News-Sun photo by KATARA SIMMONS Fay Burkhart gazes out a window, while reminiscing about days past at her apartment at the Palms in Sebring.Burkhart's rank in World War II was Specialist (Q) Second Class, with the ÔQ' standing for ÔCommunications' Ð referring to her assignment as a decoder.
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published: Wednesday, August 08, 2012
Burkhart, 100, spent service decoding enemy's messages
By LARRY LEVEY
SEBRING - Talk to Fay Burkhart, all of 100 years of age and living at the Palms of Sebring, about her World War II experiences and you'll get a view of the war through the eyes of the Washington, D.C. establishment.
It starts off in the early 1940s when she was single, working as a secretary to the president of a company making goods for the war effort in Dayton, Ohio. "I had an uncle who was a retired Navy physician. He kept after me, telling me, 'Why aren't you in the service? Why aren't you in the Navy?'
"So one day at noon, instead of going to lunch, I took a bus to the Navy Recruiting Station. I went in just to inquire about the WAVES --and they had me sworn in before I could get away," she says with one of her frequent bursts of laughter.
"My boss tried to keep me out. He wrote a letter to the Navy, saying I was needed for the defense work; but seven months later I had to report to Hunter College in New York City. The Navy had taken over the college."
Burkhart never received any basic training. "As soon as we recruits got to Hunter, we were told the first 100 women were to be assigned to kitchen or hospital duty - we had our choice. I picked the kitchen. I'd rather peel potatoes than empty bed pans. But I only worked one day on a food line and then they put me in personnel.
"A month later, they sent 5,000 of us to Washington, D.C. I remember they hadn't notified the station master at the railroad station. He almost had a heart attack when those 5,000 WAVES showed up."
In Washington, she says she was assigned to what was called "Communications Intelligence."
"It was all very secret and they had guards all around us. We'd go out to a restaurant and people would come up to us, wanting to buy us a drink or a meal. We always said no. We'd been told that people might put something in our food so they could get information from us.
"Just what were we doing? I never did get approval to tell, but it was on TV so I guess I can say. Sailors would bring us messages sent by the Germans, but they'd be garbled, like a cryptogram. We'd have to decipher them. The messages were all about when and where the Germans would be - a certain place, a certain time, a certain hour, a certain minute.
" I think all these messages came from German submarines. Because we had decoded the messages, our men were there to take them prisoner."
She is proudest of a message she decoded that revealed a meeting place where the Allies were able to secure a German surrender.
One of the "perks" of her job in Washington was to march in the many parades held for visiting dignitaries, like General Dwight D. Eisenhower and other military dignitaries. "We'd march from the White House to the Capital. I loved to march."
At one point the WAVES had to move out from their barracks into private housing. "A friend of mine and I rented a room from a couple with a 13-year-old daughter. The man was Eleanor Roosevelt's hair dresser. The family also had three dogs: a mother, father and son. One day Eleanor Roosevelt gave a quart of cream to the family - everything was rationed then and hard to come by - and the family made butter out of it. For some reason, they had to leave the house but left the butter on the kitchen table instead of putting it in the refrigerator. While they were gone, 'Junior' - the young dog - got up on the table and ate the butter."
Burkhart says she met Eleanor Roosevelt a number of times.
"She had personality-plus; she was infectious. Talking to her you'd think she was beautiful, even though everyone thought she was homely." And, Burkhart says, she also got to shake hands with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
After her discharge from the WAVES, Burkhart went back to her old job in Ohio, as they had saved it for her.
Born June 29, 1912, Burkhart is twice a widow and just turned 100, an event celebrated by a gathering of 15 out-of-town nieces, nephews and step-children, along with her two table-mates from the Palms. As the interview might reveal, Burkhart is a born story-teller, with a well-honed sense of humor, a sharp memory and a fondness for people.
"Laughter keeps me healthy," she says. "I see a lot of humor in life. Even though I have heart problems and have trouble with my arms and legs, I try not to let it get me down. I enjoy life."
To underscore this upbeat attitude, she usually spends Friday afternoons at a downtown Sebring beauty parlor.
Two years ago - at age 98 - her medical problems forced her to give up one of her favorite pastimes: sewing, a skill she learned when she and her twin sister, May, were 5 or 6. "At first Mother wouldn't trust us with needles, but then she let us use them. But we had to turn them back to her every evening."
Over the decades, she has created everything from doll clothes to suits to dresses to quilts to chairs.
But while she relishes sharing the stories of her life with others, it's her time in the WAVES that remain close to her heart.
"I wouldn't give anything for that experience in the Navy," she says. "I met so many wonderful people - and we won the war."
Happiest of Birthdays to Fay (by: T. McCauley - 8/9/2012)
It was so interesting to read about her as she worked diligently to help put an end the war. I would imagine that her position was one that required some rather interesting ways to look at words. I would guess that Fay is rather good at Word puzzles. All the very best to you Fay... Thank you for your Service to our nation.
Fay Burkhart (by: Mary Lewis - 8/8/2012)
Thank you for this beautiful feature story about my Aunt Fay. She is truly a blessing to our family and we are thrilled for her to receive this recognition.
Appreciation (by: an and 3 - 8/8/2012)
Thank you Mrs. Burkheart!
(by: Sue - 8/8/2012)
Who is going to replace these wonderful giving people. The country owes them much.
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