Wichitan Betty Eaton joined after a cousin was shot down over Germany. Mary Ellen Mock of Eureka enlisted to make her dad proud.
Meriem Anderson, also of Eureka, put on a uniform because she wanted to serve her country. Wichitan Hope Leighton also wanted to serve — and to do something besides teach school.
Nearly 320,000 women joined the U.S. military during World War II, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
They served as nurses, radio technicians, bookkeepers and test pilots for repaired planes. They processed mail, ferried aircraft from factories to overseas bases and worked in scores of other roles to free men to fight overseas.
They sacrificed: 432 U.S. military women were killed during WWII and 88 were held as prisoners of war, according to the Women's Research and Education Institute.
Women contributed to a national effort that saw schoolchildren saving their money to buy government stamps so they could trade them for government bonds.
"It was understood that everyone pitches in," Leighton said. "That's just the way it was."
Women served in the military with very little fanfare or recognition. Not that they were looking for either.
"That's not why we were there," said Eaton, whose father fought in World War I. "We came to serve."
Many of those women have been lost to the years, their stories either faded or never told.
So today, Memorial Day, let's pause and hear their stories:
Betty Eaton was 19 in July 1943 when she got the news about her cousin, Lt. Donald Winters of Valley Center. He had been shot down and killed while piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber over Kiel, Germany
"I needed to do something," said Eaton, 87.
So she enlisted in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, a WWII-era division of the U.S. Navy, and served from 1944-46.
WAVES recruits trained at Hunter College's Bronx campus in New York City, which the Navy leased during the war. It became affectionately known as the USS Hunter.
Eaton worked as a bookkeeper, as she had before the war at Santa Fe Trail Transportation in Wichita.
While stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Michigan, she also gave talks about insurance and benefits to officers being discharged. She was the final official Navy voice they would hear while still on active duty.
While she was stationed in Norman, Okla, she received a dozen yellow roses "out of the blue."
The flowers came from a paratrooper. The two had been high school classmates in the north-central Kansas town of Downs, and they renewed their friendship while were both training in Georgia.
"We were just friends, not lovers," Eaton said. "We had old wooden barracks in Norman, so the yellow roses looked a little bit out of place, but I loved them anyway."
The roses also came with a message: "I'm leaving for overseas."
"That kind of put a lump in my heart," Eaton said.
There was no chance to respond.
"I lived with a guilty conscience until he got home safely," she said.
Like many female WWII veterans, she later married another WWII vet. Her husband, Ralph Eaton, was in the Army Signal Corps in the South Pacific.
Last month, they flew to Washington, D.C., as part of a Central Prairie Honor Flight — the Kansas chapter of a national grassroots movement that provides an opportunity for aging WWII veterans to see the memorial that honors them. The two-day trip was particularly important for Betty to take now, because her eyesight is quickly fading.
"It was very evident when making the tours up there that we weren't forgotten," she said. "People would come up and say 'thank you.' They were appreciative of the little part we contributed."
Postal duty, WAVES
Barney Brown, a Greenwood County rancher and World War I veteran, would make regular trips into Eureka.
He and other ranchers would gather in front of the hotel and talk about how this second world war was going.
"All the other men had sons in the service," said Mary Ellen Mock, 91. "All he had were two girls.
"He didn't have anything to talk about."
So Mock enlisted in the WAVES in 1944. Her younger sister, Nell, also joined.
"That pleased my dad," she said.
That wasn't the only reason she joined.
Mock was an elementary teacher, first in Eureka and later in Great Bend. Salaries weren't keeping up with inflation.
"And there were no young men around," she said. "It was boring. There was nothing to do. No cars, no gasoline.
"Every time I went to the post office and saw that big sign of Uncle Sam and the WAVES pointing at me, I felt like that's what I should do."
Her duty with the WAVES was at Fleet Post Office San Francisco.
She had the H tub, processing the mail of anyone in a service connected with the Navy whose last name began with H.
She rose to the rank of mailman 2nd class. Yes, mailman. The Navy went only so far in adjusting for gender.
Mock served through 1946, piling up memories that were "worth a million dollars."
While training at Hunter College, she had chances to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans movies at Madison Square Garden — and eat runny scrambled eggs for breakfast.
"I can't hardly stand to look at runny scrambled eggs to this day," Mock said.
She'll forever remember V-J Day (Victory over Japan), Aug. 14, 1945. But not so much for the joy brought by the war ending as for her experience that day.
"It was the most frightening moment I've ever lived," Mock said. "I still get goose bumps."
Bedlam broke out in San Francisco. Trolleys and cabs were overturned in the wake of the celebration.
"It was a drunken brawl," Mock said. "It wasn't safe for women to be out on the streets."
After getting off work in midafternoon, she had walked only a few blocks toward her barracks when two men stopped at a light, threw her into the back of their pickup and drove off.
"I had no idea where I'd end up or in what condition," said Mock, who had her hat and a sleeve ripped off.
