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Female World War II Veterans Reflect On Service

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At Penney Retirement Community, plenty of residents feel the love during the Women Veterans Week of Recognition.

Governor Rick Scott declared this past week, March 12 through March 18, the 2017 Women Veterans Week of Recognition, to honor women who have served their country.

WWII veteran Winnie Mills poses with her medals. Mills served as a code breaker in the Pacific theater. (Ashleigh Braun/WUFT News)

Today, Winifred “Winnie” K. Mills, a 95-year-old veteran, lives independently, walks only with the aid of a cane and still volunteers to help residents file their taxes at Penney. She has lived there for the past 10 years.

Comfortably seated in a caramel-colored wooden chair with her numerous awards in a shiny display box at her side, Mills sat back and recounted her experience serving during World War II.

Mills enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on February 24, 1943, when she was just 21 years old. She had gone home with the intent of telling her parents, who both served in World War I, her plans to go to South America to work as a core engineer.

“I went home to tell my parents and they had a WAAC captain there, and she recruited me that weekend,” Mills said.

She worked as a cryptographer in New Guinea and the Philippines decoding Japanese messages.

“We had tents with wooden floors and we had six women to a tent. We worked around the clock so that sometimes we had to sleep in the daytime, and New Guinea is very hot, so it was a little tough,” Mills said.

However, her most memorable experience was the 29-day-long ship journey from San Francisco to New Guinea crossing the Pacific Ocean.

“At night it was absolutely dark,” Mills recounted. “We could go up on deck, but we couldn’t light a cigarette or have a flashlight. No lights at all up there. So, it was a little scary, crossing the Pacific like that.”

(Standing) Winnie Mills, 95, and (Sitting) Helen Barnes, 92, talk about their previous military service during and after World War II.  (Ashleigh Braun/WUFT News)

However, she said she felt safe most of the time.

“You have to remember that women at that time were not in combat,” she said. “We did not carry guns. We were not prepared to fight. We were not in combat like the women are today. We were in a combat zone … but we were pretty safe.”

Mills doesn’t believe women belong in combat.

“We took the place of men. That was our job. If it was mechanics or secretaries or whatever,” she said.

Helen Barnes is a 92-year old veteran who has lived at Penney for 14 years. She also served during World War II.

Although she wasn’t 21, in 1944, her mother signed her up for service in the military. Trained as a nurse, Barnes worked in an army hospital in Galesburg, Illinois, specializing in brain surgery and orthopedics until she developed an allergy that forced her to change jobs.

“It wasn’t a hard experience like it was for some of the women because of their childhoods and the way they were brought up… but it was a good experience,” Barnes said.

World War II vet Helen Barnes contemplates her service. Barnes is one of four female World War II vets at Penney Retirement Community. (Ashleigh Braun/WUFT News)

Barnes, too, said she believes women don’t belong serving in combat roles in the military.

“They’re having too many problems as it is and I think a lot of the men don’t think they belong there, so therefore there’s more problems,” Barnes said.

She said her most memorable experience was when she was at the hospital in Galesburg and everyone got food poisoning.

“It was horrible. Even the German Prisoner of War got it. Anyone that had any contact with the mess hall ate it and got it. Everybody got it,” she said. “Ham salad … I can’t eat it yet!”

Barnes and Mills said they have a veteran’s organization at Penney that oversees planning Memorial Day services at the cemetery and recognizing other veterans when they come in.

487 residents live currently at Penney; 106 are veterans, and 12 of them are women. Four of those women served during World War II.

Zella Corbett, who served in the United States Navy from November 1944 until October 1946, and Helen M. Keller, who served the Women’s Army Corps for more than 20 years, are the other two female World War II veterans residing at Penney.

“We try to keep up with them and make them members of the group,” Mills said.

Barnes chimed in with a chuckle, “They aren’t WWII vets through … We’re special.”

Mills’ daughter, Kathy Berger, has been the development director at Penney for the last five years. She said growing up in a military family was a wonderful experience.

“I still stop when I hear jets going over and smile, because for me that’s a sense of security, it’s not an annoyance,” Berger said.

She said although her dad was wonderful and had a successful career in the air force, she’s very proud to have a mother who is a World War II veteran.

“If anyone ever told me my mom wore army boots, I’d say you bet she does,” Berger said. “She’s a very independent, strong woman and you can tell by talking to her. She has been an inspiration for me … I’m just very proud of her.”

About Ashleigh Braun

Ashleigh Braun is a reporter for WUFT News and can be reached at 954 551 5626 or abraun215@ufl.edu.

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