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WAC veterans group dwindles in numbers, but not in spirit

CHICAGO — Time has taken its toll on the Chicago Chapter of the Women's Army Corps Veterans' Association.

It once bustled with members, as befitted its venerable history. It is the first group of WAC veterans in the nation — Chapter 1, "Where it 'Begun,'" its newsletter puts it. Formed in 1946 by WAC mothers and returning WACs, it served as the model for the group's national association, which also was organized at a meeting in Chicago.

By the 1970s, some 400 women veterans belonged to the group. Chapter meetings were so big that they could only be accommodated by the city's largest hotels.

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Even now, members remain devoted. "We had an experience that is unique," said Lizette Rhone, a retired schoolteacher from the North Side who is the chapter's president. "And we're proud of the fact that we ... made a contribution to our country in time of need."

But the World War II veterans who make up the majority of the chapter's members are in their 80s and 90s. Many have become ill or frail, moved away, or died.

The Chicago chapter is down to 30 members. Of those, only five are able to attend the monthly meetings.

"Attrition is taking a whole lot of us out of the picture," Rhone said

"We are thinning out," said Yolanda Imhoff, 94, of Evanston.

But not giving up. Bound by shared experience and patriotic pride, they keep up their memberships — some on the rolls have moved far from Chicago and have not attended a meeting in years — and hope younger women will join them.

The contributions of women in the military during World War II are recounted in the current exhibition at Chicago's Pritzker Military Library. The show, "She's a WOW," uses posters, photos and the women's words — including Imhoff's — to tell the story of women's service organizations like the WAC.

Too few people know that women not only worked in factories at home but did active military service, said Kenneth Clarke, president of the Pritzker Military Library.

They joined the WAC; the WOW (Woman Ordnance Workers); the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and served as Army and Navy nurses and in the Red Cross.

"They had to do what their country required them to do — even if at times they were taken for granted, looked down on, even opposed by society," Clarke said.

The women were not always welcomed.

"There was an incredible amount of resistance to having women in the Army," said Patricia Jernigan, newsletter editor of the Northern Virginia WAC Veterans' chapter, who has conducted oral history interviews of a number of WAC members.

And "there were some really horrible slander campaigns," she said, spreading rumors that WACs were prostitutes.

The WACs weren't even full members of the Army at first. They were classified as auxiliaries — they were called the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps — and not entitled to Army rank, pay or benefits.

"But it became clear, particularly when they started sending women overseas, that they had to give women rank and make them full-fledged members of the military," said Marilla Cushman, spokeswoman for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation.

"They needed the protections of the Geneva Convention if they served overseas."

They got them in 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill establishing the WAC as a regular corps in the Army.

The women said they were eager to volunteer. Rhone was so determined to enlist that she ate bananas every day for three weeks to reach the minimum 100-pound weight requirement.

And though at 18 she was too young to sign up, "I lied and said I was born in Mississippi and that they didn't really keep ... records of black women by birth."

"I really wanted to get overseas," she said. "I was an adventuress."

Rhone did not get her wish. After basic training in Des Moines, she was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where she worked calculating the rations needed by soldiers there.

Instead of seeing the world, she saw segregation. The German POWs at the base were allowed to visit the noncommissioned officers' club, she said, but she was not.

"That was hard to swallow," she said, but she looks back with pride at her service and at learning to handle adversity.

"I don't think I would trade anything today for that experience," she said.

Yolanda Imhoff, then Yolanda Borrelli, enlisted in New York and was trained to be a high-speed radio operator, sending and receiving messages in Morse code.

She shipped out under such secrecy that her brother and sister had to drop her off around the corner from where her ship was docked in New York Harbor.

Her 20-woman radio unit was sent first to Scotland, arriving on D-Day, and then to England. They ran a radio station for the 9th Army Air Force that had been installed in the stable of a large estate outside London.

From there they were sent to Chantilly, France, about 50 miles from the Battle of the Bulge.

To manage the soaring number of radio transmissions, the women alternated eight-hour work shifts with eight-hour rests. "We didn't do anything but sleep, eat and work," she said.

"We weren't allowed to go out at night. We had to put dark covers on the windows. It was scary."

But it was also a time of camaraderie among the women, and support from the men they served alongside. "They treated us with respect and care," Imhoff said.

Though dating was allowed and common, Imhoff found it sad to keep saying goodbye to young men on their way to the front. She told a friend she didn't want to meet any more soldiers, but gave in one last time and agreed to be introduced to a master sergeant at the base.

She couldn't pronounce his last name at first, but she learned. It was Imhoff. She and her late husband were married for 50 years and had three children.

She kept in close contact with the women from her unit. "We had so much in common over there," she said. "We were away from our families, so we were each other's families."

And though she lost part of her hearing from the noise of German jamming interference, "it was an experience I wouldn't have missed."

"These women made amazing contributions," Cushman said. Beyond their war efforts, she said, the 400,000 women who served in World War II were powerful symbols of what women could accomplish.

"They came back, they had the GI Bill — for the first time they could go to school on their own," she said. "They were our teachers; they did all kinds of things. They changed America, and maybe the world."

After the war, the WASP and WAVES were disbanded. Beginning in 1948, women were granted permanent places in the armed forces. The WAC, which had been established by Congress, was disbanded in 1978.

To make clear it welcomes younger members, the national WAC veterans' group has taken on a second name: Army Women United.

In Chicago, the chapter is planning its annual distribution of gift bags to hospitalized veterans and hoping younger veterans will join and help them carry on.

"We try to keep it going, and we will keep it going," Rhone said. "It's important to us."

Important enough that as membership director Doris Dina, 88, has shared the story of her WAC service with her family, which now includes eight grandchildren. She also has made a request: When she dies, she wants to be buried in her WAC honor guard uniform.

blbrotman@tribune.com
 

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