The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 9, 2007


Serving in the U.S. Navy changed Kathy Coyle's life

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Kathleen (Kathy) Coyle of

Former WAVE Kathy Coyle. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

Maple Street was a freshman at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. At the end of her sophomore year at Goucher, Coyle was forced to drop out because her father's business collapsed. At the time, he was an international lawyer, and wartime conditions brought most of his practice to an abrupt halt. His daughter's response was to work at a variety of small jobs, including clerking in a department store and in a defense factory doing performance tests on X-ray tubes. "There wasn't much future in that," Coyle says, "so I decided to enlist in the Navy. It was a way of going forward. I had applied to Johns Hopkins nursing school, but was rejected because I was too short. I just thought I could be of more use in the Navy than where I was."

Anything was possible with education

Coyle's parents had raised her to think that anything was possible for a person who had an education. Her father had put himself through Stanford University as secretary to its president, Ray Lyman Wilbur, and subsisting on rice. He earned a law degree from Stanford, a divinity degree from Yale, and ran for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. In the years before and during World War II, as an international lawyer he helped bring refugees out of Europe.

Coyle's mother, also a Stanford graduate, taught at San Jose State College and in Alabama, and had put her own siblings through college by working as a seamstress. Despite her family's frequent mobility, Coyle knew that she would head for college and follow her parents' path.

Post-war conditions

At the time of her enlistment, the war was officially over. It was 1946, but minesweepers still patrolled the east coast of the United States, rationing was still in force, military personnel from the allied forces all over the world were putting in at American ports, the services were still recruiting, and the military was still on alert and functioning at wartime readiness. Coyle entered boot camp at Hunter College in New York, and was introduced to a completely new life-style. "I was so young," she says, "in so many ways. I had worn Buster Brown shoes right up through high school. I could listen to a symphony and tell you who was conducting, but I don't think I'd ever had a date. Now I was in uniform and going through a whole new set of rules. I remember inspections, for example. We had one officer who had a toilet paper fetish: she couldn't stand to see the paper hanging down, so we used to use Scotch tape to stick it to the roll whenever we knew she was coming. I had never experienced anyth

After boot camp, Coyle was assigned to the recruiting office First Naval District at 150 Causeway Street in Boston. She was an apprentice seaman in the WAVES, "the lowest rung on the ladder, in a time when most men didn't want women in the Navy."

The confidence of youth

There were, of course, no barracks for women in Boston at the time, so the WAVES had to find billets in the city. Coyle remembers interviewing for apartments with some of the members of the Beacon Hill community, and because of her answers to questions about culture and education, "I wound up connected with Beacon Hill's underground list of people who would take in 'the right kind' of military personnel. I got a room on Pinckney Street." In the context of today's world, all this seems extremely snobbish, but Coyle said, "The WAVES had a terrible reputation at the time among some people, [who thought of them as little more than camp followers]. I remember someone spitting at me in the street once when I walked along in uniform."

After traveling around the area making speeches for the recruitment office in Boston, Coyle was transferred to Maine and did the same job there. "I remember living in a hotel in Maine," she says. "But I traveled to Lewiston, made contacts, talked at high schools and even had my own radio program. I used to write radio dramas about a woman who enlists in the Navy and winds up being very successful or finding the love of her life." In Maine, she worked with "an old-time Navy chief, who smoked these awful cigars and didn't want women 'on his ship.' I don't know how I did it: it must have been the confidence of youth."

She remembers an unusual recruitment technique as well. For fun, she went to see a fortuneteller in Portland, Maine. She does not remember what the woman told her about her own life, but she does remember that the woman promised "to tell all the young women who came to her that she saw them in their futures wearing Navy blue."

Really important work

After the recruiting assignment in Maine came a transfer to the Naval Air Station at Cape May, New Jersey, where she edited the station newspaper, The Wheelwatch, and was rated as yeoman instead of a recruiting specialist. Here, she was able to live in women's barracks, and worked in the cartographer's office, revising maps of shipping lanes for accuracy, expunging shipwrecks as they were found, pinpointing the locations of mines. It was classified work, and "here I was, this little girl who really didn't know what to do in the world, doing really important work. People's lives depended on our accuracy."

