While the classically haunting image of soldiers, donning M1 Helmets and M1 Garands, storming the beaches of Normandy under an unimaginable hail of bullets and artillery fire is likely among the most iconic pictures generated mentally when discussing American military history – and rightfully so – our nation’s veterans consist not only of these brave men, but millions of women as well.
In World War II alone, about 400,000 women served in the armed forces in various capacities, performing jobs in maritime and aircraft maintenance, as truck drivers, farmers and nurses on the front lines. Some women even flew civilian missions in military aircraft, some testing aircraft and others delivering supplies and coordinating resources as numbers of available male pilots dwindled stateside.
Apart from direct military work, nearly 19 million American women submitted applications for work related to the war in some way – from factory jobs to office work and everything in between. Many more volunteered to sell war bonds, planted victory gardens and farmed, canned and sent produce through care packages to those serving overseas.
Through to the modern era, women have served in every military conflict – and today they have the ability to serve alongside men in full combat situations, as the ban on women serving in front-line combat was lifted in 2013. In 1973, women represented just 2 percent of enlisted military forces in the country and 8 percent of the officers. In 2016, those numbers had increased to 19 percent and 21 percent respectively.
The progress towards more gender equality, while far from complete, has begun to drive home a long-overdue point – being a man is not a pre-requisite to be a soldier, or a veteran, for that matter.
It is a point that will still take some effort to make materialize, as those organizing the first ever all-women Honor Flight are discovering in their quest to gather as many former female members of the military as possible ahead of their anticipated April 6 takeoff date.
An Honor Flight is an event organized by the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Club – chaired by George Farrell – whose sole mission is to find military veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam from the area and fly them from T.F. Green in Warwick to Washington D.C. to tour their ceremonial monuments and give them proper appreciation for their service to the country. To date, Honor Flight has flown 21 missions consisting of 579 total veterans, 458 of which served in World War II.
This Honor Flight, codenamed Victory, will be different – not only because of its all-women veteran attendees and accompanying guardians, but because Farrell is getting help funding the excursion from Karen Leach, president-elect of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Rhode Island, who started organizing the flight as her special project that she needs to complete during her presidency.
“We want to give women veterans the spotlight. It's for them,” Leach said. “It's a big collaboration but we're going to pay for it. We're pretty excited about it. I never thought it could happen.”
Leach organized a large fundraiser at a salon owned by a friend, and the turnout exceeded all expectations. With many months to go, Leach said the club had already raised a significant portion of its goal towards paying for the flight and sponsoring guardians to escort the older veterans through D.C. during their outing.
The hard part now, is finding the female veterans. Farrell said that they had secured 15 women for the trip so far, but he and Leach were working with various people and organizations to find more. Farrell said the difficulty might come from the feeling that women may not consider themselves a “veteran” as they didn’t serve in a combat zone or perform duties on the front lines.
According to the Rhode Island Department of Veteran Affairs, there are over 5,000 female veterans currently residing in Rhode Island, accounting for about 7 percent of the roughly 65,000 total veterans living in the state.
“In the women's case, they performed many physical labor jobs building ships and planes and even instructed pilots,” Farrell said. “There's those varying degrees and not to mention the heroic efforts of those who were nurses in Korea or in Vietnam in the M.A.S.H [mobile army surgical hospital] units saving lives and putting sailors and soldiers back together. They're tremendous efforts and we're looking forward to honoring them for their sacrifices made for the good of the country.”
“There were a lot of missions and things that people did based in the US that was not a combat mission but was still very dangerous work,” said Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who joined the Navy in 1979 and remained enlisted in some capacity until around 2000. Although she served aboard ships, she was not sent into any situations involving foreign conflict. However, she says, this does not mean there was no danger for those enlisted.
“We worked with nuclear warheads, built missiles, we worked with a lot of weapons systems. There's also a danger to working with them when they're static,” she said. “It's not the same as somebody shooting at you, but you've done your part serving your country.”
One woman who already participated in a past Honor Flight, Dorabelle Smith, a Pennsylvania native who now lives in North Kingstown, joined the Navy in 1943 when she was 21 years old. She wound up in Quonset working on seaplanes. She met the man she would marry and settle in Rhode Island with while serving in the same mechanics unit. Her sister also served in a M.A.S.H unit in Korea as an Army nurse.
“I enjoyed it. I made a lot of good friends,” Smith said in recollection of her service. “It was very interesting and very different. I was never sorry I did it.”
Now 96 years old, Smith said she could never have imagined back then that women would eventually go from their roles as supporting characters in war to serving alongside men as fighter pilots and snipers.
“Now the girls are on the front lines and I think it's wonderful,” she said, before quickly adding, “But I'm glad I didn't have to do it.”
Vella-Wilkinson was joyous that more female veterans would get the chance to participate in an Honor Flight like Smith did.
“I think there's a lot of older female veterans who have not had the opportunity to see the women's memorial in Washington D.C., and that's our memorial,” she said. “I think it's going to be very, very moving.”
The criteria for Honor Flight Victory is a bit different from flights of the past. While veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam will still be given first dibs, any female veteran who served in any active duty capacity – regardless of where – from the time of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) to the current wars on terrorism that began with the Gulf War on Aug. 2, 1990, qualify for the flight.
“Now it's just a matter of getting these women to feel that they deserve it and they should come out and be a part of it,” Leach said.
Veteran applications can be found on to the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Honor Flight Hub website at www.rihonorflight.com. Questions can be directed to George Farrell at 401-354-7905 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.