Interview with Betty Bemis conducted by Mary Oliver, Montgomery County Historical Society, during the 2001 WAVES Reunion.
Oct. 20, 2001
MO: Betty, how did you decide to join the service?
BB: Well, it’s a long story. I was living in Minnesota. Born and raised in Minnesota. And I went away to college. I was in Indianapolis, Indiana, and I was swimming on a swim team there in Indianapolis. And a girl friend of mine had joined the Navy and she was 20 years old and I went home for Christmas vacation and asked my parents if they would sign so that I could go into the service. And I had a very strict father and he said, “Betty, you have never finished anything that you have ever done and this is one thing if you get into it, they will not let you out. Good luck.” So he took me down to Minneapolis — we lived about 250 miles north of Minneapolis up near the Canadian border — and we went out to dinner and we danced and the next morning we got up and he took me to the Army recruiting station because he was in the Army during World War I. And we walked in and the girl asked me how old I was. I said I was 20, I just turned 20 the 1st of December. And she said, “Well, let me give you a paper and you come back in a year and we’ll take you then. You have to be 21.” And I had known this because my girl friend had gone in at Indianapolis, so I said to my dad, “Let’s go over to the Navy recruiting and he said all right. So we walked over to the Navy recruiting over there . . . right close together . . . and they said, “Yes, we’ll take you.” And of course I had been in Indianapolis for two years going . . . I had two years of college then and swimming on the swimming team. And so she gave me the paper and sent me back to Indianapolis. So I got back in Indianapolis the first of January. I went down to the Navy recruiting station and signed up. And March the 3rd I was called to active duty and went to Hunter College in New York.
MO: Okay. And what was that like?
BB: Well, it was an experience. We got there . . . I was the second regiment . . . and they had had civilian people, women mostly, working in the cafeteria and down in what they called the “spud locker,” and they were changing over. They were getting rid of all the civilian women and they put the Waves down there to do that. I was there for three weeks. It was horrible. [BB laughs.] We had potato peelers — a big thing that used to take the skins off and we had to take the eyes out.
BB: Of course we cleaned all the vegetables, carrots and cabbage and lettuce and celery and I never got so sick and tired of seeing vegetables in all my life. And then something would . . . a pipe would burst and we were standing in water up to our ankles. That was the first three weeks. Plus after we got through with . . . I don’t think we stayed but for . . . we fixed stuff . . . we didn’t have to go around for breakfast . . . we would eat our breakfast. And then we’d go to the spud locker and fix stuff for noon and night. And then we could go. At that time they were giving us lessons. We had to learn about the Navy and the regulations and stuff like that. And aptitude tests. A lot of testing, but then you’d get up the next morning, have breakfast, and go to the spud locker. Like I said, I stayed there for three weeks and after that, then I just went to classrooms. Boot school was a six weeks period. And after boot school we were sent to Washington, D.C. And I was in Washington, D.C. only for two weeks and we still had classes then and aptitude tests. I really wanted to become an aeronautical mechanic because I loved airplanes and knew very little about them but this is what I had really signed up for. But I’m sure at that time they knew what they wanted out here in Dayton, so they picked the aptitude of . . . I don’t think I ever had a . . . I had a soldering iron in my hand, I guess. My dad, you know, used to solder and I used to watch him, but we got out there and they handed you an iron. A lot of these girls are saying they got lessons. I never got any lessons.
MO: Here in Dayton?
BB: Yeah. Never did. They just marched us and you know said “Solder for us,” so we did. I supposed there might have been a sample thing and you know if we passed, it we passed it. And if you didn’t, maybe you had to go take lessons. I don’t know. But I don’t ever remember anybody giving me any lessons.
MO: When did you arrive here in Dayton?
BB: We got here the first part of May and . . .
MO: of 1943?
BB: ’43. I thought we were the first group that came out. But we were the first group that came out from Hunter that went to Washington and then out to Dayton.
MO: Oh, okay.
BB: We found out the other day with the pictures that Cedar Falls, Iowa, was the first group that actually came in to Dayton. But they had the cabins all set up for us by that time so that we moved right into them.
MO: What was your impression of Sugar Camp?
