Interview with Dolores Cheek Clinebell conducted by the NCR Archive at the Montgomery County Historical Society during the 2001 Reunion.
Oct. 18, 2001
CW: I am interviewing Dolores Cheek who is attending the Navy Waves Reunion in Dayton, Ohio. If you could just give me a few basic background, a little information on where you were born first of all.
DC: OK. I was really born in Magoffin County, Kentucky, but whenever . . . after I was born my dad and mother moved up to Wheelersburg, Ohio, a suburb of Portsmouth. I was the last one that was born back there. But my mom had four more after me so we had a big family. There were ten of us. My dad had a farm. We lived on a farm and that was our living, that’s all we had was what he could sell to make eggs and chickens and cows and milk and everything was the only thing we had to live on. And it was a great life. And we all successfully went through school. After I graduated I . . . the war was on and I really felt an urge that it was just something that I had to do that I wanted to get in them Waves, so I tried once and I didn’t . . . I had a thyroid, a physical thing that was a little . . . and I had to get that straightened up. And then I finally got in the Waves and I come to . . . they sent me to New York and then I thought I was something. Going to New York and I’d never been out of Portsmouth. [Dolores laughs.] That was rough training, though, that New York. Hunter College was very . . . well, that’s what you have to go through with all your physical workouts and everything. And after that they sent me to Washington, D.C., my first assignment. And I was there about two and a half years and I really was bored with it. I really didn’t like that kind of work I was doing. But anyway, I was lucky enough to be transferred over here to Sugar Camp in Dayton, Ohio, and I was really thrilled and I really liked it, and we really had a good unit. And then they, I guess the Bombe was probably the machine that we were working on . . . yeah, I guess it was obsolete anyway, they sent us on to St. Paul, Minnesota, to finish it up . . . where we were to finish the work on it to store it away or whatever they did with it. But anyway, after we got that done, they sent us back to Washington, D.C., and I didn’t stay in too much longer because I was . . . well, the war was over and I felt I needed to get out and make a life so I just got out and didn’t do too good . . . [Dolores laughs] made a life.
CW: Can we go back just a little bit and let me pick up some information there. I always like to ask who your parents were, what your mother’s name was.
DC: My mother was Nelly and she married Dean Cheek and they were both from back in Magoffin Country, Kentucky. And they were very young when they got married and they probably didn’t have anything, probably nothing to start out on and they migrated to Ohio. I think they had relatives . . . there was someone they knew here enough to get them on their feet. People didn’t have to have as much then as they do now. They could get along with a lot less cause they didn’t seem to worry where the next meal was comin’ from, it always come. But, that’s the way that worked out.
CW: Where did you go to high school?
DC: Green Township, Green Township High School, and I didn’t take any more training. I didn’t get any training from any . . . we didn’t, at that time we didn’t . . . none of us . . . most of ’em in our family just had to go into the service or something because there was no jobs and there was no money and we just had to do . . . people were really fortunate even if they . . . I knew a lot of people who did housework for people, you know, just to survive. But that’s . . .
CW: What was the training like at Hunter College? Is that where the basic training took place?
DC: Yes, it was hard. I remember taking those shots and we worked and marchin’ all day long. The one thing that really impressed me and I wrote it in an article about Eleanor Roosevelt came to Hunter College to see us. We marched in a preview, you know, in front of her and it was so hot, you might know, probably the hottest day in New York and some of them were fainting and passing out and we had to hold them, just hold that pose and go right on marching. [DC laughs.]
CW: But it must have been thrilling.
DC: It was quite a thrill. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed every minute of it. I wouldn’t take anything for my memories of being in the service because of the people I met and the times we had and the things I learned. It was really interesting.
CW: Was it all physical training at Hunter College? Did you take any class work at Hunter?
DC: I think there was some. I think they had some, probably enough to, supposingly they were supposed to grade you for jobs, but I think they just sent you out to wherever. I really wanted to go to storekeeper’s school. I had worked at Kresges and I thought, well that’s one thing, maybe I could get into the field of storekeeping. And do you know, they sent about four or five hundred out of my unit right after to storekeeping and I didn’t even get to go. They sent me to Washington.
DC: You know, they can’t always judge . . . you don’t always get your opportunity when you should.
CW: They don’t ask you, do they.
CW: About how long do you think you were at Hunter?