"The war was still very near at Cape May," she goes on. "Minesweepers put in there, and the beach was patrolled. I was meeting people with a much broader education than I had. It was the making of me."

Out of the Buster Browns at last

"All of my growing up focused on long-term goals," Coyle says. "What you would study, what you would become. This experience sent me out of the 'ethic' of California, that frontier mentality that said there was no limit to what you could do, that you simply went out and accomplished what you wanted to do. Those are good values, but the things that weren't included in all that were what I learned in the Navy. The Navy was focused on a 24-hour existence. It was very immediate. There was an equality there, based on solidarity and performance. I got out of my Buster Brown shoes, there."

At Cape May, Coyle qualified to be a chief yeoman and sent in her application, but because of her gender, she believes, it was not forwarded. She learned that the most effective technique to achieve a promotion was to send an advance copy of the application to the Secretary of the Navy, and this worked. When the original application failed to show up on the Secretary's desk, she found herself transferred to Atlantic City with three hours' notice.

At the base in Atlantic City, Coyle found that there were some residual gender woes with which she still had to deal. She was promoted to chief yeoman, but was given the job of adding up points for discharges, a task, she says, for which she was ill-qualified. Later, when she was admitted by examination for graduate study at the University of Chicago, her test scores indicated that she fell in the 99th percentile for verbal skills, but "only in the second percentile for 'computational ability.' These scores were in comparison to those of mathematics students. I'm not sure to this day how accurate I was about adding up those discharge points."

As the first female chief yeoman in Atlantic City, Coyle was supposed to eat in the chiefs' mess and was the first female to invade that sanctum. She admits to being nervous, facing "all those old-time Navy chiefs," but they "cleaned up their language" and assured her that "your honor is safe, ma'am."

Kindnesses and punishments

"There were so many kindnesses like that," Coyle recalls. "For example, I hadn't seen my mother in three years and she was going to be in New York City over a holiday weekend. I knew I wasn't going to get a pass out of the district to see her, but I got a pass for New Jersey and I was going to take my chances." If she had been caught, Coyle would have been absent without leave. "I got on a train and opened up my pass, and it said 'N.H.' instead of 'N.J.' I don't think that was a mistake. I think somebody understood and let me see my mother."

When the Navy closed down the women's barracks in Atlantic City, however, Coyle was sent to the shipyard in Philadelphia to work under the Fourth Naval District Director of Discipline, who was another officer who did not approve of women in the Navy. Still, working here was an education. The director had a rigid system for dealing with new officers who came to the base: his research on their ranks and experience determined who would walk through a door first, and generally "where they would sit: above or below the salt, so to speak."

Discharge and life lessons

Coyle was discharged from Philadelphia, taking a group of other dischargees with her to
Kathy Coyle's discharge papers from the Navy.
Washington, D.C. to sign out of the Navy and collect their papers. She had been in uniform for almost four years when she was discharged on April 15, 1949. She was able to attend the University of Chicago as a graduate student under the G.I. Bill and go on from there to earn a doctorate in school psychology from Harvard.

"The thing that got it all going," she says, "was the Navy. It opened things up. It was the people I met: good people, intelligent people. We weren't where it was difficult, and danger wasn't in the forefront of our minds, although when you met someone who was going out on a minesweeper, for example, it came closer. But we knew what was going on, and we were very conscious that we had a role to play. There was an immediacy about our lives, and a real sense of pride in doing our jobs well."

Reflecting on her experiences, Coyle says, "These big events, like Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001, are turning points, but we rarely realize that at the time they happen. December 7, 1941, was different: we had Roosevelt right there telling us it was a turning point. We were going to war, and that meant that everything about our lives would change.

"It was the conjunction of that period in my young life and what was going on out there. The world had to change, and we did. I don't know what would have happened in my life without the Navy, but I do know that I am a better person because of it."

Editor's note: Kathleen Coyle is the Mosquito's police reporter.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito