Corporal Tomisita "Tommye" Flemming-Kelly-U.S.M.C.-Celestial Navigation Trainer -1943/45
Tommye Kelley was among the thousands of women who served during WWII. The production of aircraft, delivering them around the country and other avaition positions previously unavailable opened up due to the needs of war. Without the contributions of women like Tommye the war would have lasted longer and been costlier in lives and material.
Tommye was born in Texas her family came from Scot-Irish heritage.
Tomye: "I have been
back to Belfast twice trying to pin down the exact location of my ancestors,
who came to this country in 1768. from County Antrim. My father and mother
at one time were tenant farmers before I was born, but later moved to
Galveston, Texas, where my mother was always a homemaker and my father drove
a street car and later was a dockworker with Southern Pacific Steamship
When the war broke out on December 7, 1941, I was
working for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Laredo, Texas as a
hearing stenographer, making shorthand records of deportation proceedings. It was not unusual for a young woman of my age to be on her own.
We were among the vanguard of today's young women. However, we were still
expected to get married "some day" and produce children and be homemakers. I
was 29 years old before I succumbed to the prevailing wisdom. My first
child was born when I was 31 and may last one when I was 40.
had just returned from a movie, "Sergeant York", starring Gary Cooper, with
one of my apartment mates, Amelia Stallcup. We had stopped at the Sames
Drugstore and were informed by the clerk that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by
the Japanese. Her first response was, "Oh, no; Orson Welles has been at it
[ Note for the reader. Orson Welles was a radio personality of the 1930's his radio show once caused a panic in the nation when he announced in radio newscast style that the earth was under attack by creatures from space. The resultant panic was the subject of congressional investigations.]
We later learned it was true, but had no idea where Pearl Harbor
was. We returned to the apartment we shared with Ruby Putnam and Helen
Loftis, all employees of the Immigration Service. We were glued to the radio
and finally the news sank in. We couldn't believe it. The Japanese had been
fighting the Chinese for years, and the Chinese had nothing but sticks to
fight with. The Japanese foreign minister was in Washington ostensibly to
settle our differences. So, what did I do? Well, I did the only thing a
nurturing person would so. I went to the kitchen and baked something -- a
cherry pie. Don't ask me why.
Shortly thereafter I transferred to the Houston office and began taking
flying lessons with the idea that I would join the WASPs, just like Charlyne Creger.
(I didn't know her then).
Tommyes student liscence while she like Charlyene struggled to get enough hours for consideration.
The Marine Corps recruiting office was located
there in the same building, and I began to have lunch with the woman Marine
stationed there. She knew of my flying ambitions, and when it became obvious
the war would be over before I could acquire the necessary 35 hours of solo
time, she talked me into joining the Marines and promised they would not put
me behind a typewriter. At that time I was making $140 a month and paying
$6.00 an hour for solo time. With room rent, bus fare, restaurant meals,
clothing, etc., there wasn't much money left over for the necessary 35 hours. I had about ten or twelve hours of dual flight instruction, and
another 10 hours of solo flying in Piper Cubs and Luscombs (60 hp. engines --
whoopee)., but no photos have survived.
I think my mother put a star in the window, but I'm not sure
of that. She neither encouraged nor discouraged me from joining. I think,
privately, she thought there was something almost immoral about women serving
along with men in the military (many women of her generation did think so),
but she never voiced that to me. She had already decided I was something of
a maverick because I was taking flying lessons. I once flew over her house
at a pretty low, illegal altitude and did a sideslip while she was out in the
back yard sweeping the patio. She looked up and shook her broom at me. No
way was she going to influence me about joining the military. Later, she was
very proud of me and boasted of "my daughter in the Marines."
Tommye made the Houston Chronicle in October of 1943, note the slogan and the 68 opportunities for women.
