Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Clara Margaret Fort, July 17, 1985

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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KELLY: I'm in Frankfort, Kentucky. It's July the 17th, 1985. I'm in the home of Clara Margaret Fort, a retired lieutenant commander who entered the WAVEs -- that is a women's branch of the Navy -- in World War . . . during World War Two. She entered in September . . . or she was sworn in September of 1943, and entered in November of 1943. She spent eight years on active duty, and she has a total service of 23 years and 8 months of active duty and reserve time. She enlisted for one year and then she went to the Officers Candidate School and was commissioned. Margaret, back in 1943, I guess you were a young lady and somehow or other, something caused you to go into the 00:01:00woman's service in the Navy, called WAVEs. What caused you to make that big decision?

FORT: Well, I was . . . had been teaching school . . . teaching physical ed in a private girls' school, and I decided I needed a change. So my brother in Chicago went into the recruiting office and asked for information for joining the WAVEs. It kind of startled them, [chuckle] but he told them it was for his sister. So my family [cough] were more in favor of it than I was, and they then encouraged me to do it. So I enlisted and was not . . . I wanted to go in as an officer, but the recruiting office quota was filled, so I was 00:02:00taken in as an enlisted. Went to North . . . to Hunter College in New York City for my recruit training for three weeks and was promoted to petty officer 3rd class after three weeks and started training the recruits. So they . . . I was at Hunter College for three . . . let's see, from Novem- . . . about four months, from November until March. Then I was suddenly transferred to Portsmouth, Virginia, to the Norfolk Navy Yard. And they were opening new barracks for the enlisted corpsmen, WAVE corpsmen, and I was [cough] master-at-arms for that 00:03:00barracks. And when I was interviewed by the WAVE representative, her first question, as she looked at my record, she says, "Why aren't you an officer?" [Chuckle] And the . . .

KELLY: Is that because you had a degree and . . .

FORT: Yes. See, I had two degrees. I had a master's degree from New York University, a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Kentucky. And [cough] so she started laying the groundwork right then for me to become an officer. And I never knew what it was [chuckle] like to be treated so kindly and having things . . . well, being given credit for things that I had never recognized before. And in . 00:04:00. . well, let's see, it was . . . in Oct-. . . no, it was in September of that year, so it was from March until September that she laid the groundwork and I was master-at-arms in charge of 78 WAVEs, enlisted corpsmen. And then I taught swimming on the side. And I was . . . she asked me to apply for Officer Candidate School and I was granted . . . I was . . . that came through in September, I think. Oh, I was promoted to a petty officer 2nd class. That was a shore patrolman or a master-at-arms. And went to Northampton, 00:05:00Massachusetts, to Smith College for nine weeks training, was reduced to apprentice seaman again, then midshipman, and then commissioned to an ensign on the 24th of October, '44. Then I was transferred to Corpus Christi, Texas, to the air station as a welfare officer and was put in charge of an enlisted men's . . . or . . . well, an enlisted service personnel recreation center. We had a wing for the white 00:06:00people and we had a wing for the colored people. Of course, that was back in the days when . . . well, black people now . . . they call them now. [Chuckle] But . . . and my office was in the center of the "L." We had a restaurant and it served snacks and food, ice cream, and I was in charge of entertainment. People . . . civilians could come in through the sentry into the building and not enter the base. And then the enlisted personnel could come into the building without leaving the base. So it was just an entertainment center there. And I did that and then eventually took on being . . . the 00:07:00riding stables we had there. I think some of the officers had horses and that's how the stables got started. I received a spot promotion to lieutenant j.g., and then it was a permanent promotion a little later on. And was released from active duty in February of '47. Was out for a year and a half, went on training duty at Great Lakes for . . . well, I went with the surface division in Lexington, attending drills 00:08:00once a week, keeping up my reserve [status]. And then went to training duty at Great Lakes. One of the officers there [cough] later called me in and gave me extended active duty for nine months. There I was in charge of the . . . I think it was called Pammy. We sent out the Naval Reserve book . . . bulletin once a month to all the reservists in ten states. And I had . . . it was the addressograph section, and we had to keep the current addresses of all these reservists, both 00:09:00officers and enlisted. I had thirty civilian workers under me. And I had one who gave me considerable trouble, [chuckle] but [cough] she had, she had lost her son in a submarine accident and she was almost a nervous wreck. And . . .

