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women in the weather bureau during world war 2


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Personal View of Bette Silvey Donatt

I worked for the Weather Bureau some of 1944 to 1950 at the Airport Weather Bureau, Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri. My name at the time was Bette Silvey.

Not certain how I learned Weather Bureau needed new employees. I applied for training because I thought it would be interesting, a learning opportunity. Thought aviation connection was exciting. This was all proven to be true. The Weather Bureau needed help. When I began training I was very young and had no vocational direction.

I took the test to qualify for the training school at Kansas City. Classes were held in the Kansas City Federal Building eight hours a day for six or eight weeks. Working from Circular N. plus extra study after class and testing was followed by supervised duty at Kansas City Airport Weather Bureau for a short time, perhaps a week. Following training, I was officially assigned to Lambert Field. Cannot recall the number in the small training class, perhaps a dozen. Assignments were made throughout Region 5. There was one other woman from St. Louis who was assigned elsewhere. Some time later she came to work at Lambert Field for TWA. While I do not recall the instructors' names, one man and one woman, they were very thorough. He gave a very accurate overview of the job, which I still recall. I do not know how long the training school had been in effect and never heard of anyone else who had attended. In the beginning I was still being trained after my assignment to Lambert Field. Circular N with updates was a forever source of reference for all. Any subsequent new employee was trained by coworkers; even if they brought experience, they had to get acclimated to their new assignment.

Obviously in 1944, the Weather Bureau was in great need of help. I was eager, though inexperienced. For the most part coworkers were kind and considerate, some more than others based on their individual personalities. There was a separate staff of mature forecasters. Some treatment bordered on patemalism. I was "low man on the ladder," and because of my age and inexperience I logically accepted this role. I worked very hard, as did most everyone, but not with a view to career advancement. This was not the case with some of the women, well qualified, who were never, I believe, seriously considered for advancement because of their gender. For them I considered this unfair; for me individually, I felt I was treated well. This was. a different time.

I began working during a season of particularly bad weather at a very busy airport. Weather was constantly below Contact conditions, except Instrument or Closed classifications for flying. Everything connected with the Airport was in one long, narrow building. The ground floor was primarily the waiting room for airline passengers, ticket counters used mutually by airlines, and a restaurant open at the convenience of the management. The Weather Bureau was on the second floor with Communications, Air Traffic Control, and Army Flight Service. Additional weather instruments, inflation shelter, and, of course, control tower were on the roof. More gauges and a large inflation shelter were on the ground and the 1,000-foot light for nighttime ceiling measurements with lights at specified distances and landmarks for visibility reporting. The instruments and techniques were so purely simple. In addition to the problems created that season by the weather, the Weather Bureau was to be moved to the front of the other agencies, logical location because that was the only office to which pilots, airline operation employees, and the public came for information. A narrow hallway leading to the Weather Bureau was being eliminated. Prior to the move, the panels and wiring for Air Traffic Control communications were installed in the midst of the weather office, and teletypes were being relocated, creating not to be believed congestion. It was rather overwhelming. No season was ever that difficult, still I considered it the norm.

The duties were as circumstance dictated: Original title -Weather Observer - describes initial and primary duty for reporting hourly observations for transmission by Communications at half-past the hour, on-the-hour checks, and reporting significant changes for special reports and phoning these to the tower. Six-hourly reports were more extensive and their communication resuked in map signals to plot the six-hourly map, a chore everyone seemed to like. Filing reports from the teletype for display so it would create a picture for the entire country was a spare-time activity. Other duties included answering phones for the general public and media; supplying any requests; and assuming any duties for the City Office in the Federal Building located downtown (for their hours of nine to five, Monday through Friday, no holidays), preparing balloon for six-hourly winds aloft report, hoping helium tank did not need changing; launching; recording minute readings, unless with luck you could use headset and give readings to coworkers in the office who would record and begin plotting until they were interrupted by other duties. Everyone had an extra duty from a list of mundane chores that allowed the office to be functional. Happily, radio broadcasts were transferred to Columbia, Missouri, a less busy station, but earlier in my service I did this briefly. This duty required working from 2100 to 0500. Later, punch cards were introduced and completed for designated reports and then sent to Kansas City Regional Office. These were checked and returned for corrections when necessary. Visitors to the station were dealt with, and even school group tours could be a real problem because there was little or no spare time.