I was sworn in, along with several other women from Houston, in a big
public ceremony at one of the large theaters in Houston. Lots of hoopla. We
departed in December, 1943, for Camp LeJeune. We arrived In Wilmington by
train during the night and disembarked in several inches of snow. I was
wearing high-heel, open-toed, sling-back pumps. Having grown up in the
Galveston/Houston area, I had never seen snow before. What a welcome to
During our six-weeks of boot camp (where, yes, I qualified on the rifle
range), we were given all sorts of IQ tests (I believe they called them GCT)
to determine where best to utilize our services. My test score came out
higher than that required for pilots, so I guess that's why I got sent to CNT
school, along with my interest and brief experience in flying. Many of my
fellow classmates were school teachers, but not all. One girl was a former
go-go dancer! Another one later married Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. Another one
had been a novitiate in a convent. School lasted three months and we were
under intense pressure every week. We not only learned celestial navigation,
but simple maintenance procedures for the trainer. I learned to read wiring
diagrams, make simple electrical procedures, etc. If we failed the weekly
test, we were washed out.
Marine navigators were trained by the Navy, and all were officers in the
beginning. Toward the end of the war, we were losing so many in the Pacific
they began to train enlisted Marines as navigators. (And, by the way, the
Navy also had enlisted pilots, one of whom was my insturctor, (Everett
Parker) who later was made a Lt. Jg.) All our instructors were Navy. We trained the
students in R4D's. I don't remember what they actually flew overseas. I
remember that we had some B-25's and Martin Marauders (can't remember that
Mostly we had F4U's and F4Fs. I also conducted a
refresher course in carrier navigation (F4U's, F4Fs, etc.)
and got my CAA
(now FAA) rating as a ground instructor. But, navigation is navigation no
matter what you are flying. We did not have computers in those days. LORAN
was very new and highly classified, not very useful for overseas flights.
The flights over the Pacific were made at night and they had to maintain
radio silence (the only other form of night navigation then). So, we used
the oldest form of navigation -- the stars.
I began my navigation experience by operating a Link Celestial Navigation
Trainer. Fascinating gadget, it was virtual reality before its time. Similar to the Link trainer used to teach instrument
flying. Inside the cockpit were all the instruments of a real airplane.
Built high up in a silo structure with
colimated lights simulating the various constellations, particularly the ones
to be encountered over the Pacific. Beneath all this we had "terrain
plates", actual photographs of visible areas here in the U.S. ( with photographs of actual cities
showing highways, railroads and airports.) As the plane progressed toward its
destination, the plate would slowly move so as to give the impression of
actual flight. We could manipulate these and put in wind direction, rough
weather, etc. The students flew these by cockpit instruments and we tracked
their course on a "crab" down below at the console.
In the photo above is Tommye on the left in earphones, Lt.jg Everett Parker Instructor and Phyllis Schlette an observer.
At a control booth on the ground, there was a
large, movable glass terrain plate which was imprinted with aerial
photographs of various locations within the U.S., so as to provide training
in contact navigation, as well. From this booth, we could introduce wind
conditions, clouds,etc. The navigator's progress was
tracked by a "crab" on a paper located there in the booth. I believe we
could also introduce radio signals from various points to enable the
navigator to get a "fix" on his position.
I was an operator for only a short while before they took me out of the
control booth and put me into the classroom as an instructor. This was great
experience for me. I really loved it, and went on to study polar navigation
just for the heck of it. We never expected our navigators would be needing
that training, but I thought it would be pretty challenging to be flying in
an area where your compass was useless. Occasionally, I accompanied some of
the students on actual navigation training flights, and the most memorable
one was when we had TYRONE POWER as our pilot! I was so awestruck I was
After about six months or so of that, they transferred me to
Congaree Field in Columbia, SC, to conduct a refresher course for pilots in
carrier navigation, and that's where I was when the bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima. Little did I dream I would someday end up living in the very city
where the material for that bomb was produced, meet and socialize with some
of the folks who were instrumental in its production, and where components
are still made to this day.
The USMC Womens Reserve History History Link
First, you must
understand that I was not a navigator. I was a ground instructor. I received
my CAA (FAA) certification as a ground instructor after testing in Raleigh,
NC. Ground instructors deal in the basic principles of navigation, such as
calculating the effects of wind direction and velocity versus compass heading
and airspeed. We taught the use of the E6B computer, a circular slide rule
with a small plastic screen in the middle for plotting one's course, etc.
All of this I learned in a concentrated 3-month ground course taught by Lt.
Cdr. Carmine Freda, a Navy navigator.
