Published 5/28/2011 in Special Sections
By SHAJIA AHMAD
Eleanor Jesse Dill admits she was the tomboy in the family.
Courtesy photo/ Cyndia Gray, left, and her mother, Eleanor Dill, are shown in Washington, D.C. The duo attended the first Honor Flight out of Garden City in April.
Courtesy photo/ Eleanor Dill military service photo
While growing up on a ranch in Alliance, Neb., the 88-year-old grandmother of six and great-grandmother of six more, said she found herself doing outdoor farm work more than indoor house work.
"I'd rather be outside than inside doing dishes and stuff," Dill said from her daughter's Garden City home. "In fact, my sister would get mad at me all the time because Mom would tell me I had to wash the (milk and cream) separator before I went out to the hay field. And I'd say, 'Why? Lois is in the house. Why can't she do it?'"
During April's first Honor Flight out of Garden City, Dill was the only female out of nearly 100 World War II veterans headed to the nation's capital to visit and reflect at the war memorials.
Her adult daughter, Cyndia Gray, served as her mother's guardian on the flight, one of about 85 volunteers willing to push wheelchairs, carry bags and other items, and make sure the veterans were provided for on the two-day trip provided at no cost to them.
Dill, a U.S. army veteran who worked as a medical assistant for wounded veterans at Colorado hospital during the war, joined the service when she was 21, primarily because she always wanted to be a nurse, she said.
"But I never took enough math and science classes, and I was too stubborn to go back and take more," she said and laughed. "So I thought this would be a good substitute."
During World War II, the U.S. Army Air Force built an air base at Alliance, and Dill and a good friend of hers, Melda, were recruited by U.S. Army recruiters and joined the ranks.
"I had to have my parents permission because they didn't think I was old enough," Dill, who was 21 at the time, added and laughed.
In the early 1940s, Dill was one of more than 150,000 American women who served in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II, the first time since the American Revolution that women were allowed to serve in the U.S. military in an official capacity.
Women also played other vital roles in World War II, such as working in American factories and keeping the fires burning and the families running at home.
Dill completed her basic army and medical training at Ft. Oglethorpe, an army post in a Georgia town of the same name and also a major training center for the Women's Army Corps.
From there, she was transferred to the Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora, Colo., just outside Denver, one of the Army's premier medical training centers that was used heavily during World War II to treat returning casualties.
At the hospital, Dill was assigned to treat patients in a tuberculosis ward housing 20 to 25 soldiers, giving baths and making beds and tending to the wounded, much like the work of a nurse.
"Sometimes we would be assigned on certain nights, after we got off work on the ward, when we could be called out for critically ill patients," she said. "We'd go sit with them and help them with their medicines."
She spent nearly two years in the service, from March 1945 to November 1946. She still keeps a small army ID card with those dates in her wallet at all times.
"I used to have two, but I carried one around so long it nearly fell apart," she said.
That's why the Honor Flight this past April was especially meaningful for Dill, who ran an ice cream store business with her family and worked as a nursing home assistant for more than two decades while raising her family.
Seeing the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. at the National Mall brought back a lot of memories, said Dill, who added that "everyone who is capable should go see it."
"Back during that time, we had patients from France in the ward. I don't know how they got there, but they were friendly and real nice. ... When all the patients found out I was leaving, they took up a collection, and told me to buy a new dress," she said, laughing. "(The flight) was a wonderful experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the welcome home was awesome."
Her daughter, Gray, who accompanied her mother on the Honor Flight, agreed. Friends, family and other supporters traveled to the Garden City airport when the veterans arrived back in Garden City, with flags and hugs to welcome the heroes home.
"I felt blessed to be able to go, not only with (my mother) but with the rest of the veterans," Gray said. "One gentleman on the fly over had his shade over his window. When we landed, and it was time for them to get off, I told him to open (his) shade and look outside. He looked out and said, 'Oh my gosh, I can't walk through that.' And he started crying, maybe because he didn't feel like he deserved it. And I said, 'Well, you're going to have to because it's the only way out,'" Gray said and laughed.
Gray said she had to talk her mother into going, partly because her mother, too, didn't feel like she had earned the opportunity.
"She didn't know if she should go or if she deserved to go because she didn't serve overseas. I said, 'Mom, You know what? (As many) women didn't fight in World War II. It was on the home front, and she saw firsthand the aftermath of war. They had patients from all over the world at her hospital. It was a different kind of fighting," Gray said.
Dill said she doesn't remember ever being harassed for being a woman in the military, either during her time in the service or in the years following. Today, nearly 65 years later, women make up nearly 20 percent of all branches of the U.S. military.
In fact, when she returned to Nebraska to help her father work on the ranch, she'd often meet officers from the nearby army air base.
"I'd make them salute me," Dill said and laughed.
Figures for women serving with the American military in World War II:
* U.S. Army — 150,000
* U.S. Navy — 100,000
* U.S. Marines — 23,000
* U.S. Coast Guard — 13,000
* U.S. Air Force — 1,000
* U.S. Army & Navy Nurse Corps - 74,000
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