Empire State University Women Veterans Historical Project
Oral History Collection
Interviewee: Margaret "Peggy" S. Carter (1920- ) was born in London, England. She was as a nurse in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps (FANY) from 1939 to 1940, an agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) from 1940 to 1942, and served in the Allied organization called the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) as an Operations Supervisor from 1942 to 1946. During the war, she provided intelligence for missions conducted by Captain Steven G. Rogers ("Captain America") and the elite task force known as the Howling Commandos. On her discharge from the SSR she moved permanently to the USA. This interview discusses her wartime service, as well as life in America in the post-war years.
Interviewer: Kelly Trojanowski is a Master's student in History at Empire State University, and a research assistant on the ESU Women Veterans Historical Project. She holds a BA in English from Wellesley College.
Date: August 2, 2002
Format: Interview recorded by Kelly Trojanowski on miniDV using Sony Digital Camcorder DCR-TRV950. One 60-minute tape.
Transcript: Transcribed by Kelly Trojanowski, August 2002. Transcript reviewed and edited by Sara Ng, December 2002.
This interview and others in the Women Veterans Historical Project were made possible thanks to generous support from the Maria Stark Foundation.
KT: Today is August 2, 2002, and I'm in the Special Collections Reading Room of Empire State University with Margaret Carter, to conduct an interview for the university's project on women veterans. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today, Ms. Carter. My first question for you is an easy one, I think! Can you tell me your full name and your date of birth, just for the records?
MC: Margaret Sylvia Carter, and I was born April 9, 1920.
KT: Awesome, thank you! So, from what I know, you're originally from London, England. Could you maybe tell us a little bit about your background there—about your family, what your childhood was like?
MC: Certainly. Well, let's see. My father's name was Alfred, Alfred Carter. He worked in the City—something financial, I think, to do with insurance. He was originally from Berkshire but he moved to London when he was young. My mother was born Alice Wilkinson, and her family was London through-and-through going back, oh, generations. We lived in Hampstead, which is an area a little to the north of the city proper.
KT: And she—your mother—did she work?
MC: Oh no, that wasn't the done thing at the time, not for people of our class. Or not for money, I should say. There was housework, of course, though we had a cook and a maid-of-all-work before the War, but there were four of us children so that was a lot of wear-and-tear. And of course, Mother ruled the local Women's Guild with a rod of iron. She could draw up a church cleaning rota with an efficiency that would do a sergeant major proud.
KT: Four kids? So that was…
MC: Three brothers, all quite a bit older than me. I believe I was what they call a change-of-life baby—do people say that any more? Alfie, George, and Walter, and then baby Peggy.
KT: So what British people would call a middle-class upbringing, but that's not really the same as how Americans think of middle-class, right?
MC: No, no. It's all so different here that—well, it was one of the things that I liked, when I came here first. There were lots of problems of course, but all I could see were the opportunities for advancement. I would say we were what we would have called lower middle-class. My father never earned his bread by the sweat of his brow and my brothers went to middling boarding schools, but there was no real expectation that we would go on to university or anything and certainly by the time I came along it was—well, the Great War made it so that there were just fewer men around. A girl couldn't rely on marrying well and keeping house anymore. It was presumed I would be a nurse, or perhaps a secretary with a respectable firm. Something that would keep me if I couldn't catch a man.
KT: And then World War Two happened.
MC: And then the war happened, yes.
KT: But we're getting ahead of ourselves. You didn't go to college but you went to school, obviously.
MC: Yes, to St Evangeline's, which was an all-girls grammar—a day school, not like my brothers. Very much the done thing then, of course.
KT: Did you like it?
MC: I tolerated it. It wasn't a very good grammar. I think it only called itself one because the foundress had had pretensions to grandeur, not because of any real scholastic achievements. I was a fair student, I think—I had the aptitude but I found the rote learning quite deathly, and even the practical things we did weren't… Well, Home Ec, for instance, it was all aimed to produce good wives and mothers for the Empire, you see, making scones and darning socks, and I'm afraid I was a bit of a horror. Poor Miss Greene, that woman had done nothing to deserve me.
KT: You graduated before the war began, right?
MC: I left school in '36, yes. I passed my School Cert and went off to train as a nurse. I'd learned shorthand and typing in school, but I thought that nursing might be a bit more exciting than office work.
KT: So you didn't have—it wasn't an aspiration thing, right, a sense of a career or having a vocation or—
MC: Good lord, no. We were English. The only people I knew who had vocations were the ones in our congregation who went off on missions to convert the Far East every so often, and they were so Low Church they were practically Methodist—not Mother's sort at all. I went to a colleague's funeral a few months ago and there was a man playing a guitar and asking us to clap along and sing and all I could think of was how appalled my poor mother would have been. I'm sorry, I've rather lost the thread, you were asking—
KT: Why you became a nurse. It wasn't—
MC: Oh yes, no, I wasn't thinking in terms of a career. One didn't really, then. I thought, I shall get this qualification and then I can go off and do something exciting, something useful. It was all rather vague and half-formed, I suppose, but I was sixteen, after all. So I did my training at a little hospital in Kent—a cousin of my mother's knew the matron there—and then a week after I qualified, Hitler sent his troops into Poland.
