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Lois Bernhardt Oral History Interview

   

Oral History Interview with
Lois Bernhardt

Stenographer to James F. Byrnes , Office of War Mobilization, during World War II and from July to November, 1945 when Mr. Byrnes was Secretary of State.

September 19, 1989
Niel M. Johnson

[ Notices and Restrictions | InterviewTranscript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


NOTICE
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened March, 1992
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | InterviewTranscript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
Lois Bernhardt

Clarion Iowa
September 19, 1989
Niel M. Johnson

[1]

JOHNSON: Mrs. Bernhardt, would you give us your full name, including your maiden name, and your birthplace and the date of birth.

BERNHARDT: My maiden name is Kevan, Lois Kevan Bernhardt, and I was born at Dow City, Iowa, on November 22, 1919. My parents were Jay and Golda Kevan.

JOHNSON: Did they happen to be Irish in background?

BERNHARDT: Scotch. I've seen the name in Ireland, so it could have been. One grandfather was from Scotland, and his wife was from England.

JOHNSON: How about brothers and sisters.

BERNHARDT: I had one brother and two sisters, who are all deceased now.

[2]

JOHNSON: Are you the youngest?

BERNHARDT: No, I wasn't the youngest. I had one sister that was younger. She died just a short time ago, so they are all gone. I went to school in Dow City, but graduated from Schaller, Iowa, where I met my husband. We were high school sweethearts there, but it took us eight and a half years to finally get married, but of ourse, there was a global war in there.

JOHNSON: The only one that took longer was Harry and Bess Truman.

BERNHARDT: Right.

JOHNSON: What was your father's occupation?

BERNHARDT: He was a farmer. My mother was a schoolteacher before she married him.

JOHNSON: So you were raised on a farm.

BERNHARDT: Most of the time. My father passed away when I was only seven years old, so my mother had the problem of raising four children during the Great Depression.

JOHNSON: By herself, schoolteaching.

BERNHARDT: Well, she was a nurse then.

JOHNSON: Well, I guess at least nursing was in demand so

[3]

that she was . . .

BERNHARDT: She was never without work.

JOHNSON: Then you graduated from high school.

BERNHARDT: The Depression was just slowing down, but money was very scarce, and I had a scholarship to a business school in Des Moines, the American Institute of Business. So I attended that.

JOHNSON: That would have been what year?

BERNHARDT: I graduated in '37. And after I graduated from there I was in an insurance office in Des Moines. Through my mother's insistence, I took a Civil Service test. I was not interested. In fact, I put on the Civil Service test that I did not want to go out of the state of Iowa. I did not pursue any job at that time with the Government. But by the time I got the telegram from Washington--I didn't accept the first one because I wasn't interested--but then I had advanced as far as I could in the job in Des Moines, and so the third telegram was very attractive and I went to Washington all by myself. Didn't know a soul; didn't have a place to live.

JOHNSON: What office in Washington was offering you a job?

BERNHARDT: The War Department.

[4]

JOHNSON: What year?

BERNHARDT: This was 1940.

JOHNSON: Before Pearl Harbor.

BERNHARDT: The year before Pearl Harbor.

JOHNSON: Do you remember the name of the person, or the boss, the first boss that hired you?

BERNHARDT: No. I was in the G-3 division of the War Department, which at that time had the job of troop movements and troop training. So, that job became more of a secret nature as the possibility of war became a reality. So we were highly investigated, and at the time troop movements were very, very secret. I had made a trip to Fort Dix to see a friend who was among the troops that first went to northern Ireland. No one on that base knew where they were going, but they knew that I knew where they were going. So, don't anybody ever tell you that a girl can't keep a secret.

JOHNSON: This would have been after Pearl Harbor then, in 1942.

BERNHARDT: Yes.

JOHNSON: And you were still single.

[5]

BERNHARDT: Oh, yes, still single until after the war. I rather skipped over Pearl Harbor a little bit there. In Washington I wanted to go to visit Congress. As we were working all day, I took advantage of an evening session to visit Congress. And that night was when Congress was voting on the extension of the draft law. The draft law had been passed for only one year.

JOHNSON: That's right. This would have been just a few weeks before . . .

