World War II

Barbara Gunderson

World War II Oral History Interview
British Army Auxiliary Training Service
Date: July 24, 2002
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Walt Borkowski


Barbara Gunderson remembers that by the spring of 1942, when she was still Barbara Blatchford, the “Luftwaffe,” the German air force, had been sending only an occasional plane over to bomb her English port town of Plymouth, and that by then “. we had sort of gotten use to that and we went about our life as if the bombings never existed. At the beginning you would run to the air raid shelters but after a while you didn’t bother but went about whatever you were doing.”

Barbara Gunderson, Right

She recalled being at a movie house with a boy friend when a warning came up on the screen noting “Air Raid in Progress.” On that particular night the movie stopped and the theater manager came onto the stage and said “this raid is very, very severe.” He instructed everyone to walk outside and then run to the nearest shelter. Gunderson remembered that “when we were outside I could hear the bombs screaming down and we had been told that whenever you hear the bombs dropping you should fall down and cover your head with your arms. So that is what I did. Suddenly there was a huge explosion and as I lifted my eyes I could see all sorts of things flying around. When it stopped we got up and as we ran to the shelter we had to step over some people in front of us who had been injured.” [This was probably the raid of March 20, 1941.]

The shelter she found was very narrow and although it was underground one could still hear the bombs screaming down. A Polish officer sitting opposite Gunderson noticed that she covered her ears whenever she heard the whistling and offered her earplugs to muffle the sound. She thanked him but refused, saying “. it wouldn’t make any difference because I would still be able to know, by seeing the expressions on all of your faces, what was really happening.”

Plymouth suffered through other bad air raids, but after that night Barbara, her mother and one brother who had not been drafted would walk out into the country to her aunt’s farm, to sleep the night in her aunt’s chicken coop,”.there was no room for us in the house.” She recalls that “. many children had been sent to Plymouth to escape the bombings in London until Plymouth itself became a target,” and that “we walked very slowly out of town because of so many people having to leave.”

Gunderson remembered that “The damage to Plymouth was extreme, the whole town was completely destroyed, the harbor was unusable, the trains and trolleys were bombed out and there was no place left to work. I walked to the office where I had worked and it was no longer there. What I remember most of the air raids are the bombs screaming down and exploding.”

Soon after the bombing Barbara was drafted into the ATS, Auxiliary Training Service, and was stationed at Feock, in Cornwall, about an hour away from Plymouth. “I was twenty-two and we marched, marched and marched. On our first day we lined up in front of a counter that was covered with stacks of jackets, shirts, hats and things like that. You walked along the counter trying to find things that would fit. I found a jacket and a hat but no shirt. We had to mix the uniforms with our own clothes until they were re-supplied.” Barbara also recalls receiving a series of vaccinations. “We lined up one in front of another, and someone came up behind you and grabbed your arms and gave you your shots and then they move up to the next person. We slept in a barracks and they would do all sorts of things to train us and to see if they could break us down.”

“We trained all day and would go to bed about nine or ten in the evening,” she continued. “Sometimes we would be awakened at two in the morning and marched to the trenches. The trenches were narrow and about three feet deep. We had to wear our steel helmets and respirators. We would curl up in the trenches with your head no higher then ground level. An officer would walk along the trenches with a cane and if your head was above the surface of the ground he would rap your helmet with his cane. Several girls couldn’t take it and fainted. We carried our helmets and mask everywhere. Ordinarily you wore your mask on your back and the helmet would fit on top of the mask. One time I was made to wash dishes with my respirator on and the glasses kept steaming up.”

Following her training, Gunderson was assigned as a plotter and a switchboard operator. During an air raid, the plotters were stationed at the plotting table in the Operation Room (OPS), where they plotted the positions of the enemy aircraft that were being tracked by radar. They wore a headset and a breast phone. They would receive a four number sequence through their headsets and pass it on through the breast phone to other tracking sites further down the line. “We never knew who was speaking to us or to who we spoke to. Even on the switchboard we never knew who we were talking to. We worked twenty four hour shifts but if there was no activity we could lie down on a wooden cot with no mattress, in a room next to the OPS room. In the event that we had to get up in a hurry we were not allowed to undress. We worked through the air raids and fortunately we were not near a possible target and had no fear of being bombed.” The plotters were allowed to leave base, with a pass, but had to stay within a certain distance. “There was not much doing in town. There was only one movie house so we would walk around town and maybe stop for tea.

One night as she was working the switchboard Gunderson met a young officer who was the only American assigned to the tracking site. He had visited another site and stopped in to report that he was back. “There were no raids that night so he sat and talked for two hours,” she said. “He asked to see me the next morning and we went for a walk and that was the beginning of it. His name was Charles Gunderson and he eventually became my husband. That is why I am here today.” Barbara recalls “.one day he had been to another site and brought me an apple that he picked at an orchard. I had not seen fruit like that for a long time and I was astonished. We married in a church in Feock, England on March 11, 1944.”

