All-female honor guard travels from N.D. to learn from, and honor, a female WWII veteran from New London
NEW LONDON -- The seven young women sat straight-backed in the chairs at the retirement home in New London.
Wearing immaculately pressed Air Force uniforms, they quietly and respectfully turned the pages of photo albums and scrapbooks of another woman who -- 70 years earlier -- also wore an Air Force uniform as she served our country during World War II.
"We don't even feel worthy to be in the room with you," said Master Sergeant Stephanie Rose, as she looked earnestly into the warm face, wrinkled with years of good humor, of Wilma "Billie" Thorie Nadeau.
"It is an absolute honor for us," said Rose, a member of an all-female honor guard from Grand Forks Air Force Base. They traveled 250 miles on a Saturday morning earlier this month to conduct a private service to honor Nadeau, who will be 95 in August.
"We appreciate everything you did to keep our country free," said Rose.
"We worked hard," said Nadeau.
"Yes, ma'am," said Rose, with conviction.
With sharp precision the honor guard snapped and folded a flag that was given to Nadeau.
They also performed a firing detail near the woods that border the Grace living Community of Glen Oaks on the edge of New London, where Nadeau now lives.
Rose knelt on a knee beside Nadeau's wheelchair and presented her with the flag.
"I couldn't be prouder," said Nadeau. "Can I salute you?" she asked, gracefully lifting her hand to her head.
Rose did the same and they saluted each other.
The ceremony served as a symbol of gratitude for Nadeau's service in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corp from 1943-45 and for breaking new ground that helped future generations of female service members gain respect and equal treatment.
"We owe our service to her and there could never be good enough words to fully thank her for what she's done for us," said Rose, explaining why it was important for today's military women to give Nadeau and other veterans honor.
But Nadeau gave them an even greater gift back -- stories of her time in the service.
After the flag folding ceremony the women sat in a circle around Nadeau, who talked about being stationed in Texas as a medical clerk and then being shipped off to England for more than a year during a time when bomb raids were a daily occurrence.
Prompted by her daughter, Betty McGuire, who has kept a written log of her mother's stories, Nadeau provided insights into what it meant to be a WAAC in World War II -- including the work, the risks and the ridicule she and the other women endured.
Nadeau said she doesn't regret a minute of it.
Nadeau was 25 and working in a drug store near her hometown of Red Wing when she and her good friend, Delpha Gully Watson, signed up together.
Her father had served in World War I and Nadeau's two brothers, Jenn and Herb Thorie, were already serving in World War II and Nadeau reasoned that if the guys could be in the military, so could she.
Nadeau said she also wanted to "make a difference."
With all three children enlisted, Nadeau said her mother "sent up lots of prayers."
After training in Iowa, Nadeau spent a year as a medical supply clerk at the Randolph Air Force Field Hospital in Texas.
It was a "pretty snazzy" base, Nadeau told the group of attentive women, including one who'd been to Randolph Field and agreed with Nadeau's assessment.
Going to Texas from Minnesota was like being sent to a foreign country, said Nadeau, adding with a laugh that she realized then that "not everyone was Norwegian."
The spirited young woman, who always held her Christian faith close, took an early stand on civil rights by sitting in the back of the bus with African American soldiers in Texas.
"If they were good enough to be in uniform they were good enough to be treated fair," said Nadeau firmly. "We had a little backbone."
Ironically, the women like Nadeau who enlisted were not well-received by many men in the military.
"We were made fun of. We were ridiculed," said Nadeau. "We really took a beating."
A newspaper article she has in her collection blares, "The WAACS come to Randolph" with a photo of female soldiers in skirts marching smartly on the base with a suitcase in hand.
The WAACs were "looked down on" in the United States, even though the women were recruited as vital resources to the war effort, she said.
"They really made fun of us WAACs," said Nadeau. "We took a lot of crap."
Some viewed the WAACs as women with questionable morals and some soldiers were bitter that women were taking military office jobs so that male soldiers could fight.
