LOWER TOWNSHIP — Fay Teichman racked up about two years of training in a matter of months to become a Navy air traffic control operator.
But the head of the Naval Air Station Wildwood control tower would not let her or any of the women in, she said.
During World War II, the airport had become a training center for Navy pilots, designated Naval Air Station Wildwood.
With millions of men in the armed forces, women have seen unprecedented new opportunities.
Now 99 and known by her married name Fay Greenwald, she remembers those days in Wildwood as some of the hardest and most rewarding work she did in her life. But first, she had to walk through that door. She described the chef as a tough old pro “with hash marks all the way down his arm.”
“Women, in my tower? I don’t think so,” she recalls. He had to be convinced to let the women in, and even then avoid giving them responsibility.
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Greenwald served as a control tower operator from 1944 to 1946. Her title was “Special Technician, First Class,” a non-commissioned officer, according to her daughter, Elissa Greenwald.
Fay enlisted in the Navy on January 1, 1944, following her sister’s example. His sister Mildred had joined the army earlier and was stationed in Kansas, describing the job as interesting. At that time, women in the military were known as WAC, for the Women’s Army Corps, while Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, was approved for the Navy in 1942.
Fay was in North Bergen, Hudson County, living with her parents and yearning for a change.
“I was struggling at home with my parents,” she said. “They weren’t happy people.”
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Like most families, hers fell on hard times during the Depression. Her father was sick and her older sister found a job after the family was evicted from their apartment. Greenwald said she got a college scholarship, but it didn’t cover everything, and her mother said she had to participate and find her own job.
After a brief stint in business school to learn shorthand and typing, Greenwald had a series of jobs.
“I always worked for a guy. I would learn what he was doing and become more than a secretary. I would become an assistant,” she said. Later, she got a job at an advertising agency writing scripts for radio commercials before deciding to join the navy.
She was selected to undergo air traffic control training.
“They were looking for women to fill these jobs, but they had to train in a very short time,” she said.
This meant 12-hour days in the accelerated program. Afterwards, she was asked where she would like to be assigned and chose Wildwood to be in the same condition as her family.
“I didn’t even know where Wildwood was, to be honest with you. Northern New Jersey knows very little about Southern New Jersey,” she said. “It’s like a different country. Even the accent is different.
The women’s barracks were still under construction, so she stayed at a bed and breakfast in Wildwood, not far from the base.
“I learned to love the beach in the winter and hate it in the summer with all the tourists,” she said. There wasn’t much to do in the offseason, she said, but she could take a train to New York or Philadelphia and check out the small seaside town.
“There was a red spaghetti restaurant and a pharmacy that’s probably still there,” she said.
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When the former leader was ready to leave the tower and retire, Greenwald was surprised he chose her to replace her.
“I was a 21-year-old kid. What did I know? she said. Air traffic control had a team of 10 people, both male and female, and she described it as extremely stressful. She had to learn how to manage the team, and sometimes take a firm tone with the young drivers.
The terrible stakes became clear on his first night as leader. She was on night duty, which she described as the hardest. A pilot came too low and caught his wing on the top of a tree. The damaged aircraft caught fire and the pilot died.
According to staff at the Naval Air Station Wildwood museum, housed in one of the airport’s historic hangars, 42 men died training there during World War II. They were learning to become dive bombers, a new and dangerous technique on the only planes that could be spared the war effort.
Mechanical breakdowns were frequent. One lingering problem: the landing gear that refused to lower, Greenwald said. Young pilots sometimes panicked when they arrived for a landing. There was a pump that could manually operate the landing gear, she said, but had to make the pilot use it.
“I had to be very bossy and tell them to calm down,” she said, then accompanied the pilot through the steps by radio.
The pressure was intense, she said.
After the war, Greenwald went to Rutgers Women’s College on the GI Bill, a law that helped service members with tuition, housing and more.
She met Dennis Greenwald in their junior year and they married in their senior year. She got a scholarship at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, he got one at Harvard in Massachusetts.
As she said, at that time the wife went with the husband, so they went to Massachusetts. She later earned her doctorate and taught English at colleges and universities while her husband practiced law. They had a daughter, Elissa, and a son, Robert, who both grew up to be teachers.
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“Even if you don’t get paid very well, it’s a wonderful thing to do,” she said.
Greenwald lives in Westchester County in New York. She has not seen the museum or the civilian airport where she once worked. She said her daughter had visited Cape May, but now uses a wheelchair and does not travel as much as before.
Right after her release, she had considered continuing to work in air traffic control. She said she checked into all airports within 30 miles of New York.
“I got a great recommendation from my ops officer. They wouldn’t even look,” she said. “There were no women in any of those towers, and I doubt there were. have a lot right now.”
According to data from several sources, including statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration, women make up less than 20% of air traffic controllers across the country. Last summer, the FAA encouraged more women and minorities to apply to become air traffic control specialists during a week-long campaign.
The airport’s old control tower collapsed in the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm, said Bill LaSalle, curator of the Naval Air Station Wildwood museum. The building that remained now serves as an airport restaurant. A few of the old buildings are still in place at what is now Cape May Airport in the Lower Township, including the old Hangar 1, which was about to be demolished when it was renovated in Museum.
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