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Interview with Katharine Laughton [04/24/2004]

Erin Bird:

Today is May 24, 2004, and this is the beginning of an interview with Rear Admiral Katharine Laughton at LaPlata High School. Admiral Laughton is 61 having been born on December 9, 1942. My name is Erin Byrd and I'll be the interviewer.

Erin Bird:

Admiral Laughton, could you, could you state for the recording what war and branch of service you served in, what was your rank, and where did you serve.

Katharine Laughton:

I was, of course, on active duty during Vietnam. At that time, though, we did not send line officers, and that's what I was in the Navy, line officer into in-country Vietnam. However, I was on recruiting during that period and also spent a lot of time in Washington during that period. The importance of recruiting duty was, of course, sometimes we felt we should have had hazardous pay as well. It was a really tough time to be on active duty for a number of reasons. The second was during the Gulf War in 1991. I had command of all of the communications facilities, Naval facilities worldwide, including the portable vans that we put in the desert, and so I spent a lot of time in that part of the world before, during, and after the Gulf War. That was also an interesting period of time because being a woman and having that kind of responsibility, I was not universally accepted by everybody in that part of the world, but it was a wonderful time to be there.

Erin Bird:

Now, you enlisted, correct?

Katharine Laughton:

I enlisted in what we called the women's officer candidate program when I was a junior -- excuse me, (clears throat) -- a junior in college and was sent to the first eight weeks of women's officer school, that's what we called it in those days. The advantage of that was my senior year I went back to school and then was commissioned upon graduation.

Erin Bird:

Do you recall your first days in the service?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, yes; oh, yes. In fact, I'll tell you a little story, if I might.

Erin Bird:

Okay.

Katharine Laughton:

I had started my college experience at Vassar and knew a young man back there, and my father was ill so I transferred back to the University of California, and he had invited me to come and spend time at Martha's Vineyard for the summer between my junior and senior year of college, and I wanted very much to go, and my father said, "You can come home and work, you can come home and not work, but if you think I'm going to pay for you to traipse around the East Coast all summer, you're crazy." So along came a Navy recruiter and offered me eight wonderful weeks in Newport, Rhode Island, and I'd get paid besides, a whole 34 dollars every two weeks, so this sounded like a pretty good deal. Well, needless to say it was not a summer vacation, but I learned that there was something more that I could do rather than teach school, which is what I was probably headed for.

Erin Bird:

Now, by signing up for this eight week class, did that mean you had to go in the Navy after you graduated?

Katharine Laughton:

No. It was purely voluntary, but the importance was that we, we could count that senior year as inactive service, and at that time, military pay was not very good. My base pay at that time was 220, 250 a month and then we got a big pay raise to 240, but having that whole year count helped me to make a little bit more of a living wage; plus I, I was commissioned upon graduation and then went back to complete my training, so I had a jump on some of the other people who had decided to come in right after; but you have to remember, at that time we only had 500 women officers, line officers on active duty. Of course, there were many more nurses, but.

Erin Bird:

Do you remember any of your instructors?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, yes; oh, yes. I certainly do. And, in fact, I stay in touch with a couple of them. Many of them, of course, are no longer living, but Julie Dilorenzo I'll never forget because she would say, "Now, ladies," and she would bounce on her very high heels and I never forgot that experience with her.

Erin Bird:

Now, once out of college where exactly did you go?

Katharine Laughton:

After I finished my, my training in Newport I was then assigned to Moffitt Field in California which was a really nice place to be. I had been trained as a communicator at that point, so I was the assistant communications officer, and it also meant that I spent a lot of time in the comm center when my boss didn't want to be there. So, but it was a good deal because we were transitioning the aviation squadrons from PTVs to P3s and so when I wanted to get a break, I could get myself signed on, illegally of course, but get myself signed on as a crew member to handle the communications aboard the aircraft and get a weekend in Hawaii out of it, so it wasn't too bad.

Erin Bird:

Now, how long were you in the service before Vietnam occurred?

