Area author, 96, reflects on changes since youth in WWII Hawaii
By Lou Fancher
Surpassing the historical events and experiences of Virginia Melville Cowart’s lifetime since her birth on Aug. 25, 1924, her current, everyday activities are astonishing.
At 96, she continues to drive and is the primary caretaker of her son, James Cowart, 73, whose schizophrenia emerged in his 20s. The daughter of a U.S. Navy World War I veteran, granddaughter of a Spanish-American Army veteran and now a great-grandmother to her daughter’s grandchildren, Cowart only two years ago gave up playing her beloved tennis. She says in an interview that the last game she played was her best ever. During the pandemic she is reading biographies, decluttering her townhome and searching for a literary agent for the biography she wrote and published in 2006, “Gas Masks and Palm Trees: My Wartime Hawaii” (available on Amazon at bayareane.ws/3mAquHW).
Cowart’s book begins with a fascinating first-person account of being in Honolulu during Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. As a teenager who loved the climate, Hawaiian music, weaving homemade grass skirts for hula lessons and the internationality of friends in the neighborhood in which she lived, the devastating attacks changed the landscape irreparably.
“I wrote the book because I wanted to write about the way Hawaii was during the war and the changes that took place. The buildings that were originally there and then were gone, the music that changed for a while to more mainland music from the States but eventually went back to Hawaiian music. I wanted my family to know what my life had been like. A grand-nephew of mine said he found out things he never knew so he was thrilled. I still consider Hawaii my home, even though I’ve been here so long.”
Cowart says most books about Pearl Harbor are not told from a civilian perspective.
“This is my story from Day One, when the war started, until we left in 1945. We had to carry gas masks. We had blackout curtains. We didn’t have television, so we listened to the radio for news. I remember people didn’t have Christmas trees that year, but my dad was a retired Navy man so he was able to get one from the ship’s captains.”
Born in San Diego County’s resort city of Coronado, Cowart moved with her mother to the Philippines at age 3. Joining her father on the island of Oahu in 1932, family life was made difficult by her mother’s bipolar condition.
“As an adult, I didn’t see her for a time period of about 34 years. We reconciled after she became healthier, but she was always difficult,” says Cowart.
Despite the rocky foundation, Cowart fashioned a life characterized by adaptability, commitment and boundless energy and intellect. She was secretary for a commanding officer, then transferred to the U.S. Navy Registered Publications Issuing Office, a department that decoded and made corrections to messages that were then sent to U.S. and U.K. units in the Pacific.
Married for 61 years to James Cowart until his death in 2005, the family moved from Hawaii in 1945, eventually settling in Castro Valley seven years later. Cowart worked as a teacher’s aid to special-needs and hearing-impaired students in Hayward pubic schools, learning sign language after one teacher refused to teach in sign language unless Cowart also received training (“I wanted to work with children, so I just did it,” she said).
Since retiring, Cowart has lived in Danville for 42 years. In 1990, sorting through her collection of pictures, letters, postcards and memorabilia (like the necklace she made out of a charm bracelet given to her by Navy co-workers that grew to have too many charms for a wrist), Cowart decided to write a biography. Her father, David G. Melville, had been a Navy chief carpenter’s mate, and was a “leadingman shipfitter” at Pearl Harbor’s Shop 11 at the time of the attack.
“I started out writing about what happened to my dad. I’m a perfectionist, so I just kept changing it and adding chapters. I read books to make sure I had everything correct. But I remembered everything: a dance where I danced to Artie Shaw’s band, a time President Roosevelt went by and we rushed out and waved at him. I knew it was Roosevelt even though his visit was secret because of the office I worked in, so when I heard the sirens, we just all rushed out. We were the only people he waved to.”
A lighthearted memory reveals Cowart’s formidable recall and still-boisterous sense of humor.
“I don’t have favorite authors, but I have a lot of books about Shirley Temple, because I played baseball with her when we lived in Hawaii. She was kind of spoiled. She struck out and insisted my sister pitch to her because she said she’d struck out because of the other pitcher. My sister pitched really slowly to her — she was Shirley Temple, after all — and Shirley hit the ball and said, ‘See, it was the pitcher. I can hit!’ ”
After recently reading Michelle Obama’s biography, Cowart was inspired to write a three-page note to presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“I wrote all of the things about why I was against Trump and thought other people should be. I was a part of the Greatest Generation and they would all be turning over in their graves if they knew what was happening. America was always great … but I’m hoping Biden will make it great again.”
Asked about the contrast between the national crisis of Pearl Harbor and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, Cowart says, “People were more together then. Nowadays, the country is so divided politically. I think at the time of the war, people didn’t argue and fight about politics. They were just more united. I can’t say that now. And love was different. People just stayed married for years and years, whereas it isn’t that way now.”
The inevitable question arises: What secrets might she have for achieving longevity?
“I have one drink a day: scotch and seltzer or water, sometimes half a bottle of beer if I have pizza. I like to stay the way I am. I don’t know why I’ve lived so long. I’ve had a hard life since I was 4 years old, with my mother the way she was. I had nothing but worries, and I don’t know how I’ve managed to stay alive so long. I guess I just stay curious about everything.”