Ask Rufus: Women, too, are part of the 'Greatest Generation'

August 3, 2013 6:31:19 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


This past week my Aunt Marietta McCarter died and it again brought to mind the continued passing of the "Greatest Generation.' Her husband, Bill, who preceded her in death, was a decorated hero of the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. I got to thinking though, that in all the many references to the greatest generation it was almost always only the men who were mentioned. Those men could not have accomplished what they did without an awful lot of support and assistance.  


Those providing that support often were the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters, who were just as much a part of that greatest generation. Their story is all too often untold and unrecognized. It is a story that needs to be remembered and preserved. 


Marietta McCarter is an example of those untold stories. During World War II she worked in the Red Cross office at Columbus Army Air Field. One of her duties for the Red Cross was to inspect the Prisoner of War camp at Aliceville, Ala., where much of Rommel's "Afrika Korps" was held after their capture in North Africa. That was an experience that until a few years ago I never heard her mention. 


My mother, Ida Billups Ward, worked at the Columbus Army Air Field Hospital during WWII. She also seldom mentioned her experiences there. I remember being surprised when I learned that she not only flew in the Civil Air Patrol but was the "first girl to solo" in the Columbus unit. During the war, the local Civil Air Patrol unit often met in the living room at Whitehall where she lived. 


I never heard Sue Richards Hardy (Mrs. Tom Hardy) talk of her experiences, either. At the beginning of the War, Sue went to Los Angeles where she was a riveter in an airplane plant, helping build B-25 bombers. She then went to work with the Red Cross and was assigned to a position in England. Marcella Billups joined the Navy serving as a WAVE and I never heard her mention that. As I started looking for other area women involved in the war effort I hit a brick wall. There has been some material published on the ordinance plant at Prairie and the people that worked there, but little other information on the contributions of area women is to be found. 


In the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus Lowndes Public Library, the World War II photo collection index identifies 107 individual photographs, but only two female names appear in the index. The role of women made a real impression on me about 17 years ago when my father, who became a POW after his B-17 was shot down over Germany, came across a Clarion Ledger article about Dorothy Stout of Vicksburg. Soon after my father had been liberated in April 1945, he encountered Dorothy dispensing coffee to combat soldiers and newly freed POWs on a German road. She and her two co-workers would travel right behind the front lines in their Red Cross "club-mobile" to serve coffee, doughnuts and cigarettes to combat troops. I remember my father saying how surprised he was to find a girl from home in Germany so near the front and the fighting. 


The role of women in assisting the war effort could not be clearer than at the then Columbus Army Air Field. There, WACs (Women's Army Corps) and WASPs (Women's Air Force Service Pilot) played important roles. 


The WASPs served as airplane ferry pilots, flying planes between bases, and flying planes to check them out after engine replacements. There were eight WASPs assigned to the base at Columbus, but I found the names of only two: Florence Miller and Mary Helen Clark. The WACs at the base were under the command of Lt. Hazel Daleand and served in non-combat positions such as airplane mechanic, radio operators and air traffic control. 


Though seldom mentioned, women were an essential part of the greatest generation and this country's efforts during World War II. There is some information in The History of Columbus Air Force Base published in 2008 but there is little other easily assessable information. This is a very real and historic story that needs to be preserved. So many women in this area assisted in the War effort and their stories need to be told. Photos and written or recorded accounts of all members of the greatest generation can be preserved at the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus Lowndes Public Library.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]