Katharine Laughton:

Well, Vietnam really started with advisors, you know, in 1963, and of course, during the Kennedy administration there was a build-up of advisors, but I was probably about a year before we really started putting a lot of troops in there, and being a communicator, a lot of my responsibility was to take care of the aircraft that were flying over there and that kind of thing, so, and also some of the message traffic that we were handling at the time, of course, very sensitive communications traffic. So it was back during that time frame. And then, of course, I went to the staff of the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and then on to recruiting duty in '69 and that was really the height of Vietnam.

Erin Bird:

Do you have any memorable experiences from those times, maybe seeing newscasts or anything?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, yes. I had eight cars trashed during the time I was on recruiting duty. If you remember, there was tremendous antipathy toward military people, so we would go on college campuses and recruit and we had some pretty tough times doing that. As I say, I had eight, eight trashed during that period and I well remember the day we were on the campus of the, of the University of Kansas when Kent State occurred, of course, and the young students were killed by the National Guard. That was a pretty frightening time for us to be on recruiting duty. We were very exposed to the demonstrators and that kind of thing.

Erin Bird:

Your family was located in California?

Katharine Laughton:

Yes.

Erin Bird:

How did you stay in touch when you were in the military, in D.C.?

Katharine Laughton:

Mainly telephone. My father, of course, was so proud of me going in the Navy. Initially he was not very pleased about it, but at the time of his death, you would have thought it was his idea.

Erin Bird:

Had he been in the military?

Katharine Laughton:

Yes. He had been in the military in the last horse cavalry unit in the United States Army and, actually, his unit had fought in the Phillipines. So he was -- and he had always wanted to go to West Point but unfortunately had very poor eyesight so he wasn't able to go.

Erin Bird:

Did his being in the military influence you at all?

Katharine Laughton:

No, I really don't think so. It was such a fluke for me to go into the military. I didn't want to teach school, and at that time there was no such thing as women getting equal pay for equal work. All of the civil rights legislation had not been passed and so when I had an opportunity to get equal pay for equal work, even though the fields at that time, the career fields that we had were very, very limited, it was very appealing to me.

Erin Bird:

During all these times of, like, commotion, did you have anything that you did for good luck or any good luck charm?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, golly, I really don't think so, and I think primarily because, as I was very fond of telling young, young officers as I became more senior, I never had a career and what I meant by that was that at every point in my career, I was hitting such dramatic change that I couldn't anticipate. So I wouldn't have even known what to ask for, you know, but at the same time I was very fortunate because I worked for some very enlightened people who helped me along.

Erin Bird:

Did you know anybody who served in Vietnam?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, yes; oh, yes. In fact, it's, it's very difficult for me to look at that wall.

Erin Bird:

I understand. After Vietnam where were you assigned?

Katharine Laughton:

Well, after Vietnam I went to the Pentagon. I was the Navy's protocol officer, and that was kind of an exciting time to be in the Pentagon because the rules were really changing for women; and then I spent some time in Pensacola; and then in 1978 I was a part of the first group of women officers to be screened for command, which was really a new concept. That was after the all volunteer force came in and, of course, we didn't have enough women to make up the numbers we needed, so the military services had to open up new career fields, which meant we had command opportunity, and I was working for a rear admiral at the time who wanted me to go down to Canaveral and take command of the tracking ships and the Navy just -- everybody just went crazy over that because women didn't do that, but he pushed through and he told me -- he told the Navy that if I didn't work out he'd fire me in six months, and I was down there for three wonderful years and I had command of all of the tracking ships. We were very involved in the shuttle program. The first shuttle -- in fact, I have a wonderful picture of the Columbia on her first launch, which was the first shuttle launch, period, and a note from NASA and that's how I got in the space business, and so that was, that was a very exciting time for me, but as all exciting times end, they sent me back to Washington.

Erin Bird:

What did you do in Washington when you returned?

Katharine Laughton:

Well, when I returned to Washington, I -- golly, I have to think now, it's so many years ago. I was assigned to the new data automation command, which had just been established, and being a communicator, I never really thought about computers, but I, but I got retrained, retooled as they sometimes say, in computers, and so I spent a great deal of time in that -- in working with computers, and then I went on to the Navy IG, which the Inspector General business is fascinating business, and had a tour with the joint staff heading up a division there. I was one of the first women to have an actual division there on a joint staff, and then went on to my second command which was the data automation -- or which was the acquisition command. That was my one and only taste of acquisition. I really preferred to be operational; on to command of the data automation and computer command which, of course, I mentioned before in the Gulf War, and then was selected for flag officer and ended my career as commander naval space command.

