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women in the weather bureau during world war 2

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Personal View of G. Fay Dickerson

The period of time that I worked for the Weather Bureau was approximately November, 1942, to December 31, 1949. A friend told me about a woman who had just been hired by the Weather Bureau. I telephoned the downtown office for information and was disappointed to learn that one could not apply for a particular location, but that a training class would begin shortly in Kansas City, Missouri. I applied and was accepted.

I had one year at the University of Denver and was looking for a job that would enable me to continue my studies. Part-time jobs were very low paying, so full-time work for the U.S. Weather Bureau was an attractive alternative. I had taught in two different rural schools in Chase County, Nebraska, right after high school. During this time, I had summer school at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley (now the University of Northern Colorado) and had taken one or two correspondence courses from the University of Nebraska - the one I recall was an English composition class. The other may have been in educational psychology. In my freshman year at the University of Denver, I selected library science as my major.

Training class
Regional Office observation training class for new
Weather Bureau employees

I was enrolled at a Weather Bureau training class that met near the old Kansas City Municipal Airport by the Missouri River. I stayed in a fine old house on Swope Parkway that had been adapted for working women or students. I do not remember the composition of the class nor the number, but some of the students appeared to have had previous weather observing experience or meteorological studies. I was conscious of my comparative inexperience. The instructor, an attractive Finnish-American meteorologist, was an excellent teacher. She made us aware of our future responsibilities as weather observers and took advantage of the winter fog for practice observations. We also observed or helped with some balloon runs but more time was spent in the classroom setting.

After six weeks, at the conclusion of the course, I was assigned to North Platte, instead of Denver. Here, on-the job training continued. The Weather Bureau Manual remained an essential guide for study and for quick reference. Independently, I studied a high school physics text. Much later, after becoming an assistant to the research forecaster, I did some reading in statistics. I was received very well by the Weather Bureau employees. There was enough routine work to keep each person Busy and special weather conditions required constant attention. Observers welcomed their replacement at the end of an 8-hour shift and usually had special information or experiences to share. In North Platte, my primary friends were from work; in Denver, good relationships continued, but I was less dependent on friends at work for I had returned to a familiar city.

Though I have not kept in touch with friends from WB days, that is more a factor of physical distance than of disinterest. I recall that in North Platte the chief observer (I've forgotten the title) preferred assigning a woman to the task of climbing a pole above one of the hangars to remove the anemometer, carry it down for checking, and then replacing it. The climb intimidated me but I tried not to show it, knowing that this was his way of testing the stamina of women observers.

A first and lasting impression of the Weather Bureau is of responsible, dedicated professionals. The women were welcomed, careful work was appreciated, and forecasters or more experienced observers were available for consultation. Another impression, because the small building at North Platte was shared with the CAA in one room and the Weather Bureau in another, is of cooperation and interdependence among the offices. They sent our reports and we received teletype reports from them. The CAA communicated directly with in-flight pilots and informed us of unusual or changing weather conditions. One of the men, an "old hand" in the CAA with weather experience, had a calming manner and was very supportive during some of my first thunderstorms when I was the only observer on duty.

In North Platte, the routine duties included hourly and more detailed 6-hourly weather reports which were entered by teletype. As infommation was received we plotted the 6-hourly map which had considerably more detail when there was frontal activity and changeable weather conditions. These included low ceilings, reduced visibility, precipitation, thunderstorm activity, and strong wind. Whenever conditions changed, a special weather report was given to the CAA for immediate transmission.

The same schedule was followed in Denver, but the office had its own teletype communications. Here a more detailed map was plotted, often by two observers so that it would be available as soon as possible for the forecaster.

The most accurate information was taken from instruments: the thermometer, the wet bulb, the ceiling light, the anemometer. A theodolite was used to chart and time the ascent of a balloon with the ceiling being the height at which the balloon disappeared into the cloud layer. Later plotting gave wind velocity and direction at certain levels. At night a small candle in a paper lantern or a battery light was attached to the balloon. The ceiling light at a stationary position was an earlier device that helped the observer estimate the ceiling height. A temperature and dew point formula was useful for estimating the height of cumulus clouds. Radiosonde equipment was introduced during my time at North Platte. This still involved the use of a balloon, but a much larger one, and a transmitting device was attached instead of the lantern and light. The data was electronically plotted on graph paper and when interpreted provided accurate information about air pressure in millibars, temperature and humidity as well as wind direction and speed at much higher levels.

In North Platte, there was a regular rotation of the day, evening, and night shifts. At Stapleton, with a larger observer staff, there were more opportunities to adjust shifts to account for personal preferences. After 1945, I worked more nights so that I could take evening classes at the University of Colorado's Denver Extension. Then, during the last year or so when I was assistant to the research forecaster, I had the luxury of straight days. We were on an 8-hour, 5-days a week, 40 hours a week schedule. During some of the war years, there was a 6-day schedule with overtime paid for the sixth day. There was a salary adjustment shortly after regular overtime ended.

I recall that there were two men and four women at North Platte. In Denver, a forecasting station, there was a much larger number, including forecasters, telephone operators, and administrative personnel. An average number of observers may have been four men and five or six women, but I was there for almost four years after the war when some women left the Bureau or were transferred, and some veterans resumed.

The morale on station was generally excellent. Observers helped each other when duties were heavier in one area than another. Frequently, one would stay overtime or come in a bit early just to help a fellow observer. We enjoyed composing short, well worded messages that explained unusual and/or changing conditions. We had friendly competition about the length-of-time required to plot a map.

I left the Weather Bureau on December 30, 1949. I had passed the qualifying examination for a permanent position, and was somewhat apprehensive about giving up the security of the Weather Bureau, but it was time for me to finish undergraduate work at the University of Colorado. This I afforded by withdrawing my accumulated retirement funds. Later, I earned an MA at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and an MLS from Rutgers University, School of Library and Information Services.

The high point of my Weather Service Career definitely was the news that after about a year and a half in North Platte, my request for transfer to Denver was being honored. Although I am a Nebraskan and,have a great deal of loyalty to the state and its literary figures, I had lived and studied in Denver, had more friends there, and wanted to retum. I cannot recall any real low.

As I recall, we were most occupied by work details in our specific location. I did not specifically think of my work as a contribution to the war effort, but as a service for everyone. Earlier, the Bureau had been under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and current weather information, forecasts, and annual statistics remained a service to farmers and urban dwellers alike.

However, the Weather Bureau was essential for all air traffic during this period. At Lee Bird Field in North Platte, pilots on training missions who were detained by the weather often waited in our small offices. Some shared their knowledge of the weather and a few offered to help launch a balloon when wind and precipitation made the task awkward for a single observer on a night shift. In Denver, on VE Day, some reporters came out to Stapleton for a cursory interview with those on the evening shift. I remember feeling that they were only superficially aware of the Weather Bureau's importance; there was more excitement elsewhere.

Would I do it again? Yes, if I were in my twenties. Though I applied because I needed the money, it was never just a job for me. There was satisfaction in the hard work, in knowing that we earned our pay doing essential work. I feel that being a competent team player was one of my major contributions.

The most beautiful rainbow imaginable appeared after a particularly stormy, rainy, low-ceiling night. When I went up on the roof to take the first daylight observation, the clean deep blue-gray stratus had broken at the eastern horizon showing the rising sun. Over the western mountains was a perfect rainbow affirming the glory of the morning. I paused, but when I returned after completing the observation all was quite ordinary again.

Weather Bureau personnel sometimes were permitted complimentary, orientation flights. My first was from North Platte to Denver with a CAA pilot. I mentioned that my parents lived on a farm which was on a direct line from North Platte to Denver. We flew low enough for my mother to come outside and look up. It was of passing interest for her, but I retain a memory of that peaceful, early spring scene. A more exciting flight was the result of a routine flight from Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado, on Slick Airlines, a local service, flown by veteran pilots from Denver, to Grand Junction, to Salt Lake City. Betty, the other observer and I were not permitted to go on to Salt Lake City. After landing, instead of just waiting for the return flight, we accepted the invitation of one of the few paying passengers. He had chartered a four passenger plane to avoid a long, difficult drive to the Rangely oil fields in the northwest corner of Colorado. There was time for us to ride along on the round trip and we would see new scenery and have a lesson in geology and oil shale deposits from the engineer. The two men began looking for deer which the pilot said he always saw on this route. None were visible. On the return, Betty wisely chose to stay put, but I moved up to have a better view. The pilot remained obsessed to maintain his record, believing that we were as eager to see deer as he was to point them out. We flew rather too low for my comfort. As we skimmed above high mountains and then came to deep valleys, I had the sensation of driving off a high cliff. I assured him that we were not that interested in seeing the deer which probably were enjoying an afternoon siesta, but he kept peering below out the left window. We saw donkeys quite clearly. If rabbits had been out we think we would have seen them. The meal at Grand Junction Airport was quite ordinary, but two Denver observers were happy to be on the ground waiting for the DC-3 to return from Salt Lake City. One Denver night, when I was the observer on duty and there was considerable ground fog and a broken low ceiling, an employee of one of the major commercial airlines called and asked to speak to the observer on duty. He said that their pilot could see the ground from 1000 feet altitude and he wanted the observer to watch him and send a special report raising the ceiling so that he could land. I responded that I could send a special report with his name, but that I had no way of looking up and estimating a plane's height as basis for such a report. This the pilot refused. Probably he knew the airport and was confident that he could manage the situation but did not want to be held responsible. The flight diverted to Colorado Springs. Now, in the days of radar and other sophisticated equipment, low ceilings and ground fog are not such a hazard. However, whenever I am on a flight that routinely lands in spite of conditions that formerly would have closed the airport, I recall the very different rules of forty years long past and our careful following of those rules. I retired as general editor of the American Theological Library Association Indexes in 1983 to be a partner in a free lance service. But, in late 1986, returned to edit the primary index, Religion Index One: Periodicals. From this position I retired in May, 1990.

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