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women in the weather bureau during world war 2


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Personal View of Kathryn M. Highberg

Editors' Note - These remembrances are of necessity written by Kathryn's husband, Walter Highberg, since Kay has been progressively more disabled for several years with Parkinson's disease.

When it became increasingly obvious in the months after Pearl Harbor that men were being lost from Spokane's Weather Bureau Office due to transfers and promotions, as well as fulfillment of military reserve obligations, Kay scouted the idea of working in the Weather Bureau. Her husband, Walter, who had been employed in Spokane since early 1941, broached the subject with the MIC. After checking with the Regional Director in Seattle, the idea was quashed so Kay took a job as a "Rosie the Riveter" at an Air Force base near Spokane.

In 1943, Walter was transferred to Glasgow, Montana, to assist in setting up a new RAOB station. Kay was fascinated with her job at Spokane repairing war-wounded B-17s and wanted to remain in Spokane until her husband had settled into the new station's routine and, incidently, had found proper housing.

Sometime that summer, the Spokane MIC asked Walter whether Kay would like to join the crew at Glasgow. It seems that the bias against a man-wife team was ended. So Kay and Walt became the first man-wife RAOB team in the old Seventh Region, if not in the nation. Kay was duly inducted into the Bureau - joining three other young women and three men. She fell readily into the routine and became increasingly fascinated with her work. Her previous college studies, with an accent on geography, had prepared her for map spotting and analysis. Kay and Walt and their three-year-old son had finally moved into a converted henhouse about six blocks from the station. Child care problems were solved with a part-time grandmother type or by the oncoming crew member walking the boy to the office and delivering him to the off-going spouse.

The Glasgow office was situated on the second floor of a bank building. The balloon inflation building was on the roof" along with the PIBAL platform, thermometer shelter, and a couple of runways for launching the radiosonde balloon. With the onset of winter, balloon releases in the more frequent strong winds became more hazardous and more frustrating. An eastern Montana winter, with temperatures well below zero and gale-force winds blowing dust from the snow-free terrain, convinced Kay that there were better places to be for a weather gal even if it was in arctic Alaska. Her researches of weather and climate data convinced her that McGrath, in central Alaska, would be suitable, so she and Walt applied for transfer and were soon accepted. So, some time during the night in early July of 1944, the Highberg family left Glasgow on their new adventure. It started uncomfortably for the train was chock-full. The conductor found a vacant space for the youngster and a pair of camp stools for his parents. After stopping off at Spokane for a week or two of leave, the family set off for Seattle to go through the red tape necessary to get to Alaska, which was still designated as a war zone, although the Japanese had been thrown out of the Aleutians more that a year before.

Travel up the Inside Passage on the S. S. Alaska was stimulating, but restful, although passage across open water in the Gulf of Alaska necessitated blackout and restrictions on radios. A Navy crew on board manned a gun and a depth charge thrower in this area. After a one-day stopover in Anchorage, the Regional Office, they were on their way to McGrath.

Their plane, a Lockheed Vega, was jammed with freight, two Eskimo ladies, and the Highbergs. The two Eskimos had cartons on their laps, Kay held the boy and Walt cuddled a 50-pound tractor bullgear. After tossing back a few "urp-cups" to his laden passengers, the pilot roared down the runway and banked sharply, heading for Rainy Pass through the Alaska Range. McGrath, situated on a meander loop of the Kuskokwim River was almost entirely surrounded by the river, with the three ends of the T-shaped runways nearly at the water's edge. The CAA community consisted of ten houses, four occupied by Weather Bureau people, four by CAA communicators, and two for maintenance personnel. A long structure contained the Weather Bureau office which adjoined the CAA communications facility. Other structures included warehouses, commissary, utility buildings and garages. A few hundred yards away was the "business district" - Quonset post office, two roadhouses, a Northern Commercial Co. store, and a few scattered houses.

Situated strategically at the intersection of the Anchorage-Nome and Fairbanks-Bethel airways, McGrath's 24-hour surface and upper air observations were crucial to the safety of the Russian airmen who ferried U.S.-made fighter planes from Fairbanks to Nome and across to Siberian air bases.

Kay could scan surface hourly reports and visualize both the general weather patterns and their evolution, with more precise evaluations of routes and destination airports. Many bush pilots would ask for her particularly by name. Several took her on familiarization flights. About a month before VJ Day, Walt took over as Official in Charge and Kay unofficially was oldest hand. Personnel changes in the next two years were frequent as some wanted to return to the States and others mustered out of the services were looking for civilian jobs. With four houses to accommodate seven employees, one solution was to install three bachelor girls in one house. Kay was their unofficial Big Sister.

Summer of 1947 saw the end of Kay and Walt's commitment to a three-year contract of Alaskan service -Kay's resignation was accepted and Walt's request for leave without pay to return to school was approved. Kay's memories of her four rewarding years in the Bureau continued through the years while her husband had duty in Fairbanks, San Francisco Forecast Center, Los Angeles Forecast Center, and his last 18 years at Spokane before retirement. In 1979, her book, "Orchard Prairie, the First Hundred Years," was published and quickly sold out its press run. In 1989, Washington State's Centennial Year, Kay was honored in the State's Centennial Farm awards for living on a farm which had been in her family's possession for over a hundred years.  

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