KT: Did you sign up right away? Enlist?
MC: Well it was rather different for women, of course, than for men. Men were conscripted, but we women weren't supposed to be on the front lines, you see, and so where we were thought useful was in support roles—in one of the auxiliary services. Later on when things were rather dire, women were called up to serve on anti-aircraft guns and so on, but at the outset, few people thought it would get that bad, that it would last so long.
KT: Were you one of them?
MC: My dear, the cynic has not yet been born who could have stood in '39 and predicted how bad things would be by '45. And I say that as someone who's rarely been accused of woolly-headed optimism. There were… It was the Phoney War at first, you see, and it wasn't that anyone outright said well, it'll be over by Christmas, because memories of the Great War were very fresh. But the Blitz hadn't happened yet, or rationing, or even the invasion of Norway, and everything still seemed quite far away. There was still the possibility, then, people thought, that a peace could be negotiated.
KT: Did you agree with those people?
MC: Not for a moment. My father had some friends who were rather taken with Mosley and his crowd, and I was never terribly political, exactly—not in a party sense—but I'd heard enough to know that it very much didn't appeal to me. The thoughts of someone like that with power, and the will to use it? Oh, no, no. No, I could tell there would be no negotiated peace. The fascists were very upfront about their intentions. The fight was going to be in earnest and I wanted to do my part.
KT: So you enlisted early on?
MC: Yes—well, not technically. My mother was already upset enough that two of my brothers had been conscripted. She would not have been happy to see a third child head away from home. I had my nursing qualification, and I could drive, so I volunteered for the local branch of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps. FANY. Terrible name, and not actually part of the army, or at least my part wasn't at that point, but very useful work, all the same. It made me feel like I was participating somehow.
KT: This was like a first aid type group? Ambulance corps?
MC: It did some of that, yes, but FANY had been around since the Great War. They were originally nurses who went galloping into battlefields on horseback to provide care to the wounded, which was where they got the name from—the yeomanry part, I mean. Sounds very antiquated now, of course. By the time of my war, though, it was all motorised, which was good because I've never felt particularly comfortable around horses. Very unstable beasts. The FANYs did all sorts—nursing, administrative work, wireless operators—but my first job was driving equipment and patients from one hospital to another, which was a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. Then I got sent as part of a group to Liverpool, to fetch a fleet of new ambulances sent over from America and bring them back to London. We had to drive down in a convoy and then deliver them on to the Red Cross. On the train trip up to Liverpool, I shared a carriage with one of the more senior women and we talked, as one does, about family and school days and so on—and I didn't know it at the time, but that was to be the real beginning of my war.
KT: In what way?
MC: Well, this woman—I shall call her Edith—Edith's husband worked for SOE, and—
KT: Special Operations Executive.
MC: —yes, in intelligence. I'd told Edith that I spoke French fluently and that I had a smattering of German, which was true.
KT: These were languages you'd learned in school?
MC: Rattling off those verb tables hadn't been entirely useless, I suppose. I only took French to School Cert level, but there was a German family who'd lived a couple of houses down from us when I was, oh, thirteen or fourteen, so my accent wasn't entirely atrocious. Anyway, Edith's husband was always on the lookout for new women who could do espionage work on the Continent, and Edith must have thought I fit the bill. A couple of days after we got back to London, I was called into the office and asked if I'd be willing to do a slightly different kind of work. More dangerous.
KT: What did you say?
MC: "So long as no one tells my mother."
KT: And that was it—off you went to be a spy?
MC: Well, they did train us first—sent me and some other girls up to Scotland. I got to go home and say goodbye to my parents, pack some things. I told them that I'd been transferred to a Women's Auxiliary Transportation unit working out of Glasgow, which was bad enough for them to hear. They were true Londoners—they thought that anywhere further north than Potters Bar was getting beyond the bounds of civilisation. For me to say that I'd be spending months away from them, and so far away—
KT: This was the furthest away from home you'd ever been?
MC: Oh, absolutely. We'd been been to Brighton once, on holliers for a fortnight, but this was something else—taking the sleeper train for hours and hours, and then the trip onwards into the Highlands in a rickety bus, to a place called Arisaig in Inverness-shire. It was the first time I'd seen proper mountains, you know. It was quite something, but we really didn't have time to focus on the scenery. They put us through a quick but full round of commando training—how to use firearms and explosives, unarmed combat, map-reading, basic signals, that sort of thing. Field-craft, which for some reason had us wading around up to our oxters in a peat bog. Brushed up on my French and German accents. And then apparently growing up with three brothers had taught me how to throw a good punch, which helped.
KT: How much training did you get? Did you feel confident, heading out into the field?
MC: I suppose the sage thing would be to say that experience is the greatest teacher, and so on, and that no time spent training can ever be enough, but I would have liked to spend a little more time practicing parachuting. We just did fewer training jumps than the men, and I never did get the hang of doing it in a dignified manner—especially not my first time out, the SOE had me parachute in wearing a skirt.
KT: Why on earth did they do that?
MC: They thought that it would help me blend in more with the locals for some reason—not a lot of committed Nazi women in trousers, I suppose. Though that didn't stop me from feeling a little ridiculous about flashing my knickers to half of bloody Bavaria.
