend Lynn were to be telephone operators, because when we enlisted... they said they really needed telephone operators. This was great 'cause we both loved to sit at a switch board. But when we got up to this Cherry Point, and were assigned jobs... hehe I ended up carrying a bunch of nuts and bolts in a big warehouse. As matter of fact, we were only in a short time, because the war with Germany had ended at the time we enlisted, and we joined a... we'd entered the service in May 1945. Then the war with Japan ended that August. So at that point the war was over. And I had met my husband at Cherry Point, and of course he had been over seas, and he was back. The men, the people with the longest years in, they went home first. Well, we were just a bunch of young women who had been in only short time when that war ended. So, we were in... I guess... We actually started in boot camp in April '45 errr.. May '45, and we were discharged a year later in June 1946. But we never did see a switch board.

Int: What were some of the roles that other women took on after boot camp?

P: Yes. After boot camp or during boot camp? Well, during boot camp, we really... we didn't have jobs. When you're in training, it was like, you know, you went away to college and took a bunch of courses. At this Cherry Point some of these women became air traffic controllers. One that I'm still friends with today, she worked at a gas station. She'd get on top of those great big gas trucks and get gas into the hole in the ground. Some became cooks. I ended up a clerk. Eventually that's what I did—I typed and did invoices. And then, my last job I had, I was... moved into transportation. Like if you worked in an auto part store here in town, I worked in the auto parts of the transportation department, where the guys would bring their jeeps or whatever their vehicles were. And, they'd need new parts, and I would.... It was an office job, but we often laughed that we never did see a switch board.

Int: How did you family react, when you told them you went to enlist?

P: My mother.... I'd just say, my mother was in shock; she just couldn't believe it. When I got out of high school, I really didn't know... Back in that period of time, in the Forties, not too many of us went onto college. My parents had been through a depression, had lost a home, and really had a very hard time of it. My father was a carpenter. So my goal really was to graduate from high school and get a job. I started out as a clerk, with [Prudential] Insurance Company. And, I found that was not for me, and I ended up at a big defense plant that made parts ammunition boxes and wiring for Navy fighter plains. And I ended up learning to run a switch board, and I loved it. And, I... all my life, even after my husband and I were married, if I wanted to work I would get a job as telephone operator, because I just loved it.

Int: What is your most memorable event from your years, your year, in the Marines?

P: I think the bonding that we did with these women, who a few of us... later deceased. Most of us have lost our husbands. But it was the friendship. For one thing, the Marines, they bond... They are a military unit that absolutely bonds with their people, and they are taught that. It was the friendship that I made with these girls, that now, you know, we met when we were twenty. We stayed... so many of us, a small group of us managed to stay friends through getting married and having children, and we'd write letters to each other. And, sometimes if someone was traveling they would stop and visit with you. It was... Plus that... the love for that uniform is with me today. I still see a Marine uniform... I just love it. It's patriotism, which for most of us was very strong back in those days, but I think the bonding we did—it was just incredible. The way we all fit with each other, and as we saw each other. Particularly this one big reunion, well, it's not that big, there was about nine of us that were able to attend at this one woman's house in Detroit. And we just sat down, we all flew in and arrived and stayed at a motel, but we did all of our gathering at her house. And, I knew her husband. He had been in the Marines, and I had met him and he knew my husband. We just sat down, out came all the albums, every one of us had a picture album. And, out came the albums, you know what? The gabbing started, and we didn't stop for three days. They had a very nice article a reporter came out and did about these women, and the bonding that we did that continues to this day.

I: How do you feel about the treatment of women in the military while you served? P: About today? I: When you served.

P: Well, I don't quite know how you mean that question. Do you mean, like, if I compare it to today, women do... We never had a gun... we never touched a gun. Women in those days, well, there were only like 15,000 women that were in the Women Marines in World War II. It was a very small group of women. There were [WACS]; they went over seas to England or Germany... nurses, Navy women. We were never going to do that. We never trained with weapons or anything like that. Were against, what the women do today, you know, what's just happened, those that were captured over in Iraq and all that. We knew that we weren't going any place. Our job when we joined was to take the place of a man, at an office job, and free him to go over seas to fight.

I: How did that make you feel?

P: I don't think that we particularly.... We were all very proud of what we did, but I don't think we really.... It was such an incredible experience, and today those that I'm still in touch with we always look at each other, or we laugh if we talked on the phone, and say... We couldn't believe that we actually went, we did that. We just were, we just

thought... We often say when women's lib came along, what was women's lib if it wasn't us joining the Women Marines in 1945?

