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Veteran's Day // In service, women earned their wings

One of the greatest and completely unexpected privileges I was given upon moving to Florida many years ago was the opportunity to interview and write about veterans of World War II. The stories I gathered from every branch of the service were history personified for me, peopled by veterans of the most devastating war in history.

From my younger years, I remember how I heard a rumor that the Navy was accepting enlistments of 17-year-olds. I dashed to a pay phone to find out all about it before I went home to tell my parents I was going to join the Women's Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service.

Well, the dash to the phone ended with dashed hopes as the rumor was false and one had to be 18 to enlist. In 1945, when I would have been eligible, the war ended. So much for my military service.

Still, I have never forgotten my admiration for the women who served their country during World War II. They not only faced danger, but many of them encountered prejudice and stereotypes that made their jobs even more difficult.

There weren't any protests when it came to nurses. In every war, nurses attended the wounded and were essential to the survival of the military. I was surprised to learn that President Truman was seriously considering a request to Congress to draft nurses near the end of World War II because of the mounting numbers of casualties. However, the war ended before the legislation was passed.

Incredibly, Congress refused to give veteran status to women pilots who served under some of the most dangerous conditions faced by women during World War II. They not only flew B-29 and B-17 bombers on trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights, ferrying bombers to air bases in war zones, but also learned to use the top-secret Norden bombsight, and became navigators for their own cross-country flights.

The Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron was far more than ferry pilots. On the first call for pilots, 2,000 women showed up for ground school at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, to earn their silver wings. Squadron members tested flight-damaged fighter planes and new equipment, towed targets and faced barrages of gunfire as pilots trained for combat. From 1942 through 1944, 350,000 women served as pilots; 70 were killed or injured.

Even so, they were not considered veterans of World War II. At the end of the war, they were sent home with a handshake and salute. The fight for their recognition as veterans, against fierce opposition, was not over until 1977, 32 years after the war was over. As one woman pilot put it: "I was finally able to place a flag on the graves of my friends who died during and after the war."

I talked with several women who live in Hernando County who served in other branches of the service.

Ruby Gruber of Spring Hill was a member of the Women's Army Corps during World War II, and was stationed at the Lawson General Hospital Amputation Center in Atlanta, meeting trains as the wounded were brought in and preparing them for surgery. "I had a special feeling for those men that will never leave me," Gruber said.

Nettie Gagner of Spring Hill belonged to the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps for three years and said she never encountered any prejudice. "They treated us like ladies," she said. "It was a great experience." She worked in the Air Corps' ground control facilities.

Mary Hinds of Spring Hill joined the WAVES and remembers congressmen who complained about women entering the service during World War II. "There were predictions about us ruining the jobs of Navy men, and a warning that women belonged in the home," Hinds said. "It took a lot of dedication and patriotism to stick it out. I served for three and a half years."

Madeline White of Spring Hill served in the Navy as a pharmacist's mate for two years. "I loved every minute of it," White said. "Especially since I was assigned to the work I wanted in the Hospital Corps."

Recently, White attended the 50th reunion of her husband's shipmates aboard the USS Samuel Chase in Charleston, S.C. She had an opportunity to talk with a female Navy lieutenant aboard ship who told White that the women who served during World War II made it possible for women like her to become members of the regular Navy and advance their military careers.

Women have come a long way. A supply ship on its way to the war in the Persian Gulf was commanded by a woman. In 1993, women became eligible to pilot combat aircraft, and all restrictions on aerial combat in the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy have been lifted.