BB: I liked it. It was a cozy little cabin. Like I said, I guess they quoted in the morning paper, I don’t know how six of us . . . when we had the flux of so many Waves in Dayton here during the first summer . . . how six of us got up in the morning and, you know, got showered and ready to go to work, you know. But I guess we managed all right.
MO: Uh, huh. What did you think of NCR when you were . . .
BB: Well, see we didn’t really see much of NCR. I never knew what they did until after the war.
MO: Oh, really?
BB: No. And I think it came off they were doing shells for the machine guns and stuff here. And we never asked. I mean, we were talking today about the people in Dayton. They never asked us what we did. And we left it right at work. I mean, when we walked out of that building, we left it there. And we didn’t even talk among ourselves. I don’t remember anybody asking me, “How was your day?” or “What did you do?”
MO: What was your typical workday like? What shift?
BB: Well, we worked first shift when we first got here and then when the other extras came in, they put us on three shifts. And we . . . I can’t remember whether we had two weeks of first, then two weeks of second, and two weeks of third . . . I have never even remembered. But it wasn’t bad, you know, it was just . . . we did our job and that was it.
MO: And what was your job?
BB: Soldering little wires on a little clog. We had twenty-six wires that we did. And then later on . . . I don’t remember even when I started . . . but they had cables that we had. And they were different. But we had to read the blueprint, you know, and put the wires in the right places. And of course everything was checked after we got through. We had a supervisor that would sit up and check everything and make sure the solders were all right and stuff and lines were right and stuff. Once you did one, it wasn’t hard to remember what else you had to do with it.
MO: Right. So your whole eight shift was soldering wires?
BB: For two solid years.
MO: Oh, boy. What did you do in your off time?
BB: Well, I swam a lot because it ’43 . . . I suppose I better explain that, too. I swam on the team in Indianapolis and we had national titles and we had gone to Highpoint, North Carolina, in 1941 and I won the 400 meter free style and I got second in the 800 meter free style and fourth in the backstroke and we had a relay team of four girls and we won. In 1941 we broke the American record and that still stands, by the way.
MO: Very impressive.
BB: And we were . . . all of us were put in the All-American team in those two years, three years that we won the titles. But, so I got to swim quite a lot. But I would go to work in the morning and that’s why I probably don’t remember second and third shift. They probably kept me on first and let me swim in the afternoons. I don’t remember really. We’d go at . . . walk down in the morning . . . march down and then after we were through, we could walk back home. It was just up the hill. It was a mile to Building 26 from Sugar Camp, and we’d walk back home, you know, by ourselves. But I would come home and then I’d swim. Of course, if you’re on a team and swimming like I was in the Nationals, ah . . . you had to not drink, not smoke, and you know, not get too fat. You couldn’t eat a lot of junk food and stuff. I didn’t go out all that much. But on the weekends we did. But if I did go out, and we went down to dance at the Biltmore, I’d have one drink but it would last me all night long. But in the swimming in 1942, I won the 400 and the 800 free style, was second in the individual medley where you swim three different strokes and on the winning relay team again. So that meant that I was eligible to swim in ’44, which I . . . only because I won the relay in ’43. When I went in ’43, I didn’t even qualify for the 400 or the 800 or the medley. So it was kind of discouraging, but I was in uniform so it didn’t, you know . . . I had a good time seeing all the swimmers that we had seen all the years. But I almost got kicked out the Navy because my coach put me in in 1943 and didn’t go through the right channels and Commander Meader called me into his office and talked to me. I explained to him, you know, what the deal was so that he knew that I didn’t do it on my own, that somebody else did it. The next year, my coach did write to the commander and say, you know, she’s going to defend her . . . she’s on the relay team and we’d like to have her back and he said all right, so he put me in.
MO: Do you remember where you worked in Building 26? What part of it?
BB: I think we were on the second floor and of course the room was locked. We had Marine guards and a lot of the girls were talking the other day saying they were locked in. We could go in and out. We had a coffee pot out in the hallway. We could go out for coffee. And those that smoked. . . some of the girls that I ran around with smoked . . . so we went out on the fire escape. They had one of those barrels that you could slide down and we’d sit out on the fire escapes and they’d smoke and we’d have a cup of coffee for a break, you know.
