Margaret “Chris” Thornburg: Veteran of the Month | May 2022
Margaret “Chris” Thornburg has all the qualities that define southern charm. She is polite, kind, witty, and considerate. You can imagine yourself sitting on a front porch swing on a warm afternoon, sipping sweet tea, laughing, and talking with her for hours. She instantly feels like someone you’ve known your whole life or at least wish you had. Here is her story…
Margaret Thornburg, known as Chris since her days in the Navy, was born in Winston Salem, NC, in 1933. She was the middle child of six children, 3 boys, and 3 girls. Growing up in the city, her favorite thing to do was read. Chris stated with a laugh, “my mother would always say if the house burned down around me, and I had my nose in a book, I wouldn’t even realize the house was on fire.”
After Chris graduated from high school in 1951, she went to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco employment office to see if they were hiring. Unfortunately, they weren’t. However, this was during the Korean Conflict, and there was a Naval recruiting office right across the street. Chris left the employment office, walked over to the recruiting office, and took a test. A week later, she was on a train headed to the United States Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, MD, for basic training. It was 1952, and at 18 years old, Chris needed her parent’s signature to be able to enlist. Her parents supported her decision and signed the necessary paperwork for her to go. Chris had an older brother in the Navy and stated, “I guess that’s where I got the idea, and boy, I am glad I did.”
Once she arrived, she took a bus to the receiving office to check in and get her uniforms. Chris recalled giggling, “The hose they gave me, or that everybody wore, you could wash and iron them; they were so thick. They weren’t comfortable or pretty!” During basic training, also known as boot camp, the recruits spent their days marching or in a classroom, learning different skills. Chris laughed, stating they sang a song while marching that she still remembers today, “If you’re nervous in the service and you don’t know what to do, have a baby.” She continued, “In the barracks at night, they would call the role, and the girls called me south or something like that, and they all thought I lived on a plantation, and they couldn’t wait to hear me say here because of my accent.” Chris sweetly stated, “I met some of the nicest women from all over and still wonder where they are now.” One thing Chris was dreading going into the service was getting the shots. “I don’t like shots, but I braved up. They go down the line and shoot your shoulder and guess whose shot list they lost. I had to go down and do it all over again!”
During boot camp, the recruits were tested to see what job they were best suited for. Originally Chris wanted to be a radioman which was a position responsible for transmitting and receiving radio signals and processing all forms of telecommunications aboard ships, aircraft, and shore facilities. But she ended up doing telecommunications. Chris explained, “They sent me to Class A school in San Diego for teletype, and I learned to read tapes before being transferred to Moffit Field, CA, which is now Silicon Valley.”
The Naval Air Station Moffett Field had 3 squadrons. Chris’s duties included receiving tapes from San Francisco and routing them to the correct squadron. They would also take tapes to the radio station on the top floor, where Naval personnel would encrypt messages, then she would take the tapes to be processed. At the end of the day, all tapes were placed into barrels to be burned in a fireplace outside the building.
When Chris had free time, she loved to explore the city. Chris recalled, “I would go to the front gate and ask the marine guard to ask any cars coming through if they were going to San Francisco and if I could get a ride. Then, I would walk around and shop and then catch the bus back to the base. Can you believe I used to do that? But you know, back then, you didn’t have any of the fears that you have now. I actually can’t believe I used to do that.”
Chris met her husband through a bunkmate who answered the phone one night. A man called asking if any southern girls were stationed there from North Carolina because he would love to hear a southern accent. Chris recalled that she didn’t have anything better to do, stating, “So, I got on the phone, and we talked.” She went on to say, “He asked if I had been to any of the nightclubs around Greensborough, which was not far from Winston Salem, and I said oh sure, sure I had, but I had never been to any nightclub in my life.” He was stationed across the bay as they had separate bases for men and women. After their conversation, he asked Chris for a date, and they planned on meeting at the gate. Chris laughed as she explained, “He asked me how will I know you, and I said just look for the ugliest wave on the base.” She went on to say, “when I met him, he was three sheets in the wind and told me he had seen some ugly waves in his time and wanted to be prepared!” The couple went to San Diego for a meal, and she stated, “the rest was history.”
The young couple was soon married in Coronado in 1953 after going through counseling provided by the Navy. Chris giggled again, remembering,” They wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing, and I wish I had listened to them.” Since her husband was sent to Korea, they couldn’t live together, so they spent the next year and a half writing letters.
When asked what she liked about the Navy, Chris exclaimed, “the best part was mingling with the girls from different parts of the country and learning things about their states, things that I had never known before. And we would sit in the barracks at night and swap tall tales, and I just enjoyed my time with them.”
Chris was honorably discharged in April of 1954. The couple moved to Atlanta, where she worked at Sears Roebuck doing teletype. Once Chris started having children, the couple moved home to North Carolina and settled in Charlotte for a while. Her husband worked with a trucking line and eventually moved them to Dallas. Chris and her husband had three daughters. Chris stayed home and raised their daughters for many years but also worked outside of the home. She retired from Bell South in 1998 and then went to work for Gaston College for 11 years and didn’t quit working until she was 78 years old.
Chris explained how lucky she feels to have her VA Pension with Aid and Attendance benefit, especially after some recent medical issues and a cancer diagnosis. Right at Home currently comes out 3 days a week to help her with grocery shopping, drive her to doctor’s appointments, and do house cleaning. Chris stated, “I am so grateful for the VA for the help and the benefit. I am very lucky and grateful for the time I spent in the service.”
When asked what her time in the military taught her, she stated, “When I was in there, I was having a good time. I really was, and I appreciated what I was taught, and that was discipline. And the girls, I really enjoyed their company, but by the time I came home, I had a feeling I needed to stay away from girls for a while, but I had good friends, and we had some great times.” She continued, “Because when looking at the workforce today, there is no discipline, and some people don’t care, and they just don’t have the get-up and go to them. I think everybody should go to boot camp.”
Along with her three daughters, Chris now has 4 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. She loves to spend her days reading and playing Wordle. Chris joked, “My friends say I am a little crazy because I like to joke, but humor can get you out of a lot of awkward situations, and it is better to laugh than to cry.”
Veterans Care Coordination is proud to recognize Margaret “Chris” Thornburg for her service to our country. We are privileged to have the opportunity to share the stories of our nation’s heroes. Thank you for your service, Chris.