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The Long March to Recognition

By Stephanie Griest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 1995; Page C01

First, the photographs: soft black-and-whites, faded sepias or glossy full-colors. In picture after picture, vibrant young women in perfectly pressed military uniforms smile confidently. Some date as far back as the Civil War.

Then, the stories: A few are typed, but most are painstakingly scripted in longhand. Along with the pictures, they are carefully catalogued in loose-leaf binders, one woman's history per page. Some women wrote epics -- a Desert Storm veteran mailed in 47 pages of memoirs. Others opted for simple anecdotes.

"I told the male recruiter, I want to join the Navy,' " began Lillian Peterson Budd, who was a chief yeoman during World War I. "He pointed to a curtained corner and said, Take off your clothes {for the physical}.' "

Back then, according to Budd's recollections, women didn't even get into the bathtub without a nightgown, but she took off her skirt, blouse, shoes, stockings, corset, corset cover, three petticoats and ruffled bloomers. When one weeping recruit told her, "You act like you don't mind having no clothes on," Budd replied, "Oh, after the first couple of times you get used to this sort of thing!"

A few women penned their thoughts in a single sentence.

"{My most memorable experience was} befriending a young Korean boy in Seoul, Korea, in 1975 for 5 to 6 months, only to find him frozen in a hole in the wall outside the compound," wrote Joan Humes, an Army staff sergeant from Philadelphia.

At noon today, ground will be broken for a memorial to celebrate these women and these stories at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery. President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton (the foundation's honorary chairman) and Defense Secretary William Perry are scheduled to attend.

"They start up there," explains retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught as she points to the first row of binders, five shelves up, in the far corner of an office at the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial Foundation headquarters in Arlington. The room is small, with a single desk and chair breaking the rhythm set by shelf upon shelf of hefty black, red or blue binders -- nearly 1,500 in all.

"Those first two are all we got in 1987," says Vaught, "and then the next few are '88, and all these are '90 and now it goes all the way to here." She points to the edge of the room. "Pretty soon, we're going to spill into another office."

WIMSA receives anywhere from 20 to 50 packages a day from military women and their families. The count now stands at about 125,000. That may sound like a lot, but Vaught still seems restless as she paces around the room. She knows that 1.8 million stories of female veterans remain untold. She wants to find them, preserve them.

Forever.

"It's about time," says Vaught, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran. "So many people don't understand anything about the history of women in the military, including the women who served."

As president of the nonprofit WIM\SA, Vaught has been on a nine-year mission to collect the stories of women who've served since the American Revolution. Today, at events surrounding the memorial groundbreaking, Vaught will greet an estimated 5,000 of the heroines she's helped memorialize -- many for the first time.

The search for these servicewomen has been relentless. Assisted by a staff of 15, Vaught has sent out newsletters and news releases, set up 800 numbers and established a volunteer base of 1,400 veterans worldwide. Once found, servicewomen are encouraged to send in their mementos with a $25 donation (fees are waived for those who can't afford it). Biographies are then entered into the memorial's computer register.

The memorial won't be dedicated until 1997, but the design has been finalized. Plans include a reflecting pool, an education center, a 196-seat theater and an arc of glass tablets, illuminated at night, inscribed with quotations from and about women who have served their country. The computer register, however, will be the star attraction. By simply typing in a servicewoman's name, visitors will be able to call up the 125,000 women registered thus far and see their photos and stories flash across the terminal.

"We were divided into groups of four and told, One of you won't be able to fly our way and you'll have to leave, and one of you physically won't be able to handle it. One of you will get killed. And one of you will get your wings.' And every girl, just as I, said, I'm going to get my wings,' " said Nancy Johnson, a World War II veteran from Beckley, W.Va.

Johnson did in fact get her silver wings and tested planes for the Air Force for a year and a half. She was one of 1,073 Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) selected from an application pool of 25,000. It was a job she relished until its sudden end.

"In the beginning," Johnson said in an interview, "they needed pilots so badly, but then the {male} pilots were starting to return home from Europe because we were beginning to win the war. And they said that women were taking all the flying jobs, can you believe that? The all-male Congress decided that they didn't need to train women anymore, and December 20, 1944, was the last day I got to be a WASP. That was the end of us.

"It's just an idea that blows the mind, to fly," said Johnson, 78, after a lingering silence. She pronounces the word "fly" in two syllables -- as though the word alone gave her joy. "After the war, men were given rocking chair pay' to help adjust to civilian life, but we were not. And the greatest thing to ever happen to this country, the GI Bill, I didn't get. All they did give us was this beautiful certificate from General Henry Arnold that's hanging on my wall, for honorable service, that says, You have proven that you can fly wingtip to wingtip with your brothers.' "

Agnes Mangerich, a World War II veteran from Bethesda, proved she could hike toe to toe with her male comrades -- across 800 miles in 62 days. She was one of 13 Army flight nurses and 13 male medical specialists forced to crash-land in German-occupied Albania when violent thunderstorms and enemy gunfire downed their flight to Bari, Italy.

With little food and only a day's change of clothes, Mangerich and company trudged through the rocky terrain six to eight hours a day. Their destination was a British and American camp on the Adriatic coast. It was winter; the group spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day trekking through snow, stopping at any shelter they could find along the way. The hikers suffered with infectious boils, body lice and continuous bouts of dysentery.

"Well, one day, they did come out to rescue us. We got a message that the Allies were sending a plane with a fighter escort at 1300 hours the next day. But Gary {Gary Duffy, a 22-year-old British lieutenant} decided there was no way we would signal them with our yellow parachutes. He said the Germans were just lined up and ready for us and we weren't absolutely desperate -- yet," Mangerich said, a smile creeping across her face. "So we watched them swoop down -- the C-47s and the P-38s -- and they were just beautiful up there, flying about."

Finally, after months of struggle, the exhausted group reached the Allied camp. They were greeted by Brits armed with chocolate bars, chicken and fruit -- but Mangerich had only one thing on her mind.

"There was a little cave with sleeping bags stacked up, and a desk in one corner and a little lamp. I don't even remember, but next thing I was sound asleep -- and it was early noon! And the next thing I knew, someone was poking me, and I said, Leave me -- I don't care what's going on.' And they said, The boat's here!' "

Like Johnson, Mangerich never received much recognition for her valor. Few women did. But they don't seem particularly bothered by it. After all, they were just fulfilling their duty.

"War is a terrible thing, yet the part I got to play was wonderful," Johnson said. "To think, I, who grew up in Beckley, West Virginia, along the New River, got to serve in the military of the United States of America!"

"I have carried my original Navy dog tags with me each day since for 77 years. They have become a real gem to me," said 95-year-old Helen K. Coxhead, a World War I veteran from Fairfax. She joined the service when she was 18 and says those were the best years of her life.

"I am very proud of my service to our country," Coxhead said, "and I just don't want to ever be forgotten."

© The Washington Post

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