FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- After Mildred McDowell left the Air
Force in 1949, she had one regret - that she no longer had her
Women's Army Corps uniform. Fortunately, the year before she died,
someone read a story about her life and sent her a replacement. When
McDowell died at the age of 104 on Nov. 15, 2012, she was buried in
her uniform in Ramsey, Ill., about 75 miles north of Scott Air Force
Mildred McDowell, a Women's Army Corps
veteran, died at the age of 104 on Nov. 15, 2012. (Graphic by Sylvia Saab)
"She was very proud and pleased that she would be able to
be buried in her uniform," said her grand-nephew, Chaplain
(Lt. Col.) Stan Giles of the 134th Air Refueling Wing at
McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tenn. "When she got
her uniform, she breathed a sigh of relief because that was
how she wanted to be buried."
McDowell, who may have
been the nation's oldest surviving female veteran before her
death, 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 one-room schoolhouses in Illinois
before she enlisted in the WAC at the age of 35.
Symbols of McDowell's two careers were prominently displayed
in her last home, a room in the Vandalia Rehabilitation and
Health Care Center in Vandalia, Ill., about an hour
northeast of St. Louis. A mirror with a retired U.S. Army
decal faced her bed, upon which was a neatly folded red,
white and blue towel with the words, "Freedom is Not Free."
On a nearby bookcase was a figurine with an apple, books and
the teacher's slogan, "To Teach is to Touch a Life Forever."
After teaching for 14 years, McDowell changed careers
when she learned the military had begun accepting women
during World War II. After training, McDowell was assigned
to Roswell Army Airfield, N.M., and her first job was
packing parachutes. But she soon imagined something going
wrong for an Airman on a B-17 Flying Fortress because of a
problem with a parachute she may have packed.
didn't like the job because I thought I might make a mistake
and would cause an Airman to die from poor parachute
packing," McDowell said in an interview before her death.
"So I asked for another job, and I worked in supply issuing
airplane parts to the mechanics working on planes on the
McDowell was honorably discharged after the
war in December 1945, but reenlisted March 18, 1946 and
later transferred into the Air Force. She turned down an
initial assignment in Japan and was sent to Germany, where
she worked in the technical orders library. She lived in an
old hotel on the northern bank of the Rhine River in
Wiesbaden that hadn't been bombed.
"The people were
poor," she said. "They'd lost their homes and their jobs. 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."
But 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.
couldn't take a bath because we had to keep water in the
bathtub just to flush the toilet," 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."
the military as a WAC corporal in 1949. After she left
active duty, McDowell completed 20 years in the Army
Reserve. Her grand nephew didn't learn about her military
career until after he was already an Air Force chaplain. But
he made sure his then-teenaged daughter had a chance to meet
McDowell before she died.
"One of my fond memories
was taking my daughter Shannon to see her when she turned
100," Giles said. "I told her, 'If you live to be 90 years
old, you will have had a connection with somebody who goes
back almost 200 years. She represented an example of a
humble Midwesterner who set aside her own vocation and goals
and joined the military to help the war effort and stayed in
because she loved our country and military people. I think
near the end of her life, she was proud of two things:
having been a teacher and having served in the U.S.
military. Obviously, she didn't die a rich woman, but she
was rich with memories and experience."
By USAF Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service
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