1943. Bernice Williams, now a longtime resident of Kansas City, was 21 years old, working as a police stenographer in her hometown of Milwaukee.
She’s 94 now and about to embark on a journey to revisit those early years of her life, the war years, the time when she was among the first women to join the newly established Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.
“I think I was liberated before it became popular for women,” Williams said, laughing, as she took a break Monday from her trip preparations. She will be on the Heartland Honor Flight leaving Kansas City on Tuesday. It’s a whirlwind, one-day, up-and-back trip with other veterans to see the military memorials in Washington.
World War II enveloped the U.S. in ways that are difficult to articulate today. With no draft, an all-volunteer military now captures a comparatively small segment of the population.
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War then was a shared national sacrifice. War rations made it so. People scrimped and saved, did without.
But patriotism, how it was shown, was different, too. There was no 24/7 cable news, but people were aware of the war in ways that they are not today. During World War II, it seemed nearly everyone’s family was affected, with brothers and sons, husbands, uncles and cousins shipping off. And with many, many of the men not returning.
Still, Williams was unusual. She wanted to join one of the all-female military units but wasn’t interested in the options of the other branches. Her four brothers were military.
The Marines had just begun to allow women into a new reserve, but her city didn’t have a recruiting station. Williams gathered up two girlfriends, and the trio took a train to Chicago to enlist.
Soon, she was sent to California and Camp Pendleton. Pendleton would change her life.
She met her future husband, a fellow Marine. They were married 66 years until his death in 2012.
S. Preston Williams became a well-known lawyer in Kansas City, managing the contracts of Chiefs players in the Hank Stram years. He also was known for his advocacy of wildlife conservation, and he mentored many a local judge and aspiring lawyer. He tried jury cases well into his 80s.
But when the two met, he was back in the states and Camp Pendleton for training. Later, he fought at Guadalcanal.
His future wife waited, taking nighttime dispatches out of the battles being waged in the Pacific. She worked closely with the colonels and other high-ranking officials stateside.
“I saw so many things with the returning servicemen,” she said. “It made me a much stronger person.”
Family and friends back home would tell servicemen coming through Camp Pendleton to look Williams up, say “hello.” The men would often give her things, a radio or some other keepsake, telling her to hold it for them while they went overseas.
“And then, they don’t come back,” she recalled.
She credits her time in the service with expanding her sense of compassion, her patience and her faith. Like her beloved Preston, whom she married in January 1946, she chose to be a positive person. She’s known for it, in fact.
It’s not that either Williams or her husband escaped grief or troubles in their life. They simply managed it with a higher sense of optimism than many people can conjure.
The couple had two babies, a boy and a girl, die. One of her two sons, Mark Williams, was the last person rescued after the skywalks collapsed in 1981 at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center hotel. Mark Williams, who suffered severe injuries that night, will accompany his mother to Washington.
A longtime friend described Bernice Williams as remarkable, positive and elegant. Even her voice is uplifting, solid and joyful. It defies her age.
“It was a game changer, definitely,” Williams said of the decision to become a Marine. “It showed me that there were so many things that I was capable of doing.”