Joan Precht

Interview with Joan Precht prechtconducted by Claudia Watson of the NCR Archive at the Montgomery County Historical Society during the 2001 Reunion, Oct. 18, 2001

CW: I am interviewing Joan Precht at the Navy WAVES Reunion. It is October 18, 2001, at the Crown Plaza Hotel. Joan, I always like to get a few basic questions first.

JP: That’s fine.

CW: What was your maiden name?

JP: Precht.

CW: And, where were you born?

JP: Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

CW: And, your parents were? Who were your parents?

JP: What?

CW: Their names.

JP: Oh, just their names. Thelma and Henry. He was my step-father.

CW: And, what did your parents do?

JP: My father was an engineer and he went into-he worked for the telephone company for 44 years, but during that time he had also gone into doing top secret work in communications and he was always fitful that I had never been able to tell him what I did, of course, and here he is, he can’t tell me what he did, but he wanted me to tell. I’m the child.

CW: You graduated from high school in Sault Ste. Marie?

JP: No, I came from Detroit. We moved to Lansing when I was three and then we moved to Detroit and that is where I grew up, actually.

CW: Did you have any education beyond that?

JP: Yes, I have a degree in Psychology from the University of Michigan and one in my Masters in Counseling Guidance from the University of Indiana and 42 hours over that in things I was interested in.

CW: In what year were you born?

JP: 1922

CW: And, how did you happen to go into the WAVES? What, where did you hear about that?

JP: Well, it was all over and I worked at the telephone company then with a friend and we both went in at the same time, we signed up to go because we thought it was the thing to do.

CW: How did your parents feel about it? Were they supportive?

JP: Well, since I was only 20 they had to sign for me to go, so they did. What I wanted to do was all right with them.

CW: That’s great. Where did they send you first? How did that work? Where did you sign up, how did you go about signing up?

JP: I signed up in Detroit. I didn’t think I was going to make it because my blood pressure was always so low. They had me bouncing around, jumping up and down doing all kinds of fun things, you know, and they finally decided it was alright, that I really had a low blood pressure. And we were sworn in in January, but we didn’t leave until March, so we went directly to Hunter College.

CW: That was March of?

JP: ’43.

CW: ’43. And, Hunter College, how long were you there?

JP: Boot Camp was 8 weeks.

CW: 8 weeks, and, then where did they send you?

JP: To Washington. They had me signed to go be a Yeoman, which thank God, they didn’t do, but they pulled me at the last minute and several others pulled at the last minute, they hadn’t made a decision on the basis of tests and so on. And then we went directly to Washington, we went to Arlington and we were there for 2 weeks for briefing, I call it briefing. And, then we were sent to Dayton. We didn’t know where we were going. For the _______ training, records have never, nobody; none of us will ever be able to prove we were in Dayton because they did not put out our records. We were always in Washington, D.C. So when the FBI investigated, they asked a neighbor if she thought I could keep a secret. She said, “Well, I think probably she can because her mother thinks she is in Dayton, Ohio, and you’re telling me she is in Washington.” So she said, “I think she can keep a secret.” Well, that was kind of silly.

CW: So, were you in Dayton when they did the background checks, or.

JP: Yea. We were working when they were doing background checks.

CW: How did they transport you out from Washington? Was that by train?

JP: Train.

CW: And, you arrived.

JP: Overnight.

CW: In a large group?

JP: Yes.

CW: About how many, do you think?

JP: You know, I don’t know.

CW: You don’t have any idea, a large group?

JP: Well, relatively large. We were the first ones there, so others came later, but.

CW: And, that was in what month?

JP: April.

CW: April.

JP: April, May maybe. I wish I had my book down here because I brought it with me, but I can’t remember. My memory-of things that far away. That was a long time ago.

CW: A long time ago. So you went directly to Sugar Camp.

JP: Yes.

CW: And, you were in the cabins at Sugar Camp?

JP: Yes. And, at that time we had 4 to a cabin. There were, you know, there were two bedrooms and a bath and we each had a bed, but it was so cold and rainy at that particular time for some reason or another, that they said sleep in a bed together, because we don’t have enough blankets. So we took the blankets and newspapers and put newspapers between because newspapers will keep you warm. And, so that is what we did until the rains stopped. And then another contingent in and they put another person in the room with us.

CW: So, you put newspapers, what, on the mattress?

JP: Yea, in between the sheets.

