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More than just a flag: A female WWII vet reflects on the war and its impact on her family

fr mashburnWhen 91-year-old Gertrude Mashburn tells strangers she’s a World War II veteran — a topic she usually brings up early in a conversation — she’s often met with skepticism. 

These days, Mashburn is a petite woman who’s bound to a wheelchair and has trouble adding much volume to her voice. It’s hard to picture her as the breaker of gender barriers and overcomer of hardship she must have been to make her words true. 

But spend a minute talking with her, and Mashburn’s spunky spirit comes rushing out, with stories of the past not far behind. 

It was 1944 when she enlisted in the Navy, a 20-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who still bore her maiden name of Collins. She was looking to go to work, but in those days options were limited. 

“Back then they didn’t hire women like they do now. I couldn’t get a job anywhere else, so I went into the military,” Mashburn said. 

She set out for basic training in the Bronx of New York, along with about 30 other women who had enlisted under the Navy’s WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — program. 

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Originally, the military saw female presence in its ranks as a limited-time arrangement, a necessary but temporary wartime measure. A year after the program’s creation in 1942, WAVES began to receive equal pay, rankings and discipline as their male counterparts, but they couldn’t serve in combat zones. Mashburn’s two years of service were spent entirely stateside. 

She worked in the commissary at the naval base in Memphis, Tennessee, duties including uniform dispersal and cleaning the shop. 

“Most of the time I enjoyed it in the military,” Mashburn said. There was always a job to do, and she’d often find herself doing physical tasks that women didn’t often perform outside of the military. To someone whose life experience included running a chainsaw, driving a tractor and using a woodsplitter, that was a pro more than a con. 

But through all that, she said, ran a sense of service, a conviction that she was doing her part in the fight against an enemy that returned so many of her country’s men wounded and haunted — or not at all. 

“If a man gives his life for his wife, his wife better be able to in time do the same thing for him, give her life for his,” she said.  

When she first signed up, Mashburn was disappointed to discover that, as a woman, she wouldn’t be heading off to Germany or the South Pacific. She wanted to fight, to be a direct participant in the war effort. 

“I think different now,” she said. “That’s a man’s place.”

In Memphis, she’d see the men return with injuries and illnesses and terrible memories many of them would never fully discuss. She didn’t need to cross an ocean to understand the horror of war. 

“They went through hell, there’s no doubt about it,” Mashburn said. “But that’s about all I can tell you on that. Our men stood up to the test.”

Among those men was her future husband Carl Mashburn, a Dillsboro native who’d served in Europe as a machine gunner. His wartime experience ended with the loss of a leg, requiring months of recuperation in a European hospital and another year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. 

“He came back to North Carolina and tried to get a job, but nobody would hire a disabled vet, so he went back to Pennsylvania because he had friends there in the trucking business,” said Sandra Thompson, daughter of Gertrude and Carl Mashburn. 

One of those friends was Gertrude’s brother. Eventually, she and Carl met. 

“The way Mom tells the story or has told the story in the past is that it was time for her to reenlist, to sign up for another two years, but she had met Daddy and she said, ‘No, I got to go,’” Thompson recalled. 

With the war over and their military service done, the Mashburns married and moved back to North Carolina. They built a life together on hard work and family, which grew to include three daughters. But the war, though rarely discussed, was always in the background. 

“Growing up I saw firsthand the sacrifices veterans made for themselves and their families. I saw how proud my parents were of their service and how important it was to them,” said Teresa Vreeland, the youngest of the three daughters. 

Of course, her father’s missing leg was always a reminder of the cost of war. He’d tell stories, sometimes, like the one about camping in Iceland, his wet coat hung on a tree branch to dry. The unit wound up having to leave so hastily that he left the coat behind.  

The heavier stories, though, the ones that played out as Carl stood behind a machine gun, surrounded by violence, his daughters never heard. 

“He would never talk about it,” Vreeland said. “There were very few times he ever mentioned it.”

“He’d have nightmares,” her mother added. 

Carl passed away on Father’s Day 2003, and Vreeland can’t help but wish she’d written down the anecdotes he did share during his life, as well as the stories her mother told when she was younger. 

“The things that he saw he didn’t want to share with anybody,” Vreeland said. “I felt they were too terrible for him to want to rehash it because of the things he had to do.”

The war left lifelong scars, but Vreeland said she never doubted that her parents were glad they had served. She and her sisters grew up with a deep respect for the military, its veterans and their role in ensuring the freedoms that define life in America. 

“It’s not just a flag,” she said. “It means something.”

Even at 91, Gertrude lives out that sentiment. Any time she passes an American flag, she salutes it. If she’s rolling down a street full of flags, she’ll lift her right hand for each and every one. 

“I was proud,” she said, “to serve my country at that time of war.”

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