Our Stories

Women in the Weather Bureau During WWII: Shirley E. Kodalen Buhmann

Women in the Weather Bureau During WWII: Shirley E. Kodalen Buhmann

By NWS Heritage Projects Editorial Staff


Editor’s Note: The following first-person account of Shirley E. Kodalen Buhmann first appeared in Women in the Weather Bureau During WWII by Kaye O'Brien and Gary Grice, 1991.

After six weeks of training in Seattle for meteorology and surface observations, I began working at Great Falls, Montana. There I received on-the-job training for RAOB. When I started work at the Bureau I was using my maiden name, Shirley Kodalen. I was married in 1947 and could not transfer to Seattle. Also, after I married an Aircraft Controller, shifts were very difficult. That was the year I first left the Weather Bureau. I worked again in 1951 during the Korean War, and have been with the National Weather Service from 1976 to the present. My educational background included being High School Valedictorian. I especially liked science and math...and loved geography.

I'm not sure how I learned that the Weather Bureau needed new employees, but I applied for the Weather Bureau and CAA [Civil Aeronautics Administration] - the Weather Bureau answered first, and I passed the test. It was WARTIME and girls were needed. (I didn't like secretarial work and the Weather Bureau sounded much more exciting.) "Those were trying times," probably best describes the world when I graduated from high school in the spring of 1942. It wasn't too long before most of my friends and relatives were in some branch of military service or working at a shipyard.

Before long word began to come home: One friend was badly wounded by a bomb at Clark Field in the Philippines. Two of my classmates were killed at Bougainville. Another was shot down over Africa and ended up in an Italian prison camp. My best friend's brother was on a B-17 that disappeared over Europe. A friend was badly burned on a mine sweeper. My cousin parachuted out over Germany and spent three years in a German POW camp. And the list goes on and on... I felt so inadequate, studying Secretarial Science. I needed to do something to help win the war. When I heard that young women were needed in the Weather Bureau and CAA, I put in applications and took tests. When the Weather Bureau offered me a job as a trainee Junior Observer, I was ready.

I believe the young women who worked for the Weather Bureau during those wartime years made a major contribution to the war effort...and I was very proud of us. Since Great Falls was a B-17 Base, I felt my job was extremely important. As a Junior Observer, my duties included doing surface observations, PIBALs, RAOBs, and map plotting. I worked rotating shifts, and often it was necessary to put in unpaid overtime because RAOBs were very fragile and required many releases. Normally eight hours a day were scheduled...and six-day weeks were necessary. Often days were ten hours long and days off were only a dream because we were shorthanded. The personnel at our duty station included the MIC, 1st Assistant, PAWS [Flight Advisory Weather Service] OIC, about four senior observers and six or eight junior observers. (At times, four Jr. observers.) Pay at that time was as follows: SP-3 - $1440 annually; SP-4 - $1620; SP-5 - $1800.

They were shorthanded at the Weather Bureau, so I was very welcome. The morale on station was usually good...but RAOB balloons and instruments were very temperamental. A shipment of reconditioned instruments meant troubles.

I felt very proud of my job...and believe girls did some very good work...at a very important time in America. Would I do it again? Yes. I liked the work...it was exciting and I felt very useful doing what I thought was very important work, and still think so. I feel that one of my major contributions was simply being able to do the job well. The high point of my career was when I was first hired. Low point - when my 1976 status was questioned. (The personnel director thought I was "illegally hired" because of my wartime appointment.) One Christmas Eve I had to work and was feeling pretty sorry for myself. When I walked out to the instrument shelter to take an observation, it began to snow...big, beautiful, lazy snowflakes. The lights from town sparkled in the-distance. I lost my lonesome feeling and was happy to be able to be outside on such a beautiful night.

Another girl and I were ready to release our radiosonde from the roof of the terminal building at Great Falls but had to wait for a B-17 that was on final approach. The B-17 touched down on the end of the runway and we released the balloon. To our horror, the balloon didn't rise. The wind carried it out toward the runway...barely skimming across the ground. It seemed like forever...but just before it reached the runway and the B-17, the balloon began to rise. The B-17 rolled on down the runway...unaware of two speechless young ladies on the roof.