CW: In between the sheets?

JP: In between the blankets, so that we were warm enough.

CW: warm enough

JP: It was cold!

CW: April can be very cold.

JP: Particularly, since you couldn’t-there was no heat in those cabins. They were wood and then they had louvers that would open up. I don’t think you call them louvers, but, I don’t know what you call them.

CW: I remember the cabins.

JP: When they were down, they looked just like part of the cabin and then you could raise this area over your window.

CW: Where was the eating facility? Was there one right on the grounds or-.

JP: Yes, right on the grounds, yes.

CW: What kind of training did they give you?

JP: They just took us in and told you how-

CW: Just showed you how to do it.

JP: And, you were supposed to be able to do it. But, now I only did that for three weeks. I only did the soldering for three weeks. That was when Ensign June Wiley was in charge of the WAVES here, and she felt that perhaps some girls that were away from home for the first time had a little too much freedom and the reputation of the WAVES was important to her. So, at that time she picked either six or eight of us, and I can’t tell you because we were on duty, on twenty-four and off twenty-four, although we only had one shift. But, if anything happened to anybody, you-if one of us was sick we had to cover that. So that’s how that-. And then we were assigned to check everybody in and out of Sugar Camp, so that she knew who was in town and who wasn’t, if things happened. That was one of the reasons.

CW: So, your job was basically-

JP: Just basically checking them-

CW: Just checking them in and out, keeping track. You said people were on twenty-four and off twenty-four. And, let me get this straight.

JP: Just the six of us, or the eight of us.

CW: Oh, just the six or eight of you.

JP: Yes.

CW: Okay. I see, I understand. Did you meet Ralph Meader? Was he somebody who was in evidence there?

JP: Oh, yeah he was in evidence. I have a single picture of him that was from no too far away because of that big celebration he had for the Purple Heart on July 4 of ’43. They had a big “to-do” there. Everybody had a white uniform and that was very nice, impressive ceremony. So I have a picture of him and, as I said, I have a picture of the Admiral. I just put “the Admiral” under it and I don’t know who it was. Somebody told me and I have already forgotten. So, I’ll have to-King, I believe that is what they said. So, I have that.

CW: What did they tell you about security when you came here. I am sure they made it real clear.

JP: Oh, it was very clear before we got here. I always felt we were in Washington for orientation and that was when we were told, took us into the Chapel and told us that we, this was a top-secret thing that was not to be discussed with anyone ever at any time until, they said forever. Of course, it has been released since then, but, and we would be shot at dawn, if we opened our mouths. That was very impressive, very impressive.

CW: I’ll bet.

JP: And, I think we pretty much all believed it.

CW: And so, you were in Arlington for a couple of weeks-did they do any other kind of briefing?

JP: I-

CW: Had it been so long that-

JP: I don’t remember what all they did. Other people seemed to remember all that stuff, I just don’t seem to.

CW: What was Dayton like? Any particular impressions at the time?

JP: At the time-I really don’t remember a lot of it. Uh, except they brought boys into Sugar Camp for the dances because there was a dance area there. And, they would bring them in and we would have that-and I was fortunate enough to find a young man at the very beginning and so we dated the whole time we here and we danced, went dancing at the Van Cleve a lot, and we went to one movie house that I can’t remember the name of. But, what I do remember is that Count Bassie was there and we danced in the aisles of the theater, which was memorable. And it was really fun and he was-well we wrote all during the war because he left, he was in England and we had a nice relationship in that manner and, then he came back and wanted to get married and somehow I didn’t want to marry him, so I didn’t.

CW: So, how long were you in Dayton?

JP: I was in Dayton from April ’til November, just that length of time. I was in the first contingent that went back to operate the machines.

CW: OK, so you, you went back to operate the machines after the first ones were made.

JP: Yes, right and I was immediately made a supervisor. I know in the publication it said there were four girls to a unit, Well, there were, but there were also two more–the supervisor and their assistant. So, that was what the setup was in Washington. Now, I don’t know who didn’t remember that, because it was quoted in the paper, but there were six to a unit.

CW: Were there barracks in Washington? You lived right on the Nebraska side.

JP: Right, right across the road from the operation building.

CW: What was that work like?