KT: So for your first mission you were sent right into the heart of the Third Reich? How did that make you feel?
MC: Terrified, to be frank. But I had no choice. There were rather scrambling for some woman from anywhere in the service who could do it, and there was no one else from F Section who—
KT: Sorry, could you explain—F Section?
MC: Oh, that's what they called us, you know, the ones who worked in Occupied France for the SOE: F Section. There weren't ever very many of us women, and there were so few of us with training and who had what even little German I had, and it was a time sensitive mission. So off I went.
KT: When was this?
MC: This would have been… late 1940. Mid-November, I think. I don't know, it blurs at times, but I think mid-November.
KT: Not the warmest time you could have been sent in, then?
KT: So what was the mission?
MC: It was a rescue mission.
KT: You don't seem inclined to say anything more.
MC: Well, I'm still bound by the Official Secrets Act.
KT: Even after sixty years? You can't talk about any of it?
MC: They put us through mock interrogations, you know, during training. What we might expect if we were caught by the Gestapo. You could be dragged from your bed at any time of the night and questioned thoroughly, and the SOE officers were determined to be as authentic as they could be.
KT: This is your way of saying that I'm not as intimidating as the SOE guys, huh?
KT: Well then, are there any other missions that you carried out for F Section that you can talk about?
MC: I carried out two others, both in France. The first was a minor success—liaising with some of the Resistance in Normandy and helping them retrieve some arms dumps. The second was down near Bordeaux in… oh, it must have been May or June of '42 by this point. Terribly hot, regardless. I smuggled in several pounds of plastic explosives and worked with RF section—those were the chaps who were with the Free French—to blow up a large part of a power plant in the area. It would have been an irritation most other places in France, but the Germans had one of their main U-Boat bases in Bordeaux, you see, and what we did slowed down their repair schedule considerably. Helped a lot of the supply convoys to make it across the Atlantic unscathed.
KT: That sounds like a pretty decent track record to me, but they didn't have you stay on? Keep working in France?
MC: Well, part of it was that on the way back from that second mission, on the way back to the rendezvous point with the pilot, I mean, there was a close call where I almost got captured by the Germans. One of the RF men—a decent sort, Philippe, thorough-going Communist but loved fine cigars—he did get caught and muggins here had to talk him out of a holding cell.
KT: That worked? Talking someone out of Nazi custody?
MC: No, not exactly, but punching did. Of course, then the Gestapo turned up and my cover was quite thoroughly blown. I barely got away with my skin. When I made it back to England, my commanding officers decided it wasn't safe to send me back. The Germans had a good description of me then, you see, and the thing with being technically part of FANY was—well, the Geneva Convention, being a POW, none of that would apply to me because I was neither an officer nor a gentleman. In as much as the Nazis ever honoured that. My superiors didn't want to risk my being caught.
KT: So they what, put you on desk duty?
MC: No, they shunted me sideways into a slightly different kind of work—though at first, it rather felt like a demotion, to be honest. I was to be the liaison between British Intelligence and a relatively new Allied agency, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, overseeing their work and making sure that things got properly implemented in the field. This was all set up not long after the US entered the war. The Germans had something of an advantage over us at that point, in terms of weapons and technology, and the SSR's task was to close that gap.
KT: The SSR is one of those groups, those bodies, that has a sort of—everyone's heard of it, it's been in the movies, if you've read, say, Michael K. Clemence's excellent book on it, you know how central it was to the war effort. But at the same time, it's sort of shrouded in mystery for a lot of people and even Clemence couldn't get access to a lot of files when he was researching. Could you talk about it in a little more detail? I mean, I know a lot of it's classified still, so you might not be able to say a lot.
MC: Yes. The SSR was… Well, we would never have been able to match the Nazis or Hydra for amorality, but the SSR definitely tried to go toe-to-toe with them in terms of ruthlessness. There was a certain air of desperation to the enterprise, a belief that perhaps the ends could justify the means.
KT: You're talking about the rumours that the SSR engaged in experimentation on human subjects? I mean, it's one of those things that the government never really wants to just come out and confirm or deny one way or the other, but everyone's seen the before and after photos of Captain America. You don't seem to want to talk about this.
MC: The SSR was under the command of Colonel Chester Phillips. He was a very stereotypical Texan, you know—this bluff and straightforward army man, shoot first and ask questions later. Grizzled. He'd fought in the Great War as a young man, and that had given him a horror of trench warfare, and of…. I don't think he could stand the thought of how passive it felt, you know. Standing in a water-logged, rat-infested ditch and waiting to be shot at, hoping that your sheer presence would help your side hold onto another six feet of the Somme. And the gas, he mentioned that to me once when he was very drunk—that he'd seen soldiers killed by what they called White Star then, chlorine and phosgene gases mixed up and launched in an artillery shell. A terrible, terrible death, drowning on your own breath. For most people, I think that disgust would have led to abhorrence but for the Colonel it created a kind of determination. Never again, and all that. The SSR was very much his creation—he was the one who talked President Roosevelt into setting up the agency. Of course it had one fatal flaw.
KT: What was that?
MC: Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but what he never realised—what we never do seem to realise—is that it's impossible to win an arms race. It's all a fool's… what's the phrase? Fool's errand? Fool's gold? Maybe both of those. With an arm's race, you've lost the moment you start.
