Well, her story is more nuanced and complicated than my grandfather’s, but since you asked, prepare for a wall of text.
Helen was less forthcoming about her stories than my grandfather, but here are the parts I remember from over the years.
She started in the Army as a WAC Lieutenant during the build up to and early days of WWII. She did some recruiting of other women which required her to travel the US extensively, and put her in the position of having to say “no” to the advances of many superior officers, and to deflect superior officers from approaching her recruiting charges, since the WAC was relatively new and professional boundaries about men and women working together were lax. Fortunately, firmly saying “no” and never allowing herself to be backed into a corner was one of Helen’s gifts. Her stories were always on my mind when I confronted harassment of my soldiers, and made me zealous (and if you ask the division JAG, a little too zealous) about flushing out harassers in the ranks.
One of her later jobs was serving on medical boards, assessing soldiers who had appealed their draft selection or separation from the service on medical grounds. For example, she might hear an appeal from a soldier who argued that they couldn’t be deployed because heat made them break out in uncontrollable sloughing rashes (a real condition, as it turned out), or from a soldier who was already in the service who was arguing that a wound they had received made it impossible for them to continue to serve, or alternately, who wanted to return to the front with their buddies even though they were missing many fingers or part of a limb and had been found no longer fit. She described this as a grim business because she daily confronted the wounds and illnesses of many, and more often then not the decisions of the board made the soldiers unhappy. She only told this story to me because, when I was being medically separated from the service, I appealed because I wanted to stay in. So she sat me down to explain how the boards worked, that my appeal was a long shot, and what to expect from the board. Ironically, the Army flew me to the very same hospital at Ft. Lewis where she had served on the board. For all I know it ended up being in the very same room. To my dismay, I was found unfit to continue to serve, but my grandmother’s preparation helped me keep my composure when the decision was delivered.
She didn’t not talk much about what she did once she was deployed to Europe, although given her rank at that point it may be that she wasn’t supposed to talk about it, much as my grandfather worked for decades at the pentagon without breathing a word about what he did there. Alternately, she may just never have seen fit to tell the stories. She was less inclined to talk than my grandfather. But she did have two things to say about her later service.
First, she told of my grandfather’s proposal. They met when she was assigned to a job in Paris. Apparently he was very dramatic, and threatened (I hope in jest) to fling himself into the Seine if she refused him. She didn’t, obviously, and the way she recounted it made it plain that, despite their very different personalities and almost daily conflicts, she regarded it as a high point of her life.
The second bit she told me when I was promoted to captain and got my own unit. She said that, as a commander, she had been exceptionally stern, and she felt that she had to be because she was always being compared to men and scrutinized for signs of femininity. But she recalled that one day, at an organization day celebration in a park, her senior NCO had brought her a bowl of ice cream with strawberries in it, and admonished her “Ma’am, don’t forget to take time to appreciate the strawberries.” And suddenly it dawned on her that she was so strict she prevented herself and her troops from enjoying anything, and she was missing the fact that she was surrounded by wonderful and brave people who were all putting their lives on the line. So her lesson to me was to take time to appreciate the times and people I was working with and to balance my respect for the rules with respect for the soldiers.
Her last recollection before being hospitalized for dementia was of the day of the day she discovered she was pregnant. She was in the Army hospital for something else, and the doctor came in with a long face and said that she was pregnant and should expect to be discharged for this reason. The doctor said it like it was a moral disqualifier, there was no turning back, even if she had had a miscarriage or aborted. It was the FACT of her pregnancy that meant, just like that, the service that she had given everything to and defined her life was over. She had been medically detected as being a woman.
Thus, she retired as a Major. It’s unclear how far she would have gotten had she not discharged, she was already one of the highest ranked women to that date, but it was clear that she resented this discharge greatly. And, sadly, it was also clear that she resented my mother, her only child. Her story makes me glad that the Army had progressed enough that, in my day, if one of my comrades got pregnant (or chose not to) we could honor her choice as her own and didn’t automatically have to kick her out. I went to many baby showers as an officer and they were always happy occasions.
Helen’s callsign, and James’ callsign, come from their particular obsessions in retirement. My grandfather was always to be found sitting smiling in the bright sunshine on his front lawn, polishing one or another metal antique while wearing army overalls soaked in Brasso. The smell of Brasso still reminds me of him.
My grandmother obsessed instead over antiques made of crystal. She could never get enough and would always share her latest find to a visitor. She had bins and bins of the stuff that only she knew the provenance of. I retired to a village of antique dealers and see spectacular examples of crystal daily that make me think “Helen could tell me the story and origin of that piece just by looking at it.”
So you asked. There is her story: it takes longer to tell because it is more subtle and less common than my grandfather’s. Both Helen and James are now buried in Arlington Cemetery, not far from Omar Bradley, who specifically requested that my grandfather be buried near him. My grandmother does not have her own marker, because at the time of her passing WAC’s who had not died in combat were not buried in Arlington. However, in recognition of her service, Arlington did agree that she could be buried with my grandfather, and that her name, rank, and dates of service could be engraved on the reverse side of his headstone. This galls me, because I come from a time service where men and women are honored equally, but the iniquity is an artifact of her time. Her sacrifices and character helped start a tradition of female military service that is greater than any mark on the service I could ever make.