As tea flows, so do veterans' wartime memories

Published May 13, 2007

We don't often picture the Greatest Generation wearing red lipstick, a Gasparilla-beads necklace and gold earrings.

But there was Wanda Kelly, the girl from South Bend, Ind., talking about how she went to Chicago to join the Marines Corps during World War II.

Uncle Sam had made a plea for women to come sign up: "Release a man to fight, take a man's job."

It was 1944.

Kelly was a clerk typist in the Marines for two years. After the war, she worked for the U.S. State Department in the same capacity. That was before she got married and had four children.

Today Kelly, 85, is one of seven female veterans who live among the 108 men at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans' Nursing Home in Land O'Lakes.

When we think of honoring veterans, it conjures up images of graying soldiers in dress uniforms and combat fatigues - men who have served their country in wartime and peacetime. Female veterans, especially those who served during World War II, are often forgotten and under-appreciated.

That's why Louise Wilt and the members of American Legion Auxiliary Seminole Unit No. 111 of Tampa figured it would be nice to honor the female veterans with Mother's Day coming up.

"Often they are not thought of as veterans, " said Wilt, whose husband, Henry Lee Wilt, served in the military for more than 30 years beginning with pilot duty in World War II.

Wilt and her friends brought flowers, decorations, tea cakes and china tea sets. If it were for the guys, tea could have been served in disposable paper cups and they wouldn't have noticed. But no matter how old a woman gets, she never tires of being treated like a lady.

"We wanted to do something more personal, one on one, near the holidays, " Wilt said.

Kelly and her friends appreciated it. This gesture of kindness and gratitude was timely. The small cadre of female vets at the 9-year-old nursing home is endangered. Three of the seven were too ill to attend the tea party. Of the four who came, two, Mary Bow and Linda Rouck, both World War II-era vets, can no longer communicate. Others will have to tell their wartime stories.

It was left to Kelly and fellow female vet Leslie Pilgrim, 58, to share their service memories.

A Minnesota native, Pilgrim was training to become an electronic technician in the Navy when she quit in 1969, after just over a year in the service - she said she got tired of being hit on by the guys. Still what she remembers most are the good times she enjoyed partying all the time while being stationed in Great Lakes, Ill.

"When you're 19, what else are you going to do?" said Pilgrim, who has been sidelined by multiple sclerosis.

Her wheelchair sat next to Wanda Kelly's. As she sipped tea and munched cake, Kelly reminisced about her wartime work sorting the clothing and other belongings of those killed in action. She also remembers one valuable domestic skill she had to learn while in the Marines.

When she first returned home to South Bend on leave, she asked her mom for help ironing her uniform shirts.

"She almost fainted. I had never ironed before, " Kelly said. "But Daddy was very proud of me."

That story is more than 60 years old, but she was glad to retell it one more time.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.