JP: It was hot, it was grueling. I think what made it really bad, was changing shifts every week. You would work nights one week, afternoons and then days. And your body doesn’t do well with that, particularly when you work the night shift. It was 90 degrees, day and night along with humidity. And one week it was six weeks at 90 degrees humidity and temperature. So, you are very very hot, no air conditioning and you had to sleep in that, and you did sleep but you were so groggy when you got up. That was the difficult part, I think, and I know, I think, I probably had, and maybe everybody else did, a slight depression for maybe a month one time. I was trying to take a couple of college classes at the same time, on my time off, and I think I had to quit that and then it was alright. I got just overburdened.

CW: Did I hear you say the buildings in Washington, there wasn’t any, that there were no windows, there was no ventilation, there was no-

JP: That is what one of the other said. I can’t recall that we didn’t have any windows, I did listen to her, I do believe that is right. You had to have clearance to enter the building.

CW: Heat must have been incredible. I can’t imagine not having any breezes. Did they run any fans, or anything like that? At least move it through.

JP: I don’t think we had a fan.

CW: Wow.

JP: I think we were just there, because we had these light, well, kind of a medium blue dress to work over there. We didn’t wear a uniform, regular uniforms. And they would get wet if you sat on a chair. The girls had stools and I had a chair, but when we got up from those chairs your dress was completely wet in the back. And they did have air hoses for the machines, so we would take the air hose and dry off, so that we could leave the building not wet.

CW: I can see that.

JP: But I don’t find, I found it was a nice experience. I’m glad I had it and I don’t remember as much as the one lady, but when I read some things in the book, I thought, were they in this war?

CW: Those people remember different things, things differently.

JP: They remember there were four girls in the unit, they were running the machines, true. There were six of us, and it had to be in Dayton they described after the war rushing around and running around in the streets and running up to Joe Doesch’s house. I read that in the writeup for the paper. Then I thought, what war were they in?

CW: But, you were in Washington at the time.

JP: I was Washington at that particular time. I told the story.

CW: Tell, that again. That was interesting and I’m afraid we might not have picked it up.

JP: Where the Ensign was on duty only on the shifts that I was on one day a week, which was a day we prefer he wasn’t there, to tell you the truth. Well, he came in and announced, well it was in the daytime because it was in the day time that he announced that the war was over, but that we were not to celebrate. We were to continue operating our machines in the same manner that we had always done it, which was unbelievable when you think about it.

CW: It is unbelievable.

JP: It wouldn’t have happened with the other person. I am sure we would at least have been able to have-raise a Coke or something and keep on working. But you could at least say “hurrah.” But, no, no, nothing.

CW: So what happened after the war ended? I mean, immediately after that because they would not have had any reason for you to run the bombs, did they immediately shut them down?

JP: I don’t know if they kept any of them running or not, because a group of us were then transferred to the Personnel department to muster out, as the points came through and when our points came through we were also mustered out. So I was there until November.

CW: Did you go into the Reserves?

JP: No, I chose not to sign up. One of the ladies was asking today. Were we regular Navy, well we were regular Navy because they asked us if we would like to sign up for the reserves, so that would be obvious we would be regular Navy because I always thought we were.

CW: So, what did you right after you were mustered, when did you muster out and?

JP: In November of ’45.

CW: And then, and then what?

JP: I went back to work at the telephone company until Fall and then I enrolled in college. I had to go to a junior college because every place I went they did not have any place for women. They had men because all the women that were left went to school, and so there wasn’t any housing. So I went to junior college in Highland Park, MI which you had to meet University of Michigan requirements. So that is what I did and then I went to the University of Michigan for two years. Worked summers for the telephone company. Did some supervisory work and that kind of thing. And then I worked a year, I worked a little while for, at Crowley’s which was a department store. Retail work was not for me because I had to work twelve-hour shifts at Christmas time and then wait for a bus to ride a mile home at midnight and, so that was not for me. Then I went to work for the Welfare Department and that also was not for me. And then I went back and got my Masters Degree in Counseling and Guidance in Education, got married, had kids. And I didn’t work, well when they were about, let’s see, my youngest one was three and one was four. I couldn’t have children, but these were the two I had any way, and I went to work as a teacher, our church had a nursery school and they needed a teacher and I did that when they were little. Took them with me when they went to Nursery School, too, in different classes of course. And then I stayed home until my youngest one was nine and I went to work for the hospital for the mentally retarded and I was a counselor for a while and then I became a Program Director for a unit and had to plan programs for 475 people ranging from the age of eight to 78. And, about nine and one-half years later I got burned out and that was the end of my career. I didn’t go back to work any more.

