A Century Of Memories
(February 21, 2011)
At the age of 103 (Feb. 17, 2011), Mildred McDowell
is one of the Air Force's oldest female veterans.
She resides in Vandalia, Ill. U.S. Air Force photos by Staff Sgt. Desiree N. Palacios
VANDALIA, Ill. (2/17/2011 - AFNS) -- When Mildred
McDowell saw her first "flying machines" above the
family farm near Brownstown, Ill., she couldn't
imagine she would one day become one of the nation's
first female Airmen.
A few years before the
United States entered World War I, the 8-year-old
was herding cows when the airplanes first appeared,
and neither she nor the cows were happy.
"That day, I saw three to five of these flying
machines flying way down low, and they scared my
cattle and scattered them," she said. "They seemed
as big to me then as a B-29 (Superfortress) does to
me today, and I was sure they buzzed me on purpose.
"I began to cry, 'My cows are all gone. I'll
never see my cows again.' But by that time, the
planes were gone, and the cows stopped and began to
eat," she recalled.
Ms. McDowell, who might
be the nation's oldest surviving female veteran,
celebrates her 103rd birthday on Feb. 17. She has
outlived all of her siblings, the people she served
with during and after World War II, and even many of
the students she taught in Illinois one-room
schoolhouses before she enlisted at the age of 35
during the war.
Symbols of Ms. McDowell's two
careers, in education and in the military, decorate
her room in the Vandalia Rehabilitation and Health
Care Center here, about an hour northeast of St.
Louis. A mirror with a retired U.S. Army decal faces
her bed, upon which is a neatly folded red, white
and blue towel containing the words, "Freedom Is Not
Free." On a nearby bookcase is a figurine with an
apple, books and the teacher's slogan: "To Teach is
to Touch a Life Forever." A "Peace on Earth" sign
hangs on her door.
During a childhood she
calls one of the happiest any child could have, Ms.
McDowell and her siblings attended a country school
several miles from their home. She rode a horse or
mule part of the way and walked the remainder.
"The mule was very, very nervous," she said.
"When the wind would whistle through the trees, she
couldn't stand it. She broke loose twice; I had to
walk (home), and she was standing at the gate,
waiting for me to open it for her."
McDowell taught for 14 years in one-room
schoolhouses in several Illinois counties, including
Rush School, the one she attended with her brothers
and sisters northwest of Vandalia. She still hears
from some of her former students, although "they
keep dying off," she said. One former pupil wrote an
editorial in a local newspaper about how teachers
"I started (teaching for) $87.50 (per year), and I
had to do my own janitorial work," Ms. McDowell
said. "I wrote to him and told him I'm being paid
when I hear from or receive a letter from one of my
pupils. I'm still being paid now."
Ms. McDowell changed careers once she learned the military
began accepting women during World War II, because she'd
always wanted to travel. After making the decision to enlist
in the Women's Army Corps, she had to delay several months
until Nov. 18, 1943, because of a commitment to the school.|
"I'd already submitted a contract to teach the next
year," she said. "Papa always told us when you sign a
contract to keep it, and don't ever go back on it. An oral
contract is just as binding as a written one. So since I'd
signed the contract, I had to teach the next year."
Women's issues weren't foremost in her mind in 1943. Her
biggest motivation was what she calls "a yen for travel."
But a letter from her mother prevented her from asking for
an overseas assignment during the war.
"When I was in
basic (training), I got a letter from my mother after I told
her I wanted to go overseas," Ms. McDowell said. "She said,
'Why do you want to go overseas and cross that big ocean?'
"So I took my application back and said I'll go if they
call me, but I won't ask to go overseas," she said.
After training, Ms. McDowell was assigned to Roswell Army
Airfield, N.M., and her first job was packing parachutes.
But she soon had trouble sleeping because she imagined
something going wrong for an Airman on a B-17 Flying
Fortress because of a problem with a parachute she may have
"I didn't like the job because I thought I
might make a mistake and would cause an Airman to die from
poor parachute packing," she said. "So I asked for another
job, and I worked in supply issuing airplane parts to the
mechanics working on planes on the line."
McDowell was honorably discharged after the war in December
1945, but re-enlisted March 18, 1946, and later transferred
into the Air Force. This time, she asked to go overseas. She
turned down an initial assignment in Japan and was sent to
Germany instead, where she worked in the technical order
She lived in an old hotel in Wiesbaden,
Germany, that hadn't been bombed. The city, located on the
northern bank of the Rhine River, is one of the oldest spa
towns in Europe. The name literally means "meadow bath."
"The people were poor," Ms. McDowell said. "They'd lost
their homes and their jobs (during the war). A lot of their
families had been killed. We would see little boys, maybe 5
years up to about 8 or 9, out scrounging in garbage barrels.
They wore shorts, no shirts, and you could count their ribs,
they were so skinny. It kind of hurt that they had to eat
out of garbage."
Even American military members
living in post-war Germany had to deal with difficult
conditions, especially in 1947 when the Rhine experienced
one of its worst dry periods.
"We couldn't take a
bath because we had to keep water in the bathtub to flush
the toilet," Ms. McDowell said. "One time, I had to go to
work without brushing my teeth because there wasn't a drop
of water in the place. That night, I scrounged around three
or four floors up and found an old water glass. So I kept
that glass filled for brushing my teeth. The poor Germans
were worse off than we were. You'd see them at the well
waiting for every little cup of water."
left the military as a WAC corporal in 1949. After she left
active duty, she completed her 20 years in the Reserve. She
never married or had children of her own, although she has
many surviving nieces, nephews and great-nieces and nephews.
When she looks back on her 103 years so far, she has
only a few regrets. She wishes she still had her Women's Air
Force uniform for her burial and that her father could've
seen her in it.
By Randy Roughton|
Defense Media Activity -- San Antonio
Air Force News
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