DC: I stayed over . . . I was there six weeks . . . but I stayed over about three or four . . . I stayed over three or four weeks and worked in their canteen, whatever . . . ship’s store. [Unidentified voice: Oh, you worked in the ship’s store. I worked in the mess hall.]
DC: Before they sent me to Washington, they let me work up there where you just sold . . . they call it the ship’s store . . . where you sell things cheaper. All the people come in to buy their supplies and . . . that was quite a while. I was there long enough. I remember going to Music City . . . Music City Hall, what is it . . . the big . . .
CW: Radio City?
DC: Radio City probably. I don’t remember if I was in those Trade Towers or not, but I know I went to the Empire State Building. I went to the top of it. And . . . on the top floor. But I can’t remember now about the . . . since that’s happened to them, in my mind I can’t visualize . . . of course, that’s been fifty or sixty years ago. Been a long time ago and I couldn’t remember.
CW: So you went on to Washington.
DC: Uh, huh.
CW: And what did you do. What were your duties in Washington, D.C?
DC: Well when I first went in to Washington, I think they, well, no, I worked in the stock room. I worked in the stock room that handled these parts to these machines and it was all night work. And I think we all had to work shifts. But I hated those nights . . . so long and sometimes maybe a fellow would come down once a night to get a part but outside of that we’d be sitting there — there might be a couple of us maybe — but all night long, you know, waiting, and I just couldn’t . . . I didn’t like that night time duty so I got transferred up to work on the machines. I did the actual decoding on the machines and then I got supervisor but then . . .
CW: About what time was that? About what year was that . . . that you would have been on the machines?
DC: Let’s see, I went in in ’42 and I think it would have been about ’43. I think I was in Washington about ’43 to ’45.
CW: Now when you said you worked on the decoding machines in Washington, was that the Bombe?
DC: That’s the one they made here and shipped over to Washington.
CW: So you worked in Washington on the Bombe, the actual Bombe
DC: Uh huh.
CW: . . . before you came to Dayton, so . . . how long?
DC: And then when I come to Dayton, why we still worked on . . . we worked on the parts but I think the work was about all gone. About done then. I don’t think they were building very many more of those machines by the time I come here. I think we were just trying up some loose ends.
CW: How long were you in Dayton then?
DC: I say about six or eight months and then they shipped me to Minnesota and then I was up there about six or eight months.
CW: You say you were working on the Bombes up there too?
DC: That’s what they said we were . . . it was some kind of communications. It was all communications. We were never permitted to say what we did but anymore we do, because it’s a well known fact that that’s what it was and . . .
CW: Were the machines similar that you were working on up at, I mean was it recognizable to you as the same project when you were in St. Paul?
DC: No, we didn’t see anything but the chassis. All we did was wire. Everything that we did in Dayton or everything that we did in Minnesota, you would never have known what you were doing because you get this big chassis . . . I remember putting wires with the soldering iron, sitting all day, you know, just melting that solder and sticking them wires in the pots. It’s a simple thing but it had to get those all wired. I guess there wouldn’t be any other way of doing it. So we’d go buy a graph, you know, or picture or whatever they drawed up and then we would go along and fill them pots up. We’d go buy our little . . . have a picture there to go by. Put them all in there.
CW: That was in St. Paul?
DC: That was more in Dayton.
CW: More in Dayton?
DC: I can’t remember doing much of anything in St. Paul. I know we had an awful nice boss there. I remember the one who was over us. I thought he was really nice. I can’t remember but it was still in communications, so whatever we did I think we just kind of cleaned up the end of it until they could get us out of the service or most of them got discharged. I didn’t and I went back to Washington. But when I got back there, there wasn’t a whole lot to do either because, see, the war was over and they didn’t have any need for these machines. But I was working on teletype.
CW: When did you go back to Washington?
DC: Right before I was discharged. I think that was in ’47. I was in all together . . . I just lacked a little bit of being in four years.
CW: So, okay you were in Dayton. You came to Dayton when?
DC: Let’s see. I went in in ’42. It must have been about ’44 and I stayed there for six or eight months and then went on to Minnesota and I think in about ’46 I was discharged. Or ’47, I forgot. I should have looked that up before I come.
CW: Oh, that’s all right. I was going to ask you about what . . . did you live out at Sugar Camp the whole time you were . . .
DC: What time I was in Dayton, I did.
CW: . . . in Dayton.
DC: That was in . . . oh no, we had . . . Sugar Camp was dissolved or something and we went to this, what’s that big . . . a big hotel . . . [Unidentified voice: Park Road House] Park Road House, I guess. Anyway, it was furnished. We had maids and everything.