KELLY: What year was this?

FORT: This was '4- . . . let me think . . .

KELLY: After the war?

FORT: Yes. It was '4-. . . June of '49. No, it was November of '49 to June of '50, I think it was. I can get those exact dates.

KELLY: That's all right.

FORT: And then I was out again and went back with the surface division 00:10:00in Lexington where I was personnel officer and administrative assistant. I just had numerous jobs. I was the only WAVE among 100 . . . 200 men. [Chuckle] And . . .

KELLY: About what year was this now?

FORT: That was . . .

KELLY: Early '50s?

FORT: Yeah. From '50 to '5- . . . no, I'm . . .

KELLY: Well, I was just trying to get the general area of the time period.

FORT: Yeah.

KELLY: You were in that duty four or five years there at . . .

FORT: Yes. I was just trying to think when I went back . . . no, I was just out a year and a half and then I was called back . . . must 00:11:00have gotten . . .

KELLY: Were you called back during the Korean War?

FORT: Yes, because I was called back in November of '50. That was it. November of '50, I went back . . . went to Washington, D.C., and was there until '54.

KELLY: What'd you do in Washington, D.C.?

FORT: Well, I had . . . was with the Reserve Officer Record Briefing Board, and we briefed all of the officer records for promotion. Had that for two years and then went to receiving station at Arlington Barracks where I was information and education officer for the whole Washington area. And gave the GED test and then helped people that 00:12:00were going to night schools to get . . . further their education and for any of the enlisted to advance . . . you know, to get their advancement rating. And then I was released to inactive duty in '50, '54, I think it was. Then I went with . . . came back to the Reserve Center in Lexington and was in and out of pay status. Again, I was the only WAVE officer, or the only woman officer, on the station. 00:13:00And I was . . . gave . . . administered the GED tests and was education officer. Training duty there. And then I would go to Norfolk once a year for my two weeks active duty.

KELLY: What year did you retire?

FORT: Well, let's see.

KELLY: Was it in the '70s?

FORT: No, I think it was sixty, '68.

KELLY: Sixty-eight.

FORT: And then . . . see, I was over age and grade. So they tried everything they could to keep me on [chuckle], because I was a worker 00:14:00and I got all the personnel records very well up-to-date, you know. Then I retired with pay in '72 when I was 60.

KELLY: You retired before the . . . I guess, before the major reemphasis on women's roles in the services . . .

FORT: Oh, yes.

KELLY: . . . in the late '70s, didn't you? You didn't get involved in that. [Cough] As a, as a female, during that period that you were in the service, did you feel like that they were taking advantage of your talents and utilizing you? Or did you feel some discrimination? Or were 00:15:00you aware of that or conscious of that in any way?

FORT: Oh, yes. I . . .

KELLY: You felt like the women were not really having their day?

FORT: We . . . no, we weren't in that time. And . . .

KELLY: Did you all talk about that among your . . . the women officers? Or you weren't around too many of them, were you?

FORT: Well, I wasn't around too many women officers. I was more or less isolated wherever I was, in the duty that I had, and not in much contact with the others.

KELLY: Did you feel discriminated upon?

FORT: Yes, I did.

KELLY: Starting back during the war or all through your tour or . . .

FORT: Well, through . . . well, there was one particular instance in Texas. I was tak- . . . and when I was with the recreation center, I had enlisted men working for me, and there was one man, he was a 00:16:00petty officer 3rd class, I think, who had a restaurant in town. And, of course, he was the petty officer in charge of the restaurant on the base. And money was going out, food was going out, everything was . . . they were just taking it, carting it all to town. And I was put in there to straighten things out. [Chuckle] So they were determined to get rid of me. And . . .

KELLY: "They" being the persons who were taking the food?

FORT: The personnel in charge. And I had a receptionist. She was inviting everybody to have free meals on the center. And I found that out and put a stop to it, so she eventually resigned. And then I had 00:17:00been in charge two months when I got a load . . . a shipment of paper cups from the ship service officer. And they just brought them in, stacked them up, and I refused . . . I said I refused them. And I called the ship service officer and asked him to take them back. And he said, "No." He wouldn't take them back, that they were ordered and we were going to keep them. And it, of course, put me $5,000 in debt at the end of the year. Caused quite a bit of a stir. Of course, I was terribly upset about it.

