I met Thelma Williams at a Silver Sneakers class at the local gym. Her quiet dignity and erect posture, matching workout suits and beautifully coiffed hair, caught my attention from the first day. One morning at the beginning of class, this agile, active woman made a brief announcement: “Today is my 96th birthday,” she proudly declared. Jaws dropped in disbelief, even as we applauded her. After class I approached her to ask how she would celebrate. “It’s Monday,” she replied matter-of-factly. “I’ll do the laundry.”
Two months later, she broke her dress code and attended class wearing a tee shirt with “VETERAN” printed on the back in large black letters. I wanted to learn more and invited her to lunch.
Thelma was 24 years old when the United States entered World War II. “Everyone was involved in supporting the war effort,” she related. “Housewives collected fat and aluminum foil, children collected rubber bands.” She wanted to help too, but her weight didn’t reach the minimum requirement to enlist, so she got a job at Middletown Airport (now Harrisburg) in central Pennsylvania, stocking supplies to ship to air bases around the world.
But the urge to contribute more directly refused to go away. She preferred the Navy’s uniforms, but the Army offered a better chance at an overseas post. She went to a recruitment office and applied. I asked if she put rocks in her pockets to add weight to her slender frame and received a gently reproving look. “No,” she admonished. “They accepted me as I was.” And so she entered the Women’s Army Corps (WACs).
Basic training was delivered at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia—an old cavalry post with large parade grounds surrounded by barracks. A smile flirts at the corner of her eyes as she remembers all the marching they had to do on those beautiful grounds. The fitness and discipline required by the War Department still informs her modus operandi as she marches to the beat in our class.
After basic training, she was assigned to a motor transport pool training company. “I seem to have been in the right place at the right time all my life,” she exclaims. After she arrived, two incumbents moved on, in quick succession, and our feisty bantam-weight recruit became a first sergeant! All she needed now was an overseas assignment.
In April 1945, the war was winding down and bases were being consolidated. Even so, she pursued overseas training and soon received orders to report to France. She set sail in August 1945 and was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when the news broke that Japan had surrendered. The somber military ship briefly became a party boat as standard restrictions were lifted and everyone celebrated the welcome news. At the relocation depot, she received her assignment: Bremen, Germany. Since the railroads had been bombed out, she traveled by windowless military air transport.
In Bremen, the angel on her shoulder continued its watch. The first sergeant left for a civilian post and Thelma got the position—title, stripes, and all. She remembers working hard but also having time to explore Europe via Special Services trips. In December 1945, she spent a cold week in Denmark. By April 1946, the trains were running again and she enjoyed a trip to Switzerland—each for the grand sum of 25 dollars.
By June 1946, her years of service and overseas duty had earned her enough “points” for discharge. The famous GI Bill had passed and she could return home and go to college for free. She enrolled in a business college but didn’t like it. A notice that the Army was recruiting a battalion of WACs to go to Japan caught her attention. She was reinstated—stripes intact—and assigned to the Office of Quartermaster General in MacArthur’s Headquarters. Her WAC detachment drilled in the gardens of the Emperor’s Imperial Palace.
In Tokyo, a friend introduced her to a young serviceman in the newly created US Air Force. Within three months, they were married. In November 1946, her husband was transferred back to his native Texas, so she once again applied for discharge. When they landed on US soil, she almost wasn’t allowed entry—she didn’t have a passport. All her previous travels had been as a WAC and it never occurred to her to provide what was required for travel as a civilian. Within a year they were ordered back to Japan—this time she brought a passport. She and her husband now had a one-year-old son. While in Japan, a daughter was born.
Eventually they returned to the States and to civilian life, but life took a sudden turn when “Tex” had a heart attack and died. He was only 63 years old. Family connections ultimately brought her back to her native Pennsylvania. She doesn’t seem impressed by her longevity. “It’s all in the genes,” she explains. “My mother was 106 when she died!” Even as she acknowledges her good fortune and good health, a shadow passes over her features. She recalls all the crossed out names in her address book, as family and friends predecease her.
I ask for one of her most outstanding memories, and November 2, 2013 is quickly recalled. Thelma was selected to participate in “Honor Flight”—a VIP experience for veterans held in Washington, DC, complete with motorcycle escort, memorabilia packet, and visits to all the war memorials including the Women’s Memorial. “It was one of the most memorable days of my life!” she enthuses. One of the gift items she received was the tee shirt with “VETERAN” emblazoned on the back.
Another highlight occurs every May, when Thelma marches with fellow WACs and other veterans in the local Memorial Day parade. That’s one Monday when the laundry just has to wait.