BERNHARDT: They were voting on an extension. It was August, four months before Pearl Harbor. And that passed by one vote. So, the extension of the draft was voted in by one vote, four months before Pearl Harbor.

JOHNSON: Now, were you in there to see the vote taken?

BERNHARDT: Yes. That was a very interesting, timely time to be in the Congress.

JOHNSON: Where did you live when you were working at that point, '40-'41?

BERNHARDT: Close to DuPont Circle, at 1533 New Hampshire, in a boarding house. When I got to Washington, as I say, I didn't know anybody. I went to the YWCA to get a list of residences. I just happened to go to this boarding house, and the reason I took the room was

[6]

there was a girl there that was home that day that had the prettiest smile and the most sparkling brown eyes, and I thought, "Oh, I need a friend." I was never sorry, because we are still friends with that girl. Nina Nicholson was her name then; Nina Collins is her name now.

JOHNSON: She was working for the Government too?

BERNHARDT: She was working in the War Department too, and we used to walk to work together and I really enjoyed her.

JOHNSON: Where did you work exactly?

BERNHARDT: In the old Munitions Building. Remember those buildings . . .

JOHNSON: Is that on the Mall, facing the Mall?

BERNHARDT: Yes. They were temporary buildings in World War I, and were still there.

JOHNSON: I think they were there until what, ten, fifteen years ago.

BERNHARDT: I think so. I think they still used them.

JOHNSON: Yes, that was just up from the Smithsonian, I think.

[7]

BERNHARDT: Right.

JOHNSON: You worked in that office for how long?

BERNHARDT: Well, at that time, if you worked for the Government and war was just starting, you were not permitted to change jobs unless you acquired a skill that you were not using, and then you could apply for another job. So, I went back to the Washington School for Secretaries to be able to use the stenotype fluently. So then I could say, "I can use a stenotype now; I'd like to have another job." So then they assigned me to the Price Adjustment Board. This was still in connection with the War Department. The Price Adjustment Board was in the new Pentagon. Now, that Pentagon was the largest office building in the world, and was built in one year.

JOHNSON: Amazing.

BERNHARDT: However, the roof was not finished, and every time it rained, water just came down the walls. You might be working at a desk, and when you came to it you might be surrounded by water.

JOHNSON: What was your job title of the first job you had?

BERNHARDT: I was a clerk, clerk-typist.

JOHNSON: Then you went back and got this additional

[8]

training for stenotype. Then what was your title?

BERNHARDT: Clerk-stenographer.

JOHNSON: Clerk-stenographer in the Pentagon.

BERNHARDT: Right.

JOHNSON: Do you remember the room?

BERNHARDT: Oh, no. In fact, they really didn't have individual rooms yet. They had this big, long corridor and I was assigned to be a secretary to Donald Russell. He had never dictated to a stenotypist before. This was my first experience at taking dictation, so all these people in this long corridor stopped their work and watched us. I didn't do very well on that first letter, I'm sure. Mr. Russell and I talked about it a year later when I had worked for him a while, and he said, "Now that was pretty bad, wasn't it?"

But anyway, they didn't have the partitions in yet. We were only in there a short time though, because Mr. [James F.] Byrnes was on the Supreme Court, as Justice of the Supreme Court, and Roosevelt needed him as his assistant. So, he asked him to leave the Supreme Court and come to the East Wing of the White House; that was where our office was. And in turn, Mr. Byrnes asked Mr. Russell if he would come because Mr. Russell had been a law partner of Byrnes in

[9]

South Carolina. They were good friends, for a lifetime. So, Mr. Russell therefore went to the White House.

JOHNSON: Well, when did you go to the White House?

BERNHARDT: Well, shortly after, because I was pretty anxious to see if I couldn't get there too. So, Mr. Russell gave me the nod and I got there.

JOHNSON: I think that started off as the Office of Economic Stabilization.

BERNHARDT: Right.

JOHNSON: Then it was changed to Office of War Mobilization, and eventually ended up as the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion toward the end of the war.

BERNHARDT: They created that office for Mr. Byrnes to be in the White House so that he could be an assistant to Roosevelt. Also, they had this myriad of ABC offices. There was a lot of bickering between the agencies, each one striving to be the most important agency. And Roosevelt had, oh, you could call it a failing or what, but he did not want to put anybody out of office and so he just created another office over them. You know how that's pyramided.

