“Both of my parents were children of ministers and knew how to make money stretch. Every Saturday we had baked beans and butter for supper. Shoes were expensive and everyone’s shoes were worn through. You slapped the sole of your shoe before you stood on it. I had three dresses to wear to school and on Thursday and Friday, I repeated with the cleanest ones. Daddy gave us 25 cents every week. 10 cents went to Sunday School. That left us 15 cents for a movie and snack. All of the Depression children will tell you these same stories. You didn’t think you were poor because everyone else was poor and we were all used to doing without.
I was a stewardess with Waterman Airlines and saw the world. Our pilots were from the war and they were my heroes.
I went to Auburn after the 11th grade and there were 1,000 girls and 250 men. Fort Benning was close by and the men discovered us. I dated a lot of paratroopers. Some were being trained as officers for D-Day. Out of the four or five I wrote to, I only heard from one after the war, and he wrote to me from a hospital. I don’t know if they survived that day. The girls at home wrote letters constantly. Mail call was too important. I wrote five to eight letters a week. We bought sachet powder to make the letters smell good and the boys slept with the letters under their pillows. I had suitcases of letters from boys but my mother made me burn them before I got married. There were some love letters. I met some of the boys on the six-hour train that I took from Mobile to Auburn. Each train car was packed with boys in uniform. I usually sat on a duffle bag between the cars. I got wise and started pulling out my needlepoint. A nice young man would ask what I was doing and I showed him how to do it. I moved into the car with my needlepoint and they would all try it and learn. That piece is on a chair in the living room. The stitches went everywhere. I need to put a sign on it that says, ‘Made by the armed forces.’
We had tremendous shortages in Mobile during the war. The population was 65,000 to 75,000 people. In six months it exploded to 150,000. People lived in vacant lots and tents. The majority of old houses were turned into apartments. We had to house these people. They turned out a ship a week in Mobile. The ships went out of Mobile Bay, but the Germans were in the Gulf of Mexico and torpedoed some of them. Debris was constantly washed into the bay and on the shore. We picked up canned goods, life preservers, and cigarettes in cans.
After the war, they started building schools. Murphy High School was the only public school we had. My dad was a teacher and a principal at Murphy. Phillips Preparatory school was named for my father.
In 1945, I taught Home Ec at Barton Academy, the first middle school in Mobile. They had no sewing machines because Singer was making machine guns instead of sewing machines. I found five sewing machines in the attic that were powered by feet and taught with those. They broke down all of the time. On my lunch hour, I walked to the Singer outlet and they taught me how to mend machines and sold me parts. One of those trips I bumped into my neighbor who had just started as a flight attendant for Waterman Airlines. They hired two Mobile girls and wanted one more. I thought I could do that and get out of Mobile. I forgot the sewing machine and went to apply. My dad said, “Go. You are never going to meet a man teaching school.” We had great parents who wanted us educated and did anything to help us.
I became a stewardess and flew around the world. There were maybe 1,000 women in this job and I was always a curiosity. We wore beautiful, tailored uniforms that matched the interior of our planes. We looked good. You had to be a college graduate, no taller than 5’8″ and no more than 125 pounds. Walking through LaGuardia airport in New York, people stopped and stared.
We flew at 5-6,000 feet and saw the world as we went by. In 1946, we landed on a dirt field in Frankfurt, Germany. They had pushed all of the wrecked planes to the side — two stories of twisted planes. We had two pilots who bombed Frankfurt and it was hard for them to see the damage to the city. Nothing had been cleaned up. We stayed in a hotel where the top half was gone. Old German soldiers handling our bags wore their tattered, moth-eaten uniforms. It was all they had and they were just surviving. We flew over Dunkirk and nothing had been touched. There were rusted tanks and ships half-sunk in the harbor. The towns were blown to bits, but the churches were still standing because Americans didn’t bomb the churches. The Marshall Plan helping Europe back to its feet was the most humane thing we have done.
Waterman was the richest steamship company in the world and they were headquartered in Mobile. They paid cash for airplanes and were trying to establish an airlines to follow their steamships around the globe. Our passengers were often the United Relief volunteers flying home. They were helping those people displaced by Hitler and war. The people of Europe took a beating and after the war ended, they had no money or way to get home. The American Armed Forces cared for them and sent them by truck or train back to their countries. That was October 1946. Those volunteers were a great group of young people and they kissed the ground when they landed in the United States. I wanted to take every American out of our country and show them what the rest of the world looks like. The freedom to think is such a blessing. We have always had it and take it for granted
Our pilots were from the war and they were my heroes. I knew I was safe with them. We had a cute Navy pilot names Harvey who flew evacuation planes in the war. His squad saved 9,000 Marines. They say Harvey said, ‘I am going to marry that one’ when he saw me. He proposed to me on the fourth date and we married two-and-a-half months later. My mother thought it was indecent. Six weeks after we married, we moved to San Jose, Costa Rica because Harvey was hired by the Central American airline that bought Waterman. There was a revolution in Costa Rica while we were there. We had friends over for dinner and heard shots fired outside our window. A tank rolled up our street and was swinging around. We hit the floor and wiggled our way to the dining room so we would have more walls around us.
We came back to Mobile shortly after that. Harvey tried to sell insurance but that didn’t work. He said you can’t be a Yankee selling insurance in Mobile, Alabama. His father had a box plant that sold folded boxes. In 1950 we moved to Ohio for that and lived there for 20 years.
Harvey and I moved back to Mobile. We needed money and Harvey suggested I sell antiques because I furnished our home with antiques I bought for cheap and restored. I started with $500 and built up a business. When he retired, we cleaned old furniture together. I still have a booth at Cotton City. My grandfather bought this house in 1911 and it became my home. Four generations have lived here. I lost Harvey when he was 78, but I am surrounded by furniture, photographs, and many memories.”
(Part Two of Katherine Phillips Singer’s story will be tomorrow about her brother’s service in Guadalcanal, how they became a part of Ken Burn’s documentary, and connections to King Tut, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel Bedford Forest)