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  Transcript of the Live Interview with Elizabeth "Betty" Reilly

On May 15, Ms. Reilly answered students' questions about her wartime experiences. You can read the transcript of the interview below.

Did you have any relatives fighting in the war? Did anyone in your family get hurt?
I had 22 cousins in the war. The only problem one of them had was he was at attention in the hot sunshine in Alabama and he fainted and he broke his tooth. Believe it or not, that was the only thing that happened to 22 relatives. They all came home. It was a blessing.

Did your family have a victory garden?
Yes, that was my grandfather's job. Because the war came along and he had no daughters, and he had to hire men to work on his farm. When the war came, all of those men went to war, and then we could no longer farm, and he had a victory garden. They had corn, string beans, radishes, peppers, and tomatoes. We had some strawberries. That was about it.

Were you worried because of everything being rationed?
No, there was no drastic rationing. We always managed to have food. So, we didn't worry about it. We had our victory garden and we got our milk. Butter was rationed, but that didn't bother us much. It was like oleo with a little capsule of yellow. You had to work that little capsule around and it made the oleo look like butter.

What did a food stamp look like? How did the rationing work?
I don't remember too well about that. They were little stamps, though, and you had a ration book. But since I was young, I didn't go to the store much — it was my mother or my aunt. They were little stamps — I do remember that.

Did you collect rubber and other materials like some kids?
We did collect aluminum. There was a big drive to collect it. We took pots and pans and took them to a place where the collections were taken and given to folks who, I guess, carted them off to factories. But we did collect aluminum.

Were there things that you wanted but couldn't get during the war because of rationing?
I suppose mostly the fact that gasoline was rationed — we couldn't take trips to visit relatives the way we used to. And there were no silk stockings. Older folks would paint their legs with makeup and draw a line down the back to make it look like a seam. Because silk stockings were no longer available. I guess nylons weren't made yet. But we weren't able to get stockings — that I remember.

Why did you enter the war effort so young? What made you want to help?
Well, I was between classes at school and my mother said, "Now you get a summer job." It was the thing to do, everybody was very patriotic. If you saw ships in the harbor, you weren't allowed to talk about a convoy getting ready to sail. The saying was "loose lips sink ships." If you saw trains carrying troops, you weren't supposed to mention where they were going. You were supposed to keep quiet. Everybody was patriotic — there were songs written to enhance patriotism. It was the thing you did because you knew the boys were over there and you needed to help out the best you could.

Was it strange for you or your aunt to be a woman in a factory?
No, not at all because there were so many of us. So it wasn't strange. Everybody was accepted because everybody was trying to help out.

Did you have more opportunities as a woman during the war or less opportunities?
I think there were more because women were going into positions that they never would've thought of had the war never come along. So, more opportunities.

What was everyday life like for you?
You had your regular routine — got up early in the morning (this was in the summer when I had the job), then I'd take the bus over the Bayonne Bridge to the plant. Then you'd work until lunchtime. Take a break for lunch and then go back to typing. And at 5 o'clock, we'd go home.

What was it like having to paint the city lights? Were you always afraid of being attacked?
We had to paint the car lights halfway down, and the lamps along the Jersey shore were painted on the ocean side. But, no, I really wasn't afraid of being attacked. I felt like the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean would keep the United States from being bombed. And, actually, that's what happened.

Why did you write so many letters? Why was it so important?
To write to the servicemen — even though I didn't know them — to keep up their morale and let them know that people at home cared about them and hoped they came home safely when the war ended. It was a matter of morale.

Since you wrote to servicemen, did any of them write back? Did they know about your German heritage?
Yes, they wrote back because they were just happy to get letters. My German heritage never mattered — I never brought it up. My grandparents came in the late 1850s, so I was an American with German heritage, but it didn't keep me from being 100 percent American.

What did you write about?
Oh, I would write about the movies we had seen or just things that I did in everyday life. I'd write about my dog and my cats. Things that were interesting to them, like the war effort and how it was going at home. Gasoline rationing and things like that.

Do you keep in contact with any of your pen pals from the war?
No, I haven't. Not a one. They would be older than I and they could be in their 80s now or older and I haven't kept up with any of them.