The pickup stopped to toss in more people, women and sailors. One of those sailors helped her get out of the pickup, then made the long walk with her back to her barracks.
"As we'd meet drunks on the street, they'd head for the women," Mock said. "So this sailor would push me in doorways, stand in front me and try to protect me."
It was midnight before she arrived at her barracks.
Mock also married a WWII vet — actually, two of them. Her first husband — a B-29 mechanic whom she met while teaching in Great Bend, where he was stationed at the air base — died in 1985.
Eight years later she married John Mock, who also grew up in rural Greenwood County and was a prisoner of war during the Battle of the Bulge.
Today, John and Mary Ellen will go to a cemetery in Eureka where more than 300 WWII veterans are buried, and take part in a ceremony.
"I'm just thankful for my advantages and way of life," she said. "It hasn't been easy, but we're still a great country."
Test pilot, WASP
Flying was Meriem Anderson's passion.
"I wanted to fly ever since I was a little kid," said Anderson, 89, who grew up on a ranch near Eureka where she still lives.
In 1942, she learned to fly with the Civil Air Patrol in Wichita. The next year she joined the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.
"My parents weren't real happy about it," Anderson said, "but they felt differently after I got my wings."
She was one of five women from Wichita's air patrol who received WASP wings.
"That's pretty good," she said.
WASPs took the same ground school and flight training as the men, except for combat flying, she said.
WASPs flew aircraft from the factories to overseas bases, towed targets for live anti-aircraft practice, transported cargo and test-flew repaired planes at U.S. bases before they were turned over to the men.
It was select but dangerous duty. Of the 1,074 women who passed all the training, at least 38 were killed in the service.
Anderson was stationed at Enid Army Air Base in Oklahoma, test-flying trainers after they had been repaired or worked on for any reason. She had her scary moments.
"But I only had one crack-up," she said. She managed to land safely.
"It was sabotaged," she said. "There was sabotage on almost all the fields, especially if there were WASPs flying."
Anderson said she suspected some of the planes were sabotaged by men at the base or by German prisoners who were being held nearby.
Although their roles were to free men to fly in combat, the WASPs weren't always welcomed by the men.
"Where I was stationed, it was great," she said. "But some places guys thought the women's place was in the home."
Unlike the other women's branches of the service, the WASPs were slow to be recognized as members of the military and not civil-service employees. That kept them from receiving military benefits for more than 30 years after the war.
WASP records were classified and sealed, so little was known about their contributions to WWII. Those records were unsealed in 1977, and WASPs were granted military service distinction.
In 2010, Anderson and about 200 other WASPs went to Washington to receive a Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
"Seems we were overlooked for a while," Anderson said. "It was a good experience."
Radio tech, WAC
Hope Leighton always did like math. After the war, she went on to earn a physics degree at Kansas State University.
So when she joined the Women's Army Corps, or WACs, in 1943, and was given the option of going to cook/baker's school or radio mechanics school, it was an easy choice.
Until she was discharged the day after Thanksgiving in 1945, she either repaired radios or checked to make sure the radios were in working order for training aircraft at two Texas air bases.
Small thing? Not at all. Those radios were the lifeline for young pilots trying to learn to fly.
"It made you feel good you were keeping them safe," said Leighton, 90, who grew up on a farm north of Council Grove.
The attraction to join was to do something different.
"I'd been teaching school for five years, ever since I got out of high school," Leighton said. "I was starting to feel that teaching wasn't what I wanted to do."
And then there were those advertisements, similar to the ones that grabbed Mock's attention. Only these were asking her to join the WACs.
"I felt like this what I needed to do," she said.
That doesn't surprise Clifford Leighton, her brother, who also is a WWII veteran.
"She's always been a smart kid and wanting to do things," he said. "She hasn't slowed down yet."
Nor does it surprise him that women made such a contribution to the war effort.
"This whole country was behind it with the likes that hasn't been seen since," he said.
Hope said she benefited from her service.
Like those days while she was in radio school in New Jersey. Not only did she learn to build a radio from scratch, but she enjoyed going to New York City.
She even enjoyed the calisthenics and exercise demanded in basic training.
"It was entirely different from anything I'd done," Leighton said.
Her work included being out on the airfield shortly after daylight to check the planes' radios. She also did shift work in the hangars repairing the radios.
"I know some people had the idea the WACs were downgraded," she said, "but I always felt people treated us right."
Female veterans of WWII did more than serve in that war. They also opened doors for women in the military for years to come.
Women are the fastest-growing population in the U.S. military and represent 15 percent of the 1.4 million now on active duty, according to Veterans Affairs. About 10 percent of all the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are women.
"They laid the groundwork, set the example," said Master Sgt. Marla Harris, an Army veteran who is now on active duty with the Kansas Air National Guard, stationed at McConnell Air Force Base. "We just continue on. We had to chip pieces away from the wall that the men veterans put up against us.
"But overall, I think we've made a lot of (headway) and the respect is there."