This desire isn’t a new phenomenon. Many of our parents and grandparents either wanted to see these countries and young men and women, and some of them did, and still have stories to tell of their experiences. Miriam Woolever is a parent and a grandparent who made that desire come true, and she has memories and stories to tell, even at 101-years-old. Miriam’s trip to Europe wasn’t filled with things she wanted to see and do. Instead, it was what she felt she needed to do.
Miriam Woolever was the daughter of a Lutheran minister who was about to turn 20-years-old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. After graduating high school a few years earlier in Des Moines, Iowa, she witnessed the world around her explode into war, first in Europe, then across Asia, and finally into the Pacific. Then, on Dec. 8, 1941, America was at war as well.
Over the previous year, Miriam watched as the young men she had gone to school with were signing up for the draft. Then, in May of 1942, Congress approved the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC. When the announcement was posted in the newspaper that women could sign up to join the war effort, and that the first training center for the WAAC was in her hometown, she knew she needed to do her part.
In January 1943, at the age of 21, Miriam Ganschow (her maiden name) signed up for WAAC and didn’t have to travel far to get to her training unit. She received her initial training and her specialized training to serve as a clerk – typist. Then, while she was at her first duty assignment at Camp Upton, N.Y., Congress approved the formation of the Women’s Army Corps, making her, and all the other members of the WAAC, the first enlisted women to officially serve in the U.S. Army.
“Our country was at war on two continents at the same time for the first time in history. The men were sent off to do the fighting,” said Miriam. “They needed help, so I joined the WAAC when I was 21 years old.”
At that time 21, was the minimum age for a woman to join.
After serving at Camp Upton for almost a year, Miriam was reassigned to Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in England. She and others boarded the RMS Queen Mary for the voyage across the Atlantic. While on that journey Miriam recalled at times the seas got very rough and she got motion sickness.
“They told us that it was so rough that we should take the carpet up and sleep on the floor,” said Miriam.
When she arrived in England, she discovered they had recently been through many nights of bombings, and while she was there, they started getting hit by German buzz-bombs, or V-1 flying bombs, and V-2 rockets.
Miriam said that she quickly learned that when there was an air-raid everyone did as they were trained to do, which was stop anything they were doing and get to their designated bunker as quickly as possible. During one air raid, she had made it to the bunker, only to see her friend, Jo who was also a part of the WAC, run in to the bunker sopping wet even though it had not been raining that day. Unfortunately, because air raid alarms started blaring just as Jo had gotten into the shower, she had to throw on whatever she had at hand and run to the bunker still soaking wet.
“Oh, I have fond memories of friendships,” said Miriam, “and fond memories even of the things that we did. We all relied on one another. We all worked together in an office, and each on leaned on each other for help.”
While Miriam was assigned there, she said there were no direct hits where she stayed, but there was a lot of damage in the surrounding area.
While Miriam as working for SHAEF in England, the leadership was drawing up plans for the D-Day landings in France. She explained that as part of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff, working with a group of secretaries, she would regularly see him walking through the office, but very rarely directly interacted with him.
“Of course, I met him. I worked in his office,” Miriam said. “There was very little that I had to do with him at all.”
As the Allies advanced, SHAEF moved from England to Versailles, France.
“Sometimes there were important people who would come, and I would hope to get a view, but it didn’t always happen that way,” said Miriam.
She did enjoy the camaraderie that she had with her fellow soldiers. As it happens in any military unit, while she was with SHAEF some of the women she worked with would get transferred out and new ones would come in.
“You get really good at what you do, then all of the sudden they ship you off to do something different,” said Miriam. “I made good friends, but sometimes it was hard, and we worked long hours.”
They stayed in Versailles until her second to last move over the course of a couple of years while following the Allied advance across Europe. Miriam recalled the building she worked in before finally following the Armies into Frankfurt, Germany. It was a little red schoolhouse in Reims, France, and she was part of a small contingent of WACs who lived and worked near that building.
“The officer for whom I worked was aware that something important was about to happen and sent me out to the entrance to watch the German delegation arrive,” said Miriam. “They were taken upstairs into the War Room, where the surrender papers were signed after many hours.”
As the war came to a close, Miriam looked forward to returning home to her family.
“It is very sad, however, to think of the thousands of young men who fought and died to preserve our freedom,” said Miriam. “I was grateful when the war in Europe was over, and I was able to go back home, but I was grateful also, that I was able to do a small part in the big effort.”
Miriam had joined the Army as a Private in January 1943, and by October 1945, when she was honorably discharged, she was a Technician, third Grade, which is also the rank of Staff Sergeant.
“It was a job that had to be done,” she humbly said. “There aren’t many people around anymore to hear about this, so it’s not important thing at all.”
“That’s not true,” said her daughter, Wendy Cummiskey. “It is very important.”
After the war, Miriam married her sweetheart, Russell Woolever, who served as a Navy officer during the war. Many years later, after their children were grown, Russell’s hearing began to fail.
“They didn’t even think of going to the VA,” Wendy recalled about that time in her parents’ life. “He was getting his hearing aids from some other place, and the hearing aids were aways beeping and ringing and making noise. It was not a good situation, and it didn’t dawn on me that he should be going to the VA.”
Sadly, Miriam’s husband later passed from Alzheimer’s. Then, when Miriam’s hearing started to go, her daughter took her to the VA.
“I’ve been very impressed with them,” said Wendy. “They are right on it with taking care of those hearing aids.”
Miriam received hearing aids from the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center, in Phoenix, where she first received battery operated hearing aids. These were later replaced with rechargeable hearing aids, which according to Wendy, have been a relief to both Miriam and her family.
“They are right on it with taking care of those hearing aids,” said Wendy. “For her to be able to get up in the morning and easily put them in, and they are charged, has made her, at this age, be able to function.”
However, the distance Wendy had to drive her mother for each audiology appointment was becoming a strain. So, Miriam’s doctor referred her to another clinic where she now receives Teleaudiology services.
“These appointments are wonderful,” said Wendy. “The doctor there on the screen is very helpful, and the two technicians are in the room, fitting her and working with the doctor.”
“She always has a great demeanor and has been a successful hearing aid user,” said Dr. Cara Mack, Miriam’s Audiologist. “I’m currently seeing her through our Teleaudiology service. She is a great patient, and I am amazed at her stamina at 101 years old.”
“The service has been really good in the Audiology Department,” said Wendy. “They have really kept her in touch with life.”
For her services during WWII, Miriam Woolever received a Letter of Gratitude and Appreciation from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and La Croix de Guirre avec Palme (The War Cross), which was Belgium’s highest award, equivalent to America’s Medal of Honor.
Note: A special thanks to Miriam’s daughter Wendy Cummiskey, and Miriam’s granddaughter Lydia Woolever.