Erin Bird:

Did you have to take a lot of schooling for computers?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, yes, but at that time computers were really odd ducks. There wasn't too much. There was a lot of schooling for computer science but I was really on the computer system side, so a lot of it was, even though the schools were sort of there, nothing like today. I mean, the media center would have been unheard of, but you really had to learn a lot on the job, through mistakes, and that can be a tough way, but it's also a good way to learn because when you make bad mistakes you don't do it again and we were all learning about computers in those days.

Erin Bird:

Did you feel privileged to be working in such an advanced field?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, yes; oh, yes. Absolutely. First of all, it was fun and it was exciting, but also it brought me into contact with some very forward-thinking people. My real mentor in those years was Admiral Jerry 0. Tuttle who is famous in and outside of circles for what he brought in terms of command and control and communications, and it allowed me, as I got more senior, to really modernize the way we went to war in terms of information warfare; so, you know, very, very exciting time.

Erin Bird:

Now, during the Cuban Gulf, could you tell me a little bit about your experiences then?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, the Gulf War?

Erin Bird:

Yes.

Katharine Laughton:

Yes. Well, of course, if you recall, it really started with Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait and we had -- I had, as I mentioned, I had command of all of the communications stations throughout the world, and we were very busy people at that point. I also had trailers, portable trailers that had to go into the desert in Saudi Arabia. So during the build-up, I, I spent a lot of time in that part of the world getting ready, of course, for the invasion. The interesting thing was I could not go into Saudi Arabia any further than Dhahran because at that time the Saudis didn't want any women in the joint command center in Riyad. That was both good news and bad news for me. The good news was I had some wonderful days in Baharan, which is a delightful country, when everybody else was in Riyad. The bad news was, of course, it was very frustrating for me but the Saudis had some very definite ideas about women and what women should and should not be doing, and so we had to respect their, their desires on that score. But I still was able to do my job, but it took me into -- and particularly in the planning phase, for example, in Diego Garcia, which is a very small island in the middle of the Indian ocean where we had the B52s flying out of, going over and planning with the Air Force and, fortunately, I had had joint staff experience, so I understood what other services' viewpoints were, and we were able to work it out very well.

Erin Bird:

When did you come to be in charge of the naval space center?

Katharine Laughton:

I took command of the navy space command in 1995 and, of course, I was the first woman to hold that position. I was also the first non-aviator, but I had a wonderful two years. My boss was a four star Air Force general out in Colorado Springs so I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth from Dobrin, where we were based, into the Springs, but it was a very exciting time from the space standpoint. We did a lot of, of course, a lot of highly classified space work, but a lot of it also was highly operational and we worked very hard the times I was in the Pentagon working for Admiral Tuttle to get space as a valuable communications asset on board the carriers and that kind of thing. We really did some exciting work to push that along in those days. Now, you know, E-mail, everybody is doing it but you have to remember, that wasn't the case then.

Erin Bird:

Right.

Katharine Laughton:

And so it was a wonderful time to be on the cusp, if you will, of change.

Erin Bird:

Did you meet any resistance during your career just because you were a woman?

Katharine Laughton:

Well, I think -- yes, yes, of course, but, but, but I think women in general met with resistance. The change between the time that I graduated and the time that I retired for women in this country was a tremendous change; and I will say that for the most part I believe the military, the Navy anyway, was much more forward thinking than the civilian world, and, and it's hard to imagine, but, for example, I was married in 1972 and at that time women just didn't get married and stay in the Navy. My husband was in the Navy and he'd just retired, and so there was some resistance there when I said I was going to stay on active duty, but it was minor, but the laws themselves were very restrictive. But as I say, that was not uncommon. I owned a house when we got married. We lived in Virginia, and I knew we were going to sell the house so I didn't bother to put his name on the deed, and when we went to settlement I found I couldn't sell the house, it was chattel property, belonged to him. So, I mean, when you tell stories like that, people say, "Oh, yeah, right," but that's really the way it was. I mean, you didn't -- we went through many years of reinterpreting the civil rights legislation as it applies to women and, of course, we're still not there. So the resistance, of course, was there but I, but I really think that once I proved myself technically competent, the resistance would melt away, but I had to work very, very hard, and I always said I had to be better than my counterpart. It wasn't enough just to be as good.

