Before many weeks had passed, she was one of many who boarded the Queen Mary (think luxury ocean liner-turned-bare-bones-troop ship) with no idea what lay ahead. After a trans-Atlantic trip fraught with danger, uncertainty, and fear (but memories of learning to play Bridge while sitting in the stairwell between decks), Helen arrived in England in June 1943.
When asked by the interviewer if her friends knew about those days, she said, “… I never talk about it. In fact, I’m surprised I’m doing this much talking. I’ve been asked to do many different — I — you know, people don’t understand.”
She’s right. I can’t possibly understand … but I came to appreciate her even more as I read the words of her story.
Helen was a member of the 3rd Army, crossing Europe with General Patton. Most of her 4-year career was spent working in a tent-turned-evac hospital, caring for the most severely injured of the 8th Air Force and the 82nd and 101st Paratroopers. She has such respect for the medics who, themselves endangered, fought to bring in the wounded for emergency care.
Helen spoke of being “always in a pasture” and of being cold … so cold. She spoke of the dark. “There were no lights anywhere. No street lights. No ordinary lights. No nothing. It was dark… It was one of the most awful things to go through.” She spoke fondly of actor Clark Gable of the 8th Air Force who was a loyal visitor to his troops in the hospital … and highly of entertainers Bob Hope and Frances Langford … but she had no respect for James Cagney.
Of the paratroopers, Helen said, “I really admired those boys. I’ll tell you. When they tell you how they jumped into the dark of night before the invasion … To me, they’re the heroes.”
According to Helen, in those days “everybody volunteered and did their part with a lot of patriotism. We felt like we had to do something for our country.” To this day, Helen lives her life “with a lot of patriotism.” I don’t ever recall seeing her when she isn’t proudly wearing an American flag pin on her lapel as a visible statement of her love of country.
Helen’s husband, whom she married shortly after the war ended, was not only her life partner, but her partner in patriotism. During the war, he was a pilot and trainer in the Lend-Lease program, ferrying aircraft to Allied countries. Upon his death two years ago, while standing at his graveside, I witnessed one of the most touching sights I’ve ever seen. As the music of bagpipes faded into the distance and the couple’s children and grandchildren turned away at the end of the service, Helen walked over and touched the casket. Then she stepped back, snapped to attention … and gave the most beautiful “like it was yesterday” salute to her beloved. As I fought to hold back the tears, I noticed that I was not alone. The friends … we were the ones with the lumps in our throats. Helen? Once again, she had simply done what must be done. With dry eyes and a courageous resolve, my then 88-year-old friend who still mowed her own grass and played golf two days a week gave the final salute.
“The heroes are not those of us that are alive. It’s the ones that are under those crosses. They’re the heroes.” Yes, Helen, they are. But you and your beloved … you’re my heroes, too. Thank you for your sacrifice, your dedication, your example … and thank you for telling your story.