KT: And it was around this time then that you met Steven Rogers?
MC: I have to congratulate you on your restraint. You know, people normally ask me about him much sooner than that.
KT: Well, it's pretty impossible to talk about the United States' involvement with the war and not bring up Captain America. There's the iconic significance, his strategic contributions to the ultimate victory in Europe, and the cultural impact from the '40s radio plays right through to those terrible movies in the '80s.
MC: Oh, those movies—the posters alone! Steve was always so conscientious in his grooming, the very thought of growing a mullet would have horrified him.
KT: One of my roommates at undergrad actually had the poster for the sequel up over her bed! The eyes always seemed like they were following you around the room. But close encounters with B-movies aside, I know it's always been much more difficult—at least for me—to get a sense of who the man behind Captain America's mask was, so to speak. There have been biographies, some of them more scholarly, some of them, well, we could charitably say less so, and of course there are James Morita's memoirs, but biographers don't have a lot of primary source material to work with and Morita on the whole was fairly circumspect—
MC: You mean that his mother raised him to be polite.
KT: Which of course makes me then ask you about your personal experiences with Captain America. You knew him even before he picked up the shield, is that right? What was he like as a person?
MC: All told, I knew Captain Rogers for less than two years, but it felt like much longer than that. It was… Well, it's sometimes difficult for me to remember that I even had a life before I knew him. He was quite a remarkable person. I know people nowadays have this sense of him as a very remote figure, sort of… stiff and dutiful I suppose, but Steve was one of the few people I ever met who was truly passionate about the concept of duty, the—the bone-deep obligation of it.
KT: No sense of facade?
MC: Oh no, none at all. I'm not saying that he was a saint, mind you. Heavens, no. Steve Rogers could be a stiff-necked son-of-a-bitch when he wanted to be, which was most of the time. What I mean is that he lived in earnest. He was not in any way ironic, which I think many people nowadays would find difficult to understand. The rest of the twentieth century rather put paid to that. But he was not a statue. The man I knew had a dry sense of humour and a love for fresh tomatoes when he could lay hands on them—give him a sprinkling of salt and he'd eat them like apples—and he had an utter inability to keep a pair of socks together. He also never met a fight he didn't think he could win, no matter what the odds.
KT: There have been some declassified papers in the last few years relating to Captain America and the Howling Commandos, and your name crops up in them a number of times, as one of the SSR agents who was in charge of co-ordinating their activities, but they also make it clear that you went into the field on several occasions. You were active in supporting their operations. What was it like, to fight alongside him—alongside them, I should say?
MC: Well, my time with the Commandos did help me to acquire a repertoire of marching songs with lyrics of truly eye-watering filth. But it also gave me a sense of… not that I was ever formally part of their group, you understand, but they didn't hesitate to welcome me or balk at letting me fight, which I greatly appreciated.
KT: Had you encountered a lot of opposition to being a woman who fought? I mean, you'd come out of the SOE where there were women agents, so presumably—
MC: Oh, of course. We have this idea now of Rosie the Riveter and everyone pulling together during the war and all of that, and in some senses that was true. But it's not as if living amidst any of that was inherently enlightening, you know. There was no mass epiphany about women's competence. There were, however, plenty of men who disregarded a direct order from me, or who passed comment about how they thought I'd acquired my job, or who pinched my bum.
KT: And how did you deal with that?
MC: Well, in the latter case, I found that breaking his hand dealt with it rather smartly.
KT: I get the sense that you're not actually joking about that.
MC: I didn't intend to do it, if that makes a difference, but as a response it was rather satisfyingly final.
KT: And that didn't have any negative repercussions for you?
MC: Colonel Phillips said something about how if Muller was fool enough to try anything with me, he shouldn't be surprised at facing some unpleasant consequences.
KT: I see. So, uh, so I guess that you weren't really fazed by going out into the field as the lone woman with a group of men?
MC: Good heavens, no. They really were sweethearts. Well, Dum Dum—Tim Dugan—he could swear so fluently the air turned blue, but a gentle giant, really. Jim Morita, you mentioned him already—he moved back to California after the war and trained as a botanist, which wasn't at all surprising. Somehow he always found the time to collect plant seeds wherever we went to bring back with him, which I'm sure would get you in terrible trouble nowadays. Monty Falsworth, poor Monty, died in a car crash in Yorkshire in the mid '50s. Speeding, the silly ass. Then there was Jacques Dernier, our munitions expert, and Gabe Jones. The three of us had such fun, you know, because we were the only ones who could speak French fluently—Steve, Captain Rogers, had enough to get by in but the idioms mostly escaped him—and so we could rib the others mercilessly without them knowing quite what we were doing. And then there was poor Barnes.
KT: This is Sergeant James Barnes?
KT: He's another one of those figures who crops up quite a bit in the history books, and whose name everyone sort of recognises because he was the sidekick in the short-lived '60s TV show—
MC: Oh, that wasn't like him at all, you know, they really just borrowed his name for the character. Barnes would have been embarrassed by the outfits! And so put out to learn that he'd been relegated to the position of child sidekick. He was always keen to remind Steve that he was in fact the older of the two by several months.
