Thursday, June 17, 2010

They also served ...

Eleanor (Mason) Gabbard

One of items on my list of things to do is a visit to the museum now operating within the remains of Fort Des Moines on Des Moines' south side --- and I'm not sure why I haven't gotten there. Laziness probably. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact I remember the fort primarily as the spot where pre-induction physicals were conducted for those of us headed to Vietnam during the 1960s and as the point of departure for that early-morning flight many years ago that took a plane-load of us scared kids --- and many others flights ---  off via Dallas-Fort Worth to beautiful Fort Polk, Louisiana, and basic training.

The museum's focus is, however, on other matters --- the fact it was in 1917 the site of the first officer candidate class for African-Americans in U.S. history and also the site, beginning in 1942, of the first and largest Women's Army Auxiliary Corps/Women's Army Corps training site in the United States.

It seems odd now that both blacks and women had to fight and fight hard to serve in the U.S. military, to earn the right to put their lives on the line and in many cases lay them down for the rest of us --- until you think a little about the fact that we've still not resolved the right to do so of gay men and lesbians who wish to serve.

Sorting old photos last night, looking for something else, I came across, side by side, portraits of two of my mother's first-cousins who trained at Fort Des Moines, then went on to serve in distinguished manners as Army nurses during World War II.

The first is Eleanor Pearl Mason (top), born Aug. 17, 1909, in Benton Township to my great-aunt and great-uncle, Elizabeth Mary (Miller) and Albert Ray Mason. Eleanor met her husband, Henry C. Gabbard, while in the service and because they lived elsewhere I didn't know her. She died March 29, 1997, in Phoenix, Arizona, after a long career as a registered nurse. A note on the back of this photograph states that it was taken in Liege, Belgium, during May of 1945.

Velma (Miller) Jess

The other cousin is Velma Irene Miller, daughter of Jeremiah and Fern (Griffis) Miller, born July 11, 1920, on the old Miller farm in English Township. Velma, too, met her husband, Leonard Jess, while serving; but I knew them both because they visited often. Velma may have been my mother's favorite among her many cousins because in a way she helped raise her. Velma's mother died of breast cancer in 1933 leaving four children ranging in age from Velma, the oldest at age 13, to Elizabeth, the youngest, only 3. Since Uncle Jerry chose to raise his children as a single parent, the Miller girls (my mother and her sisters, Mae and Mary), just up the road, often helped out. Velma died June 29, 2000, at her home in Clinton less than a year after my mother died.

But here they both are, young and full of hope, in what despite the horrors of World War II was a hopeful time for the United States, uncharacteristically united in a single cause.


Ken said...


As you know, Eleanor was my aunt. But because she lived in Tucson for as long as I can remember, I probably met her only 2 or 3 times. Nonetheless, I often heard how, as an army nurse, she got caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. That was certainly a special generation.


P.S. - Thanks for posting the photo. That's one I didn't have.

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Ken ---

I probably mentioned at some point that I had this photo --- but having and finding are separate issue. Eleanor's now been reunited with the rest of the Masons so hopefully she won't disappear again. Wish someone had written down her war-time experiences --- and that we all had copies!