CW: When you look back on your Wave’s experience, how do you assess it as having affected your life? You do feel like it sent you down certain roads that you wouldn’t pursued if you hadn’t gone in, or

JP: Well, you know, everybody at that point was getting married during the war and having children and I didn’t do that and I do not regret my years of not being married until I was 30. I don’t regret them. I had a good time. I did a lot of interesting things and being in the WAVES was a part of me and that’s it.

CW: Do you have any particular feelings about how the WAVES were regarded or?

JP: I never had a feeling that we were not respected, maybe we weren’t, I don’t know, but I never was in that position. We had hard work but we had a lot of fun. We did a lot of interesting fun things. One time, I think there were seven of us in that group went to down to ____________, Virginia, and we could wear civilian clothes and we went down there to see the Caverns and we were presented a key to the city by the mayor while we were there and that was a fun trip. And then, I think the same group of us, maybe a change or two, hitchhiked to Baltimore one time to go swimming, went to the beach and went swimming. We could do all kinds of things. We did have leave. My friend and I, that I went to high school with, were together the whole time. I don’t know how that happened but it just did and I had an aunt that lived in Long Island and she would save her gas rations and so on and we would go off to Jones Beach and that was, you know, a break. You got away from it because we had a 72 hour pass every now and again between shifts. 24 hours and then 72 once a month, I think it was.

CW: So were you able to get home at all when you were in the WAVES?

JP: Yes, when we had a leave, we had 30 days leave so you could go home for awhile. I’m not sure that we were able to go for 30 days at a time. I can not remember ever doing that. I don’t think so, though we did go home. Now, while I was here my mother would come down and visit occasionally for a little while and then go home, because it was just in Detroit and that was okay. And we had good times in Dayton, we had good times in Washington, just like a normal person. We were just doing a different job. I can recall now, oh yes, one time they asked a group of girls, we must have been working afternoons, if we would go shuck corn and they took a whole couple of bus loads out and we would all shuck corn for the day and man, that is hard work. But they had a lovely big picnic and that was a gorgeous day, another break and I can’t remember what we were going to do about it, but the AT&T went on strike and it just made me absolutely furious and I thought what are they doing? You’ve got a job, this is war time, just stop it. And I was going to go back, I think we were allowed at that point to go and serve as substitutes for the operators and I had been a telephone operator for two years prior to going into the service and I was going to do that. I think they solved their little problem before that happened.

CW: Were there any other times when you stepped into civilian-type jobs, or special times when they would use WAVES for other things.

JP: No.

CW: So, that was real unusual?

JP: Yes, but they would allow us to do it on our own time.

CW: On your own time. I see, I see. Did they have any particular organized activities up there, or what was a typical way to spend time off?

JP: We each chose our own, to do whatever we wanted to do. I don’t think there were very many organized activities. I do recall they called, in a barracks, if somebody came to repair something, they would call “Man on board.” I didn’t happen to hear that one time. I was in the bathroom and came out in a little slinky short nightshirt and I was very surprised.

CW: Oops.

JP: We did have to do some marching and some exercising, I should not say we didn’t do anything. We did marching and exercises and we had to take our tests as WAVES and why I have no idea but we had to pass all of the tests from the Navy Blue Book which was learning to tie knots and do all of these things that sailors would do. We never, of course, used any of that but we had to pass all of those tests.

CW: Was that while you were here, you were doing that too?

JP: No

CW: That was in your basic training?

JP: No, that was in Washington.

CW: That was in Washington, in that time that you were in Arlington?

JP: No, afterwards.

CW: Oh, afterwards.

JP: Yea, after we went back from here. We all messed up one of the tests out of the Blue Book which we weren’t interested in any way to begin with at 8:00 in the morning, after we had worked all night in 90 degree temperature and we were all just groggy, we didn’t pass that test. But we were the same ones who passed the specialty tests with a 4.0, a 4.0 the specialty test.

CW: Tell me about the specialty test.

JP: It was in regard to communications and what we were doing.

CW: Is that what you took before coming to Dayton?

JP: In order to get -no.

CW: No.

