For Marie Voltzke and Oliver “Woody” Livingston, both residents at Cypress of Emanuel in Turlock, it has been 67 years since they donned their service uniforms, but for these two World War II veterans the memories of their war years remain fresh in their minds.
Voltzke, now 94, served in the U.S. Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, from January 1943 to October 1945, working in the U.S. Naval Communication Intelligence division.
Livingston was drafted in 1943 and served in the Army Air Force as an engineer and top turret gunner until his plane was shot down in September 1944 over Germany. Livingston spent the next seven months as a prisoner of war.
For Voltzke the desire to serve her country went deep into her West Virginia family’s roots.
“My family has always been very patriotic,” Voltzke said.
With her two younger brothers serving in the Navy, Voltzke jumped at the opportunity to serve her country when the WAVES started accepting applications.
“I was doing clerical work back home and I thought if they could use someone like me doing clerical work, then I should enlist and help out,” Voltzke said. “Plus it would keep me busy so I wouldn’t be at home worrying about my brothers.”
The women of the WAVES had the same status as naval reservists and worked to support the stateside efforts. As such, the women were expected to train like all the other sailors, even though they would never set foot on a ship.
“They would test us on the ‘Blue Jackets’ manual, even though we didn’t need to know a battleship’s speed,” Voltzke said. “And when we had a pass we had to request to go to shore, even though we were in Stillwater, Okla."
After boot camp Voltzke joined the 4,000 plus women at the Naval Communication Annex in Washington, D.C. After a battery of tests and a background check, Voltzke was assigned to work in the cryptology department.
“We worked on the messages coming in,” Voltzke recalled. “We had one basket for those solved and another for those not solved. There couldn’t be any scrap paper left around and we had these burn bags that you couldn’t lose.”
Voltzke was later sent to “the little chit room” where she continued her cryptology work, though at a classified level.
“At times it could get boring, but I enjoyed it because I knew we were doing good,” Voltzke said.
Voltzke was working one of her shifts when word was announced that Japan had surrendered.
“Everybody was excited, but work went on as usual,” she recalled.
With the war at an end, Voltzke had a decision to make about staying in the Navy. By this time she had reached the rank of Chief Specialist — the first at the Annex.
“It was a big decision when it came time to go,” Voltzke said. “I was 27 at the time and wanted a family, which was not allowed then. I opted for a family. Years ago I met a woman Navy officer and thought that could have been me, but that little bit of prestige could never compare to my family.”
Livingston wasn’t of legal drinking age when he was drafted in 1943. Within a short period of time the Washington native found himself flying over the skies of Germany on bombing missions.
On the morning of Sept. 9, 1944, Livingston was on one such mission when his plane was hit by flak. Wounded in the leg and ankle, Livingston had just enough time to help his navigator get out and grab his own parachute before the plane was engulfed in flames.
“It blew up and the next thing I knew I was coming down with my chute clutched to my chest,” Livingston said.
Of the nine men on the plane, only two survived.
Livingston made it out of the plane alive, but he was badly wounded and found himself surrounded by German soldiers in a small town.
At the onset of his captivity Livingston was watched over by some of the town’s citizens. He was later patched up at a hospital. From the hospital Livingston was put into a boxcar with about 60 other men and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Stargard, Poland.
He was kept in a camp with 2,500 other men for about three months until the German guards started marching them out.
“They would march us back and forth from one place to another,” Livingston said. “It was freezing cold and our feet would be drenched from the snow and sleet. All we had were overcoats that we would tuck ourselves into when we had to sleep out in the fields. The conditions were pretty harsh.”
It was on one such march on April 26, 1945 that the men turned a corner and saw hundreds of white flags hanging from all the buildings and a tank with an American flag in the distance.
“It took a few minutes to realize this meant we were free and our guards were now the prisoners of the 101st Airborne,” Livingston said.
Livingston slowly began the journey back to his wife Marie and their daughter as he was sent from one port and base to another, each a step closer to home.
It was in France that Livingston once again ran into the navigator he helped save.
“I think about the rest of the crew that never made it back home,” Livingston said. “They were the ones that gave everything and are the real heroes.”