When the war started but America wasn't in the war, did you know about the war at all?
Yes, definitely. Because Britain was already being attacked, and all of that was written in the papers — all about Hitler invading and Britain fighting. That was all in our American papers.

Was the radio the only thing you listened to during the war?
Yes, that was our only way of getting news, aside from the newspapers of course. There was no TV, so everything came over the radio.

What was the one thing that changed the most during the war?
The fact that women were accepted in the workforce in the war plants. And opportunities that were then given to them that they had no way of having before the war.

When you saw the three sailors on the taxi on V-E Day, did you think about your prom escorts?
Oh, yes! I was hoping that the prom escorts were able to enjoy the victory too — the war being over.

Why did you need dates to go to your prom?
Well, you couldn't go to the prom without dates. You had to be accepted as being able to get a gentleman to escort you. Maybe girls go now without dates, but that was unheard of then.

Were you scared to go to your prom because of the threat of enemy attack?
No. We really weren't. We had an innermost feeling that the war would never come to our shores. We believed, like the isolationists, I guess (who didn't want us to go into the war) — they believed that the Atlantic and Pacific would protect us. But when Pearl Harbor happened, we did. But, no, we were not afraid of being attacked.

What are you most proud about with your job?
I guess that would be knowing that the PT boats rescued General MacArthur and his family and knowing that President John F. Kennedy was a commander of one of the PT boats. But just knowing that the PT boats did a wonderful job.

How did it feel to get the certificate of achievement as a Rosie the Riveter?
Oh, I was so proud and so were the other Rosies with me! There had to be maybe 150 or 200 of us that received that certificate. We had a band there that played patriotic songs, and we sang — we had a good time, and we were all so proud.

What kind of propaganda did you see during the war?
There were posters of Japanese with terrible faces — menacing, they were made to look terrible. The poster of Uncle Sam pointing — "Uncle Sam wants you." You would see "loose lips sink ships" and a ship sinking with the American flag on it. So, that was all propaganda.

Was the propaganda effective?
Yes, that would've been. The Uncle Sam poster I'm sure affected the young men, and they would go and join up.

What did you worry most about during the war?
Well, hoping that all of my cousins would come back safely.

Did you know about the Holocaust at the time of WW II?
Absolutely not. It was not known at all until the camps were opened and the people freed. We heard or knew nothing at all about it.

Were any of your family members over in Europe? Did they face any hardships?
I do not know of any of my relatives over there. We were so far removed. When my ancestors came, they didn't contact anyone back home. I think maybe because some of them were young men and wars were going on. They didn't want to be pulled back in any way into the war. Many times lots of immigrants didn't contact people back home because they did not want to be drawn back one way or another.

If you could live it again, what would you change?
I think I would continue with the war course I had to take — I had to take two in high school — Morse code and meteorology. I would have kept up with meteorology because I see the weather girls on TV and how they've gotten on in their lives. And that would've been fun — to be a weather girl.

How did you and other Americans feel about the prisoners of war who were brought to prison here in America?
Well, let's see. I saw them. They were stationed at a hospital not far from my home. It was what was done in war — they were fed and clothed properly. They weren't abused. There were Germans who I saw. They were mostly regular German soldiers. But there was one SS Trooper — they were the elite. He would not associate with the regulars and he kept to himself. Which shows how they were brainwashed, I guess, to think that they were a superior race. But the prisoners were not treated poorly — they had food and clothing,

What is your best memory? What is your worst memory?
The best memory of the war would've been the ending of the war, when the Germans gave up. And the complete excitement of the whole country at the time. And being in New York and seeing the sailors and solders being so happy and kissing everybody. And the sailors riding on top of the taxicab. That was the best memory.

The worst was Pearl Harbor — when the story broke in the newspapers and different experiences of the different men — the terrible things they went through and to know that we were at war. That was the worst.

During this time, did you need courage?
Yes, we had to have courage because the boys had courage — the boys going over seemed almost happy — many did — they were going over to help the country. So, their courage was picked up by us folks back home.

Did your dad or mom live during World War I?
My father enlisted in the Air Corps in WW I. He enlisted one day and the next day the war ended. And my mother said, "Fred, they knew you were coming!"