KELLY: Was that . . . were they ordered before you got there or something?

FORT: No, no. It was done after. And it took me two years to get rid of that supply. [Chuckle]

KELLY: This was during the war now, wasn't it? Part of the war?

FORT: Yes, this was in '44.


KELLY: During that . . . during those war years, your . . . what were . . . what was your contact with the men of war, men that had been out in naval . . . were you having . . . were you, your awareness of the war effort and . . .

FORT: Well, we had a prisoner-or-war camp right in back of my recreation center. And . . .

KELLY: German prisoners mostly?

FORT: No, they . . . I didn't have much contact with them, but . . . and then, of course, I would have a few people come in to the center who had been prisoners of war. And they would tell . . . you know, 00:19:00talk to me and tell me some of their experiences, but that's, that's about the only contact I had with . . . I mean, I was just . . .

KELLY: The enlisted men, do you feel like they treated you as they would a male officer? Or do you feel like that there was a different treatment, a different relationship, generally speaking?

FORT: Well, they didn't have too much respect for us.

KELLY: That is . . . you're talking about the enlisted men now?

FORT: The enlisted men.

KELLY: And, and what do you mean by that?

FORT: Well, they would. . .

KELLY: Didn't think a woman should be an officer, is that what you're saying? Or . . .

FORT: No, it wasn't . . . well, ah, yes I guess you might say that was it. They would just have more respect for a man, male officer, and take their authority over a woman officer.


KELLY: Do you think they resented work- . . . did you have some male enlisted person working for you?

FORT: Oh, I had all male enlisted.

KELLY: Did they . . . do you think there was resentment because you were a female boss?

FORT: I definitely feel that.

KELLY: To what extent did you feel that? And can you elaborate on it just a little?

FORT: No, [chuckle] I won't elaborate, because it was so unpleasant at times.

KELLY: It was very . . .

FORT: Yeah.

KELLY: Was that kind of a continued thing or just periodically?

FORT: Oh, no, it . . . I had some pretty rough [cough] treatment with some of my enlisted. And our . . . my WAVE officer came to me and wanted to know whether I wanted to be transferred. And I said, "Well, I have never admitted defeat before and I wanted to fight it out."


KELLY: And you stuck it out. And you kept the ship afloat and . . .

FORT: I got things straightened out.

KELLY: . . . and kept it on an even course in spite of the handicap that you felt that you had?

FORT: Oh, yes. And I was there two . . . a little better than two and a half years. And in a year's time I got it straightened out, you know, on a paying basis [coughing-Kelly] and was accepted, but that first year was [chuckle] . . .

KELLY: Was rough.

FORT: . . . plenty rough.

KELLY: On your social life, were you going to socialize with . . . were there other women officers there that you could associate with or were you kind of out there in the wilderness?

FORT: Well, I was out there in the wilderness. And I was working ten and twelve hours a day, because I . . . as long as I was at the 00:22:00center, things went all right, but the minute I left [chuckle] . . .

KELLY: You spent a lot of time at the center?

FORT: I just spent all my time there.

KELLY: Well, did you have opportunities for recreation yourself?

FORT: Not much. Not much during the first year. Of course, after . . .

KELLY: After you got it straightened out or . . .

FORT: No, after they dropped the bomb. [Chuckle]

KELLY: The atomic bomb?

FORT: The atomic bomb.

KELLY: In Japan.

FORT: Then, then things got easier. And, of course, we didn't have as many people on the base and my work was a whole lot easier.

KELLY: What was the name of the base?

FORT: Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.

KELLY: Naval Air Station.

FORT: Yeah. See, it was the largest air station . . . well, I think it was the largest air station at that time.

KELLY: That recreation facility there, how many people are we talking 00:23:00about that took advantage of it on, say, a daily basis?

FORT: Oh, . . .

KELLY: You talking about hundreds or . . .

FORT: . . . two or three hundred in there.

KELLY: A day? Constantly?

FORT: Yeah. I mean we were open ten hours a day.

KELLY: How many . . . how big a staff did you have?