Erin Bird:

That's a good attitude. What did your husband do after he retired from the military?

Katharine Laughton:

He worked for awhile as a private pilot, and then he became a flight instructor, which is wonderful because he could pick up and go with me and he loved to fly, did a lot of carrier aviation and, of course, he is a World War II vet so I'm very proud of his service there, flew off of battle ships, as a matter of fact, but he was always very supportive of me and did the things that I hate to say a wife would do, but that was always an issue when I was coming up because we just didn't have that many women, much less married women, you know, and how do you perform those things, but he was always a trooper, always a trooper.

Erin Bird:

Did you meet in the Navy?

Katharine Laughton:

Uh-huh, we did. Met down in Norfolk.

Erin Bird:

When did you retire?

Katharine Laughton:

I retired from the Navy in 1997, and then I went to work for Mantech Corporation for Admiral Tuttle, but then my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in '98 so I became full-time caregiver, but I think the lessons that I learned in terms of organization have served me well. I'm very busy in the community, and I learned not to be fearful of new situations but to jump in and I -- another saying I used to say is, you know, if you put your best foot on the line every day and not get afraid, you can do just about anything. If you make a mistake, oh, well, but the worst thing you can do to yourself is not to try.

Erin Bird:

If you had the opportunity is there anything that you would do differently?

Katharine Laughton:

Oh, that's a tough question when you're looking over 34 years. I don't think so. I don't think so. I had a fun career. I really had a fun career, and a lot was given to me, but I like to think I also made a lot of opportunity for myself, and you know, it's, it's -- it was a grand 34 years.

Erin Bird:

Are you part of a veterans' or an officers' organization?

Katharine Laughton:

Yes. I'm a member of the Retired Officers Association, and while I don't participate too much because of my husband's health, I'm very proud of that association, and of course, I give up my time, just as I'm talking to you today, you know, whenever I am asked to do so. I enjoy it.

Erin Bird:

Did your military experience influence your thinking about war or military in general? Do you think the military has taken a new direction in this day and age?

Katharine Laughton:

Well, I think -- the biggest, the biggest thing I think that is important is that I believe that all men and women should give back to their country. Now, that doesn't mean everybody has to be in the military, but I'm one of those people that considers that kind of service to your country very important, and I worry, frankly, without a draft that we're concentrating more on what the service can do for the individual rather than that more altruistic sense, and I'll be honest about it, I would like to see the draft come back, but not a draft strictly for the military, but a draft for government service of some sort. I also think that women in the military and the whole issue of women in combat is, is not important. Women can do the jobs, women should be doing the jobs. We can't expect to be promoted and to, to be leaders if we're not, for one reason or another, going to do the work, do the heavy hauling if you will, and I understand the limitations, for example, with the Seals and with the, those kinds of units where it becomes very difficult from a, from a management standpoint, but I think we put up more barriers than we need to and I think we argue this issue in emotional terms rather than looking at it as a personnel issue, and how do you effectively use those minds. After all, women are more than 50 percent of this population. They do have some smarts.

Erin Bird:

Well, I definitely think you're a great proof of that, especially in the military.

Katharine Laughton:

Well, thank you, thank you.

Erin Bird:

Is there anything else you would like to cover that we haven't covered?

Katharine Laughton:

No. I would just, I would just say to the young women in this world, you know, that your biggest limitation is going to be yourself and don't ever let the two words "I can't" enter your vocabulary because you can, you can, if you want it badly enough, and it's very easy to say, oh, woe is me, this and that and the other getting in my way, but my boss had a wonderful saying and I, and I say this to anybody who wants to listen to me, what you have to do is take the attitude to lead, follow, or get out of the way and use that as your motto.

Erin Bird:

Thank you so much and it was a pleasure getting to talk to you.

Katharine Laughton:

Well, the pleasure was mine.

 
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