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Interview with Essie Woods [April 2, 2002]

Sarah E. McLennan:

I'm interviewing Essie Woods, a member of the WACS, on April 2,2002, for the Michigan Women's Historical Center's exhibit "A Few Good Women, Women in World War II."

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, you were in the WACS, right?

Essie Woods:

Mine was the WAAC, at first, in '43 when I enlisted and then they changed over in about six months after I enlisted to the WACs.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, why did you decide to enlist?

Essie Woods:

Well, I guess I got tired of, I'm originally from Augusta, GA, and we had Camp Gorden there, and we had the air field there, and we did a lot of, there were three sisters of us, in my family, and we did a lot of USO work and then we had some colored officers around and, to enlist, you know, women, and I guess we got patriotic carried away, and we enlisted. And so that's really how it, it was that feeling of wanting to do something.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, your sisters enlisted, too?

Essie Woods:

Yes, in fact, my younger sister was in her last year of college and she went off on the weekend and when she came back we had planned to enlist, my older sister was just fifteen months difference in our ages, we were like twins, and when my younger sister came the weekend back home, we had planned to do this, and she said, "Oh, no, but you're not going to leave me, I'm going too." So, my mother really had to sign her in because she was not of age, she was a year, but she should have been older. We all went down to Camp Stewart to take our exam and you know, I was the only one who didn't pass it, I was underweight. I came back home, my mother was so happy I didn't pass, but I was real sad, until in a month's time the whole neighborhood, even the grocer and so, I had gained fifteen pounds and I went back and I got in, but, they gave me a month to get my weight up.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, ok.

Essie Woods:

But, it was,... was finished and my mother did worry like most people felt - that girls did not, well, they had a different idea, they thought girls were going in to entertain the fellows and society had a problem with that, and my mother was upset because she, you know, thought that would be a mark on our character, but our friends assured her "Now, you raised them right and they gonna take up the same kind of people they had in civilian life, they gonna take those kind of people up when they get in service." So that kind of calmed her down.

Sarah E. McLennan:

It must have been hard, though, all three of her daughters enlisted, all at once.

Essie Woods:

Yes, she was really upset. My father had passed a few years ago, prior to that, so I guess she felt like because, the youngest child was my brother, and he was about ten or twelve, well no, he was about fourteen years old, I guess, at that time, and of course, I know she felt like the whole family was gone, you know.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Yea, yea,

Essie Woods:

But, it worked out.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, then, after you enlisted, did you go to basic training?

Essie Woods:

I went to basic training in Des Moines, Iowa, and after my basic training, they sent us down to Des Moines, to another training school, I mean, you were selected according to how they classified you. And we had the motor pool, we had the cook training, we had the administrative school and what not. I was one of those who went to administrative school and we were there for, I guess, about six weeks. And then we were sent out in the field, I went to Camp Forrest in Tennessee, and of course, each one of my sisters went to different camps, one went to Atterbury, IN, and one to Breckenridge, KY. So we were all in different camps.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Did you train together at all? ESSIE: No, the two of them were in basic training together, but because I was there later I was there by myself.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, that's right. So you came in a little bit after them.

Essie Woods:

Yes.

Sarah E. McLennan:

OK. So, what was your daily routine like in training, like what kind of things did you do?

Essie Woods:

Oh, it was, now that was the worst of my experience. I had never been used to anybody yelling at me and I hadn't done anything, but that's the way they were tough on you. Of course, the clothes didn't fit. Because they didn't have, they had not been prepared for women.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Now, were you in one of the earliest groups to join?

Essie Woods:

Yea, it was back in 1943 and of course we had the old shoes that the men wore, big shoes, and what not, that didn't fit. The overcoats would drag on the ground, it was terrible and then plus being yelled at all the time. But that's what the point of training, they were molding you all the time and we finally got us into the kind of people that they thought they had, were ready to be sent out on the field.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, did you learn like basically army regulations, marching, that kind of stuff.

Essie Woods:

Yes, marching, drilling and getting up early, early, early in the morning and on the, in Des Moines, now it was one of those places, that in the summer, you just might be out on the parade field, and a clap of lightning would come, and the sun would be shining bright. I remember it many times, and but those are the things you learn to endure, they didn't stop it, you just keep going.

Sarah E. McLennan:

You j ust kept going!

Essie Woods:

That was the way it was, and then we got out on the field after I went to Camp Forrest, I was in the Medic unit, because they were still undecided what to do with the women. And, so I believe they assigned me to the administrative section of the hospital for taking care of records. When they decided to deactivate, when the base procurement person came to Camp Forrest, and that's when they deactivated our company and we were split up and sent all over. And, of course, they had in mind the ones they had in mind for overseas duty and we didn't even know it. And, of course, part of my company was sent down to Oglethorpe, GA, and when we realized what it was all about, it was preparing us for overseas duty and that was called training but it was necessary.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, did you volunteer to go overseas, or?

