Saturday, March 11, 2017

In honor of Nellie Hanks Murphy

It's a mistake to read too much into a photograph, but it occurred to me yesterday when this photo turned up that if I had been designing a Women's Army Corps (WAC) recruiting poster during World War II, Russell's Nellie Hanks would have been a perfect fit --- self-assured, beautiful and honored to serve.

The photo is kept in the World War II veteran archive maintained by the Lucas County Genealogical Society, but we have one of Nellie's uniforms at the museum --- and I set out to connect the two in the form of an explainer for the military display.

The uniform came to the historical society a number of years ago from Nellie's nephew, the late Paul Force, who died just last fall. While I never had an opportunity to meet Nellie, I'm sure there are others out there who may remember her.


Nellie, whose parents were William A. and Laura Hanks, was born Oct. 25 or 26, 1904, on a farm near Russell, but raised in town after her parents moved there during 1906. She was a graduate of Russell High School and was living and working in Indianapolis when World War II broke out.

It's quite possible that Nellie's enlistment was motivated by the loss of her brother, Arlie, some three years older, during 1942. Known for some reason as "Shovel," Arlie had enlisted in the U.S. Navy during late 1941 in Chicago and by the fall of 1942, as an electrician's mate third class, was assigned to the USS Edward Rutledge (AP-52).

The Rutledge had successfully landed troops at Fedhala, French Morocco, on 8 November 1942 and lay off the beach unloading her cargo with two lifeboats, the only boats remaining after the assault. He was on duty in the engine room on 12 November 1942 when she was torpedoed by a German submarine that had slipped past the escort screen to sink the Rutledge and two other transports. The Edward Rutledge’s crew attempted to beach her, but power had been lost and she sank with the loss of 15 men, including Hanks. His remains never were recovered. Nellie enlisted during the following January in Indianapolis.

By this time, it was possible to enlist directly into a WAC unit designated for assignment to the Army Air Corps, the branch of service that accorded women the most respect and offered them the greatest variety of meaningful assignments (WACs were not treated universally well in military at that time, often subjected to slander and limited by job restrictions). So that's what Nellie did.

I do not know what her specialty was, only that she served honorably for the duration of the war and beyond, through the transition of the Army Air Corps into the U.S. Air Force, and was assigned to Scott Field, Illinois; Boca Raton Army Air Force Base, Florida; Camp Kilmer, New Jersey; and, after the war, to the U.S. Army Air Force Europe, headquartered in Wiesbaden.

At some point, Nellie married a career Air Force enlisted man, Henry Murphy, and by 1959 they were living in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he still was listed among Air Force personnel.

The Murphys lived in Lincoln for the remainder of their lives. Nellie, having attained the rank of staff sergeant, died there on May 21, 1985, at the age of 81. Master Sergeant Henry D. Murphy, who was five years younger than Nellie, died on Sept. 6, 1996, age 87. They are buried in Lincoln.

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