WWII veteran reflects on times in Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service
By TIM STANLEY | Tulsa World via AP | Published: November 27, 2016
TULSA, Okla. — Dressed in white shirts and white knee-length skirts, the roughly 50 young women are arranged in six tiered rows.
But even in that well-pressed sea of white, Margaret Laird is easy to spot.
Just look for the biggest smile.
The photo, which depicts Laird's Navy WAVES training class at Hunter College in New York City, is preserved in a tattered scrapbook, along with the dozens of other pictures she brought back from her military service — one of the side benefits of serving at a Navy photographic lab.
While it's been more than 70 years since the images were captured, the associated memories still have the power to elicit a smile from Laird. For a small-town girl from Nevada, she told the Tulsa World, the WAVES program was a window to a larger world.
"I thought it would be a great experience and it was," the longtime Tulsan, now 92, said during a recent interview at her apartment at Senior Star at Burgundy Place.
Established in July 1942 after the U.S. entered World War II, the Navy's Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program called on young women to step in and take over Navy jobs done previously by men.
"That was so the men could go and fight," Laird said. "We were helping out."
An only child from Battle Mountain, Nevada, the former Margaret Sneddon moved after high school to Salt Lake City, Utah, to study voice at a junior college.
One day while there, though, her plans suddenly changed.
It happened, she said, as "I was walking downtown. I saw these two mannequins."
Set up outside a military recruiting office, each was wearing a uniform — one for the Women's Army Corps, the other the Navy WAVES.
The blue of the latter caught Laird's eye.
The idea of military service was one she'd had in the back of her mind. Now, the lure of that Navy uniform helped move it to the forefront: "I thought it looked particularly nice."
Before enlisting, though, Laird decided it would be wise to talk to her parents. Fully expecting her mom to say "no," she was in for a surprise, she said.
"I told her I wanted to enlist," Laird recalled. "And she said, 'Go for it! If I was your age, I would.'"
And that, Laird said, is how she came to join the Navy.
The next thing she knew, she said, she was on a train speeding across the country, leaving behind the only life she'd ever known.
"It was a three-day trip to New York City. And I remember it was so hot on the train." But she was with other young WAVES recruits, "and we had a good time," she said.
Finally they arrived at their destination, the U.S. Naval Training School at Hunter College. They would spend the next six weeks there training.
One of the photos in Laird's scrapbook is a close-up of a Navy aerial photographer. His face is obscured by his camera, though, and Laird doesn't remember who he was or the circumstances of the photo.
But it's a good example of what the Naval Photographic Science Laboratory, to which Laird was assigned in late 1944, was all about.
Part of Anacostia Naval Air Station near Washington, D.C., the lab collected film from Navy photographers all over the globe, as they documented Navy activities in both the European and Pacific theaters. Some of that would be used in Navy training and promotional films, which were produced at the lab.
Initially, Laird was assigned to the lab's music division, which created scores for the films, as a music copier. But they had enough help there, she said, and they moved her to photo. There, her job would be to operate a sensitometer, a machine that was part of the film development process.
One thing Laird remembers is how during the war a number of Hollywood film professionals served at the lab. One of them was Gene Kelly, who helped make documentaries for the Navy.
Laird remembers seeing the handsome dancer and movie star once.
"Oh, he thought he was so good," she laughed.
Thumb through Laird's scrapbook, and they jump out at you — smiling, happy faces. She and her Navy friends made the most of their off-duty time and it's reflected in her photos.
Laird's best buddy, she said, was a girl from Pennsylvania who went by "Mac."
Taking advantage of their proximity, Laird, Mac and the others would take in as much as they could of the nation's capital. And living at a Naval air station offered an added bonus, she said. With Navy planes departing at all times and to all sorts of destinations, if Laird and a friend wanted to get out of town, all they had to do was catch a ride with one.
"If they had room, we'd climb on," she said.
From D.C., they would enjoy multiple trips to New York City, and even one to Miami, Florida.
Once, while in NYC, she saw the musical "Oklahoma!" during its original Broadway run.
What role that state was going to play in her life Laird had no idea at the time. But the future was closer than she imagined.
"It was very much a surprise to me," Laird said of the news in August 1945 that the war was over.
All the celebrating quickly wound down, she added.
"Then, just like that, they didn't need us anymore."
In some of the photos in which she appears, Laird is decked out in her prized Navy blues.
She still has that uniform, and the blue is no less striking than when it first caught her eye at that long ago recruiting office.
Laird said she doesn't know if it still fits, though.
"I don't think I've had it on since I got out of the service," she said.
After the war, Laird picked up her life more or less where she'd left off. She resumed college, and soon married Don Laird, a veteran of the Pacific war from Perry, Oklahoma. He had come to town to visit family, and the two hit it off.
If she was going to live in Oklahoma, though, she determined it would have to be Tulsa, she said. "I'd had enough of small towns" like Battle Mountain, she said, adding that her service had given her a taste of urban life.
Margaret and Don raised two children together, while he became a pharmacist, eventually owning Spartan Drug in Tulsa.
She completed a degree in political science at the University of Oklahoma. But she decided against a career, opting instead to stay home and raise a family.
Later she sang a few seasons with Tulsa Opera. And she was active at one time with the former World War II Veterans of Tulsa organization.
A stroke, though, has limited her more recently, even as macular degeneration has claimed much of her vision.
Laird believes that today's young people aren't very interested in her generation and the war.
It's natural to feel some disconnect if you haven't experienced something, she said, noting that it would be different "if somebody was shooting at them."
"But I hope they never have to experience war like that."