FORT: I had . . . well, let's see, I had about eight, I think. Of course, I had a crew . . . a morning crew and then an evening crew.

KELLY: Were some of them women or all of them men?

FORT: Well, they were all men for a long time. Did have, I did have one enlisted WAVE for a short time, but that was after the atomic bomb.

KELLY: After they dropped the nuke. When the war ended, were you there at Corpus Christi? It ended August the 16th, I think, or 17th, 1945.

FORT: Oh. Well, I was there until '47.


KELLY: Yeah. What did you do on that day the war ended, or how did you receive the news?

FORT: I don't know. I just [chuckle] . . . it was another workday, I think.

KELLY: Did somebody just announce to you . . .

FORT: Yeah, we just announced it.

KELLY: Was there a big celebration there at the club?

FORT: Yes, they did have a big celebration. I don't remember just what that was. Our biggest celebration . . . or maybe that was the time . . . no, we had . . . everybody was confined to the base and they put on a big carnival. We had a recreation officer who was quite a promoter. And he was an aviator and . . .

KELLY: Was he your boss?

FORT: No, he was just one of the other welfare workers. I had a 00:25:00commander as a boss.

KELLY: Was he male?

FORT: Yeah. There were only . . . on our welfare staff, there were only another WAVE officer and myself. And then there were, I think, three men. Of course, I was an ensign and I had a lieutenant over me. Joe [Shoe?] was lieutenant j.g. He was an aviator. And then I think there was another officer, and then I had a full commander as the welfare officer, John [Hampton?]. And . . .

KELLY: Your relationship with your boss, was that a satisfactory arrangement or was there some tensions there because . . . did you feel that there was some discrimination between your boss and you and 00:26:00the other . . .

FORT: No, there was . . . now, the WAVE officer over me kind of discriminated against me. And she would . . . of course, they were up in the main building and, you see, I was way down at the opposite end of the station. So I didn't have too much contact with them, but she would assign me things . . . well, there was one project . . . I had to write the history of the welfare department, and then she took full credit for it. Things like that.

KELLY: Didn't appreciate that . . .

FORT: Of course, that just . . .

KELLY: . . . someone stole your thunder, yeah.

FORT: Yeah.

KELLY: So I mean, there was no tension there between the sexes. That's just . . .

FORT: No, it was just . . .

KELLY: It's a boss, . . .

FORT: . . . just . . .

KELLY: . . . yeah, which happens occasionally and . . .

FORT: It happens and she . . . other people were getting spot promotions and she kind of held my spot promotion, but I finally, I 00:27:00finally got it. But . . . no, there . . . they . . . the officers in Corpus Christi accepted the women, I think, a whole lot better than they did when I worked in Washington.

KELLY: You're talking about the male officers?

FORT: Yes, the male officers.

KELLY: What was, your association with them, was it a pleasant setting there? You know, your off-duty time now, with the club and so on and so forth, was that an enjoyable part of your tour or . . .

FORT: Well, not especially. I mean I . . . as I say, I worked such long hours that I didn't have much time . . . of course, after the riding stables . . . I took over that, I did do considerable riding and that was my main recreation.


KELLY: Had you had experience in riding before or stable . . .

FORT: Oh, yes.

KELLY: . . . tending horses, and you got the job?

FORT: Yes. Uh-huh. Oh, yes. I had . . . see, I was a physical ed teach- . . . a physical ed major, and so . . .

KELLY: So you were . . . your skills were taken advantage of in putting you in the recreation . . . your civilian training . . .

FORT: Well, yes and no. [Chuckle] I would have preferred another assignment, but I didn't get it, so I just made the best of what I, of what I was given and . . .

KELLY: Was the racial harmony pretty good there in that . . . during your tour or was it . . .

FORT: Yes. I had blacks on my staff. Of course, I had always . . .


KELLY: But they did . . . they had the recreation facilities segregated at that particular time. They had the blacks . . .

FORT: Yes.

KELLY: . . . on one side of the building.

FORT: Blacks on . . . it was an L-shaped building, and the blacks had one wing and the whites had the other wing. And my office was right in the center. And they each had a counter that they could get the food from, or whatever they wanted. And we had activities for both the blacks and the whites. And, no, the relationship was very good down there. And, of course, hav- . . . my having had black . . . well, they weren't servants, but we had had black people working for us in the home, you know, just part-time. So I had no difficulty getting along with them at all.


