Jessamine County

WWII vet says what she thinks of sending women into combat

Mary Helen McGuire's framed medals were presented to her at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore on Friday.
Mary Helen McGuire's framed medals were presented to her at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore on Friday. Herald-Leader

WILMORE — When Mary Helen McGuire first donned an Army uniform 70 years ago, many considered the idea of women in the military to be something akin to heresy.

But McGuire helped prove the doubters wrong. She served in England, France and Germany, dodged Nazi "buzz bombs," fed soldiers wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, and helped secure victory in World War II.

Despite her experiences, McGuire, now 93, says she can't agree with Thursday's U.S. Defense Department decision lifting the longstanding ban on women serving in combat.

"I don't see it at all; I don't think women have any business at the front," McGuire said at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, where she was presented with multiple medals on Friday marking her years of service.

Four generations of McGuire's family attended. Helping present the medals was her great-niece, Ellen Grace Jennings, 13, of Beattyville, dressed in the very same Army uniform that McGuire proudly wore during the war.

"I want to thank everybody," McGuire said afterward.

McGuire's views on women in combat perhaps reflect the times in which she served.

"We didn't carry guns in the war," she said. "They told us, 'GIs have enough to do taking of themselves without having to worry about your protection."

But if you listen to McGuire's war memories, it's hard to imagine that she needed much protecting. A delicate flower she was not.

She grew up in Beattyville, graduating from Berea College in 1940. But the Depression was still choking the country, and jobs for young women were almost nonexistent.

So, in 1942, McGuire signed up for the newly created Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC, an organization that allowed women to serve with the Army without technically being part of it.

"My mother had a fit; she wouldn't even go to the train to see me off," McGuire recalled. "I'd never been farther from home than Lexington. But there was no hope for a job, and I saw the Army as the only way out for me."

She wanted to be an Army truck driver. But it didn't work out that way.

"They asked what my college major was, and I said, 'home economics.' They said, 'mess sergeant.' And that's what I did for the whole war."

After a year in the WAAC, McGuire switched to the new Women's Army Corps, popularly known as the "WACs," becoming a full-fledged member of the Army. She quickly volunteered for overseas duty, and the training was tough.

"We took 10-mile hikes with a 50-pound backpack; we trained in how to abandon ship; we trained to use gas masks," she said. "You'd have thought we were going straight to the front."

McGuire sailed to Europe in March 1944, aboard the famous British liner Queen Elizabeth, which had been outfitted as a troop transport. Also on board: 15,700 soldiers and about 400 other WACs.

McGuire initially was assigned at Taunton, England, where she and other WACs lived in a metal Quonset hut.

While in England, McGuire got her first taste of German V-1s, primitive cruise missiles which the Brits called "buzz bombs."

"You'd hear one of them coming, and when the motor cut off it would come down and explode," she recalled. "But you didn't know where it was going to land. So you'd think, 'Please, just let me hear it hit the ground.'"

She was sent to Paris after it was liberated, assigned as a staff mess sergeant with a communications unit. In addition to her regular work, she gave food to U.S. soldiers passing through Paris, some on their way to the fighting, others who'd gone AWOL just to get a glimpse of the City of Light.

"I wrote down all their home addresses and sent letters to their mothers, telling them I'd seen their sons and fed them and that they were well," she said. "But I'd never mention that they were going to the front."

When the Battle of the Bulge began in December 1944, McGuire also helped to feed wounded soldiers who were being sent back from the fighting.

"That was the hardest thing to face, seeing all those boys shot up the way they were," she said. "I still have flashbacks today from seeing all that."

McGuire eventually came home after 18 months overseas. After that she spent almost 40 years working for the U.S. Veterans Administration, now called Veterans Affairs. Today, she is a full time resident at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore.

She has countless stories and photos from her war service.

One of the best concerns the time she got into trouble for giving away food to a French orphanage in violation of Army regulations.

"Someone reported me, and I got called before a board of officers," she recalled. "I told the captain that I thought we'd been sent over there to help people, and that I wasn't going to let children starve with me throwing away food.

"The captain took me aside and said, 'I'd do the same thing if I were you. But don't let me catch you doing it again.'"