[10]

JOHNSON: Is this G-3 that you are in, in the Pentagon?

BERNHARDT: No. No, it was completely out of the G-3 Division then.

JOHNSON: And you were in the Pentagon.

BERNHARDT: The Price Adjustment Board.

JOHNSON: Oh, the Price Adjustment Board was in the Pentagon at that point?

BERNHARDT: Yes. The Price Adjustment Board was.

JOHNSON: So, it was through Russell that . . .

BERNHARDT: That I came to the White House.

JOHNSON: And that got you into contact with Jimmy Byrnes.

BERNHARDT: Jimmy Byrnes needed somebody to take his conference reporting, and also to take his official dictation. So my stenotype really served me well to do that.

JOHNSON: And what is stenotype?

BERNHARDT: Machine dictation, like court reporters use.

JOHNSON: Oh, okay.

BERNHARDT: Now, Jimmy Byrnes had been a court reporter. He had a very interesting past. You probably have all of

[11]

that in your notes. He was born after his father had passed away.

JOHNSON: That's right, he didn't have a college degree, and he studied law in a law office.

BERNHARDT: He worked for a judge and passed his bar. Of course, Truman didn't have a college degree either.

JOHNSON: He had two years of law school, evening law school. Both of them were very much self-educated.

BERNHARDT: Yes, very much so.

JOHNSON: Read an awful lot.

BERNHARDT: Yes.

JOHNSON: I suppose that's true of Jimmy Byrnes. Do you have any idea of his reading habits? Was he a voracious reader, Jimmy Byrnes?

BERNHARDT: At that time, he was so busy trying to keep up with things, that a lot of his reading was recreational reading. He loved mysteries and things like that, to relax him. He did do that.

JOHNSON: Sort of like Bess Truman. And now, Margaret writes them.

BERNHARDT: He was very much on top of things. One day he

[12]

was dictating to me and he made the remark about some rumor being "all over the lot." I looked puzzled at him and he said, "Lois, you don't know what I mean do you?" I said, "No," and he changed it because he said, "Well, if you don't know what that terms means, then maybe the people that are going to read this won't know it either." Well, it meant that all over Government circles that . .

JOHNSON: It shows that he was alert to his audience.

BERNHARDT: Oh yes. Oh yes.

JOHNSON: The people that were going to read or hear what he had to say.

BERNHARDT: Very much so.

JOHNSON: Would you say that that made him an effective communicator?

BERNHARDT: Yes, everybody felt at ease with him. He had that quality that he was a very kind, observing person.

JOHNSON: Do you recall anything about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Byrnes? Did you ever see them together?

BERNHARDT: Oh, yes.

JOHNSON: You saw them together. In what situations?

[13]

BERNHARDT: Really not that much at the White House, because anytime in the White House that the President needed him, Jimmy Byrnes, of course, had to go to the Oval Office because the President was completely a cripple. They were together at the international conferences more visibly than anything else.

JOHNSON: Did you get into the Oval Office while Roosevelt was President?

BERNHARDT: Yes, we had the Manhattan Project file in our office in the East Wing and whenever this was under discussion at the Oval Office, I was the one that carried it over there.

JOHNSON: What kind of clearance did you have?

BERNHARDT: Well, of course, at that time, I was not aware what I was carrying. If I had known it was the atom bomb file, I still wouldn't have understood what it was because at that time I didn't know what an atom was, you know.

JOHNSON: Was this a sealed folder then, or . . .

BERNHARDT: No.

JOHNSON: You could have flipped it open and read it?

BERNHARDT: It was kept secret; it was in an office in an

[14]

unlocked file, in an ordinary file.

JOHNSON: It was?

BERNHARDT: Yes. So there was nothing to call attention to it.

JOHNSON: Did they stamp it "Secret?"

BERNHARDT: Not the outside of it. I never opened it because I thought this was none of my business.

JOHNSON: Did you have any particular clearance?

BERNHARDT: Well, we were cleared to be employed in the White House itself.

JOHNSON: And that was considered adequate clearance.

BERNHARDT: Yes, because the Secret Service went back to our home town of Schaller and went up and down the street asking people, "Does she use alcohol? Does she talk too much? Is she morally okay?"

JOHNSON: But you were sworn to secre