In October 1943 in Philadelphia, a 5’1”, 90-pound girl eager to “drop anchor” in the U.S. Navy sat in a dingy little Navy recruiting office, sparsely decorated with Uncle Sam and Buy War Bonds posters.
That girl was 94-year-old Emma De Haven Gleason Berger, a member of American Legion Post 135 in Cornville. Berger recently traveled to Washington to visit the World War II Monument, along with other World War II veterans from across the country.
Berger, a young, adventurous woman and a 40-year resident of Cottonwood, originally set her “course” for the Navy. But after a short visit in California and a long talk with her cousin, Jane, who was a women’s Army recruiter, Berger was convinced to join the newly appointed Women’s Army Corps (WAC) instead.
During the World War II era, approximately 400,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces, and more than 460 — some sources say the figure is closer to 543 — lost their lives as a result of the war. Their duties were primarily as medical and administrative technicians. Under the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) format, Berger received her basic training at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in Iowa. Women’s uniforms at the time did not include slacks, so sometimes it was difficult to stay warm.
Following her training, she and other WACs were chosen as a unit to follow Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to Europe. Troops boarded the Queen Elizabeth in January 1944 (which had been converted into a troop transport), and anchored in New York Harbor. “the ship’s decks were divided with the women assigned to the top floor and the men on the rest of the ship,” she said. “That allowed for privacy for everyone. And with men and women on the same ship, the concern of fraternization was never a problem," she empathically stated - "there was no hanky-panky!”
One memory Berger holds fondly of her time at sea is the troops singing old Irving Berlin show tunes: “it was just what we did – not only did it give us a sense of home, but it helped to pass the time.”
Berger was not the historical “Rosie the Riveter” who filled in at the factories working men’s jobs – she and many other women soldiers followed the “boys,” as she referred to the men fighting the war. “They (the boys) weren’t crazy about us women being there, until they learned that we were going to handle the paperwork. Then it was OK,” she concluded.
Her quarters in London were referred to as “the tin can” because of the flimsy metal construction. She recalled one specific incident; it was night and the skies were black because of the Blitz bombing – the area around the “tin cans” was hit so hard, she and her friend were knocked out of bed.
From London, Berger and the other troops moved on to Paris; there the women were quartered in old horse stables – straw mattresses serving as their beds. “Life in France was an experience – everything different, particularly the people,” she recalled; but she became very ill due to the harsh living conditions and had to be hospitalized.
Around the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, her group had pushed on to Berlin. “What an exciting time that was,” she reminisced. “We actually set up office space in the Fuhrerbunker – Adolf Hitler’s final headquarters.” She described the remnants left behind of the suicides that had taken place prior to the end of the war; she possesses a small piece of the infamous bunker.
With a passion and tradition for patriotism in her family, she said she was driven to volunteer for World War II. Stamping her foot, she explained that serving her country was a privilege and every American should be proud to do it. She advised young people to do it and get involved with what’s happening in “their country,” just as she did. Berger said she has the American military in her blood - after all, she said proudly, “I am a De Haven ” - one of the great-great-grandchildren of Peter De Haven, owner of the Continental Powder Works and supplier of gunpowder to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
Berger served in the Army from 1943 to 1945 in the European theater; after the war she returned to California, married and raised two sons - one a Vietnam veteran, Guy Gleason, who served in the Air Force and subsequently passed. Her other son, Gregory, is a pilot and resides in Phoenix.
The Honor Flight program provides travel for the veteran at no cost, but a guardian’s expenses are not covered. Helping to offset some of those costs for the guardian were donations from American Legion Post 135 and Auxiliary, American Legion Post 93, Auxiliary and Legion Riders, American Legion Auxiliary Unit 25 and VFW Auxiliary Unit 7400, Jim and Jacque Edgmon, Dorothy Macintosh and Ace Shuttle, which donated a round-trip shuttle ride to the airport.
Other donations may be remitted to Lettie Connell (memo line Honor Flight - Emma Berger) and mailed to 2922 S. Aspen Way, Camp Verde, AZ 86322. To learn more about Berger and other veterans, go to the Veterans History Project: www.loc.gov/vets
The Sedona Library completed a DVD of Berger and her husband and presented it to the Library of Congress.
To learn about Honor Flights, go to www.honorflight.org.
The photo of Emma was taken at the Republic Picture studios just after she enlisted in the Army; she had been employed at the studio and went in for the day to visit some of her co-workers.