KT: But he and Steve Rogers had known one another since they were children, right?
MC: Yes, they grew up together in Brooklyn—I believe their mothers had worked together at some point and they lived on the same street, went to the same schools. In fact, before the war started, I shouldn't say that they'd spent more than a few days apart in their entire lives. When he… when, when Barnes died, in early '45, Steve took it, oh, it was very hard indeed on him. Afterwards, when I saw him, it… may I trouble you for a glass of water? Thank you.
KT: No problem. I can give you a minute.
[Tape turned off]
KT: Are you okay to resume?
MC: Yes, thank you. I never had the intention of turning into a silly old woman, you know, but I suppose that's the kind of thing that creeps up on you whether you want it to or not.
KT: Please, don't worry about it. I understand that these can be—that this can still be very painful, very emotional. Maybe we can move on a little bit to talk about a slightly different aspect of your wartime experience, something that really only came to general knowledge relatively recently, and that's the interview which you gave about Captain Rogers and the Howling Commandos in the early '50s. I've seen it in the Smithsonian, in the permanent display there on Captain America, but it's only been there for what, the past two, three years?
KT: And it was just, like, lying in a storage room between the time it was made and the late '90s?
MC: Something like that, yes. It had been made for… posterity, I imagine. Not my idea, originally. But I heard that the museum was planning on mounting this exhibition and I thought, well, I'm one of the last of us left, I practically am posterity at this point and I'm not getting any younger either. If it was going to go anywhere, it should go there. Though I won't say I wasn't tempted to set a match to the bloody thing.
KT: But if you'd done that, then one of the great photographic puzzles of the Second World War would never have been solved—who was the mysterious woman in the photo that Captain America carried in his compass? Like, it was almost up there with that iconic photo of the sailor and the nurse kissing in Times Square. I mean, you were in that newsreel footage but for some reason no one ever came forward to identify you; you were just 'Cap's Girl' in popular culture.
MC: I should have thought that people would have far more interesting things to worry about.
KT: But this is… I probably should own up here, I'm working on my Master's thesis right now and I'm focusing on representations of women and the war in post-war media—what that says about changing ideas about women and femininity and the '50s era backlash and all that. So I find this particularly fascinating, I guess, because of how this photo sparked all of these theories and speculations and even inspired the character of Elizabeth Carver in several of the spin-offs about Steve Rogers' life, who sort of… filled the hole that people speculated that the woman in the photo must have played. And yet here the woman in the photo is you, and you had a very different wartime experience, a very different background, from that character.
MC: Well, Adolf Hitler certainly tied me up and left me on a railway track on far fewer occasions.
KT: Is it something you've ever thought about, though? Those parallels?
MC: No, not really. I rolled my eyes at those silly radio plays, of course, but getting too worked up about them would have been shadow-boxing with the past. And I'd had enough of that already. I didn't know a single woman who served who acted the way that Betty Carver did. Not that we were all paragons of virtue, mind you, but any woman worth her salt was going to be a damn sight more resourceful than her. But of course, any attempt to set the record straight would have created more problems than it solved.
KT: So you weren't in a relationship with Steve Rogers during the war?
MC: As you say.
KT: I'm sorry, I hate to pry or, or to be inappropriate, but I have to ask—it's one of those things that people will wonder about. The set of circumstances—
MC: I honestly never found out where Steve got that photo of me from, and he never told me why he carried it with him. Perhaps he would have, if there had been time.
KT: But sadly, as everyone knows, the plane that Captain Rogers was piloting was brought down somewhere over the Sea of Japan in March of 1945. And within six weeks, Germany had surrendered, and Japan followed shortly afterwards. Did that—was victory something that was bittersweet for you at that point, or?
MC: To be perfectly honest with you, at that point I didn't really know what on earth to feel, so I decided I had better just split the difference and get bloody drunk. I was in England on V-E Day, as it turned out. It felt like one of those things that happened slowly and then all at once. The surrender, I mean. We'd been taking more and more prisoners, and the Germans were being pushed back, and Mussolini was dead. Inch by inch, occupied Europe was freeing itself and it was like—oh, like holding your breath, waiting impatiently until the moment you could breathe again. The seventh—that was the day before, the day they actually signed the treaty—that was a bright, sunny day and there was a group of us headed for the airfield and we'd stopped in a village for—I can't quite remember what, I think one of the tyres needed seeing to—and Monty ran into a corner shop for some matches. And he'd been inside for perhaps thirty seconds when there was a great bellow and he rushed out again and gave us all such a fright, we didn't know what had happened at first.
KT: He'd heard the war was over?
MC: Yes, it had just come over the wireless. "Unconditional surrender," that was what he was yelling, and then the shopkeeper appeared outside with great fistfuls of Union Jack bunting—heaven knows where he'd unearthed that from—and started to festoon the place. As a group we cordially agreed that continuing on to the airfield was no longer operationally necessary and proceeded to the pub just across the village green. And then it was… Oh, we drank and we laughed and we cried and sang and we made toasts to everyone who was there and everyone who wasn't. Gabe sang "Roll Out the Barrel" in four different languages, and I drank so much gin that I couldn't stomach so much as a sip of the stuff for another decade. It was one of the best days of my life, and yet I was heartbroken.