KELLY: You mean in your quarters?

FORT: No, I mean in my home before I went into the service.

KELLY: Before you went into the service?

FORT: Yes. Umhmm. So, no, I had no difficulty with their . . .

KELLY: Did you live on the base while you were there?

FORT: Oh, yes. I lived in the officers' quarters and made a few friends in Corpus Christi, but . . . and I dated a few of the aviators there, but I didn't have much time for socializing.

KELLY: Looking back on your service, how would you evaluate it?

FORT: It was the best thing in the world for me. [Chuckle]

KELLY: It was a good thing.

FORT: Yeah. And . . . no, I was a very shy . . . well, I still 00:31:00am a shy person and very quiet and reserved, and it helped me. It helped me a great deal. I made many good friends in the service and still keep in touch with some of them. And, of course, when I was in Washington, it being a crossroads [chuckle], anyone that had known me before would look me up when they came to Washington, so . . .

KELLY: Where were you working in Washington? You're talking about Washington, D.C., now, I assume.

FORT: Yes, Washington, D.C. Now, I lived in . . . I had an apartment in Arlington, just across from Fort Meyer. And then I . . .


KELLY: This was in the '50s now, early '50s?

FORT: Yeah, in the '50s.

KELLY: During the Korean War.

FORT: Umhmm. And I had much more social life in Washington than I did either in Texas or in Great Lakes.

KELLY: Cultural center of the USA for sure, isn't it?

FORT: [Laughs] Yeah.

KELLY: Lot of things going on there. Well, I guess I'm trying to see the women's liberation movement, and a person in the service . . . are you . . . are you. . .this is beginning while you're still in . . . on active . . . or still in the reserves, isn't it, where there's a movement, you know, for equal pay, for equal work, and so on 00:33:00and so forth. That started while you were still on ac- . . . or in the reserves, active in the reserves?

FORT: Yeah. I was more or less on the end of the pioneering work of the women in the service.

KELLY: Were the women in the service . . . were . . . would they . . . would you classify them as sort of women's liberation-oriented and maybe earlier than the general population, or can you speak for them?

FORT: Well, I don't think it was . . . I mean we were just beginning to take over and, you know, be allowed to do things that . . . we just were [cough] . . .

KELLY: Things that men were doing?

FORT: Yeah. Well, actually we were taking over and relieving men. We 00:34:00were taking desk jobs to relieve men for active duty . . . I mean for . . .

KELLY: Combat duty?

FORT: . . . combat duty. Umhmm. And they found that [cough] that we were better at deskwork than the men were.

KELLY: This is when you're . . . are you talking about the period when you're in Washington, D.C., or you . . .

FORT: Well, that was . . .

KELLY: Later.

FORT: . . . it was before, and then it began . . . I mean it was getting much more prominent and we were beginning to be recognized along in the '50s. But before that, it . . . there wasn't too much recognition. They would just put duties on you that nobody else wanted. [Chuckle]

KELLY: The women . . . the treatment of the women in the service, you 00:35:00think, started improving in the '50s, is what you're saying.

FORT: Oh, yes. It was . . .

KELLY: And the attitude toward them.

FORT: The attitude toward them was much improved in the '50s.

KELLY: Did that continue through the '60s, too?

FORT: Well, you see, I wasn't on active duty in the '60s.

KELLY: You were in the reserves, though.

FORT: I was in the reserves. And as I say, I was the only [interference] only, woman with all the men at the unit. And . . .

KELLY: Did that create problems for you or was it . . .

FORT: No, I had no prob-. . .

KELLY: It was a harmonious . . .

FORT: Oh, they treated me wonderfully there. And I had very good commanding officers, all of them. And with some, they were commanding officers on two different tours. So . . . and I still keep in touch 00:36:00with some of them, and if there's any big activity in Lexington, I'm always notified and given preferential treatment. [Chuckle]

KELLY: Still involved in . . .

FORT: Oh, yeah.

KELLY: . . . the retirees' activities, is that what you're saying?

FORT: They . . . yes. Of course, I'm a life member of the Reserve Officers Association, and also a life member of the Navy League of America. And so anytime there's an occasion . . . well, they had one . . . it was last October, we had . . . a commodore from the Intelligence Department came down, and there was a big dinner, big dinner party.