“In a short time I became pregnant and had to leave the army because I couldn’t stay in the army and do my job while having children. I was happy, we were very much in love with each other but I was unhappy when he had to go over to France while I stayed home and lived with my mother. We had our first son on December 23, 1944, when my husband was somewhere in France during the Battle of the Bulge.”

Gunderson said that rationing was very severe in Plymouth during the war. “We were allowed four ounces of meat per week and we seldom had eggs. The farmers had been drafted and the farms were worked by army girls. They did whatever they could. One time there was a little larger supply of eggs and because I had my son I got six eggs. It was astonishing. I gave one egg to my uncle, who lived next door and was very ill at that time. He was thrilled to death and when one of my neighbors found out about it she got angry at me for giving my son’s egg away.”

“It was a bad time over there [in France],” she said. “It was the coldest winter on record, they had to fend for themselves. They had no barracks or headquarters or anything like that and my husband built a hut and fixed up something to catch rainwater. He was very inventive — in fact he was an inventor and in civilian life became a patent agent. Our son was nine months old before he met his father.”

Gunderson clearly remembers how she found out that the war in Europe was over. “It was during a blackout; my sister in-law was visiting us. There were no lights on anywhere, we were just sitting there, but we had an electric light switch always on. And that night the light came on and we knew then that the war was over. We were so happy that I ran outside and knocked on my neighbors’ homes and telling them that the lights were on and the war was over. My young nephew had never seen streetlights on before, and when the lights came on outside he was terrified. It was amazing.”

Barbara Gunderson’s husband Charles returned to the United States in 1945 and she and their son came over in 1946 on the troopship Edmund B Alexander. Mother and son slept together on a narrow bunk for the ten days it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean. She finally got to meet her new in-laws who had been sending her letters and packages since her marriage.

Upon returning to the United States Charles Gunderson was not discharged from the army but was assigned to an air base near Dayton Ohio. Charles was a graduate of the Citadel with degrees in physics and language. He spoke fluent German and his assignment at the air base was to be an interpreter for some German scientists, who were brought to the United States after the war. A V-2 rocket was also brought over from Germany and the parts and the performance of those parts were described to Charles by the scientist.

Gunderson recalls helping her husband, set up a display one night for an exhibit of a captured German V-2 rocket at the air base. “When Charles returned to duty at the air base the next day he found that the whole area was cordoned off because someone discovered that the rocket was not completely defused and he and I had been working on it, and if we had set the thing I would not be here to tell the story.”

Barbara Gunderson displayed several mementos and photos of her wartime experiences, including a wedding ring she described as being made from “wartime gold,” so named because wartime scarcity resulted in jewelry made from nine karat gold. She also saved her Auxiliary Training Service “ATS” cap emblem. She saved all of the Western Union telegraph cables that she and her husband exchanged with each other during their courtship and early in their marriage, and she read a cable she sent to her husband as she and her son were leaving England after the war to join her husband in America.”. Leaving Plymouth for Andover Junction .First stage of Journey.”

Barbara explains that Charles had made his marriage proposal by cable from Washington, DC where he was stationed after he completed his first overseas tour of duty. He had tried to arrange a marriage by proxy but it was not allowed, because Barbara was serving in the British Army. During the war years civilian travel between America and Europe was prohibited and only military travel was allowed between the continents. Charles only option to get back to England was to volunteer for another tour of overseas duty.

Barbara mentions how she and Charles had met and became friendly with a vicar of a church in Feock and his wife. Barbara and Charles had gone into the church to get out of the cold and were sitting in a pew holding hands, when the vicar came in and invited them into his vicarage for a cup of tea. The vicar’s wife served them tea and invited them to come back for tea, whenever they were off duty. They were married by the vicar on March 11, 1944, but Barbara explains that the vicar’s wife “.was in an unfortunate accident and died a few days before the marriage.

Barbara also tells about a frightening reaction to her coming marriage to Charles, from a young man she had been dating. “When he found out I was getting married he was very upset about it. He came to my house and said, ‘.he’ll never have you. I’m in the home guard, I have a rifle and sixteen rounds of ammunition.’ When I asked him what he meant, he said, ‘there will be two pools of blood.’ My mother said that we shouldn’t get married in Plymouth.”

Barbara reminisces about her first impressions of America. “The first summer was very hot and humid that I thought I would die. I was astonished that there was so much food in the grocery stores. I never saw bananas like that.”

Barbara said “America surpassed my expectations. I think it is a wonderful country.” I became an American citizen a long time ago and I’m happy to be here. And I’m happy to be here to talk to you. It is something we don’t do very often and it’s reaching a point where it will be lost in time.”