MO: How many girls worked in each room?
BB: Well, we haven’t really decided. We’ve talked about that, too. I think there were probably about ten tables with maybe ten to six at a table.
MO: Oh, okay.
BB: So that we had quite a bunch. And like they were talking today, we had different things with the clog that we were doing. In another room, they were doing something else.
BB: So that they . . . and like I say . . . I have a Navy card that we got into the building. You had to have a pass to get in and I think it was three rooms that I could go in. And I don’t ever remember going into the other two rooms, just only in . . . well, actually it was buildings maybe, I don’t know, ’cause it was Building 26. But I never asked.
BB: You know, I just . . .
MO: When you were brought here to Dayton, were you . . . what were you told about the project you were working on?
BB: As far as I can remember, Mary, I think what they said was, “This is highly secret work. Don’t talk about it.” And I mean, we weren’t threatened, you know . . . you know, like the . . . Well, you got to stop and think. We had just one little piece that we were working on and we couldn’t tell too much, you know. Because we didn’t know what we were doing.
BB: The girls that went back to Washington . . . we tease the girls that went back to Washington that they were the smart ones. They could run the machines. We could just solder, so they kept us in Dayton. And I don’t know how many . . . did they ever say this morning how many stayed?
MO: I’ve heard 40.
BB: I think 40 or 50.
MO: Somewhere around there.
MO: Did you ever have any outside contact with any of the NCR employees?
BB: No. Well, like NCR put on picnics for us or invited us to their picnics. And they didn’t say today, but they had baseball teams and our girls played the NCR girls and the sailors played the NCR men. And we beat them. And they said the one picnic that we had, I gave a swimming exhibition down at the pool at River Park.
MO: Old River?
BB: Yeah, Old River. And I didn’t remember that. And one of the sailors . . . they had a. . . they took . . . did the river run behind the park?
BB: He demonstrated water skiing.
MO: Oh, really.
BB: And I don’t remember that either.
MO: Okay. How long were you here in Dayton?
BB: In Dayton . . . I came in May, the first part of May in 1943, and I went back to Washington, D.C. the last of August . . . no . . . yes, the last of August, first of September of 1945. After the war was over. I had gotten married in June of 1945. And of course they were letting the Waves out when the war was over on points. And as strict as my father was, I knew I had to stay in until my points were over rather than saying, “I’m a married woman. I want to get out.” Of course my husband was in the Air Force, you know, so he was moving around too. So it wasn’t all that bad. It was hard being away, but . . . so I stayed in from May of ’43 until I got discharged in October of ’45 out of Washington, D.C.
MO: Now after the group went off to Washington, did your job here change any or were you still soldering?
BB: We still did the same thing. Like I say, I probably . . . that’s when the pigtails came in and started doing the cables. You know, some of the girls that maybe went back to Washington . . . but I still stayed in the same room. I think I was in that room the whole time.
BB: We had a . . . get this in . . . an officer Dorothy Firor and she used to read to us. And she read Little Women and all the oldies that you had in school. And they’d let us have a time out and they made us put our head down and relax or we could go out and have a cup of coffee or a cigarette as some of them did. But she would read to us and it was real calm, you know. So we’d have a break in the middle of the day.
MO: A lot of people have talked about the pressure that the whole project was under. Did you feel that?
BB: I never felt any pressure. I had a job to do and I did it and I left it there and I never even thought about it, you know. And I don’t think when I’d go home on leave, I don’t think my parents even asked me what I was doing. You’d think my father being in the Army, you know, he would have asked. And I might have said to him, “Dad, I can’t tell you. It’s secret.” You know. And he had known that the FBI came up to Nashwaq, Minnesota, to find out my background. While we were in Washington, the FBI checked us out.
