Women share military life from 1950s, ’60s

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BETHEL — Four women who served in the military in the 1950s and ’60s shared their experiences Saturday in a panel presentation, “Bethel Area Women in the Military.”

Moderator Stanley Howe of the Bethel Historical Society read responses from two other female veterans during the society’s Women’s History Month event in the Dr. Moses Mason House exhibit hall.

Participating panelists included Sylvia Clanton of Newry, who served in the U.S. Air Force as an auditor from 1957-1965 and was discharged as a captain; Nancy Mercer of East Bethel, who served in the U.S. Army as a communications and data processing specialist from September 1958 through December 1978 on the East Coast, Europe and the Orient, and retired as a master sergeant; Florence Merrill of West Bethel, who served in the Army as a supply clerk from 1958-1960 stateside and in France; and Geraldine “Gerry” Shimamura of Bethel, who served in the Women’s Army Corps from January 1954 to 1960 as a cook stateside and in Japan.

The other two whose responses to questions Howe read, were Donna Curtis, who served in the Army from 1957-1960 in Colorado and Germany as a communications specialist; and Bethel Town Manager Jim Doar’s wife, Melissa Doar, who served in the Air Force from January 1997 through January 2001 as a medical technician.

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All four panelists and Curtis served at a time when getting pregnant meant losing their commission and getting booted out of the military, Clanton said.

“That’s why I got out,” Clanton said. “Marriage was allowed, but pregnancy wasn’t. They used to say, ‘You can’t stay in; we don’t have maternity uniforms.’”

Describing their most difficult military experiences, Merrill said, “Helping the colonel out of a swimming pool after I shoved him in.”

She said he was a member of the Fort Benning Parachute Club she belonged to and the incident happened after both had been out partying.

Mercer said her worst experience was falling into a sewage ditch in Korea, whereas Doar said her most trying times were leaving home and moving so far away at a fairly young age.

“When my tour of duty was over, deciding whether or not to re-enlist or whether to separate and return to college was a very tough decision,” Doar said.

Clanton said hers was being asked by her boss to pick up a new second lieutenant, by driving his Volkswagen Beetle between the base and Tokyo during a typhoon. She had never driven a standard shift. She also couldn’t speak Japanese and didn’t know the way but got one quick driving lesson.

Clanton said she experienced sexual harassment “at a time when the behavior didn’t even have a name.”

“That was going on in very subtle ways and we didn’t recognize it at the time because we were rather insecure in our positions to start with,” Clanton said. “I mean, you didn’t know when to stand up on your legs and tell a superior officer that he was out of line. You just didn’t do things like that.”

All four panelists cited travel as one of the highlights of their service, although Merrill also described an incident in France when she was trying to order a sandwich and misspoke its name as “gendarme,” which means policeman, she said.

Shimamura said her most memorable times were touring Japan by bicycle and climbing Mount Fuji to see the sunrise. “I brought the culture home,” she said.

“Culture,” Howe explained, was the man Shimamura met and married, Ryozo Shimamura, before being discharged and returning home.

“When we came home, things were a little tough because I married the enemy,” Shimamura said. That was 54 years ago.

She said they got married 35 days before her enlistment was up, but she had to be discharged using her maiden name of Galvin. She also said they had to get married twice, once at the Japanese embassy in Yokohama and four days later at the base.

tkarkos@sunjournal.com

At Saturday afternoon’s presentation in Bethel by Bethel area women who served in the military, Army veteran Florence Merrill, right, of West Bethel listens to Air Force veteran Sylvia Clanton of Newry describe working with nurses who daily tended to soldiers wounded during the Vietnam War,

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