Bucking expectations, she joined the Navy

It was 1945 when Evelyn Scott, who wanted a career rather than to be a homemaker, joined the military and worked for the likes of Admiral Byrd

EVELYN SCOTT SHOWED off her dog tags and the military identification card she used to gain access to the White House in 1945, when she joined the Navy and served as secretary to Adm. Richard Byrd during World War II. The 95-year-old Grafton resident said that after the war she tucked the ID card away and didn’t talk about her service until her children uncovered it in recent years and asked about it. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

A black-and-white sign in the window of an office in her Alabama hometown in 1945 proclaimed “The Navy needs secretaries,” and those words changed Evelyn McNeill Scott’s life.

The 95-year-old Grafton woman, who was 18 at the time, was intrigued by the sign. After all, she was the only girl in a family with three boys who were expected to join the military to fight in World War II, then use the GI Bill to go to college. She was just a girl who was expected to marry and raise a family.

“Married — I wasn’t going to get married. I wanted to be somebody,” Scott said. “I wanted to get an education. I wanted to get a job, take care of myself.”

Scott, who had been learning shorthand and typing, felt the lure of the sign, which was hanging in the office of a retired judge in her small hometown.

“I thought this might be the answer to my prayers,” Scott said, so she did what women at the time weren’t expected to do — she joined the Navy.

Her parents, she said, were a bit nervous about her decision, especially her mother.

Her older brother Floyd, who was in the Air Force, tried to assuage their fears, Scott said, reminding her mother that she was raised with three brothers.

“He was the one who made me tough,” Scott said. “He told my mother, ‘She’s taken all this guff from me. She’s tough. She’s ready, let her go.’”

Floyd, she noted, was in the Air Force stationed in Italy and bragged to his friends about her and her decision to join the Navy.

“He was really selling me,” she said.

Scott said she was given the choice of three cities where she could work. She chose Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to go to Washington D.C. to learn about the things I had read about,” she said.

It was a big change from rural Alabama, Scott said, but she quickly learned her way around. She had to, she said.

As one of only a few women in the service, she said, she had to make her own way. 

“They really had nothing for the ladies,” she said.

Scott said she wasn’t daunted by the fact there were so few women around her.

“I was so excited to be part of this,” she said.

Scott said that when she went to Washington, the war in Europe was winding down but the war with Japan was going strong.

Shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C., Scott said, she was assigned to work for Adm. Richard Byrd — whose middle name, she noted, was Evelyn.

Byrd, a Medal of Honor winner, served in the Navy during World War I and is well known as an explorer of Antarctica. During World War II, Byrd served on the staff of the chief of Naval operations and, among other duties, evaluated Pacific islands as operational sites.

Byrd, said Scott, “was a good boss. Everybody liked him. He knew what he was doing.”

Byrd was also a busy man, she said, noting “He had a big job. He had all these big men coming in to see him.”

They included Fleet Adm. William Halsey, who played an important role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the war, and Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, who was commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II.

Byrd, Scott noted, was among the men on the deck of the USS Missouri when the Japanese formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.

“Everybody who was anybody was on that deck,” she said. 

Scott said that while she spent the bulk of her time at the Naval Annex next to Arlington National Cemetery, at the site of what is today the Air Force Memorial, she also made frequent visits to the White House in the course of her job.

“They needed somebody to go into the White House, and I just happened to be the right person at the right time. It just worked well,” she said.

She would go pick up letters families had written to their congressmen and senators seeking to get their sons home and bring these missives back to her office. Every member of the military had a 201 folder that chronicled their career, and she would collect the folders that matched with the letters, then return them to the legislators’ offices.

Scott said she admired President Harry Truman, who she said she frequently saw out walking in the morning.

“Nobody thought he could do anything, but he did,” she said. “He was strong. He made tough decisions.”

One of the most important was the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, leading to the end of the war.

“He said ‘We don’t need to bury anymore kids,’” Scott noted.

Scott said she enjoyed her time in Washington, D.C.

“I had the best time working,” she said. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I didn’t know I was paving the way for others.”

While working in Washington, D.C., she met Karl Scott, who hailed from Manitowoc, who was working in supplies and ordering for the Navy.  

Scott left the military in 1949, and after the couple married they moved to Wisconsin. Her husband became a teacher, and she was determined to work as a secretary to support him, especially while he was in school. But despite her experience, no one would hire her, Scott said.

The couple had three children, the first in 1950, and Scott devoted herself to her family. She tucked her military ID card into a scrapbook and pushed that part of her life to the back of her mind

The family lived in Wisconsin for decades, then as empty nesters Scott and her husband moved to California. Her husband died about 12 years ago, and Scott said her children persuaded her to return to Wisconsin about five years ago, when she moved to Village Pointe Commons.

While Scott said she hadn’t talked about her military life for decades, that changed when her children found her military ID card and started asking questions.

Since then, she’s gone on an Honor Flight, taken part in an Ageless Aviation Flight and been interviewed for the Wisconsin Veterans Story Project.

One key to her life, Scott said, is that she never forgot who she was.

“I never tried to be anyone but me,” she said. “I knew who I was.

“And I knew I was blessed. I was at the right place at the right time all my life.”


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