"We had to be careful what we said and did to set a good example," said Nadeau.
Nadeau said there were a "lot of nice guys in the service and there were a lot creeps" and while there were many she was "privileged to salute. Others I wouldn't give the time of time of day."
The young women grimaced a bit, nodded in agreement and implied that the same is still true today.
Sailing to London
After a year in Texas, Nadeau volunteered to be sent on a mission abroad and ended up at the Royal Air Force Station in Warrington, England in June of 1944.
She said there was "propaganda" that encouraged WAACs to sign up for overseas duty but the truth was that the military and the war effort "couldn't get along without us women."
She sailed to England on the Queen Elizabeth and came home on the grand Queen Mary in November of 1945.
She joked that she was in the Air Force but was never on an airplane.
Nadeau remembers the horrific conditions of people living in war-torn England. "They had it really rough during the war," she said.
At one point after the Battle of the Bulge the Red Cross was so low on supplies Nadeau and other service members were asked to buy food at the base exchange and donate it to the cause.
Blackouts and bombing raids happened frequently.
"I was scared," she said. "We prayed a lot."
While in England, Nadeau's job was to document the arrival and departure of ships and planes -- and if they reached their destinations safely. It was top-secret, classified work, she said.
She also met some big names.
"My favorite was old blood and guts," she said, referring to Gen. George Patton. "He was everything I expected and a little bit more."
She also gave a respectful nod of appreciation to Gen. Harry "Hap" Arnold and Col. Oveta Culp Hobby -- the first director of the WAACs. She glowed when she spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt's work to advance women in the military. "She was tops on and off the field," said Nadeau. "She said it like it was. No bones about it."
After returning to Red Wing for a time after the war, Nadeau married and she and her husband, Byron, moved to New London in 1954. They raised their four daughters there.
Saying thank you now
McGuire said women like her mother were "paving a new way" through their service in WWII.
"It's because of you we all get to serve," said Tara Bauer, Chaplin with the 934th Airlift Wing in Minneapolis. Bauer joined the Grand Forks Air Base Honor Guard to honor Nadeau and led the group in prayer.
"Thank you for your service," said Bauer, gently grasping Nadeau's hands.
Bauer, who commanded platoons made up of men prior to being an Air Force chaplain, assured Nadeau that "things have changed" and it was because of women like Nadeau.
When women returned home after World War II ended, they usually kept mum about their service.
"You were kind of ashamed," said Nadeau.
She never talked about her role in the war and McGuire said she wasn't even aware he mother had a uniform and medals until it was lost in a fire several years ago.
Since then she's been gathering her mother's stories and mementos and making sure her service is recognized and honored.
Nadeau wanted to make sure preparations were made in advance of her eventual passing, which promoted McGuire to start looking for an all-female honor guard that would be available when that time comes.
When she reached Sgt. Rose, however, McGuire was told that the honor guard wanted to honor and thank her mother now and that she would bring an all-female group to New London to do just that.
It was a way for the women to give something back to a female veteran who helped change the role of women in the military today, said Rose, program manager for the Grand Forks Air Force Base Honor Guard.
Staff Sgt. Alexandra Crawley, Grand Forks Air Force Base Honor Guard non-commissioned officer in charge, said it's "very rare" to have an all-female honor guard and even more rare to conduct a service for a living veteran, especially a World War II female veteran.
It's the first time that she's aware of that a request for the honor guard had been made for a woman who served in World War II, said Crawley.
"We don't always want it to be a sad moment," said Crawley. "We want them to know we're doing this for them."
Crawley said she and the other women in the honor guard were touched to hear about Nadeau's service and how female World War II veterans stayed "in the shadows" when they returned home.
Rose and Crawley were reluctant to talk about their roles in the honor guard and stressed that all eyes should be on Nadeau and other veterans.
Crawley said the message she wants women veterans to hear is that the female military members today are "continuing their legacy. Always."