LaRue Dillon was working as a secretary in Birmingham, Ala., when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing thousands and launching America’s entry into World War II.
A few months later in 1942, the U.S. military opened its doors to women for the first time, and Dillon and her roommate enlisted together. Her decision was part patriotism, part youthful wanderlust.
“You know how you do things when you’re a teenager – I just wanted to go,” Dillon, 93, said a few weeks ago from her Scott County home.
“I thought that if I joined the Army, I’d get a chance to go a lot of places I hadn’t been and probably wouldn’t have a chance to visit around the country, maybe even the world.”
But Dillon, like most members of the Women’s Army Corps, stayed stateside.
Their entrance into the armed forces came out of necessity – enemy forces had captured and killed thousands of soldiers overseas, and allowing women to join for the first time in history freed men up for combat.
Approximately 350,000 women enlisted in five branches of the military during the war: Army Nurse Corps, Women’s Army Corps, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, Navy’s Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services and the Coast Guard’s unit for women known as SPARs.
“I’m sure some people thought women didn’t belong, but when you went into the service back then, you didn’t have much contact with the civilian population,” Dillon said.
“When I went in, it (the Army) was open, but it wasn’t. We wanted it to be more equal and to make it easier for women to get in, but it’s just something you accepted.”
Dillon followed her three brothers into the Army, and her younger sister joined later. Their father was a veteran of World War I, his first daughter born as he fought overseas.
“I knew I couldn’t pass for the WAVES because I can’t swim, so I didn’t even attempt that,” she said, laughing. “So I joined the Army instead.”
Dillon worried that the Army, strict about the wellbeing of its female recruits, would reject her for having poor eyesight. It’s easy now to spot her in old photographs of life on the base because she’s the only woman wearing glasses.
After a lengthy background check that sent investigators sniffing around her hometown of Thomasville, Ga., she began secretarial work at Camp Detrick in Frederick, Md., where she stayed until she left the service in 1945.
Dillon hoped the military would offer her a chance to travel, but Camp Detrick demanded more secrecy than other military bases: It was home to the United States’ brand new chemical and biological weapons program.
“When you went to Camp Detrick, you stayed at Camp Detrick,” she said.
“They had more social activities on the base because … it was more or less a secret, and they didn’t allow us to go into town as much as others could.”
The base hosted dances, big-name bands and other activities several times a week. That’s where she met her husband, Hershel “Buck” Dillon, who arrived at Camp Detrick after a stint in Alaska.
They later married on the base with her best friend from the Army, Merle “Scottie” Scott, serving as maid of honor. The commissary – exempt from sugar rationing – baked their three-tiered white wedding cake.
“They had all the sugar they wanted, so you had some pluses being in the military,” she said, with a laugh.
Dillon says she and the other women dressed “the same as the guys,” though they wore skirts instead of pants, even through basic training, daily exercises and drills. Everything was khaki-colored, down to their underwear.
“They kept you in good physical condition, and they didn’t let you sit around and stagnate,” she said.
“We didn’t wear slacks at all, even when we were doing exercises.”
The one exception was at nighttime in the barracks, when the women were off duty. They were then allowed to change into a set of fatigues – a khaki-colored, two-piece jumpsuit.
“Very, very sexy those things,” Dillon said. “They didn’t do a thing to improve your looks.”
Dillon rose to the rank of staff sergeant and was approved to go to officer school, but decided to leave after she married. She and her husband both discharged and moved to Lexington to work and raise a family.
“I couldn’t do both,” she said.
Dillon worked as a secretary for the California Co., an oil exploration company searching land in Kentucky, and her husband took a job with the L&N Railroad.
She now lives with her daughters, Linda Perkins, a second-grade teacher at The Frankfort Christian Academy, and Frances Dillon.
Recognition they deserve
Lisa Aug, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, estimates there are several hundred female World War II veterans in Kentucky out of the 25,000 total still living here.
