Cora Mae Summers was 17 years old when she received her diploma from Hamburg High School in 1941. She didn’t know at the time within a few years she would be a member of the U.S. Navy joining in a war effort.
Summers was born and raised in Ashley County, and was educated in the Crossett schools until the 11th grade, when she transferred to Hamburg.
By the time she graduated, the conflict that became known as World War II was ongoing in Europe but the United States was only involved in it in a support capacity.
“We were already in war, but we had not declared war,” she said. “We were helping England, and other allies, but then at the end of 1941, in December, there was Pearl Harbor.”
The surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base in Hawaii officially pulled the U.S. into the war. The country was united, and most people wanted to do what they could to support those who were involved in the conflict.
Like many women, Summers took on a manufacturing job that had at that time traditionally been a man’s work.
“Everybody was patriotic — almost everybody, there were a few naysayers — and I wanted to do something,” she said. “The guys were going to war, and the women began filling in the muscle power where it was lacking, and some of my friends and people I knew, girls and young women, were going to larger cities for what they called ‘war jobs.’ I decided that since there was an aircraft factory in St. Louis, I was going to go and get a job there.”
She talked some friends into joining her, and catching a ride on a train from Montrose to St. Louis — a ride she described as “dirty and just smutty” — they were able to get jobs in a machine shop. Summers worked a turret lathe.
The friends eventually got homesick, but Summers loved St. Louis. After a while, however, she was certain that she didn’t just want to work in a factory.
“When I was making up my mind whether I should join the military, I had a good job doing the machine job with better pay than I ever had,” she said. “I felt like I was helping the war effort, but I wanted to be in the military. This was my thought: that the war will be over and we will win. I felt like I had rather say, ‘I am glad I did,’ instead of saying ‘I wish I had.’ That was my thought as I made my final decision.”
Without telling anyone back home what she was doing, she approached a military recruiter.
“ I guess I saw too many Marine movies and I decided I was going to join the Marine Corps, but they wouldn’t have me because i am color blind,” she said. “The navy recruiting station was in the same building, and they recruited me. They had to have a waiver made out because of my color blindness, and I have a piece of paper signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
She went home to tell her mother what she was going to do before hopping back on the train to St. Louis and then to New York City. She was a member of the WAVES, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, the women’s branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
“I went by myself,” she said. “I was a big girl, all of 20 years old. I went to Hunter College in the Bronx for boot camp.
“When people ask about it, they always want to know if we had to march like the men did, and that is true, and they want to know if the girls would faint and fall out like the men, and that is true, some did, but I never did.”
The six weeks of boot camp seemed to be over almost as soon as they began. When it came time for an assignment, Summers didn’t know what she actually wanted to do in the military.
“The war was really bad at that time, so everything was rush, rush,” she said. “We had an option of what kind of work we wanted to do, and I didn’t have any idea of what you did in the Navy. I didn’t think I was going to coil ropes or whatever.”
She was ultimately assigned to the postal service, an assignment that she said, “turned out so well and I made such good friends, so I guess it was the best place for me.”
Postal service meant she had to go to go postal school, learning Naval procedures in addition to what she would have to do in the post office. She’d made three friends in boot camp and service school, and the three of them were billeted in a place called Manhattan Towers, a high rise hotel that had been converted to WAVES barracks.
“The four of us each had a boy back home that people would have said we were an item, somebody who was a little bit special, but we would say to each other, when we would get a letter and they would say, ‘You are going to to go home and marry that old boy, we’d say, ‘Oh no, I am not,’” Summers said. “Guess how many did? Four. All four went back and married those boys we wouldn’t marry for anything.”
At work, she handled personal mail. In most ways, it was just like working at the Post Office today — except it wasn’t open to the public and it had armed guards at the entrance 24 hours a day.
They worked shifts. Of the four roommates, when two worked together, then the other two worked together. One team would work all three of the day’s shifts, and the other team worked days and evenings.
“There was something I did not know about my work until I came home for my one visit,” Summers said. “When I was home, I went to the bank and Mr. Sherett, who was the bank president, told me that there was someone from the Navy down asking some questions about me.”
Later, the man at the drug store told her the same thing.
“Then I remembered they were two of the three names I had given for references,” she said. “When I got back to New York, I discovered it was because my job was considered classified because where I worked, we had access not only to where the ships were but where they were going and when they would arrive. I didn’t think what I was doing was important, but that wasn’t something you would want talked about on the corner.”
Her time in New York wasn’t all spent in the barracks and at work.
“I loved New York City,” Summers said. “I thought I’d never be back in that big city again, so I felt like I used my time really well, and fortunately these three girls I lived with liked the same things I did.”
She played on a basketball team there — “We played all the military teams there and beat them all” — and saw broadway shows.
“I used to tease that my husband and son would never forgive me because I had seen the U.S. National Rodeo at Madison Square Garden,” Summers said. “I never thought that in my life I would get to see some of the things I saw.”
She also took advantage of the ability to be a spiritual tourist, visiting many churches, including the one pastored by the later famous Norman Vincent Peale.
“They fed service people lunch, and then one of the better known bandleaders played for us, and we danced in the basement of that church,” she said.
The worst day of her time in the service, Summers said, was a trip when they were billeted in Sampson, N.Y., for service school. The train ride was slow and covered them in dirt and grime, they only had a sack lunch to eat, and they arrived after dark to find an open barracks that didn’t even have a ceiling under the roof and the only lights were hanging bulbs.
“It was not a good light, just a dingy light,” she said. “I could have cried. I thought, ‘I wish I was back in Arkansas.’ But I got a shower, put my hair in pin curls, got in my bunk and went to sleep. And the next morning was one of the most beautiful mornings I ever saw. I loved every minute after that.”
For seven months in 1945, following the Allied victory in Europe, Summers was deployed to Washington, D.C.
“All the mail I handled there was registered official mail, all sealed up very tightly,” she said. “Now I know what I was doing there — I was being the fax machine, because it was all inter-city mail, being sent from this facility to that facility across town.”
After Washington, she returned to New York, and was discharged in May 1946. She worked the system to ensure that she was discharged in New York.
“I had to have a job there, and there were these cleaners where I had spent so much money on my uniforms, I went in there and told them, ‘I want you to give me a job, but I only want it for a day. I don’t want to work, I just want to be discharged in New York.’ They did it . They gave me a paper that said I worked for them and I never worked for a minute.”
She wasn’t ready to leave the city, but eventually she did, taking the cheap train south, stopping in St. Louis to do some shopping and then returning to Ashley County.
Half a year later, she married that boy she’d told her friends she’d never marry, Maurice. They had two children, Glynn and Becky, and for many years operated Summer’s Building Supply. For a while, Cora Mae sold the World Book — “And I was good at it” — because she believed in what the World Book represented and in childhood education.
After they sold the building supply business, she went to the University of Arkansas at Monticello and became a registered nurse at 52.
Cora Mae said that for a long time she had a guilty feeling that she wasn’t able to give more to the war effort when others had given so much.
“Then one day the thought came to me that I bet that when a guy gets back to his home base from wherever he has been — in a foxhole or anywhere out there — when he gets back, I bet he is as happy to get a letter from back home as he is to get a new rifle.
“I’m a member of the American Legion, and I asked a few of the veterans there, and they said, ‘Absolutely.’
“So I don’t feel like I was useless. I was having a good time and I was doing things I liked to do, and bombs were not dropping on my head and I did not have to worry when I went to sleep, but what I was doing helped them.”