Arm in arm, Dorothy Pecora and Margaret O'Donnell walked the eight feet together, bent down--leaning on each other for support--and laid their wreath at the foot of the Tomb of the Unknowns.
The blue banner stripped across the red, white and blue floral display stated simply why they, and 20 of their family members from across the country, gathered yesterday on a hillside at Arlington National Cemetery: "To Honor the Women of World War II."
Number O'Donnell and Pecora among them. The two women, now both 79, served together from 1943 to 1946 in the Army Nurse Corps. Until this weekend, they had not seen each other since their wartime days 53 years ago.
As they held each other's wrists and tiptoed to the foot of the granite tomb yesterday, the memories came flooding back and tears streamed down both women's faces.
"At the time, we just went and did it," recalled O'Donnell, resting briefly in a wheelchair before the ceremony. "There are a lot of things I want to forget, like the wounded soldiers." She paused to catch her breath. "I always wondered what happened to those boys after they left us," she said, then, nodding toward the tomb, added, "In there is somebody's young son."
Before the somber 15-minute ceremony, the two women toured the Women's Memorial at the entrance to Arlington. Dedicated two years ago, the memorial honors the 1.8 million women who have served their country since the American Revolution. Pecora, who attended the 1997 dedication, and O'Donnell are part of the memorial's largest constituency: the 400,000 U.S. women who served in World War II.
"It's certainly a real honor to be here today," O'Donnell said.
Added Pecora: "It's just so impressive, too beautiful to say, and yet so sad."
The two women said their goodbyes in January 1946 at Fort Dix, N.J., vowing to stay in touch. They did--with letters and phone calls--but didn't see each other again until O'Donnell's son brought them together this weekend. O'Donnell, a retired nurse slowed by a hip and knee replacement, said she doesn't like to travel much, preferring to stay home in Peru, Ill., with her husband, Daniel. Pecora and her husband, David, live in Wilmington, Del., where she runs a doll dress-making company.
In the first years after the war, the women sent each other detailed accounts of their families. They exchanged cards at Christmas and Easter and mailed one another photos of the graduations, sports events, weddings and--eventually--grandchildren that filled their lives.
They joked yesterday that they surprised themselves at how they managed to maintain their bond, given that they had lost touch with many of the other nurses with whom they served.
"It was simple. She wrote me back," O'Donnell said, as the two reminisced about the officer's club dances and other events they'd attended.
It was O'Donnell's son, Tom, who pitched the idea last November of inviting Pecora to his family's annual reunion this summer.
Pecora's response was immediate. "I was tickled pink," she said. "I couldn't believe I hadn't seen her since our days in the war."
At Arlington, the two former nurses immediately tended to one another as if each were the other's patient.
"You doing okay?" Pecora asked O'Donnell, patting her shoulder. O'Donnell nodded, then began adjusting Pecora's pearl necklace and silk-flower corsage.
"I didn't recognize her at first," O'Donnell said, as the two fussed over each other. "I expected her to look just like she did 55 years ago.
"Of course, she didn't recognize me either."
Pecora quickly pointed out, "The last time I saw her, she was wearing those dress khakis."
O'Donnell, the daughter of a World War I Navy veteran from Bristol, Tenn., joined the Army Nurse Corps in February 1943, right after finishing nursing school in West Virginia. Pecora, who stands barely five feet tall, had enlisted two weeks earlier, leaving her home in Orient, Ohio.
"How did you ever get into the service? You're too short," joked retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, the driving force behind the Women's Memorial and barely over five feet tall herself. Vaught attended yesterday's wreath-laying ceremony.
The pair was sent to Ireland in January 1944, then made a quick stop in southern England, where Pecora married her husband, whom she had met back in the States at training camp.
"I had my orders to go, and the commander said, "You're getting married now,' " Pecora said, laughing. "I grabbed [O'Donnell] to be my maid of honor, the wedding dress my mother had sent me in the mail and went to the chapel."
The newlyweds spent one night together. The next morning, the two nurses left for France with the U.S. 3rd Army. Pecora didn't see her husband, an Army surgeon in England, for another year.
Pecora said she and O'Donnell "were tight. We were there at the Battle of the Bulge. We did all that. Together."
In June 1945, the two were sent to a field hospital at a concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria, where they stayed for six weeks.
To this day, neither woman talks much of her war experience, their children said, although O'Donnell can still rattle off her seven-digit military ID number. Among their many wartime decorations, Pecora received the Bronze Star.
"My mother saw some terrible, terrible things," said Judith Kinsella, 44, one of O'Donnell's nine children, six of whom attended yesterday's service, along with Pecora's two daughters. "It's only as an adult that I am realizing all that she went through."
As their families broke up to go their separate ways, Pecora hugged O'Donnell and turned to wave goodbye a few times. O'Donnell watched and, just before her friend disappeared down the path, called after her: "I hope to hear from you soon."