JP: After we got back, in order to get your promotions. So, we did get 2nd class here, and as I was telling out there, 11 billets came through for 1st class and those of us who passed with 4.0, expect that we would get them, but 11 yeomen had been transferred in, just 11 at one point, and so they just gave them to them whether they passed the tests or not, which made me very unhappy. Actually I did not learn until I was quite grown that I was rather shy, because I did not take that kind of thing ever. But, my mother told me I didn’t have to. Even in high school I would stand up for the poor soul. She said I was older when I was six than when I was 18. So I just marched myself up, and why I didn’t wind up in the brig, I have no idea and went directly to the Commander and told him what I thought of that. I didn’t think it was fair, and it wasn’t. That was a lazy man’s way of taking care of those billets which I explained in no uncertain terms. He took it but he knew that I, he had to know he was wrong, because he kept throwing pencils on the floor and bouncing them of their erasers and when I finished, he said that there would be more billets coming through in August, and “you will have one.” “And if they don’t come through in August and if you don’t have one I will give you anything you want.” Well, I didn’t learn until later that he went down and talked to all the shifts about those billets, and he said, (I don’t know if he named me by name or not) but he said this lady had been up there and had complained. And he said, “you know after we got through, I told her she could have anything she wanted. I don’t know what she’s going to want.”

CW: You said he went down and talked to who?

JP: All of the different shifts.

CW: Oh, all the shifts.

JP: He did talk to them which I thought was rather nice. I could have been really in trouble.

CW: And, that was the

JP: The Commander.

CW: Who was that, do you remember?

JP: I don’t know, not of the WAVES but the man in charge. The man in charge of the whole thing. There was a Wave who would talk about Peabody and I didn’t have any.

CW: Who was Peabody?

JP: Well, she was in charge of the Wave contingent, apparently.

CW: Here in Dayton?

JP: No, in Washington.

CW: In Washington.

JP: And, so I don’t think-I think the only relationship I had with them was when they called me up to give me some more work to do, that was different maybe, when they were changing bays, decided they needed to change these bays. When they called me up I had no idea, if I had opened my mouth at some time when I shouldn’t have. I didn’t tell anything, I knew that. They sat me down at a table, a big conference table, and then there were several officers lining up and there was a chair for me which they advised me to sit down and they discussed how they were going to have to make some changes and which girl-they laid out all of the bays and they said, “now which girl in this bay do you think would work well with your girls” because they wanted to transfer one of mine and my assistant, they gave me a new assistant, and I said, “Well, any one but this one.” And there was dead silence, dead silence. I looked around and I said, “you’re not going to do that to me. You’re really not going to do that to me are you. You really aren’t.” Because, she needed a little help in learning how to behave herself, and they knew I would put up with her. And in two weeks she was doing her work and she was not displaying her body for the sailors walking through and she worked really hard and did a really good job and became my assistant and then became a supervisor.

CW: Wow

JP: I am proud of that situation, but I can’t take all the credit, because the girls that were in my group would not put up with that either. They gave her a very hard time, but it worked.

CW: To run the bombes, did they give you — was there special training? Was there a period of special training?

JP: You learned right away, yeah, you learned how to do it. And they had a special room on the first floor where the officer was stationed in that room and then the supervisors, as a printout came out, the supervisors would take it. We had machines that we would check it before that and then we would take the printout into the office, the supervisors only did that and get a new set of instructions for setting the big machines and that was how that worked.

CW: Great.

JP: So we supervised the girls we had. That was how we taught them and we would help them. I am not sure that anybody else did this but, whenever they had to study for a test that they had to take, then my assistant ran the machine for them, and I coached them.

CW: Are you talking about the test out of the Blue Book?

JP: Any book–all the tests they had to take.

CW: All the tests they had to take?

JP: Even the specialty tests. I would relieve them from the machine and then I would coach them so that they would pass the tests because some of them had a great deal of difficulty passing those tests.

CW: These tests that you are talking about. Are they something that they just had to take for the length of time they had been in the service, or did they have to do with the work you were doing?

JP: Well, I think it had to do a little bit with both. I don’t remember but they had to, in order to get any kind of promotion, you had to take the test. So that was what happened there.

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  • Inside You’ll Find…

    WHO worked during the war? Find the Personnel section. Also, Joseph R. Desch
    WHAT were their goals? By the Numbers. Also, The US Bombe
    WHY? History of the Bombe Project A contemporary account of the reasons and the plans for their project for the Director of Naval Communications, 1944.
    WHERE was the project: In Dayton, it was in Building 26. In Washington, it was housed at the Naval Communications Annex