Carter during the war

Still making WAVES

U.S. Navy veteran Charlotte Carter didn't march in a parade over the weekend or even partake of a free pancake breakfast. At 91, she says she is too busy looking toward the future to spend time talking about the past.

But when pressed, one of the oldest veterans in the Rogue Valley will say the military saved her life, and she was shaped by the years she spent in Washington, D.C., and Pearl Harbor during World War II. Still, she is dedicated to peace.

On Monday, when Veterans Day was observed across the country, she was in her Ashland home wearing a lilac turtleneck and her ever-present Veterans For Peace button.

Her shoulders remain ramrod straight — "I do have nice shoulders," she acknowledges, "and good legs, too." Growing up poor, she once dreamed about being a Radio City Rockette but instead became one of 27,000 WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, in 1943.

Age-defyingly fit, the daily walker says she may look younger, but now is the time for her to watch life's parade rather than be in it.

"I like to be low-key," says Carter, whose story is part of the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center stored in the Library of Congress. "And encourage everyone to get involved with their communities. This is where the work needs to be done. The heck with the yahoos in Washington."

Carter was 21 and a petite 85 pounds when she first arrived in Washington, D.C. In 1942, she left her hometown in Pennsylvania and an abusive mother to find civilian work as a stenographer making $35 a week at the Pentagon.

A year later, she passed a necessary exam and joined the Navy, a branch of service where women received the same pay as men in their rank. She jokes now that she preferred the Navy blue color over Army khaki, but back then her thoughts were on seeing the world and escaping the U.S. capital, where "there were too many admirals and generals and way too much saluting," she says.

Instead, the petty officer first class was sent back to the capital until a sympathetic female commander mentioned that Carter could be transferred to Attu Island off the coast of Alaska.

Fate played its card and instead of that base, where hand-to-hand combat took place in May 1943, Carter was sent to Pearl Harbor, where the yeoman tapped out documents on a Royal typewriter in the admiral's office. On weekends, she explored the beaches with her simple Brownie camera.

"Those years shaped the person I am now," she says. "Maybe I should have felt under threat, but I had no doubt about my survival. A lot happened in those few years and I was exposed to things, but I also learned how to dress, thrive in a routine and conduct polite conversation."

She was one of about 200 WAVES in a sea of thousands of sailors. She learned to drive an Army jeep, met the man who would become her husband of 35 years, T.C. Carter, and was introduced to people from all over the world.

Holding a wallet-size photograph of herself taken during the war, she says, "I wish I had known how good-looking I was. I would have taken advantage of it." She pauses to make sure her waggish statement is understood. "Instead, I was just a little mouse that didn't know anything."

She laughs, then apologizes for talking so much and so fast. "I haven't thought about any of this in years," she says, "and it's just pouring out of me."

When the Japanese surrendered, she marched in a parade in Honolulu. Before then, grateful Hawaiians had laced her neck with leis and gave her kisses. In San Francisco, her ship was met with signs and people at the dock welcoming back the troops.

She and her husband were discharged in 1946 and they moved to Klamath Falls, where he had grown up. He managed Safeway grocery stores and she raised two boys, Bruce and Tom, and worked in a health food store.

After she divorced, she moved to Ashland to join the Unity congregation and was hired as a nanny by several families. Carter, who never had the time to write a resume, stopped working when she was 86.

"I never had a goal," she says. "I was just taking care of events as they popped up all around me."

She attends Memorial Day services every May to honor those who served in the military, but joined the Rogue Valley Veterans for Peace four years ago because she was never in favor of war. "It's useless. Horrible," she says. She marches with the group every year in Ashland's July Fourth parade.

Jim Woods, a member of the peace group who served in the Navy during the Vietnam era, remembers his "date" this year with the group's oldest member.

"After we came to the end of the parade route, we walked to Lithia Park and enjoyed a nice lunch," he recalls. "Charlotte carried the American flag over much of the parade route and a number of her friends called out her name while we were marching."

When reminded of this, Carter brushes the air. "I get a lot of recognition. But I've done what I wanted to do, been where I wanted to go and in that war, everyone was doing something."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

Share This Story