CW: Wow. Where was that?
DC: It was out in Oakwood.
CW: Oh, it was an actual house. [Unidentified voice: Uh, huh. The nuns took it over after we left.] Oh, really. [Unidentified voice: The people who have it now let us look at it in ’95.]
DC: Yeah, I saw it. I got to go. It’s nothing similar. It don’t even . . . anything look familiar to me. I went out there but it wasn’t anything that I could recognize.
CW: Oh really.
DC: It just seemed like it changed that much. [Unidentified voice: It was a huge big house. It had about twelve or fifteen bedrooms. The Smiths own it now, if they still do. I think that’s her name.] I’m now sure how many people, how many was of us left? Twenty-five or so. [Unidentified voice: About 25. But you tell her the barracks burned is why they closed Sugar Camp. We had no place to stay then for the winter.] I didn’t know the barracks had burned. I forgot. I must have burned before [Unidentified voice: June 10, 1945, I believe.]
CW: June 10, 1945, the barracks burned, so . . . [Unidentified voice: Yes] . . . out at Sugar Camp? [Unidentified voice: Out at Sugar Camp.] So there was no place for the Waves to stay . . . [Unidentified voice: Well, for the winter.] For the winter.
DC: Yeah, we had to go somewhere for the winter then. I remember being at Sugar Camp for a short time, but I didn’t remember about the . . . why we went. I just thought we didn’t have any place else to put us, but I guess it was . . . [Unidentified voice: Well, they didn’t. That’s why we left.]
CW: By that time was the number of Waves greatly reduced I suppose? [Unidentified voice: Yes, because . . . ]
DC: Very much so. [Unidentified voice: They could get out on points.] Yeah. [Unidentified voice: The war was over.] [DC laughs.] Everybody got their points and left.
CW: Oh, okay.
DC: But I didn’t, I stayed in, I think I was in almost a year after the war was over. I was . . . [Unidentified voice: We signed up for an extra year. Captain Meader asked us to.]
CW: Oh, okay. [Unidentified voice: He needed help and that’s why you went to St. Paul.]
DC: Uh, huh. I couldn’t remember all the details. [Unidentified voice: I was working in the office, Dolores, I remember that.]
CW: So there were Waves still there after the war helping to sort of clean up and close down. [Unidentified voice: Yes.] Is that right? [Unidentified voice: Yes.] Oh, I didn’t know that. Was Sugar Camp . . . was it that you stayed in the cabins in the warm weather and there were actually barracks out there for the cold weather?
DC: They were little cabins. They were cabins. I think when I was there I think they housed about . . . at one time they housed more than four, but I can only remember having a couple in one. Like one room . . . another girl slept in one room and I slept in the other. It was just like a small little place. Now I think during the heavier part . . . they must have had more than that in those cabins, but I wasn’t there and I can’t remember whether they had . . . how they housed them because they had . . . my land, they had crews of them, you know, before. During the war, I’ve seen pictures of them marching. Evelyn can probably tell you more about it than I can.
CW: But they were in the cabins all year around?
DC: Apparently. I don’t know but, I don’t know where they went in the winter time. I don’t know. You’ll have to find out from her. We’ll have to ask her cause I don’t . . . if you talk to her and interview her, you can get more information on it because I really . . . we went in the summer time and we were only in the cabins a very short time. And then I know we went into this big house. And we had an old truck and one of the ladies drove. It was an old station wagon. A real old one. And they’d drive us down to this NCR everyday, was that Building 26? Is that the one it is?
CW: Uh, huh.
DC: Where we worked. And we’d go down there and work everyday and come back. We had a colored lady that did all our cooking. She had a husband and little boy and they took care of everything for us. It was really nice. It was really good.
CW: Did you have any idea at all about what you were working on? Like, what was your perception of what you were working on?
DC: Not really. But I suspicioned it was something because we had a way . . . there was a certain warning . . . like a bell went off or something happened. Anyway, when that would happen, we had to immediately run to the office of the higher ups and that was, you know, they thought they found something. So I just took it for granted, I figured it out for myself, that that’s probably what happened . . . they found a German ship or something, I reckon. I don’t know. Decode, you know. But I didn’t have any way of knowing what it was, you know. They threatened us. You know, they told us not to . . . they never . . . nobody ever told us. We never did know, while we were doing it. No one ever told us . . . just told us it was secret work. And if anybody asked us, just say you worked in communications. That’s all we know and that’s all we ever were allowed to tell anyone.