Essie Woods:

No, I did not. One day I came home from work in Oglethorpe and the girls said, "Go over to the office and see whose name is up. Your name's up on the board," and I said, "What?" and they said, "Go over and see." And there was a list of girls selected to go overseas and I said, "I didn't sign up for any overseas duty. That hadn't even come to my mind." So, I went in to my commanding officer, and I asked, "How did my name get up there?" and she said, "I selected the girls that I would like to go overseas with me." She was Captain Noel Campbell, and she was our commanding officer and she was selected to go overseas and she, in fact, she was second in command of our battalion when we went overseas. So, I said, "Well, since you've selected me, I guess it wouldn't be nice of me to complain, because I did volunteer." But, I was glad I did and I was telling her it was an honor for her to think that much of me.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, definitely. So, you were in the, was it the 6888th?

Essie Woods:

6888th Central Postal Directory, it was a postal directory.

Sarah E. McLennan:

And where were you stationed overseas?

Essie Woods:

Well, I was first assigned, it was in Birmingham, England, and then from there we went down, after we, well, what happened with the postal directory you follow the troops, you're behind the troops going up because you're delivering the mail. So you are behind them, if they advance, you come up behind them. So, we were in Birmingham, then we went over to Rouen, France, and from there we went to our last station was in Paris, France. That was when things were winding down and we were closing out.

Sarah E. McLennan:

And what year did you go overseas?

Essie Woods:

It was in 1945.

Sarah E. McLennan:

OK

Essie Woods:

And it was, I think it was in March of 1945. The word was that you go over but the weather wasn't too good.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Yea, I've been in England in March. It's not the best weather I've ever seen.

Essie Woods:

Then we had the experience of the U-Boat you know.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, really.

Essie Woods:

Well, we went over on the II de France, one of the large boats and they were transporting the Air Force. It wasn't so much of us they were after, it was those Air Force they were after, but we were on the boat. So, we had the experience of being chased by those submarines.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Really? Did they ever torpedo you or shoot at you, or?

Essie Woods:

They tried, but that II De France was the fastest boat, and they outmaneuvered them, but we didn't realize how, you know, you tell everybody that war is a terrible thing, you should never want to experience it, but you are not aware of your danger when you are involved. You don't realize how dangerous it is. But, we were lucky, I guess, lucky.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right. So did you ever feel, like, afraid or worried?

Essie Woods:

No, that's the strange thing about being in danger. You are not afraid. And I don't know what it is that makes you that way. You are not afraid. And you don't realize how dangerous it was until after it's over.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Which is probably better, maybe.

Essie Woods:

I think it is, I really think it is better, and I think maybe nature prepares us for this.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Yea, definitely. So, what kind of things did you do when you worked at the mail center?

Essie Woods:

Well, we had to redirect the mail because the fellows were on the move all the time. We had to know where, we had locator cards, we had to know where they were at all times and the mail was backlogged and packages, and what not, were all we had to catch up those things. And, well, we had money orders, postal money orders, well, just like a regular post office. We had three shifts, we worked twenty-four hours around the clock and so that's the way we handled it. That's the way we caught up, too, because, it was a three shift thing that was going.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Where did you live while you were doing that?

Essie Woods:

Oh, Lord, don't ask about the living conditions. Well, first, in Birmingham, we lived in an old King Edwards' school that was used to be a boys school and of course, you know, it wasn't prepared for women. And, the showers were in a different area. If you wanted to take a shower, you had to go way out, oh it was terrible. And then, we didn't have beds and they had made, I guess the fellows, I don't know who made these makeshift beds, and we didn't have mattresses, so they had sacks of straw for the mattresses, well, you know what the straw did when you were sleeping, wake you up. And, then we didn't have lots of facilities, we just made shift of everything we did, we just had to make do, you know, make shift. The food was good because we had our own people who did our cooking.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, that's good.

Essie Woods:

The food, and they delivered, the good food. They did keep us in good food. But, the other conditions, in Birmingham, we had the old school, and then, I mean in Birmingham, the old school, but in Rouen, we had to take over old Napoleon Fort, that was really hard, it was cold, damp, two buildings, those made of solid cement, no heat whatever, it was terrible, but Major Adams, who was our Battalion Commander, wanted to keep us together and the only way she could keep 800 of us together was to take that kind of facility. When we went to Paris, it was a different, we were living in style, we were living in hotels there.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, that's nice.

