Making connections for war-era soldiers at Fort Meade

3 women who were phone operators in 1940s hold reunion

October 18, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Once upon a time in a world without cell phones, telephones had no push-buttons, not even dials, and when you put the handset to your ear, you actually heard the voice of a real human being say, "Number, please."

During World War II, when thousands of soldiers at Fort Meade made their last few calls home before going overseas, the voice they heard often belonged to one of three women now in their 80s: Clarice "Pat" Black of Randallstown, Norma Nollmann of Hastings, Neb., and Kay Wray of Columbia, S.C.

They were all telephone operators in Laurel from 1941 to nearly the end of the war, and they shared an apartment down the street from the telephone office. They got together recently for a rare reunion in Randallstown. Nollmann tracked down her friends, appropriately enough, by calling information state by state.

The trio of friends were local operators, who also answered information requests and connected long-distance calls.

"And, of course," Nollmann says, "that's where we did most of our work from the soldiers from Fort Meade who called home probably for the last time ... because they were shipping overseas."

Robert Johnson, director of the Fort George G. Meade Museum, says of the 3.5 million soldiers who passed through Fort Meade during World War II, 1.5 million trained there for overseas duty. Their long-distance calls all went through the Laurel switchboards.

"You usually got us first," says Nollmann, "and you gave us the number you wanted, and we transferred you to the number."

They sat before a panel of switchboards with a line of maybe 25 other young women - no men in those days - and took a cord from a desk in front of them and plugged it into the number the caller asked for. It was a bit like connecting your VCR to the TV, or rather hundreds of VCRs to a bank of TVs. When a call came in, a little light on the panel in front of them came on.

"Then we'd pick up the cord," Nollmann says, "and plug into that light and asked what number they were calling: `Number, please. Thank you.'"

They wore a headset with two earphones, and they could hear the conversation.

Did they listen in?

"Oh, that was not allowed!" Nollmann says. "But, yes."

They all laugh.

"Especially at night when we were bored," Wray says.

They were monitored for work performance, but not for security. They don't remember handling any sensitive military secrets. And they wouldn't listen much during the daytime.

"We knew we were being monitored," Black says. "And we were busy. That means we had a lot of lights on the panel we had to get into. All at once."

But they occasionally got into a conversation with one of the soldiers calling home.

"Sometimes," Wray says. "You just had to. They wanted to tell you all about their family. And going overseas just brought that to mind for them. They used to thank us, tell us how much they appreciated us: `What do you look like?' `Are you blond?'"

The women sometimes had to work a night shift from about 10 p.m. until 7 the next morning.

"Policemen would call from their barracks," Black says. "They were also working nights and they would want to chat a little bit. Of course, you also had soldiers calling once in a while, trying to get a date with you."

"`Hey, what's your name? What are you doing?'" Noll- mann recalls.

"`Where are you from?'" Wray offers.

"They'd say, `I'm from so and so,'" Nollmann says. "`What are you doing tonight?'"

"`What time do you get off?'" Black adds.

Did you ever make a date?

"Well, yes, we did," says Noll- mann, who then protests, "You don't need to write that down. But, yes, we did. I even found that there were soldiers from my area of South Dakota that I had known. That was such a thrill for me to know that there was somebody from home that was calling.

"In fact," she says, "one of my old boyfriends from South Dakota called. True. And he said his name was Nathan Hamro. `Ahh!!! My land, I know you!'"

"He was calling his mother. I said, `Well, Nathan, this is Norma.' We were just shocked we could talk to each other. He was shipping out. And he was [making] his last call home to tell his parents. I didn't even [get to] see him."

Wray became an operator at a portable phone center at Fort Meade and stayed for about a year.

"We had like a little streetcar and it had five telephones in there," she says. "People would come in and tell me what number they wanted and make their calls."

She also had to collect money for the call and drop it into a cash drawer as well as make the long-distance connection.

"You had to work kind of fast because there were so many of them, and they were so anxious to call home."

They were young men in a more innocent time, and they were leaving home for a long war in far-off places.

Lonely and afraid

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