BB: I had a 72-hour pass from Washington and I went back to Indianapolis to stay with some swimming friends and a family that I really grabbed hold of because they were just so wonderful to me, uh . . . I got there Saturday, I guess, and had to leave on Monday . . . I went by train . . .and while I was there the FBI came to the door and asked, you know, “Do you know Betty Bemis, Elizabeth Bemis Robards?” And they said, “Yes she’s upstairs. Would you like to talk to her?” And the guy said, “No, we’ll be back.” And they did. They came back and they told me later, they had checked my background.
MO: Interesting. When did you start to get an idea of the significance of the project you worked on?
BB: I never did know. I didn’t . . . I . . . I just didn’t even think about it, I guess. I had no idea in this world what I was doing and it didn’t bother me. For some reason I was just oblivious.
MO: Went on with life.
MO: What did you think when you found out?
BB: Oh, I cried for three weeks.
BB: Oh, it was emotional. The first reunion was just something again.
MO: And is that when you found out for the first time?
MO: So 1995?
BB: Uh huh.
MO: How did you find out?
BB: At the reunion. Debbie Anderson had set up this whole reunion for the girls . . .
BB: And, uh, they took us into a big auditorium and we had a couple of speakers . . . um, I can’t think of his name. Green? And the author of one of the books and they told us then what it really was. They had Enigma up on the stage and of course pictures of the Bombe, the Bombe as the called it. And they said we cracked the code. It was unbelievable.
MO: It must have been quite a feeling.
BB: Ah, it was. And like I told some of the girls while we were there, I said, “You know the only thing I regret is I couldn’t tell my mom and dad.”
MO: What did your children think when you told them?
BB: They weren’t very impressed. [BB laughs.] Uh, I guess maybe I couldn’t explain it to them as much as I should have when I first found out. And of course they were all gone by that time — ’95. My kids were all grown. Two of them were married and our son wasn’t. But my son had been in the Navy during the Korean ruckus and he kinda’ understood, you know, because he worked . . . he’d been on a destroyer and aircraft carrier and he worked on the . . . what do they call it . . . up at the steering thing. He was up on the deck.
MO: The bridge?
BB: The bridge. So he knew, you know, a little bit about the messages that were sent in and out. So he kind of understood. But my two girls . . . until we got the books that the fellows had written and some of the other stuff that came out and they read it, then they, you know . . . “Gee, mom, you’re good.” [BB laughs.]
MO: They were proud.
BB: And of course all I could tell them . . . “well, I didn’t do much. I just soldered wires,” you know. So . . .
MO: Little parts . . . they all add up.
BB: Yeah, they sure did.
MO: Now while you were stationed here in Dayton, did you have much contact with civilians? Did you make friends outside of . . .
BB: Yeah, and we’d walk . . . we’d either walk down or take the bus downtown and we went to the shows and we went to the Biltmore and a lot of soldiers from Wright Patterson would come in, too, and we’d dance, you know. And a lot of the civilian people invited us to church. I went to church with two to three families. I wasn’t very religious but I, you know, would go on Sundays. They’d take us to church and give us dinner and it was marvelous. The Dayton people were just wonderful. They really were. They’re gung ho, all the way.
MO: Very good. Did you ever have opportunity to meet Joe Desch?
BB: Oh, yes. He came out, you know. He and his wife came out with Commander Meader and they ate with us a lot at the caf . . . at our mess hall.
MO: What were your impressions of him?
BB: Quiet. Very quiet and of course Commander Meader was a cut-up. I mean he always talked to us, you know. The Desch’s came out quite often. They came to all the baseball games we had and everything else, you know. I think we were kind of afraid of him in a way. I don’t think we realized at that time what exactly he was doing. ‘Cause not knowing what we were doing, we just knew that he was . . . we thought he was the top gun of NCR, you know.
BB: And that he was our big boss and Meader was just there to guide him. [BB laughs.] I still don’t know how much Commander Meader knew, you know. But he went on to Minneapolis.
MO: Right. Do you remember when Alan Turing came to visit?
BB: No. Uh, I remember a bunch came in and I swam for them, and now whether he was in that bunch, I don’t know. I never did . . . I was never introduced to him. I was swimming in the afternoon and Commander Meader brought them out to Sugar Camp.
MO: Okay. Who else would come watch you swim?
BB: Some of the newspaper people came out when . . . now I don’t know who they were or even . . . they had two papers at that time — the Herald and the News?