Essie Woods:

That was the difference.

Sarah E. McLennan:

And that was pretty soon after they liberated Paris?

Essie Woods:

We were, they had, we had taken over Paris and then they could move us in and that was when the war was really winding down. We were really doing clean-up duty. A lot of girls had been sent home but we were the last to leave. We were really cleaning up odds and ends.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Did you have any kind of opportunities for leave or anything like that while you were in the Army, like, both in the states or overseas?

Essie Woods:

Yea, I did have one leave, well I guess about everybody had about one leave, and I took mine to go to Switzerland, and I really enjoyed that.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh nice, that's neat. Did you travel with other people?

Essie Woods:

Well, no, I would guess other Army personnel were on the train but they were from other places but I think it was about three from my unit, from my battalion, that was allowed to go at that time. They did not ever let very many go at the same time, so I think it was about three of us that went on that trip, and at various times others went, you know.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Yea, yea. So, what was it like being in a majorly male environment in the Army?

Essie Woods:

Pardon?

Sarah E. McLennan:

What was it like being in a majorly male environment, since most of the people in the Army were men?

Essie Woods:

Well, that was something you had get adapted to, because men did have the feeling that you should not be there, so you had to get used to the idea that you were not their favorite, but overseas, I will say that those various battalions that were over there, they did entertain us and invited us out to dinners at their place. They were nice to us after they got used to the idea, but it took them a little while. Then, our battalion commander was very protective of us and she wanted to be sure that no harm came to us, either, you know, but it turned out real nice and the experience was nice.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, it sounded like you had a pretty close relationship with your commanding officers.

Essie Woods:

Yes, as I told you, the second in command was my company commander and we were very close. And the battalion commander who was Captain Adams, I mean Major Adams, I'm sorry about that. And she was, in fact, she passed here last month, at 82 years old. And she was a very protective person and she saw that, we, and they were really, we admired them, because they were so concerned. And, of all of our needs, we could always go to them, they were not distant. We had other officers over each company, we had four companies, but you could always go to the head office, if you had any, you know, real complaints. They were never distant from you.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right. Did you ever encounter any stereotypes about military women? I know you kind of mentioned that your mother was concerned that you were supposed to, you know, take care of the men and that kind of thing? Did you ever encounter any more of those or?

Essie Woods:

Well, just like in civilian life, they are carrying on about lesbians, and all those like that. But, I worked for the government after getting out of service and you encountered those people through life and I said of course I didn't know about them when I was, because my family was very protective, I didn't know about that other side of life until I was exposed to it. But, you don't have any problem with those people, and strangely enough now, they seem to want to make a friend, but in those days, they didn't want to be bothered with you and they didn't want you in their company. I always tell about the joke that my friends played on me. I was always going out when I was in Paris trying to explore. When I came in, I was kind of late for dinner, and the tables were all filled and I couldn't find my friends. But they were holding a place for me but they pretended there wasn't a place there to see what I was going to do. And these peculiar people who sat together, they had space at their table, and I said, "Oh shucks, I'm hungry." So, I went over and sat at their table. Now, they politely, asked me, "Now, I don't think you want to sit with us." So, I told everybody, no they didn't say anything to intimidate me, they didn't want to be bothered with me, they had their own friends and they stuck together. Well, it's a good training for anybody who's been grown up in a protective environment, because you learn all kinds of people from all phases of life. You learn to get along with them, and you learn how to handle yourself in their society.

Sarah E. McLennan:

And, how old were you when you enlisted?

Essie Woods:

Oh, I guess I was eighteen, no, no, I was twenty.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Twenty, OK, yea, so you were still pretty young then, too?

Essie Woods:

Well, yea, because, young, because I hadn't been exposed to you know, people were very protective of their children, and you didn't, well, you didn't, associate with people who were not from your background. And, maybe it was a mistake, maybe it was wrong, but that's the way it was, so I had not been exposed to the other side of life and a lot of things I did not know, and I think it was a very good training, you know, for me, in life.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Now, were your units segregated, or?

Essie Woods:

Yes, we were segregated, and during World War II, the Army was very segregated. It didn't happen until the kids in Korea and those conflicts where things were changing.

Sarah E. McLennan:

OK, all right, I want to talk a little bit more about your uniform. You talked about how when you first got them they were so ill-fitting and everything, did they get better, did they issue you new ones?

