Charlotte Winters, 109; World War I Sailor And U.S. History Buff

Charlotte L. Winters was thought to be the last surviving female sailor to have served during World War I.
Charlotte L. Winters was thought to be the last surviving female sailor to have served during World War I. (By David Dejonge)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

Charlotte L. Winters, a retired Navy yeoman who died March 22 at a nursing home in Boonsboro, Md., was a history buff. During decades of retirement, she and her husband visited every Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefield and documented every detail they could find about the many engagements and the men who fought them. They were particularly interested in finding the burial sites of fallen Civil War generals.

It was a natural pastime for the District native, who, at the time of her death at 109, was thought to be the last surviving female sailor to have served during World War I.

Born Charlotte L. Berry on Nov. 10, 1897, she graduated in 1915 from Washington Business High School and immediately took her secretarial skills to the Navy Department. In 1916, the young woman was presumptuous enough to make an appointment with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, hoping to persuade him to allow women to become sailors. She maintained that female sailors would be able to take over clerical work, thus freeing men for combat duty as the United States prepared to enter the Great War.

Daniels said no, but in March 1917, with the United States' entry into the war imminent and with shore stations desperate for clerks and stenographers, he changed his mind. Mrs. Winters and her younger sister, Sophie, enlisted. By the time the armistice was signed a year later, more than 11,000 women, designated yeomen (f), were serving as clerks, translators, recruiters, camouflage designers, fingerprint experts and nurses.

Mrs. Winters was a clerk at the Washington Navy Gun Factory, also known as the Navy Yard. Discharged July 31, 1919, she stayed at the Navy Yard as a civilian secretary until her retirement in 1953. She also retired as a yeoman from the Naval Reserve in 1953.

She joined the USS Jacob Jones Chapter No. 2 of the American Legion in 1919. A member for 88 years, she coordinated activities for American Legion events throughout the Washington area.

In 1926, she helped found the National Yeoman (F), an alumnae organization, and served as its eighth commander in 1940-41.

In 1959, Mrs. Winters and her husband moved to South Mountain, in western Frederick County, where they conducted their battlefield research and served as consultants for scholars and writers. They donated a portion of their collection of documents, books and artifacts to the Hagerstown Library and to the Civil War Museum in Boonsboro. Mrs. Winters donated her Navy uniforms and other memorabilia to the Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard.

Kelly Auber, who grew up as Mrs. Winters's next-door neighbor on South Mountain, recalled that she was "an absolutely refined lady, very social, very charming." She was proud of her military service but didn't consider it extraordinary. "She wanted to serve her country," Auber said.

In 1990, Mrs. Winters moved to Fahrney Keedy Home and Village, a retirement community in Boonsboro, because, as she told friends, she didn't want to cook anymore. She remained active and enjoyed reading and corresponding with friends.

Her husband, J. Russell Winters, died in 1984.

She leaves no immediate survivors.

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