CW: Were they ever threatening about the secrecy?
DC: No. I don’t think they ever got that bad. I think we knew enough not to . . . at that time during the war, we certainly wouldn’t want to done anything that would have hurt the soldiers or the sailors or anyone out on ships if that’s what we thought they were doing. We knew better than to say anything.
CW: Where did you receive training to . . . who trained you to do work on the Bombe?
DC: [DC laughs.] Didn’t take any. You just had to be a moron. [DC and CW laugh.] That’s all it was. Of course, I can’t remember exactly, but we had two sit out at the desk and they had about four operators. There was about six of us. And the two supervisors would hand out work and we’d put little wheels on something some way or another. I imagine now since technology has gotten so much better, you could probably figure it out more. But we’d put these little wheels on and they gave us a combination or something. We punched in something and then it run its circle, its cycle you know, and if it didn’t go off or make a big noise or anything why we just kept a runnin’ them. Sometimes it maybe go do it two or three days that we wouldn’t do anything . . . just watch those wheels go around and nothing would happen and then when something did, we had to run and take them to the commanders or whoever was in charge of us. The higher ups. We took ’em. I won’t get in trouble for telling all these secrets, will I?
CW: No, it’s pretty much declassified now, I think. You were talking about soldering. Was that at NCR? What I hear you saying is that you actually ran . . . operated the Bombe. Was that at NCR?
DC: No. They didn’t have these machines. They build them here and shipped them to Washington.
CW: Right. So when you talk about operating the Bombe, that was in Washington, D.C. but when you came here, you actually did the soldering. And that’s when you were talking about actually doing the soldering.
DC: Yeah. That’s where they were making them. But see, I didn’t know where they made them or anything. I was just assigned to run the things when I was in Washington. Well then later on I found out when they sent me to Dayton that that’s where they were building them things that we were working on.
CW: So you probably had a little better idea of things. Did you realize when you were working in Washington that you were working with a decrypting machine, that you were translating codes? Did you have any idea?
DC: Oh, I don’t know. I always felt like it was. But I felt like I was doing it for, you know, the benefit of the whole country and that’s what I enjoyed, that’s why I went into the service for so I just went along with it. But I was never really fond of it. It wasn’t always my ambition to become a decoder. [DC laughs.]
CW: When you were in Washington, were you up on Nebraska Avenue.
DC: Uh, huh.
CW: I saw the facility. I was in Washington. Debbie and I were in Washington in August and we went by the facility. We couldn’t go in, of course.
DC: I bet you, though, I bet they don’t have all them barracks, do they? Do they still have all them barracks that they built that we lived in out there in (???-headquarters D)?
CW: I don’t know. We couldn’t get back in there. We were outside the gates. So I don’t know.
DC: I been there two or three times since I was out of the service. I went back to see President Kennedy, and I love to go to Arlington. I haven’t got back to see the Women’s Memorial. I want to go. I’d love to go one more time and see that. I get literature and everything on it. But I’d love to go see that. I love Washington but I just . . . it’s just fascinating to go there.
CW: I love it, too. Did you ever meet Joe Desch when you were here? Was he must in evidence?
DC: No, I didn’t know him that much ’cause I don’t think we even . . . I didn’t . . . I don’t even remember knowin’ who was in charge of this all. We had, was it Commander . . . what was it . . .
DC: Meader. I think there was one. I remember him more than I did . . . Joe Desch, was he a Commander? Was he in the service?
CW: No, he was civilian. That was his daughter that poked in here just a little while ago. He was an engineer who designed the Bombe.
DC: I read about it. But, you know, I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t . . . not until I don’t think I never knew it until they had that first Wave reunion. When they had the 50th Wave. I never did know.
CW: What was Dayton like when you were here? Did you have any particular memories of the city?
DC: Oh, it was fine. I remember one thing. I remember I had thyroid . . . I always had thyroid trouble and I had this wisdom teeth out and then my throat swelled or something, and I had a thyroid operation out at Patterson Field and got that all taken care of and then . . . We loved it here. We always had a big . . . you know, we enjoyed the things they had to offer.
CW: What kind of things did they have to offer?
DC: Well, you could go dancing down at Lance’s. [DC laughs.] Did you ever hear of that?
CW: Huh, uh. Where was Lance’s?