KT: All those losses.
MC: Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes, my dear brother George, two of my cousins. George was in the RAF; shot down over Normandy on his fourth flight. At least they recovered the body, so my poor mother had a grave to visit. Three whole families on the street where I grew up were killed in the Blitz, just gone. Mrs Weston, she lived two doors down—I always thought of her as being older than Methuselah but I suppose I'm the same age now as she was then—she was killed in a direct hit. And that's… oh, so many others. A generation; generations, even. That's one of the worst things, you know, trying to remember all the names. Because there are so many of them, so many who never got a chance to see an end put to the whole bloody thing, but it's awful when you try to recall a name and you can't but then it comes to you at three in the morning or when you're standing there brushing your teeth. It can be very wearying, to be the one who made it through.
KT: Were you demobbed right away? Was it an abrupt transition back into being a civilian or—
MC: No, no, there was lots of mopping up to do. We were right back into it the next day, no matter how hungover we were. That's one of the nasty things about a war. With all the best will in the world towards peacemaking, it never quite comes to an end, as such—and there wasn't exactly the best will around at the time. The Commandos and I even had to go back to the Continent twice, on relatively minor missions. Retrieving fugitives, you understand. There were a number of people with particular kinds of technological knowledge whom the SSR didn't want on the loose. I didn't get out until towards the end of December—in fact, I saw in the new year of '46 on a boat crossing the Channel back to England.
KT: Did you move back to London?
MC: For a little while. Not very long at all. There was such a shortage of housing that I had to move back in with my parents, and there was something very anticlimactic about going to sleep again in that little box room with the old floral wallpaper on the walls. It felt like the room had shrunk since the last time I'd been in it, and… oh, everything was grey and the city so battered and the whole country was exhausted and even that measure of feeling felt as if it were rationed, like everything else. There was just so much less that I could do, that I was permitted to do. Most of the time I just felt… well, looking back on it now, I must have been quite the sad sack. My poor parents didn't quite know what to do with me, and I'm terribly afraid I didn't make things easy for them. They were good people, but they'd had very little exposure to things that weren't conventional; they weren't imaginative. I suppose they just thought: well, the war is over, you should just be happy now. I had idle ideas of going back into nursing, but within three weeks I'd sent a telegram to Colonel Phillips, asking for my old job back.
KT: And he gave it to you?
MC: Oh no, he couldn't. It didn't technically exist anymore—at least not for a woman—but he said he thought he might be able to find something for me to do in the SSR. And I was feeling quite hemmed in and desperate for… for something, anything, that was new and so I replied that I was on my way and made arrangements for a one-way trip to New York.
KT: How did your parents take your decision? Were they supportive?
MC: Well, they weren't exactly thrilled. They'd lost one child during the war, and in those days emigration was almost the same thing—the chances were you would never return. I told them that it was only a temporary situation, two or three years, perhaps, but I'm sure they knew that wasn't likely to be the case. They went with me to Southampton to say goodbye—Alfred came with us but Walter was still waiting to be demobbed—and that was where they saw me onto the Queen Mary. That was one of the ocean liners that had been turned into a troopship for the duration of the war. A huge ship, but my god, she was fast. The Colonel managed to get me passage on it.
KT: It must have been difficult for you, to say goodbye to them all.
MC: Yes. It would have been more difficult to stay, though. I think my mother realised that. I sometimes wonder what she might have done with her life, if she'd had a proper education or the idea that there might have been something for her outside of the borough where she was born. My father… well, who could say. He played his cards close to his chest, and it was the same with Alfie. I always thought Alfie was born a good thirty or forty years too late. He would have made an excellent Victorian patriarch, you know, one of the ones with the luxuriant beards. I was very fond of them both, but I'm not sure that I was ever terribly close to them. Anyway, Alfred was the one who stayed close to them in London and married the loathsome Cynthia and had five children in quick succession for my parents to fuss over. I didn't see him very much after '46. My mother, though, she wrote to me quite often, as much gossip as she could fit onto—I've just realised, you probably have not the least idea what airmail paper is, do you?
KT: I've heard of it, if that makes you feel better.
MC: Not better, just rather elderly. Anyway, where were we? Oh, the letters. Yes, my mother wrote to me quite regularly, as much as she could fit onto a piece of onion-skin at a time, and that did give me a link back to England. And I was able to visit, every now and then. But I didn't know any of that when I was boarding the ship.
KT: A sad moment.
MC: Oh, no, quite thrilling, on the whole. That's rather selfish of me, perhaps—I'm glad that my mother will never read this. I was just such a different person than I had been before the war that I couldn't go back. I mean, I'd visited New York before for a short period, but that had been while living on an army base and the city itself, the city proper, that was all new to me. I thought I could go and be this new person in a new city. I was really quite impatient to get there.
KT: No kicking back and enjoying a transatlantic cruise, huh?
MC: Well, the trip itself was actually somewhat awkward, believe it or not. There were several hundred women on board but all of them were war brides, heading to the States to be reunited with their husbands.
KT: Just, for the benefit of listeners who may not know, I'm just going to butt in and say that these are women who married American military personnel who were stationed overseas during the war, and who then moved back here to live with them. Thousands of them—well over a quarter million, if I'm remembering correctly. There's a really great book that Connie Zhao's written, looking at war brides in a comparative context, but—sorry, I'll let you continue.
