What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

An Adventure Despite Hard Times


Story by Paul Rogers

Mildred Chatalian is a resourceful woman, who took part in a variety of defense jobs, traveled to war-torn Europe, and received a great welcome as the first enlisted man's wife to arrive in Germany immediately after the war.

In my family, there was my grandmother, my mother, four sisters and a brother. My father died and we needed money, an income, so I didn't finish high school. I just tried to earn as much money as possible.

At that time because of the Depression, I worked as a maid on the East Side of Providence. I had one day off a week, which was Thursday, and my pay for the entire week was $2. I heard of a better job so I left there and I went to this other position, which was as a nursemaid. This job lasted, I guess for about two years. It didn't seem to be enough money so I got a job working in a laundry as a press operator. I worked for the Marvin Street Laundry and it was piece work and I think I got two cents per coat. These were waiter's coats or butcher's coats. At that time I met my husband, Harry, who was driving a laundry truck but for a different outfit.

When there was a lack of work in the laundry, I worked in a jewelry shop. I did soldering and I worked as a press operator, which was a very dangerous job. This required putting little tiny pieces of jewelry into a small jig to hold it while you pressed your foot against this weight which came down onto the jewelry and impressed a design of some sort. This was also piece work.

Jobs were so scarce at that time. I remember the flower shop, the California Flower Shop on Elmwood Avenue was just starting up. This was owned by an Italian family who made artificial flowers. Each morning you would go there to see if they needed workers, and there would be oh, maybe 50, 70 girls, women, waiting, trying to be picked for a job. You were lucky if you got picked because, as I said, it was very hard to get work in those days.

We were getting some information about the war, and as things went on it seemed to get closer and closer to our getting into the war. We began to notice different things that were happening. They were selling war bonds and they were starting to classify the men as to their draft status.

What were you doing at the time war broke out for the US?

Both my husband and I had been working at Dorrings, a manufacturer of shells, 50 mm shells I think they were. My husband used to make them from scratch, from bar stock, on the big machines. When they were done, I was one of the people that inspected. That's where we had been in '41.

Because my husband had not been born in the United States, he was considered an alien and his classification was 4C. He had to notify the Draft Board if he wanted to change his job. When the Draft Board found out that he had changed his job without permission, he was classified 1A. He had been getting these letters from the Draft Board on his reclassification and he had just ignored them. There was one that came that said "You will come to the Draft Board," and he ignored that one, too.

Well, they came and got him. I don't remember exactly except that he ended up at the train station. He called me at work and said, "They have me down at the train station. They tell me I have to go into the service. They're going to take me to Fort Devens. They gave me one bus token down to the station. I'll say good-bye to you now, but I'll try and get back to see you before I go overseas."

The army sent Harry to Fort Knox for boot camp. I was working and he said, "I'm going to send for you and you better come down. Close the house and come right down." Well, we had this '37 Chevrolet at the time and it was a very reliable car. I had just learned to drive, and I drove down from Rhode Island to Kentucky all alone, and I was terrified the whole way.

Anyway, I finally made it. Harry told me where I could get a job on the post, which I did. I took care of the coffee urn. Believe it or not, we had some German prisoners of war, and they were doing the kitchen help. Some spoke English, but you were not supposed to fraternize with them. There was one old man I remember in particular. He must have been close to 60. We had these big urns which I was supposed to make fresh coffee in at six in the morning, and sometimes I didn't get there on time, but when I got to work the coffee was all made. This old man had done it for me, which was very nice of him. My living quarters was in the women's barracks, which was just a small room with a cot in it. It was just a place to sleep. That's where I lived while Harry was at Knox.

When he left to go overseas, did you return to Providence to your former job?