DC: It was a place here . . . it was just a . . . I guess it was a cocktail bar or something. We used to go . . . we didn’t go out much . . . and there was another little old place out in Oakwood, a little old bar, I think the girls . . . I never did drink that much but we always . . . you know, you go out once in a while. And there was shopping. A lot of times we had access to Cincinnati sometimes and there were people . . . one of the girls lived in Richmond, Indiana, and it was real close. About an hour from here, I think. And we went over there on weekends and another lived in Findlay, Ohio. We had so much more advantages to do things here than we did in Washington. I mean to do personal things like that. We were closer knit. Over there in Washington, I always felt like you were just another number. I mean you don’t, nothing, you know, you don’t matter. But when we got in with a littler group, we just was more personal.
CW: Can you describe maybe a typical week . . . I mean as far as were you working a day shift or were you working a night shift?
DC: Well, in Washington we always had to work shifts, I did, most of the time. And in Dayton we all had day shifts. And we had day shifts in St. Paul or in Minnesota, too.
CW: So they weren’t working nights here by the time you go here?
DC: No, I don’t think they were. Now they were when I left Washington and they . . . but the war ended while I was in Washington. Really the things I did in, you know, Dayton and Minnesota, why really they didn’t have that much for us to do, just cleaning up after the machines. I don’t know what they did with all . . . whatever they do with the stuff.
CW: You said you did some soldering while you were here, right?
DC: Yeah. That’s what we did. I suppose they just kept a buildin’ those machines, I don’t know. I can’t remember whether the war was over. I remember celebrating in Washington, though. You know, going down there on Pennsylvania Avenue and those people were ev . . . it was lined . . . [DC laughs] you couldn’t . . . there wasn’t an inch between anybody and everybody was just a celebratin’. But I can’t remember that there was a war . . . when did the war end . . . 40 . . . we ought to remember that . . . ’43, I think. No, it would be later than that ’cause I stayed in the service until after ’46, so I stayed in about a year after the war ended. But ordinarily we didn’t work . . . that’s another thing . . . we had a more normal life when I was in Dayton and Minnesota too because we worked by base and we were off like normal people. But you know when we were in the service we had to work around shift and it didn’t matter on weekend. You didn’t know what a weekend was because you just had to go work so many days on and so many days off. You had to follow schedule. But the weekends didn’t count. That work went on all the way around the clock. Continuously. All the time. It never stopped.
CW: Well, let me see. Did you ever notice any foreign dignitaries or ranking officers at NCR during that time?
DC: No. Not really. Not to my knowledge. Of course they wouldn’t come in an old room where some old people were sitting there soldering [DC and CW laugh], I don’t think they’d want to come see that. No. That’s the only one thing, we used to laugh about it. You know, they’d say, “What’d you do when you were in service?” And we’d say, “Oh, we filled them little pots.” We’d talk about filling them little pots all the time. It wasn’t bad, though. We’d make jokes, you know. The days all went by fast.
CW: So it was okay to talk back and forth and maybe have a little small talk.
DC: Oh yeah, we could do anything. You know, take breaks and not come back. We didn’t have any limit on anything. Nobody wasn’t standing over us with a whip or anything. It was very lenient.
CW: Really. What did . . . earlier when they were working on the Bombes, women have said that . . . everybody was working, not everybody but groups of people were working in different rooms and there were Marines standing outside guarding the rooms. Was it still that way when you were there?
DC: There were Marines guarding . . . we couldn’t get to work without . . . they had Marines in the guardhouse where we went by to go into . . . we’d go in big long lines a goin’ in there to work and the Marines checked our passes as we went through.
CW: Were they standing . . . were there groups of you working in different rooms or were all the Waves that were there by that time working . . .
DC: Everybody just had to be there at a certain time. They just lined up and got there. There wasn’t any order about it or anything.
CW: I mean as far as the actual work, was it all . . . were there different groups of Waves working in different rooms during the work shift?
DC: Not in that big place.
CW: Not in that big place.
DC: Not in the big one but when I worked in the stock room, there was nobody. That was all under security, too. And that was . . . there couldn’t even anybody get in there without pushing a button and we could let them in. You know, they couldn’t come in there. And there was only just a few stock . . . just a few that worked on the machines were allowed to come in and get the parts for them. We had the parts in there for them for that . . .
CW: Is there anything else you’d like to add to share?
DC: No. I think I’ve shared about enough. [DC laughs.]
CW: Thanks very much. I really appreciate it.