Frankfort resident Jeffrey Suchanek, an oral historian, first grew curious about their experiences in 1994 after seeing an exhibit at the Kentucky Historical Society about the Allied invasion of Western Europe on D-Day.
Exhibit cases held soldiers’ uniforms, and the ones belonging to women caught his attention.
At the same time, his colleagues at the University of Kentucky were documenting the experiences of 250 World War II veterans. Only two of them were women, Suchanek realized, and both worked as nurses.
“I imagined those women wearing those uniforms, and I thought, we’ve got to document this,” he said. “That’s what started me interviewing these women.”
Suchanek is the author of the recently published collection of memoirs titled “Star Spangled Hearts: American Women Veterans of World War II,” with the help of his wife, Jeanne Ontko Suchanek.
Starting in the mid-1990s, he interviewed 30 women whose contributions to the war effort are often overshadowed in history books by images of Rosie the Riveter. Included are several who lived or worked in Frankfort: Helen Evans, Lois Birchfield Bradley, Eleanor Huckaby, Ruth Murphy, Julie Hulette and Jeanne Parker.
“I wanted the people who read this book to get to know these women as I knew them – as whole people,” he said.
Before World War II, women had served in the military as nurses or in secret by hiding their gender under men’s clothing, Suchanek says. About 11,000 women worked for the Navy and Marine Corps as telephone and radio operators, clerical workers and bookkeepers during World War I, but they were civilians and received no veteran’s benefits.
Most women who enlisted in the military during World War II stayed in the United States to perform clerical work, train new recruits, collect intelligence and other tasks. Some went overseas, but they were not allowed to take weapons training or enter combat, Suchanek says.
He found through his interviews that some learned to use rifles and pistols anyway, including Bradley, who said she was the only woman stationed at Virginia’s Langley Field taught to shoot.
Women serving in the Pacific performed their clerical work behind barbed wire fences, Suchanek says. They battled malaria, snakes, insects, rats and jungle rot that turned their feet black.
Chaperones or men carrying rifles and pistols accompanied women on group outings, said Elizabeth Kropke Hayes, who served there for a year. One woman drowned while swimming, and 16 died when the plane they were riding in crashed into a mountain, she said.
“The ones who went overseas were all put in harm’s way, some by the actual enemy, or in the case of the Pacific, simply the tropical situation they were in was dangerous,” Suchanek said.
The women he interviewed cited many reasons for joining the war effort – the driving force of patriotism, an escape from living with their parents, or the desire to travel the country and the world.
But most of them faced some kind of resistance, either from their families, the public or male soldiers and officers, Suchanek says. Religious and civic organizations worried that the military would masculinize women or turn them into lesbians, and that male officers would pressure them sexually.
Some male soldiers resented the female recruits because it meant they were headed overseas to the frontlines.
After the war, the women who headed each of the women’s services were against them staying in the military, Suchanek said.
“It was the male commanders who realized how valuable these women were, and the service they had provided freed up men to go into combat,” he said.
Women had more training and experience with clerical work, and they were more efficient at it, Suchanek says. Women who stayed home to work in the factories also proved that they could repair aircraft and perform other tough tasks.
“All of this had an impact on the leaders who saw their contributions,” Suchanek said. “They probably could see the writing on the wall anyway, that this would eventually happen.”
A small number of women stayed in the military after World War II, and numbers jumped during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. By the time the Gulf War ended, the American public was used to seeing women in uniform, Suchanek says, and the Department of Defense continues to look toward easing restrictions on women in combat.
“The public got used to it, and whether or not you agree with it or think it’s a good idea isn’t the point,” he said.
“The women who joined the military during World War II made it a lot easier for the women who came after that – these women were really the founders of that happening.”
For more information about “Star Spangled Hearts,” contact Broadstone Books at BroadstoneMedia@aol.com or 502-223-4415.
To schedule a discussion of the book or a book signing, contact Jeanne Ontko Suchanek at Scott552010@hotmail.com or 502-472-8877.