SAN ANTONIO (AP) — When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lucy Coffey had left the farm in Martinsville, Indiana, spent time in Chicago and finally settled in Dallas, where she worked at an A&P supermarket.
After quitting the A&P in 1943, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, a call to service that would take her to Japan before she returned and settled in San Antonio.
Now, at 108, the nation’s oldest woman veteran has one more trip she wants to make, this time an Honor Flight, an all-expense-paid salute to World War II veterans. The destination: Washington, D.C.
“I’d like to go to see things that are there that were not there before,” Coffey told the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Washington, but I would like to go to see the things that are there.”
The question wasn’t whether she has the will go fly to Washington, but the strength. Wheelchair-bound, on oxygen and feeble after a stroke last year, Coffey has good days and bad days.
She was dressed in a colorful blouse after breakfast recently and offered a few moments of sheer delight when asked about her long life. Asked if it made her feel happy to be America’s oldest woman veteran, she just smiled and pronounced: “Yeah.”
Going to Washington and seeing the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, which draws 200,000 people a year, was on her bucket list in a big way. Getting there was the trick.
Bexar County veterans’ service officer Queta Marquez said an Austin group that helps facilitate honor flights was poised to fly her to Washington but backed off because of concerns over her health.
Coffey tires easily. There was concern about how the drive from her home in northern San Antonio to Austin would affect her health. No one knew how she would handle the heat or the stress of a long Saturday visiting such shrines as the World War II, Iwo Jima, Korean War and Vietnam memorials.
Only one other veteran, also a Texan, is older — and not by much. Richard Overton, a Bastrop County native now living in Austin, was born three days before Coffey in May 1906.
Marquez, a retired Marine Corps captain who flew into and out of Afghanistan while with the service’s Southwest Asia headquarters, sees her as a pathfinder for women.
“The service of women in the military back then was much more limited,” Marquez explained. “It was limited in scope, their numbers were limited and the fact that they were called on to serve and serve honorably obviously made it possible for women in future generations to serve in the military.”
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was born amid fears that a two-front war would lead to a manpower shortage in the military, but it didn’t come without controversy.
Southern congressmen opposed it, with one lawmaker saying, “Who will then do the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself; who will nurture the children?”
President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill a day after Coffey turned 35.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson appointed future Houston Post editor Oveta Culp Hobby as director of the WAACs.
Coffey was a perfect fit.
Sitting at the kitchen table Wednesday, a cup of coffee in front of her, she thought back to her role model for breaking through barriers — her mom.
After women got the vote, Coffey recalled going with her mother to cast her first ballot.
Her dad, born during the Civil War, escorted them into the courthouse.
Staring at an old photo, Coffey had a moment of recognition as she leaned over the kitchen table.
Four Asian men, all wearing tuxedos, posed in the old black-and-white picture.
“Do you know who they are?” Marquez asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “He’s Mr. Hu and these are his sons,” Coffey replied. “I don’t know how I knew him.”
There are other photos, including one of her standing outside a residence in Japan. Another is of a much younger Lucy Coffey, who never married or had children, sitting between two soldiers at a dinner table.
Even though the WAACs were disbanded after the war, she stayed on in Japan and spent a decade there before coming home. Coffey worked at Kelly AFB from 1958-71, and even now feels immense pride in wearing the uniform.
“I’d love to serve my country forever,” she said.
Editor’s note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the San Antonio Express-News.
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