MC: No, no, that's quite all right. Yes, most of these women were British who'd fallen in love with a GI during the war and decided to take their chances on a new life in the US.
KT: And so a lot of them assumed that you were—ha, I almost said 'in the same boat' as them, that's terrible! They assumed you were a war bride too?
MC: The lack of a ring should have given it away, but perhaps they thought I'd rushed into a marriage, or that I'd married some penniless guy from, from Brooklyn who couldn't afford to buy me one. They asked me some questions which were rather… My war, of course, had not turned out the same as theirs. I had to say that I was not Mrs Carter rather a lot.
KT: That was actually one of the things I'd wanted to ask you about. You got married in the mid '50s, but you never changed your name—that must have been pretty unusual back then?
MC: Oh, quite.
KT: Your husband didn't mind?
MC: My dear, if he'd been the kind of man who had, I should never have married him.
KT: Yeah, I get that impression. Speaking of, what were your first impressions of the city? Terrible segue, sorry! But I mean, I know my first experience of the city was bound to be different to yours, because I first came here when I was eighteen from small-town Indiana. I remember just boggling at the skyscrapers because I'd seen movies but none of that prepared me at all.
MC: It will sound a funny thing to say, but somehow my first glimpse of Manhattan seemed more real to me than the London I'd just left. We came up the Hudson River to dock and I could see the length of the island stretching out and… well, it is like something out of the pictures, isn't it? All those tall buildings and the bustle. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, all the world seemed less grey suddenly. I thought: here is a place where I can put the war behind me and be just who I want to be, where I can do some good.
KT: Were you right?
MC: Yes and no. A battle plan never survives the first encounter with the enemy and all that. I suppose that part of my hopes for my move were bound up with the fact that my previous trips to the States, during the war, they'd been whirlwind things where I had a busy schedule and a purpose. I was needed. Whereas the job Colonel Phillips had arranged for me… well, it was necessary work, of course, but it didn't seem quite so vital. The SSR was not the agency it had been during the war. It couldn't have been, I suppose.
KT: That must have been a disappointment for you.
MC: Well, it rather took a while for the realisation to sink in. I don't think many women realised right away just how quickly things would change in the war's aftermath, how much things would contract. Men were taking off their uniforms and coming home, and they looked at what women were accomplishing and all they could think was, that's my job. For a while I thought, well, it's just a lull, but then they'll look at me and see what I can do, what I've been trained to do. But that never quite happened. Instead I had to refresh my knowledge of shorthand quite quickly, and learn how to make coffee as Americans liked it. It was… frustrating.
KT: I'm sensing some understatement there.
MC: If I were to be forthright, I'm quite sure you would have to redact part of this tape for explicit language.
KT: So did you leave, go elsewhere?
MC: No, I stuck it out for several months. Part of it was me being a stubborn ass and not wanting to be seen to quit. There were several other agents—all men—whose every prejudice would have been confirmed if I'd left, no matter for what reason. And part of it was… well, I thought I could make a difference. A little self-centred, perhaps, but I suppose some of the people I'd encountered during the war, they'd been object lessons in the importance of that sort of thing. And of course life as a single woman in Manhattan was quite fun. Not that I could afford to live anywhere very glamorous.
KT: Well, that's one thing about New York that hasn't changed.
MC: I should say not, sadly. At least the place I had first was clean, though cramped. Two of us in a one-roomed apartment, and sharing a bed in shifts. I worked at night, Colleen—Colleen O'Brien, that was her name—worked during the day, and we saw one another for about half an hour, twice a day, at breakfast and supper. But at the weekends we would go out, and there were museums and window-shopping and jazz clubs, and it was… Well, it eased me back into learning how to have fun again, I suppose. How not to think that every loud noise was a gunshot or an explosion; that was a reaction which life in New York required me to overcome very quickly.
KT: Of course, this is New York, so…
MC: True, and particularly in the part of town where I first lived. But then… well, after a while I needed a new place to live and lucked into a spot at the Griffith Hotel. This was a boarding house for women, which I imagine is the kind of institution that no longer exists—a sort of half-board type place where one can stay on a long-term basis. Of course, now that I say that, it's a college dormitory, isn't it? Except it was the kind of place where a nice young girl with a full-time job might live. At the time I thought it was rather ghastly. The whole place was run by Miss Miriam Fry, who was the worst kind of snobbish prude. Looking back, I can see the humour in it—it was like living under the barely benevolent rule of a minor comic character from a Jane Austen novel—and of course I made some good friends there. Sarah Stanborough, Vera Holder—Vera Jackson, now, I should say—I stayed in touch with them. And of course Angie Martinelli and I were fast friends.
KT: Wait, not Angela Martinelli, the actress? You were roommates with her?
MC: A small world, isn't it?
KT: Wow. That's—well, I mean, she's got a whole section in my thesis! Her role in City of Paper is just iconic, and so central to my argument. But I suppose you must have known her long before she was famous.
