CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Margaret Houlday Askew was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1918. Her father had emigrated from England to New Jersey and was drafted during the First World War, but he was eventually rejected for military service due to “a leaky heart.” She was engaged to be married in 1941, and Askew and her fiancé were at a friend’s wedding on December 7 when they heard news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her fiancé was drafted the following April and was assigned to an aviation support unit. Askew did her bit for the war effort by joining the Red Cross unit in South Amboy, New Jersey. Originally a secretary, she was transferred to the Red Cross Women’s Motor Corps.
Askew’s duties in the Red Cross included first aid training drills and home front defense assistance missions. Her unit delivered food, donated by the Navy, to a unit of state guard soldiers camped in Perth Amboy and detailed to guard the bridges across the Raritan River. She recalled that these part-time soldiers were older gentlemen and businessmen who had formed their own cavalry troop. Askew and other Red Cross women also canvassed the local towns for donations, setting up at movie theaters and going door-to-door, where people often “slammed the door in their faces.” The girls also ran officers’ parties and drove vehicles for the Red Cross.
During blackouts, Askew was stationed in a former telephone building that had been converted into a Red Cross emergency hospital. When air raid alarms sounded, she would leave her home in Laurence Harbor, New Jersey, and drive all the way to South Amboy, although stopped every few blocks at Civil Defense checkpoints to verify that she was part of the Civil Defense team. Red Cross Motor Corps women had to use their own vehicles, but were given extra gasoline and shoe ration coupons in return. They were instructed in driving without headlights and conducting basic automobile maintenance in the dark, in addition to their first aid and gas attack training.
Askew was eventually promoted to second lieutenant in the Red Cross and Civil Defense organizations. Her unit was composed of both single and married women. She noted that those members who were unmarried were assigned duties more often than the married women, who were responsible for caring for their families and would not always be available to deliver meals or seek donations.
Following the War, Askew left the Red Cross. Her fiancé returned from Europe, after being injured at an airfield in England, where a falling tree landed on him and broke his back. He spent months in a hospital and was offered a Purple Heart but refused, because the injury was not incurred during actual combat. The couple settled back into their lives in Laurence Harbor, New Jersey, and moved from the town after they were married. The newlyweds bought property, lived in a tent while their house was being built, and subsequently raised a family. Following her husband’s death in the 1980s, Askew spent the remaining years of her life in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, with her family nearby, and continued to work well into her eighties.
Speaking of her war experiences, Askew mentioned that as time went on, women began to have families and moved from the area. She lost touch with the girls in her unit, and she believed many had passed away. Askew also noted, that her husband did not speak about his own experiences in Europe unless it was to another man who had also been there. She believed that her interview and photograph donations would hopefully find their way into the hands of families of the girls she knew, so their stories and images would not be forgotten. Askew remained very proud of her stateside service during World War II.
Margaret Askew died on August 20, 2011.