Lorraine Griffie was ready to spread her wings. It was 1952, and she’d graduated the previous year from Waterloo’s East High School.
“I was like a lot of young kids. I was anxious to get away from home,” she said.
She had a friend in the Army who wrote to her with stories of adventures that became irresistible. Griffie decided that she, too, wanted a life of adventure.
“I went to enlist, and I was under 21 so I had to have my parents’ permission,” she said. Her friend in the military and her recruiting offer assured Griffie’s protective parents that she’d be looked after and taken care of.
“My dad told me he was reluctant to sign. He said, ‘I tell you, I wouldn’t have a job in the Army counting money, but if that’s what you want to do I’ll let you go.”
It turned out to be not nearly as glamorous as she’d been told.
“My friend was a lieutenant. I went in as a private. Her adventures and mine were very different,” Griffie said.
She joined the Women’s Army Corps — WACS, as they were known —and was shipped off to Fort Lee, Va., for basic training.
It was eye-opening.
“Going to Fort Lee was my first experience going south and my first experience running into segregation. Taking the train out of Des Moines to Fort Lee, once we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the train stopped and all people of color had to get off the cars they were in and get in one car designated for people of color. Of course the accommodations were not the same.
“It was a rather jolting experience, my first experience with segregation. Getting off the train in a segregated waiting room, it was quite an experience. That was October 1952.”
In Iowa, Griffie had been largely sheltered from the harsh realities of the segregated South. On several occasions, her self-described naivete placed her in harm’s way. During an off-base outing with friends while training in Georgia, her group boarded a city bus for a day about town.
“I got on the bus and took the first seat I saw available. All the girls went to the back of the bus,” and were frantically motioning to her to join them. “I got off the bus and they told me. I hadn’t seen the sign. I came from the city (where) you get on the bus, you take the first seat that’s available.”
Griffie wasn’t the only soldier in her barracks experiencing segregation for the first time. Her Army base in Georgia was integrated. Outside the gates, it was not.
“We could not fraternize with white friends while in town in training. I can remember being very touched by my (white) bunk mate who cried when we weren’t able to be together,” Griffie said, choking back tears. “It was a long time before I realized what that meant to her.”
Griffie finished her occupational specialty training as a switchboard operator in 1953. “I learned to use every form of switchboard there was.”
She was sent to several U.S. Army bases to work over several months, then volunteered to serve overseas. She took a short leave to Waterloo to visit her parents before she shipped out.
“I came to tell my parents. It was a mistake. ... I thought my mother was going to have a stroke. The Korean conflict was going on, so she assumed that anywhere I went (overseas) that I would be in the mix of war. I had to call my (commanding officer) to see if they would take me off my overseas request. They reissued my orders.”
Griffie served two years in the Army, and after discharge used her training to make a living.
“I had very little trouble getting jobs. I moved back to Chicago where I was a switchboard operator at two companies, and was a receptionist and switchboard operator at a hotel and a publishing company.”
Griffie returned to Waterloo and has been honored for her lifelong work in the community and her commitment to honoring African-American women veterans.