Tommyes certification as an instructor from Cherry Point NAS North Carolina 12/9/1944. her rating as an instructor was 3.95 out of 4.
The few times that I was on an actual navigation flight, I was there as
an observer, along with the students in my ground classes. The actual
navigation flights were always under the supervision of an officer navigator.
These flights were in R4Ds, the Navy version of the old DC3. Later, the
students received training in B-25s, as I recall. I was never in one of
Did the men give us a hard time? No. As a matter of fact, the only time
I had a problem was when I caught one of the students cheating on a test. He
was immediately booted from the class. I felt pretty bad about that because
he had been returned to the States after particularly rough duty in the
Pacific. I think some of my students thought I should cut him some slack and
for a while some of them were pretty cool toward me. But my theory was that
you can't cheat about something like this in the air. Better not have any
We also had star identification classes at night and practiced using the
octant (sometimes called a sextant). I never had the pleasure of meeting any
of my former students after they returned from the Pacific to find out how
useful their instruction had been or whether they ever really used the stars
to guide them.
A funny thing happened when we went to Raleigh to take our tests for
ground instructor. Three of us -- Bea Cohen, Ruth Nuss, and I -- hitchhiked
to Raleigh. That was the most effective means of transportation in those
days. Very few people had cars. Gasoline was rationed (along with just
about everything else). We got settled in our hotel room, and Bea Cohen
decided to take a bath. Down the hall from us there was a group of soldiers,
obviously having a loud party. Soon we heard a knock at the door. I
answered and here was a very drunk GI demanding to know if his buddy, Joe,
was in our room. I assured him there was no one but just us gals in the
room. He just shoved me aside and barged right in, began to look in the
closet, under the beds, etc., each time saying, "Nope, don't see him". Then
he proceeded to the bathroom, where Bea was ensconced in the tub. Now, she
was a beautiful, buxom young lady from Brooklyn. He peers into the bathroom,
looks straight at Bea, and said, "Well, I guess he's not here", and staggered
on out of the room. Bea later said she didn't know whether to be insulted
because he barged in on her or because he was something less than impressed
with what he saw!
There was not an option to stay in the military at the time of my discharge in January 1946. We were called USMC Women Reserves. When the war ended they were through with us but we could stay in the reserves subject to recall to active duty. I returned to Houston and the I&NS, but could not
really get all fired up about pounding a typewriter again. I resented being denied the opportunity to become an Immigrant Inspector (much more money, you know), but was told the District Director would have NO women Immigrant Inspectors in his district. That is the way it was in those days. I enrolled at
the University of Houston School of Nursing under the GI Bill and took my training at Hermann
Hospital, where I met Charlyne Creger, who had just got out of the WASPs. At that time nursing was strictly a field for women. My
old bunkmate from Congaree Field, Mary Holden was also there to train as a nurse. Mary and I had at one time had even considered going to the University of Mexico.
I lost two cousins, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. They were
not terribly close, but close enough for me to feel the loss. The other loss
was a student who was in a Martin Marauder (B-26) which crashed upon landing
at Cherry Point. The only member of my family who worked in the war industry was my
sister who worked as a secretary at one of the shipyards (her first job
outside the home). She received government training in typing and shorthand.
Two cousins were Army nurses. One was in a field hospital just behind the
lines at the battle of the Bulge. She wrote me a letter from there
describing how a shell came whizzing through the tent where she was assisting
in emergency surgery. I wish I had saved that letter Today, she refuses to
talk about the war, even on the anniversary of D-Day, when everybody in town
wants her to take part in the celebration.
Losing good friends in that terrible war made me wonder why I was granted the priviledge of being alive. I felt nursing would somehow justify my existence. It was one of the most rewarding pursuits of my life. I spent almost three years in training, with the idea that I would join the Navy upon graduation and eventually qualify for admission to medical school at Navy expense. Pediatrics would have been my speciality had I done so.
