When Diane Thomas entered the United States Navy right out of high school, she was in search of exploring the world beyond the boundaries of her Louisiana hometown.
“I wanted more adventures,” she said.
Thomas explained that she never planned to continue her education; it simply wasn’t an option for women in her day.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and just decided I needed to get out of that town if I was going to do anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to stagnate.”
From small-town Port Allen—located on the Mississippi River’s West Bank—Thomas said before choosing the Navy, she first visited the recruiting offices for each of the different military branches; but to this day she can’t explain the reason for her decision.
“I just decided on (the Navy); I don’t really know why,” Thomas said.
She specifically signed up for the Navy’s WAVES program—the date Nov. 13, 1960, her 18th birthday. Now defunct, the particular program stood for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” and was established during World War II to allow women recruits to take the place, at home, of men sent to sea. According to Thomas, at that time and during her service only men were assigned the role of “sailor,” and women were kept separate from the men.
Luckily, Thomas said other women from her hometown were also assigned to her company and shipped out together to Bainbridge, Maryland for basic training—the cold weather a shock for the Southern-raised teen.
“I had never been around that much snow in all my life,” Thomas said.
During training, she gained a large amount of military knowledge in a short amount of time.
“You learned things you had no idea what they were…all kinds of airplane parts…anything military,” Thomas said. Most unique was a life-saving water technique she said the women were taught to employ using their trousers.
“We had to go swim and use our trousers as a life support,” she said. “You had to tie each leg separately and lean over the trousers; and you floated in the water and…had to swim a certain distance.”
After basic training she moved to Milton, Florida, the site of Whiting Field Naval Air Station, where pilots are trained. However, while there Thomas immediately served a short stint as a compartment cleaner, while many of her counterparts worked in the galley.
After three months, she said two new jobs, one in air traffic control and another in the public relations office, opened up on base. That’s when Thomas entered the journalism world. Though she liked to write and had served on her high school’s yearbook team, she was unsure of what the job entailed.
“I didn’t even know what it was,” Thomas said with a laugh.
But one thing’s was for sure—the work kept her busy. She wrote feature stories, helped once a week with the copy and design of the Milton’s local community newspaper, and performed secretarial duties for PR office. Thomas said she’ll never forget a headline mistake on a story about the Navy’s chief of operations.
Multiples times Thomas said she had checked the headline—with the word “naval” spelled incorrectly—and notified newspaper staff, who changed it. But when the paper reached newsstands, the headline still contained the error.
“That was funny,” she said. “There were a lot of things that were so funny.”
Thomas stayed in the Sunshine State for three years before leaving the military. During that time she even met and fell in love with a tin can sailor named Tom, whom she later married. She said they met when he was walking, with a mutual friend, through her office building one day, and his mind already made up about his romantic intentions.
“One of his friends said, ‘Diane, I want you to meet somebody. He said he’s going to marry you,’” Thomas said. “I looked at him, and I thought to myself, ‘Are you crazy?’”
Had it not been for her desire to marry and start a family, Thomas said she might have considered a career in the Navy. Her boss even wanted her to stay at least another six months as a temporary senior journalist until a replacement was hired, she said.
“I was sort of nostalgic. I think if Tom hadn’t come along, I would’ve stayed in…but we had already set the wedding date,” Thomas said.
The military specifically taught her independence and paved the way for a better future.
“I loved it. I really enjoyed it,” she said. “You learned a lot. You do things you never thought you’d be able to do before. …It opened a lot of doors as far as who I became.”
With the rank of third-class petty officer, grade E-4, Thomas exited the military on her 21st birthday. Though she passed the test for grade E-5, Thomas said she thinks she was purposefully “quoted out.”
During the next several decades Thomas traveled with her husband to bases he was assigned to in California and Michigan, before the couple settled in the Lowcountry in 1975. During her work years, she filled roles as a bookkeeper/accountant for different businesses, including 15 years as a payroll supervisor for Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper.
Now a grandmother of five, the 75-year-old spends her retired days volunteering and interacting with other veterans at the Faith Sellers Senior Center in Summerville. This month her name will join several others on a wall display in honor of Veterans Day.
But Thomas isn’t cut off from the military life. She said she often chats with active duty members when she visits the local Naval and Air Force bases to shop at the Post Exchange (PX).
“I look at the young ladies at the gate, and I want to ask them, ‘Do you like it?’” Thomas said. “I never go through it without saying “hello” to them, (asking) ‘Where are you from?’”
And in a heartbeat Thomas said she would encourage a young woman to also follow the military route.
“There are too many reasons to consider it,” she said.