MC: Oh yes, back when she was still waitressing and trying to get cast in Broadway plays. She was one of my first friends here who really helped me to acclimate to American culture, though she teased me about being English—called me "English" until the day she died. And then we moved out to Los Angeles, the both of us, around the same time, and so I got to see her break into the movies at close range.
KT: And the infamous romance with Howard Stark? I mean, they were up there with Sinatra and Gardner in terms of fireworks—maybe not Taylor and Burton bad, but they were in all the gossip columns.
MC: Would you like to be let in on a little secret? It was all a ruse, for the publicity.
KT: You're kidding.
MC: No, not at all. Well, they did sleep together at least a few times, for the hell of it, I think, or when they were bored on set—you needn't look so shocked, young lady, your generation didn't invent casual sex—but everything else was a ruse to get publicity and tease the reporters. That infamous bit at the Chateau Marmont? Entirely scripted. They drove Hedda Hopper absolutely nuts, trying to figure out just what was going on with them. But of course that all stopped when Howard met Maria. Not his sleeping around, of course—he was incorrigible to the end of his life—but in his own way, he truly loved Maria. He wouldn't have wanted to embarrass her by being indiscreet. But I don't think they would mind me telling this now that they've all passed—I think it would have tickled them. Angie in particular, she built her career on that brassy New York persona, after all.
KT: Wow. Well I guess I'm going to be reworking parts of my second chapter tonight. So when and why did you move to LA? You didn't like New York, or was it something else?
MC: This was in '47, and initially I was sent out there because my immediate superior at the SSR wanted me to assist with setting up a new branch of the agency. I worked on that for several months, but had every intention of returning to New York afterwards. But then… well, I met someone, and I had the opportunity to go to work for a new company that was headquartered in Los Angeles, and I thought why not stay for a while? All of that sunshine and warmth and colour, it was so refreshing. And then of course I ended up getting married and spending the better part of a decade there, off and on.
KT: I saw your husband outside with you just before we got started—that's a pretty-long lasting marriage you guys have! Almost fifty years. How did you two meet?
MC: Jason and I met through work. There's no terribly exciting story there, I'm afraid. He did some brief consultancy work for the SSR—he's a scientist, you see—and then we lost touch for a while but got to know one another again when he came to work for my new company. A fairly standard girl meets boy story, though of course Jason would tell you I was smitten from the very first.
KT: Is he right? I don't know, I see you smiling when you talk about him!
MC: I have absolutely no desire to bolster his ego any further.
KT: You got married in the early '50s, right?
KT: But you stayed working after you married, and kept your name, and all while married to an African-American man? That can't have been easy.
MC: No, not particularly. But I suppose after a certain point, you learn to be… well, not hard-headed, perhaps that's not the right word, and I don't think 'indifference' is either, because there's never a time when it's not difficult. You learn to simply put things to one side as much as possible and concentrate on what is truly important. And of course, Jason's family is truly wonderful, and never made me or our children feel unwelcome. With work… my strategy there was simply not to speak much of my family life there at all. Which I know is something that the younger generations, the younger feminists, you know, that they think that's not necessarily the right course of action. But the '50s were such a different time. It seemed to demand compromise.
KT: Do you think it was worth it?
MC: Oh, I think it was necessary. I never had the kind of temperament that would have suited me to being a housewife, and I tried my best within the company, to make changes, but there was only ever so much I could do as one person. And now, looking back, I see missed opportunities and things I could have done better. I suppose that hindsight is always 20/20, but we really did want to make a better world in the post-war years, you know. I'm afraid we did rather muck it up. But we tried. I tried. My one consolation is how much worse it would have been if I had not tried at all.
KT: This was—I'm sorry, you know, I don't think you said what you ended up doing once you left the SSR?
MC: No, perhaps I didn't. One of Stark Industries' subsidiaries, a rather obscure one. I ended up as senior management, which of course meant saddling me with more paperwork than I could process in a single lifetime. And there I had gone into nursing in the first place precisely to avoid anything to do with shorthand or filing, but so it goes. Life never does turn out as planned, does it?
KT: And you're retired now?
MC: Yes, back in '95; Jason in '93. I would have stayed on, but Jason rather twisted my arm and of course there were several people at work who were quite ready to see the back of me, I'm sure. We'd moved to D.C. in the '70s—another job transfer—but we rather liked it there in the end so we decided to stay. Many of our friends are there, and of course our son moved here after medical school, so there's the enticement of having grandchildren around. I suppose I have become terribly clichéd, but there it is—I do like to spoil them, although they're all college age now and ready to go out into the big wide world.
KT: Do you feel happy about them doing that? I know you said it's not the world you wanted, but do you feel like…. I don't know how to phrase this without getting a bit too philosophical! But this is something I'm curious about when it comes to all the World War Two veterans I interview, whether they have children or grandchildren or not—what they feel the world is like now versus what it was like when they were children, when they were in their twenties or thirties. Are you optimistic?
MC: The worst thing is that I never learned to be otherwise. Steve Rogers has been dead almost sixty years and he's still a terrible influence.
KT: Well we're just about to run out of tape so this is probably a good place to wrap things up! Ms Carter, thank you so much for agreeing to come all this way to participate in the Women Veterans Historical Project, and I hope that you enjoyed it.
MC: It was quite the experience, Kelly. Thank you very much for having me.