MO: Yeah, the Journal Herald.
BB: Journal, yeah.
BB: But they came out when I got called down to the carpet about going into the nationals. They took pictures of me swimming and stuff. Of course the headlines were too, you know, “Wave will defend her champion if the Navy will let her go.” And that’s the one that Orville Wright saw and he called up Commander Meader and said, “Can I come out?” And he said, Meader said, “Sure, come on.” So I was swimming in the afternoon and he came out and we had a little table sitting around the pool and he sat there and watched me do my workout and I got out of the pool and pulled my cap off and he just walked up to me and hugged me. Mary, I was sopping wet and his shirt was just drenched after he got through. But he was so quiet. Like I said this morning, he was a little old man, you know. 72 years old. And he was just so concerned. He wanted to know what my dream was and of course my dream was to go to the Olympics and I had won the national titles for ’41 and ’42, so I had hoped to go to the Olympics in 1940 but Finland had it and they were in the war by that time, so that was cancelled. And of course ’44 they were cancelled and . . . ’cause there wasn’t any in ’44 and ’48 I was too old with a two-year old child, you know, so no Olympics. But he felt very sad and he said it. He said, “I’m so sad that you can’t (you know) live out your dream.”
MO: Were you aware then that he only lived a few blocks away?
BB: No, I never did know that until after we came back in ’95 and they showed us where he lived. That’s amazing.
MO: Yeah. He and Col. Deeds were very close friends.
BB: Their homes are beautiful. We really enjoyed that. It was very nice.
MO: I’m glad. A little different experience this time.
BB: Uh huh.
MO: Uh, do you think that what you did . . . or did you come out of the war feeling you had done something that may change your life.
BB: Not really. I had . . . well, one thing that happened after I got discharged . . . or course I was married and I went to Memphis where Ed was stationed at the time . . . but Forrestal, who was the Secretary of the Navy at that time, wrote a letter and sent it to my hometown and my mother forwarded it to me and I still have it. So, he was sorry that he couldn’t tell us anymore but hoped that we found a decent job and had a good civilian life.
MO: Oh, really. And that still didn’t make you wonder what.
BB: No. I just . . . you know, it was over, we won, and that was it.
MO: Have you maintained some of the friendships that you made in theWaves?
BB: Yes. Since the ’95 reunion I found a whole lot more of the friends we had. There were eight of us that ran around together. We were kind of a little clique you know. And I found a lot of those since ’95. Well, what I did too was sent Christmas cards to some of them. I had an old, old list and I sent it to their old address and some of them were forwarded and some weren’t. And, I think this was in ’92, I sent the Christmas cards out and they answered back. So then when the reunion came up, I don’t know who gave Evelyn Einfeldt my address, but I wrote her and told her about several that I had . . . so we found a lot more addresses so . . .
BB: But I still send out birthday cards to all the ones. I think there’s about twenty of them that stayed after the other ones went back to Washington and I send out birthday cards to them and Christmas cards. And the past two years they have written back to me and each one of us have written a little note on it so I put it all together. That’s when my computer came in and I had to learn how to type and everything else.
BB: But I put them all together and sent them out to about twenty of them. So it’s been quite rewarding, but . . .
MO: Do you have anything you think . . . any happenings that stand out in your mind or . . .
BB: Not really. The one that stands out the most was when I was hit by the car in 1943. Christmas Eve of ’43 I was hit by a drunk driver walking home from work.
MO: Oh, so right around Far Hills.
BB: Yeah. Right up the road. The hill that goes up, before you go in the gate at Sugar Camp. And we didn’t have a sidewalk at that time. We walked on the road.
BB: And this fellow had a car full of carpool and they had been to an office party . . . a Christmas office party . . . and were quite . . . They weren’t drunk drunk. But one guy in the back seat said, “Let’s see how close you can come to these two Waves.” Well, he came too close. I flew 50 feet in the air, rolled down a hill. Knocked unconscious. And there was a doctor came along and he couldn’t touch me because I was in uniform and our doctor that was at the Camp had gone home on leave. His wife was expecting a baby, and they called him back. But they took me in an ambulance down to the hospital and he . . . the doctor got back but all he did . . . it ripped my ear off. It was just hanging by the membranes on the inside. So they put water packs on it and kept it wet until our doctor got back and he sewed it up.
