FORT MEADE, Md. (AFNS) — After Mildred McDowell left the Air Force in 1949, she had one regret – that she no longer had her Women’s Army Corps uniform. Fortunately, the year before she died, someone read a story about her life and sent her a replacement. When McDowell died at the age of 104 on Nov. 15, 2012, she was buried in her uniform in Ramsey, Ill., about 75 miles north of Scott Air Force Base.
“She was very proud and pleased that she would be able to be buried in her uniform,” said her grand-nephew, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Stan Giles of the 134th Air Refueling Wing at McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tenn. “When she got her uniform, she breathed a sigh of relief because that was how she wanted to be buried.”
McDowell, who may have been the nation’s oldest surviving female veteran before her death, outlived all of her siblings, the people she served with during and after World War II, and even many of the students she taught in one-room schoolhouses in Illinois before she enlisted in the WAC at the age of 35.
Symbols of McDowell’s two careers were prominently displayed in her last home, a room in the Vandalia Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Vandalia, Ill., about an hour northeast of St. Louis. A mirror with a retired U.S. Army decal faced her bed, upon which was a neatly folded red, white and blue towel with the words, “Freedom is Not Free.” On a nearby bookcase was a figurine with an apple, books and the teacher’s slogan, “To Teach is to Touch a Life Forever.”
After teaching for 14 years, McDowell changed careers when she learned the military had begun accepting women during World War II. After training, McDowell was assigned to Roswell Army Airfield, N.M., and her first job was packing parachutes. But she soon imagined something going wrong for an Airman on a B-17 Flying Fortress because of a problem with a parachute she may have packed.
“I didn’t like the job because I thought I might make a mistake and would cause an Airman to die from poor parachute packing,” McDowell said in an interview before her death. “So I asked for another job, and I worked in supply issuing airplane parts to the mechanics working on planes on the line.”
McDowell was honorably discharged after the war in December 1945, but reenlisted March 18, 1946 and later transferred into the Air Force. She turned down an initial assignment in Japan and was sent to Germany, where she worked in the technical orders library. She lived in an old hotel on the northern bank of the Rhine River in Wiesbaden that hadn’t been bombed.
“The people were poor,” she said. “They’d lost their homes and their jobs. A lot of their families had been killed. We would see little boys, maybe 5 years up to about 8 or 9, out scrounging in garbage barrels. They wore shorts, no shirts, and you could count their ribs, they were so skinny. It kind of hurt that they had to eat out of garbage.”
But even American military members living in post-war Germany had to deal with difficult conditions, especially in 1947 when the Rhine experienced one of its worst dry periods.
“We couldn’t take a bath because we had to keep water in the bathtub just to flush the toilet,” McDowell said. “One time, I had to go to work without brushing my teeth because there wasn’t a drop of water in the place. That night, I scrounged around three or four floors up and found an old water glass. So I kept that glass filled for brushing my teeth. The poor Germans were worse off than we were. You’d see them at the well waiting for every little cup of water.”
She left the military as a WAC corporal in 1949. After she left active duty, McDowell completed 20 years in the Army Reserve. Her grand nephew didn’t learn about her military career until after he was already an Air Force chaplain. But he made sure his then-teenaged daughter had a chance to meet McDowell before she died.
“One of my fond memories was taking my daughter Shannon to see her when she turned 100,” Giles said. “I told her, ‘If you live to be 90 years old, you will have had a connection with somebody who goes back almost 200 years. She represented an example of a humble Midwesterner who set aside her own vocation and goals and joined the military to help the war effort and stayed in because she loved our country and military people. I think near the end of her life, she was proud of two things: having been a teacher and having served in the U.S. military. Obviously, she didn’t die a rich woman, but she was rich with memories and experience.”