Essie Woods:

Oh, yes, when we got out in the field, in fact, in Des Moines, it got better, because when we went down to administrative school, they allowed us to buy, the companies were making dress uniforms, and you could purchase them yourself and we were allowed — So, we really became very sharp. We were not making any money, but you know what we were doing, buying, we could buy shoes and things like that, so we really, and then they started issuing nice uniforms. So, finally, we really, they finally got prepared for us, they just wasn't prepared.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right, were there any regulations about makeup, or hair style, or anything like that?

Essie Woods:

Yes, you definitely could not have it below your, you couldn't having it touch your collar, you had to keep it, well, you know, in those days, I know you are young and don't know about it, but, girls used to wear that roll, they rolled their hair.

Sarah E. McLennan:

All right, I've seen that.

Essie Woods:

So you can always make that roll high enough to not touch your collar, because when they inspected, you know that they were inspecting to be sure that hair was not touching your collar.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, then, how long did you stay overseas?

Essie Woods:

One year.

Sarah E. McLennan:

One year? And, was that, did you come home because the war was ending, or?

Essie Woods:

It was because it was ending.

Sarah E. McLennan:

OK, So, then what did you do after you returned home?

Essie Woods:

Well, after we returned home, we, well, I was discharged at Fort, we came in on the boat to Camp Killmore, then we were separated and sent down to, those who were from the part of the country that I came from, Fort Bragg, for a discharge. Then, my sister who did not go overseas, two of us went overseas. The one that, we met up with her at Fort Bragg, she had been in the hospital there and I know they kept her there until we, I think they wanted to discharge us together.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, that's nice.

Essie Woods:

So, we were discharged together and went home together.

Sarah E. McLennan:

OK, so you were with one of your sisters, though, the whole time you were overseas.

Essie Woods:

Overseas. In a different company. They would not allow us to be in one company, but they, we were in different companies, and then finally, when we went down to Paris and we were finishing out, they put us in the same company.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, that must have been pretty exciting to be in Paris?

Essie Woods:

Yes, I enjoyed that. The only thing I drove my sister and my friends crazy, because I would go outside myself exploring and they would be worried to death about me, but I found you're not a stranger anyplace you go. And, I wasn't a fluent French person, but I learned to make people understand me, I was broken French, but they understood where I was coming from. So, I didn't have a problem. But I just liked to explore those old cathedrals and all those places and I never felt alone, but I drove them nuts.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Worrying about you, hey?

Essie Woods:

Yes.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, wow! Yea, Paris is a gorgeous city.

Essie Woods:

We went back for a reunion in '83 and things were, oh, it was just so different from what, places just change so fast. We went back to Luan and Paris, and we went down to, we went to Birmingham, oh, we just had a lovely time in Birmingham. The mayor, the city, and also the staff they just took us over and gave us a great time. So we went through an experience. We retraced our steps and it was, that was interesting.

Sarah E. McLennan:

That's really neat. Did many of your company, were they able to come back?

Essie Woods:

No, it was, I guess it was about, it must have been about 12 of us, so, but we didn't get, out of the 800 people, you know.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right. Was there a lot of destruction in Paris when you were there?

Essie Woods:

Oh, terrible, now LeHarve was the worst place I'd ever seen. That's when it really hit me. When we landed in LeHarve, we were going over to, that's when we were going over to Rouen. And, to see a whole city leveled, just leveled, it was just heartbreaking, so that really, you know, got to us when we saw that. The other places, was mostly in spots, and then the people, the bare necessities that we took for granted, they didn't have. And they were so grateful that we gave it to them, just our rations, you know, and I found that. The group that I was supervising in the mail room, I had a half table of French people and half table, when we got to France, the French people worked and that's when I learned a lot about how they were suffering. They would tell you about their circumstances.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Yea that's too bad! So, what was the highest rank that you had? ESSIE: Now, I didn't get any above, any farther than Staff Sergeant.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Oh, OK.

Essie Woods:

Now, I can't complain. They gave me an opportunity to advance, but it was my wishes.

Sarah E. McLennan:

It was your choice.

Essie Woods:

I didn't want to be an officer. That was one thing I did not want to be. Our black officers were having too many problems. And then, another thing about it, I'm a firm believer of not abandoning my friends.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right, yea.

Essie Woods:

And, I had made steadfast friends. When you make friends in the Army they're just like bonds. And those were some of the things that I didn't, I have never aspired to be really anything. They always called me the lazy type. I really didn't want to be the Staff Sergeant. But, they say, OK, you go to work. So, I don't know, maybe that's the, I mean it's the same way I am in civilian life. They claim that my husband used to say, "You're just plain lazy." I never, I don't know why, I didn't want to ever be the top of anything, but I know they made me work, you know, because they said, you're going to work and they put me to work. And, I feel I don't refuse because I feel that you shouldn't if you, and I do a lot of volunteer work now, you know, because, I know that that isn't right, but I have never been the kind to initiate doing anything.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, did you keep in touch with some of the friends you made in the service?

