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Women in the Weather Bureau During WWII: Grace D. Harding
Grace D. Harding inflating a pilot balloon for observation.

Women in the Weather Bureau During WWII: Grace D. Harding

By NWS Heritage Projects Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: The following first-person account of Grace D. Harding first appeared in Women in the Weather Bureau During WWII by Kaye O'Brien and Gary Grice, 1991.


I worked for the Weather Bureau from May 1943 to June 1946; and from July 1958 to March 1959. My assignments were at Boeing Field, Seattle (temporary assignment), Bethel and Juneau, Alaska, and Great Falls, Montana. I became pregnant in January 1946, and in those days it was almost unheard of for new mothers to return to work, so I stopped working for the Weather Bureau in June 1946. I had been at Bethel for two years and Juneau for one year. I later filled my husband's observer position at Great Falls while he attended school.

I started with the Weather Bureau as a means to be with my husband who had been transferred to Bethel, Alaska. At that time entry into Alaska was restricted to those who had employment - generally defense related. Through the grapevine in Alaska my husband, Warren, had learned that the Weather Bureau was bringing in wives of observers to work at the stations. The outlying stations were all short of personnel. Some of the work was being done by the military.

My education and experience had all been in the secretarial - accounting field. I had experience working with numbers which was helpful.

I spent one month at the observer training school in Seattle. From there I went to Boeing Field for on-the-job training. I was in Bethel two and one-half months later where I continued to learn while on the job.

The Weather Bureau in the 1940s was small, scientific, efficient, and appeared well organized. The employees were very dedicated and proud to be a part of the service. The regional office, forecasting unit, observation station, and hydrology all shared a portion of the second floor of the terminal building at Boeing Field. By today's standards it would be considered an impossible situation. However, it seemed to work very well.

At Seattle, the observer not only did the weather observing, but plotted maps as well. At Bethel, which was a radiosonde station, our only duties were observing. No maps were plotted. At Juneau women were hired whose only job was to plot maps. So I was solely observing there, as well as at Great Falls.

We rotated around the clock working eight hours per shift. The shifts were scheduled to fit the observation schedule. We worked six days (forty-eight hours) per week.

I started in May 1943 as an SP-3 with a salary of $1440 per year. I was raised to an SP-5 before I stopped working (rate unknown). In Alaska we were given a 25% pay differential to compensate for the high cost of living.

The number of observers varied from five to six depending upon the availability. Most of the time I was the only woman, although another couple (husband and wife) were there a short time. The CAA, which was next door to us, had about the same number with two woman communicators.

Everyone was very friendly and helpful. I felt the seasoned male observers had some reservations about my ability, but they were cooperative. Being female in a 98% male situation helped to break the ice.

With the exception of Bethel, morale at all stations was good. The weather station and housing were located adjacent to runways built for Army Air Corps. We were across a very deep and wide river from the town of Bethel where the population was comprised of Eskimos, Indian Affairs personnel, a Moravian mission, and white traders. Our housing was adequate, but the food supply was of such poor quality that it took a toll on everyone's health. The bachelors especially dreamed of "city lights." Everyone was a long way from home, there were no vacations and "R & R" had not been invented. Everyone realized that it was war time and tried to make the best of it.

The high point of my career was the day I took off from Seattle enroute to Bethel which was my first full-time assignment. The low points were the days when we received word from home about the deaths and injuries of family members and friends due to the war. Although we were anxious to get mail, we feared what the news might be.

My impression of working for the Weather Bureau during World War II was one of lots of excitement mixed with many days of boredom and homesickness. I would certainly do it again. Not only do I feel I contributed to the war effort, but I travelled to new places, gained valuable work experience, and made friends I will never forget. By my filling a position at a remote Alaskan station, some other observer was freed to go where I could not have gone.

The most exciting event which occurred while we were at Bethel was the finding of one of the mysterious Japanese incendiary devices with the attached balloon and gear. A native found it out on the tundra a few miles from our station and brought it to the state marshal! who, in turn, brought it to the weather station. At that time no one was aware of what it was or what its purpose was. We were certain it had Japanese origins. We later learned many of these had been found along the west coast. They were never a serious threat.

We lived and worked on the edge of the runways built to handle military planes. Therefore, the random coming and going of many different types of planes was exciting and interesting to us. The amount of traffic was small, but there was enough to create some emergencies.

One night while the crew of a B-26 was across the river enjoying a night on the town (at the roadhouse), a sergeant who was familiar with the plane slipped back, entered the plane, started the motors and taxied to the end of the runway. He then asked in a very intoxicated sounding voice for permission to take off. His plan was to take the plane out into the tundra and land it, hoping to spend a few more days at Bethel. After spending some anxious moments, the communicator talked him into coming back to the station. We were concerned that he might hit our quarters, but he made it back without further incident.


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