The primary shifts were 0800 to 1600, 1600 to 0000, and 0000 to 0800. These shifts were usually rotated each week. There was also 0700 to 1500, 1500 to 2300, 2300 to 0700, and the dreaded 2100 to 0500. Because of the small staff the scheduling was quite irregular and sometimes very inconvenient to the worker,-but necessary to cover 168 hours per week. Days off sometimes were not consecutive and I cannot remember anyone using sick leave. Each shift was scheduled for eight hours; however, you arrived ahead of scheduled duty to prepare to take over the shift and remained until your relief arrived and was able to assume the continuity of the duties of the previous shift, no matter how much time it required. Occasionally a staff meeting was called; attendance was expected. The work week was forty hours, no overtime was recognized. On one occasion there was such flooding in low-lying areas from sudden rain, my relief scheduled to arrive at the end of my shift at midnight was not able to get through. The earliest arrival was 0700.

This was a very dedicated group for the most part, very considerate of one another. Certainly there were some people you worked with more efficiently than others, but everyone worked hard or the tasks could not have been accomplished. If you were thinking not in terms of long-range career but only in terms of doing the best possible job for the present, it provided a compatibility with those contemplating future advancement. Politics exists in everything in life, in this setting this was minimal.

I left the Weather Bureau in 1950, the official term was voluntary displacement. The erratic hours certainly took their toll. It was time to "get-a-life." The Weather Bureau experience made a great resume. I worked for a short time in the Adjudication and Contact Office of the Veterans Administration and advanced to the Aeronautical Chart Plant, both interesting, located in the city and regular day hours. Soon I married, became a parent and stayed home, for this was 'I Love Lucy' times.

The low point of my Weather Bureau career came early on when I was inexperienced, unsure of myself, wanting to prove myself, adjusting to the scheduling. For the high point, though no one ever adjusted to the hours, acquiring experience and confidence and the general spirit of teamwork cause me to remember the time fondly.

My time of service includes little time prior to VJ Day, but I think my lengthy answers to the other questions cover this more than anticipated.

Getting to the airport was no easy task. Though the Navy Base was south of the field and McDonnell Aircraft was to the north, the only public transportation was the airport bus which ran every thirty minutes when it made the run, at no one's convenience, and not over night. I drove nearly twenty miles from the city during a time when gas rationing was in effect. I was allotted extra stamps. There was cooperation with the other airport employees regarding transportation, but scheduling made this difficult. Prior to being paid on one occasion, all employees were required to sign a sworn statement declaring that they were not Communists. Thinking about this now, it seems like an unreasonable requirement, but with the preoccupation of getting on with the work, some of us nevertheless appeared before the Postmaster of Robertson, Missouri.

President Truman gave all government employees a declared holiday for Victory Day, a gesture that was impossible for us. Some of the things I describe would only occur during this time. The Navy Base provided all the emergency equipment for the airport. I recall a few times when there was a total power failure throughout the airport. The Weather Bureau kept Coleman lanterns available for this situation.

Would I do it again? At that time of my life, in that time of history--yes. It was work that needed doing, it was a challenge, I learned a lot. Maybe I could have used those years to better personal advantage, but my choices were right for those times. The major contributions of all the employees at that time was keeping the Weather Bureau "manned" and assisting in keeping the skylines safe for aircraft. Dramatic phrase? Sure, but that is what we were doing.

I can remember individuals but I cannot recall the number of employees at one time. There was a staff of forecasters located in the office next door with flight service, probably six. These were all men, at least one of whom had been a high school principal. The office in which I worked had perhaps a dozen employees--at the time I arrived mostly women; by the time I left mostly returning male veterans. The chief and assistant were always men.

The pay while I was attending training class was comparable to a beginning female office worker. Upon station assignment there was an increase and periodic increases. Later 10% night differential was added for hours between 1800 and 0600 which recognized the inconvenience and additional pay for holidays. By the time I left my pay since training rate had nearly tripled and while the duties were basically the same, my title, Weather Observer, became Meteorological Aide.

Reminiscing about Weather Bureau years was very pleasant for me. Perhaps it was the times, the work, the hours, that created the camaraderie I remember fondly.


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