KELLY: So you're still reaping some social benefits from your . . .


FORT: A little bit, yes.

KELLY: . . . service connections?

FORT: Umhmm. And, of course, I . . . if I was . . . I had somebody to go with, I could attend more of them, but living here in Frankfort . . . most of the activity is in Lexington, you see, and I just don't feel like going by myself. So I don't attend . . . oh, maybe once a year there will be some function.

KELLY: On the current situation for women in the service, do you feel like that there's been major improvement for them from what it was?

FORT: Oh, definitely! Definitely! I mean I feel out of place [chuckle] now, because it's so far advanced compared to what it was when I was on active duty.

KELLY: Can you give me some examples of the difference . . . 00:38:00significant differences?

FORT: No, I can't think of anything in particular, except that they . . . of course, I can remember when the first WAVE officer was promoted to commander, full commander. And that was when I was at Corpus Christi. And that was quite an occasion. And then . . .

KELLY: Do you know who she was?

FORT: Yeah, that was [Bess Dunne].

KELLY: Where was she from?

FORT: She was from California.

KELLY: [Cough] That was a big thing for the women of the corps . . . of the WAVEs? Or was it a big thing in the Navy in general?

FORT: No, it was a big thing for us at Corpus Christi.

KELLY: I mean are you talking about the first woman that was made full commander in the service, or are you talking about just at that 00:39:00location?

FORT: At that location.


FORT: And then, of course, when Joy Hancock was promoted to captain, she was the first WAVE officer that was promoted to captain. And . . .

KELLY: In the whole Navy?

FORT: Yes.

KELLY: Where was she from?

FORT: I think . . . now, I really don't know.

KELLY: Was this during the . . . World War Two or after the war?

FORT: No, I think . . . I think that was, that was when I was in Washington. It was in the '50s.

KELLY: In the '50s?

FORT: Uh-huh.

KELLY: So it was a long time before you got someone equal to the rank of full colonel then.

FORT: Oh, yes. And now . . .

KELLY: Now, you've got the general and the admirals.

FORT: Yeah. Now we've got . . . I think there are two commodores, so 00:40:00. . .

KELLY: That's equivalent to a brigadier general in the Army.

FORT: Umhmm.

KELLY: I met General Hoyt, the first woman flag rank officer. I guess she was promoted in the Army in the late '60s. Well, would you . . . to young women, the next generation, would you think it would be a good thing for them to have a tour in the service? Would you recommend it?

FORT: Definitely. Definitely! I've talked as many as I can into the service. And . . .

KELLY: Successfully here?

FORT: Well, not successfully, but I have promoted it in every way I can when I'm talking with young people.


KELLY: For the . . . looking at it from the point of the individual or from the service point of view, or both?

FORT: Well, both. And, of course, I want well qualified people to go in. I don't want just, just anybody and everybody. And I let them know that if they can accept discipline, they'll get along and have a wonderful experience and . . .

KELLY: Opportunities.

FORT: . . . opportunities and advancement. And that it's very well worthwhile. But if they cannot accept discipline, then don't try it.

KELLY: What would . . . to sort of summarize what you got out of it, what are the benefits of having been in it, in the service during the 00:42:00war and after the war and then the reserves? I guess self-discipline is one.

FORT: Yes, self-discipline, and meeting and mingling with all types of people and learning to accept their ideas and . . .

KELLY: Tolerance, so to speak?

FORT: Yeah. Be tolerant and understanding of other people and to help them to try to do, try to do the right thing for the country.


KELLY: Is there anything else that you can think of that we ought to get on here for the record?


KELLY: Your feelings and . . .

FORT: I just . . . as I say, I'm very grateful for the . . .

KELLY: Experiences?

FORT: . . . experiences. And it helped me to grow up and to be independent and to accept things as they came and make the best of it.

KELLY: Who were your mother and father?

FORT: My father was Dr. Robert M. Fort, an optometrist here in Frankfort. And my mother was Florence Ermine Fort. And she was very active in the Garden Club and Women's Club and the library.


KELLY: I appreciate your sharing this information with me. Thank you very much, Margaret.

[End of Interview]