Mary, Charlyene and I were the three oldest members of that class, the others having just graduated high school. (I never finished nursing school), as I married just six months before graduation, so I resumed my pre-war occupation to help put my husband through graduate school. In nursing school frankly, we were so busy and working so hard, there wasn't much time for goofing off. My roommate and I were both Marine veterans and Charlyne, of course, came from the WASPs. Mary was 26, I was 27, and Charlyne was 28. We were a bit more worldly than the 17-year-olds in our class, so we tried to be very discreet about our practice of having a few drinks in the evening when we were off duty. Unfortunately, one of the younger students found out about it and reported us. The Director of Nursing (Josephine) called me in (the bottle was in my room) and explained that she understood that we were older and more responsible, but she must insist that we get rid of that bottle. Well, we did the logical thing: We sat in my room and finished it off that night. So much for trying to drink in moderation. We did not feel so pretty good the next day, but that put an end to our attitude adjustment periods, at least in the dormitory. One of the younger girls put a firecracker in the pay telephone booth one night. We all knew who did it, but nobody would tell, so we all got grounded for a week. The seniors had a nasty habit of hazing the new students by insisting we polish their white shoes. Marines don't polish anybody's shoes but their own. So, when the shoes were left for us, we polished them with the only polish we had -- black. Sorry about that.
Six months before graduation I met Mr. Right on a blind date. Three months later we were married. I dropped out of school to be with him. I was so close to graduation. all my classmates have considered that I was one of the graduating class and have always included me in their reunions. I only lacked a three month affiliation inpsychiatry to complete my studies. I never regretted dropping out of nursing, because raising babies and nursing were not exactly compatible activities in those days. We did not have the child care facilities that exist today, and nurses worked such ungodly hours--rotating shifts, 7a.m. to 3p.m.; 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The knowledge I gained was priceless when it came to raising a family of two girls and a boy as well as knowing when to insist my husband see a doctor.
I worked in Bryan Texas as a Court Reporter for the Air Force. My husband eventually obtained his PHD in physical chemistry. We student wives say we earned our PhT degrees (Putting Hubby Through). We eventually moved in 1955 to Oak Ridge where he worked at the National Laboratory until retirement. I continues as a free-lance court reporter and also retired after four years as a supervisor of Facilities and Office Services for Bechtel National.
We share an interest in genealogy and have traveled to many cities in the South tracing my Flemming roots. There have been trips to Northern Ireland, travelng to Belfast while spending three weeks each time primarily in the Public Records Office.
The daughter of one of our WWII group wrote such a
touching poem for us.
THE BEST YEARS OF THEIR LIVES:
Fanfare for the Quiet Heroes of World War Two
Look at the earnest faces in the photograph
Off to meet their unknown future
Held in the hands of forces in far-off countries.
Bataan, Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor
The names a litany of trials and tragedies.
Those in this generation left home as children
And returned as men and women with a new sense
Of self and country.
With their hands they dug
Down to the roots of the land
They loved for strength and courage.
With their heads they
Built planes and tanks
And one horrifying weapon which
Would change the world forever.
With their hearts they
Forged bonds that joined them
In a life-long web of love.
Auschwitz, Hiroshima, North Africa:
More half-notes echo still.
They were the backbone
Of the century
Flexible enough to both look back
To Kitty Hawk
And forward to the Moon.
Children of the Depression
On their broad shoulders the
Country they defended
Would change beyond their
And still strong, many of them
Would greet the new Century
Proud of the country they saved,
Unsung heroes in the hymnal of America.
From left to right at the CNT Celestial Navigators Training Reunion in Cherokee Arkansas in October of 2000. Minton & Tommye Kelley, Captain Bueven Tucker and Evelyn; Ralph Havenhill and Jackie; Dwight Ives and Marian; P.R. White and Jean; Ralph Wilson and Pat; and Judy Brown who's husband Don took the photo.
I still get together every two years with some of
the old CNT crowd, and, boy, are we getting old. Our commanding officer is
now 90 and still going strong. But, we don't dare have a drink in his
Tommyes service from November of 1943 to January 1946 quailifies her for at least two of the nations campaign medals.
World War II (WWII) Victory Medal (Est 1945) Dates: 1941-46 Criteria: Awarded for service in US Armed Forces between 1941 and 1946. Notes: None.
American Campaign Medal - WWII (Est 1942) Dates: 1941-46 Criteria: Service outside the U.S. in the American theater for 30 days or within the continental US for one year.
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