P: The guys, the men, treated us very well. They liked to tease us a lot, you know, [but] we never took offence at anything. We never had a problem. I'm sure there were problems. To us it was an adventure, and an experience, and I don't think we ever really... at least that's... I will have to ask my friend of mine, who wrote this manuscript here. We never really... We were going in to do a job, and that's what we did. And, we didn't stop to think about we were freeing a man up to go fight, in those days. Patriotism was so strong. That's something that I don't, for myself I don't recall thinking. I never heard a comment, from any of the men that I worked with, in the offices, when I was in service. They were all very nice to us, very... There were quite a few of the girls that did meet somebody, and eventually marry. Like I met my husband at a dance, right after I was assigned to Cherry Point. Some of use, we didn't get married until it was two years later, you know. He ended up, when the war with Japan ended, going home, and I stayed in because it wasn't my time to go home yet. He never, ever had anything bad that he ever said so... It's a terribly big difference between what the military today is and what it was in those days. And, there was no controversy. The controversy and so much that has gone on today, could definitely have effected maybe how you felt about something. But, we didn't have that, so questions weren't brought up.

Int: Would you agree with this statement, that your generation served as a catalyst for the women's rights movement in the sixties?

P: I never thought about it that way. We do feel, and if I can find it... [phone rings] Now, what was the question?

Int: Do you feel that your generation served as the catalyst for the women's movement in the fifties and sixties?

P: I don't think that we felt that way; although it could very well be. I know that the group that I have been in touch with through the years, we have never discussed.... I'm going to quote from this friend of mine, she said, she and... She wants others to understand that, "Being a Marine was a wonderful experience for all of us. We embraced a military life that enhanced our learning and maturing. We were a conglomeration of age, physical appearance, intelligence, personality, capabilities, experience, and background. We ran the gamut from reticent properly reserved naive young ladies, to the bold ruckus worldly-wise extrovert. Yet we could become and effective working unit in an instant. We chose our friends carefully and cherished them for years. We were simper fi which means always faithful." She quotes in here, that... "Some years ago the daughters of a college friend referred to her," my friend, "as the world's first liberated women. I'm sure they were referring to my many aspects of my life, not the least being my joining the Marines in the 1940s. It's been said, we were among the pioneers of today's women Marines. We may have broken the ground, but we were more adventuresome than liberated." You know, that's how I would take that. And she says about the men, the teasing and flirting, but she said, "I never experienced any offensive

indignities from these young men. Nor did my friends mention any sexual harassment. They accepted me as an equal, and respected my work. In return, I respected them, and admired their courage. We were all just ordinary young people, growing up in a world of turmoil, who had chosen to be a Marine." So... It surely must come in play that we did, but she says here that it opened it up for the women to join the Marines. I'm very proud of it. It's just a little tiny tiny part of my life, when I was twenty years old. I joined the women Marines have a memorial for all; it's not the women Marines it's for all women in the military. It's a memorial at entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. And, I became a charter member of it, sent my picture and my resume in. And, if you are ever in Washington, and go out to Arlington Cemetery, at the entrance is this all women's memorial. And, you go inside and you can punch up my name, and up... and I have a picture... a great big picture of me with a little biography, and I'm in my uniform. And, anybody can go in there. I've got a picture of all these computers and things in there. My son and family were there. They had to pay for it, but they brought me back, I have two of them. Somebody else went back and.... They brought me back a copy of this.

P: But it was an experience and... I also think it taught me a discipline, it taught me a discipline that I might not have had. The bonding and the friendship, meeting these people from... all over the United States; it was a wonderful experience. But, we were in a short time.

[The interviewer and Payton are looking at photographs] Int: Is this from the Arlington...

P: This is the all women's memorial... at Arlington National Cemetery, at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

Int: This is the picture of a display at Watkins museum in 1995 of Ms. Patton's uniform. This is the discharge certificate. This is a Marine Corp certificate of active service. Picture of friends... This is on leave, when she came to visit future husband. These are the orders she received to go to Pennsylvania Station, to be sent to boot camp. This is at Cherry Point.

P: Do you want me to keep talking? This is my husband in boot camp when he was, I think, 18. This was made in... after I joined. These pictures are his outfit, Marine outfit that I went to a reunion of in 1998. [fragmented] Picture on the right, at the right is my brother. He was a major general of the Minnesota Air National Guard. And he flew these big transports. This was long time after World War n was over. And, I love that picture, shows the clouds and.... And, then the one down, the lower one, is he and I when he came home from China. And, I came home on leave to see him.

[The poem is shown on the VHS tape]

P: This is a poem that was written by the people that I worked for when I enlisted in the Marines. I worked as a telephone operator for a defense plant that made ammunition

boxes and wiring for Navy Fighter planes. And, the people that I worked for, I was their telephone operator; this is their poem that they wrote me.



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