BB: Yeah, that’s one thing that happened. [BB laughs.] And of course being called into the Commander’s office was something again.
MO: Did you ever take side trips away from Dayton?
BB: No, not too many except when I went to meet my husband. We had written to each other for about a year and a half. He and another fellow had graduated from pilot training together and was going overseas. And the other fellow was writing to a Wave that was a friend of mine. And he . . . Jimmy wrote to Helen and said he had a buddy that had . . . his mother and father were both dead and he probably wouldn’t get too much mail. You got anyone that would write to him? So the eight of us that ran around started writing to him and he answered my letters. So when he got home in ’44, he . . . when he got into New York after his missions were through . . . with a bottle of milk in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, he called me on the telephone and we talked for about an hour. But he had an aunt and uncle that he had gone down to live with after his mother died when he was a high school . . . graduated from high school . . . and went to work for his uncle in the A & P store. And our conversation ended up then, he said, “Can you get leave?” And I said, “Sure.” ‘Cause the war was winding down, you know, it wasn’t over yet but it was winding down a little bit and they were letting us take leave. So on April 1, I went out to Wright Patterson and hopped a plane with two other Waves and we flew down to Miami and Ed came down . . . he flew down too . . . and we met at his aunt’s house. We had Easter dinner with his aunt and I had bought civilian clothes so we went . . . there was another girl . . . we had double dated with another Wave . . and three days later he asked me to marry him and I said yes. And so we were engaged on April the 21st and got married June 23rd.
BB: Fifty-six years ago.
BB: So it worked
MO: And then after you got married, you had to come back to Dayton?
BB: Yeah. In fact, he had ten days and I had only a week and on our honeymoon we went to Silver Springs in June. But he thought I wanted to swim, so [BB laughs] I think that’s why he picked Silver Springs. But he came back with me to Dayton then and stayed a couple days and then he had to go back too.
MO: So he was still in the service?
BB: Yeah. He was in the Air Force. Yeap.
MO: And when you . . . you didn’t leave Dayton until after the war was over.
BB: Right. I left the last of August, the first of September. I can’t remember exactly what date it was, but we were one of the first groups that went back to be discharged. And it took them until October 20, I think it was, before I got out.
MO: And when you left Dayton, the project had ended by then?
BB: I don’t think so. I think they were still going because they stayed until Christmas, or December on that year, and then they closed Sugar Camp down and I think that’s probably when they stopped doing all the work, you know.
MO: So it was gradual.
BB: Well, I have read, too . . . I don’t know how true it is . . . but they had said that the British had ordered about 200 of the machines. But I don’t know how true it is, whether it really was . . .
MO: I’ve heard someone over there, but I don’t know when or how many.
BB: But of course once the war ended they cancelled it all, you know.
MO: Right. Right. But you really enjoyed it?
BB: Yes, I sure did. Of course, I’m kinda like the person that . . . you’re here, you do what you want to do, and live.
BB: And that’s the way I’ve always lived. Wherever I am, I’m happy.
MO: Well, I think it took a special kind of person to do what women weren’t usually doing.
BB: Yeah, that’s true, too. We did men’s work, you know, and it was different. But like I say, I didn’t know how to solder. I’d watched my father, you know. But I guess I did all right because they didn’t give me any lessons, you know, so that’s . . . and I don’t even remember whether they asked us if we knew how to solder or not. Or follow a blueprint or anything like that, you know. But we had a good time. And I marvel at the number of women that went through Sugar Camp and we all got along. I don’t think we ever had any real squabbles. It’s true, we had our little cliques that we ran around with and favorites, you know. We sat at a table together. But if somebody else was sitting there, we’d go someplace else, you know. We never had any arguments about anything.
MO: Right. That is good.
MO: OK. Well, if you don’t have anything to add . . .
BB: I think that’s about all.
MO: Okay. I think that’s good.
BB: I’m a happy camper.
MO: Very good.