Job situations were a dime a dozen at this time because all the men had gone, and they were trying to get as many women as they could to replace the men in some of these jobs that required quite a bit of knowledge about machines. They were setting up trade schools where women were taught to read blueprints, charts, how to read a micrometer and how to operate a lathe and a drill press. They had you make a small screw driver from scratch: the blade, the shaft, and the handle, and then put it all together. You learned the operations of the machine by making the screw driver. I learned more or less how to operate some of the machines. One of the jobs I had was at Brown and Sharpe where I worked a lathe and I had to turn down bar stock into a certain diameter. There were drill bits. From my machine they went to a polishing machine where they were polished with some kind of material which made them shine. I worked there about a year or so. Then I worked at Habledoff in Providence where I made wire assemblies for what they called depth tanks. Then I worked on Liberty Ships down at Fields Point. I got 91 cents an hour. I went from 82 cents to 91 cents an hour, and that was in 1944.

What kind of people were you working with?

Women mostly and from all over -- they were all in my situation. They were mostly wives of servicemen that were replacing the husbands in the work effort (See Rosie the Riveter ). All young; not many old ones. Here and there, of course, you had to hire some men to show you how to do your jobs.

On one job I wore bib overalls, and in the machine shops you had to wear what you call denim for aprons because it absorbed the oils and greases and you could wipe your hands on it and be sure it wouldn't go through to soil your clothing. You also had these wipe rags which were a heavy cotton material. You could wear your own shoes, but you wore the oldest ones because the floors were mostly oily, and you didn't want that getting on your good shoes.

We used to buy not war bonds, but war stamps. At the time they would have a booklet and you could buy a stamp for 25 cents and you posted it in this book. When it was filled, you could take it to the post office and get a war bond. Money was still scarce, although you had better earnings in those days than at the beginning of the war.

I think I was working at Brown and Sharpe when the war ended. The first letter that I got from my husband was that he was not coming home. My husband said, "Well, gee, I only just got over here. I came in '44 and the war ended in '45 and I want to see some of Europe." So he said, "I'm not going home." They said that if you stayed over, your family could join you, so he decided to stay. He wanted his wife with him, and we were going to see some of Europe.

I had to be at Fort Hamilton in New York on a certain date where I was to meet these other wives that were also going over. I think at that time my boat was the first one with wives. I was the only noncommissioned officer's wife on the boat. The boat I went on was the HMS Goethals. We had the luxury of a thin mattress and blankets, but no privacy whatsoever. It was just one big room with all these mattresses. There was no protocol. Everybody was treated the same way as everyone else.

Finally we arrived at Nuremberg. My husband scared the wits out of me by climbing up the side of the train. I didn't know he was there, and he was so excited about seeing me that he started climbing up the side of the train to get in the window. Finally, I saw him and opened the window and he crawled inside.

Harry and I took off in a jeep toward Hoff, driving at breakneck speed through the small towns. At last we pulled up to the kaserne (the German name for barracks) -- a huge stone building, with a big large parade ground, all enclosed with a metal fence. The troops, two battalions, were out in full dress at attention! For me! They drove us right up to where the Commanding Officer was waiting to greet me. Well, I was the only American in this town and they wanted the German people to know that American wives were arriving and I was the first. This was the lovely greeting that I got.

In those days in Germany there was a lot of black marketing of food. One thing was that the Germans had very little to eat. One time when I first arrived, there was a knock at the door and there was this little girl. She had a cup and saucer in her hand. She asked if I would give her a crust of bread and she would give me the cup and saucer. I invited her inside and I made up a big sandwich. She just couldn't thank me enough, but she wouldn't eat it there and I wouldn't take the cup and saucer. She took the sandwich home to share with her family because they had very little to eat.

My husband took me to a ballgame one time and a lot of the GI's didn't finish their bottles of coke and left a sizable portion in the bottle. The German children would go around and pick up these bottles and put the residue into a larger bottle and take it home. Their mothers would boil this down until it got to be quite thick. This they would use as a spread on bread.

I have many more amusing and interesting stories to tell...

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Copyright 1995