Essie Woods:

Yes, now we have, I belong to, when I came to Detroit I have one friend that passed a couple of months ago, she was in, overseas, we weren't friends then, we knew each other in passing, but we met her here and we became friends and we joined some of the things as a group and my sister and I who came to Detroit, we stuck with them. Then there was several other girls in the group that was sent overseas with us, but we are going pretty fast now. Last month, I think, a couple of months ago, we lost three World War II veterans. See, we're all in our 80's. Our time is running out.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, how did you end up in Detroit, then, was that shortly after you got out?

Essie Woods:

When we came back, I think everybody, I think after you've been away from home, you want a change. Augusta is a nice sized town, but you are limited, you either had to go into teaching, or you had to go into, we had an insurance company, a black insurance company there, you either worked there, the Pilgrims Insurance Company. Those were the things, you were so limited, until we decided, my youngest sister, we were overseas together, we decided, "oh, let's go some other place." We had an uncle here. We wanted to go to New York, but my mother said, "No, you're going where your uncle is." That's why we winded up in Michigan. We would have preferred to go on the East Coast, but I'm glad we did come here, but we obviously like Detroit.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Detroit is a pretty good town.

Essie Woods:

We came here in, I think, it was February of'46 and we've been here, we've stayed here ever since.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, how do you feel about your experience overall.

Essie Woods:

I think it was a very good thing, a very good thing. There were a lot of things I didn't like but a lot of things that the good outweighed the bad. I think things have improved, with the younger generation, they have told me that, I belong to one black organization, and those young, those girls, as far as black is concerned, it's just amazing how they have achieved those things that we were not able to because we didn't want, well, we were just hindered because of our color, let's face it. But, the girls today, I know we went to one reunion, and the girls, they were, oh, they were just bending over backwards to wait on us and the ladies. And at the last day they had a program with all their ranks and here was all these majors, lieutenants, colonels, and what not, that we had been calling by their first name and ordering around all day, so we said, "Oh, why didn't you tell us?" And they said "Oh, no, you all deserved everything we did for you." So, I find that now with the girls that belong to, we still belong to the group, they are very, they are really not carried away with what they have achieved, their feet is on the ground. And I tell them, I say "Keep that, and know where you are going and don't get, remember where you came from." So, they are experiencing things that we never heard of.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, they had limits on the ranks you could obtain and things like that because?

Essie Woods:

Pardon?

Sarah E. McLennan:

They had limits on like the rank that you could have and the things that you could do because of your race?

Essie Woods:

Well, it was, we know why it was that way they would not give us, even when our battalion was asked for things, they would not give it to us and we understood.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right. But you knew.

Essie Woods:

But, we came from an era that the young people today would not understand. We expected it, it wasn't, we knew, but we knew we had to do the best, be the best we could be in order to prove ourselves.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Right.

Essie Woods:

And that's what we strived for.

Sarah E. McLennan:

And it sounds like people have been doing even more, like, on and on, so -

Essie Woods:

Yes, we've come a long way, definitely. The young people have really, and the only thing I tell them to remember where you came from and where you're going. That's the main thing to remember. Don't take it for granted.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Definitely. So, would you serve again, if you had the chance to do it again?

Essie Woods:

Yes, I really value that experience. I think it was an experience in life you really needed, for various reasons. It makes you a better person to understand human beings and it makes you dedicated to do something for someone else beside yourself. You supposed to share and think about the people and not yourself and not be so self-centered. I think all those things you learn when you experience that kind of life.

Sarah E. McLennan:

So, what do you think about the future of women in military, more women in combat?

Essie Woods:

Now, that's where I have a problem. I don't think, and I know it's gonna be necessary because women might have to defend and be strong, but I just wonder are women prepared under stress in combat, but they say they are doing beautiful and the fellows do not complain. They say the girls, the women are doing good but I do have a problem with it. I just wonder when they leave little kids to be a part of that dangerous experience, is it fair to the child, because losing a mother is something I think, that is detrimental to a child. And that's where I think if you are going to raise a family, I don't think you should. And, I know that some of them when they go in, they are not married, it happens after they're in, but I do have a problem with younger children not being, being without their mother and the dangers a mother is being exposed to.

Sarah E. McLennan:

Definitely. Well, that's pretty much all that I have as far as things that I wanted to talk about, but do you have anything else that you want to add or elaborate on?

Essie Woods:

No. I don't think there's anything else I could add to it.

Sarah E. McLennan:

OK, OK.

 
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