What was your hometown called? What was it like? Did it change when the war started?
Let's see. I was between two towns — one was called Bull's Head and the other was Travis, or the name before that was Linoleumville — because of the first linoleum factory. Bull's Head was called that because a pre-Revolutionary War tavern was there. This was on Staten Island. They didn't change at all when the war started for a long time, until after the war when people needed housing and communities built up around them. Bull's Head was just the tavern that stood for many, many years and a very small hotel and a German tavern, and a gas station. And that was the town!

The other town was Linoleumville; it had a factory, and the townspeople, who were mostly Polish, worked there making linoleum for floors.

When the plane flew over your house, did your mom just say something different because she didn't want to scare you?
No. That was the route of the mail plane and I was never aware of it before, but when Pearl Harbor happened that day — and I heard the plane fly over, and I thought maybe we'd be bombed. But that was the regular routine of that flight — from Philadelphia to Newark Airport. So, she did not make up a story to calm me. It was the truth.

Did any of your close friends fight in the war? If so did any of them get killed or severely injured?
Yes, there were two — one was in my meteorology class. He was killed in Europe when he was 20. He was a beautiful violinist. Another young man from Linoleumville was also killed. He was also a violinist, which was strange. Both took lessons from the same teacher. The second boy was 20 or 21.

What do you think about how our government is running its country today?
Well, I think that we've got a lot of fluff out of the White House now and I think we've got some permanence. I think we've got a pretty good foundation for the president now. I think he's going to try to do a very fine job. I'm a Republican, in case you couldn't tell!

Do you think the government runs things differently today than they did during WW II?
Yes, they certainly do. I think that the trend today is to try to determine things at the negotiating table, rather than with force.

When the war ended, how did your family and you celebrate?
Of course, I was in the city and I did my celebrating on the streets of Manhattan and in Central Park. When I came home, everybody was so happy — my grandparents were glad their grandchildren were coming home, and I was glad my cousins were coming home. And we went to church and thanked the good Lord for bringing them home.

How long did it take for your cousins to come home?
I suppose they were all home within six months of the signing. I don't think it took them any longer than that. Some of those troop ships were on the ocean for 21 days just to cross the ocean!

Did you enjoy being a shipbuilder during WW II? Was shipbuilding fun?
Well, I was a typist actually, but it was fun to go through the factory and see the ships being built. And the nice smell of the wood as it was being sawed — so that was fun, and I enjoyed it.

How did life during the war compare to your life before and after the war?
Before the war, it was all frivolous and fun. During the war, serious, and after the war, great relief that the war was over and that my cousins were coming home.

What were your feelings when you learned what the Nazis did during the Holocaust?
It was unbelievable — you couldn't believe that those things happened during our lifetime. The same feelings you had about what happened to the American Indians during the 1800s. And I can't believe that slavery existed in our country. Unbelievable that such things could happen so close to my lifetime. Because in history, those three things are all fairly recent. Unbelievable.

Did life get back to normal after the war and the boys came home?
Well, there was much house building after the war — houses going up all over. And cars were coming out of the plants in Detroit without bumpers — they'd have a wood plank instead because they were coming out so fast because the people needed them. Everything was rush, rush — everyone was trying to catch up for all the time that had been lost.

How was it different between you and your boyfriend when he got home? How many years were you apart?
I think it was 14 months before he came back. Well, we had to kind of get reacquainted — there was a lot of time lost there. So, we picked up. One thing that bothered me — there was a club where they got paid for staying home and getting readjusted — and that lasted about six months. And I thought he was being lazy, but it was apparently something the servicemen did to settle into civilian life again. But after that, he got a job and took the test for fireman and he began a fireman. But they had to have that cooling-off period to get back into civilian life. And the government paid for that.

Did you write about your experiences in World War II?
No, I guess it was just passing it on to younger members of the family — more of an oral history of what went on during the war — telling my second and third cousins how things were.

Do you have any advice for kids today?
Well, to stick with their studies, do their homework, pay attention in class, and just continue with their careers — get as much education as they can and do a lot of reading in all sorts of subjects. I guess that's about it! Thomas Jefferson said: "I cannot live without books." So, let the kids remember that — get all the knowledge you can!