It's been almost 70 years since a young New York City woman traveled from Brooklyn to Manhattan and enlisted in the U.S. Army. But for Florence "Flo" Miles, 90 and now living in Hagerstown, the memories are still vivid.
Especially when she pages through her scrapbooks and talks about her brother, Cpl. Russell Daudelin, who died a few months after America entered World War II.
"He enlisted in September 1939. I was born in '22, so I was 17," she said, "This is the battle he was killed in — the Battle of El Guettar in North Africa. The last letter he wrote was on March 17th or 27th (1943). And then he was killed on the 30th."
Miles enlisted in the Army a year after her brother, and memories of her service accompanied her to the Williamsport World War II Weekend in October 2011. The annual encampment returns to Williamsport on Saturday, Oct. 13, and Sunday, Oct. 14, at Springfield Farm barn and grounds, near Byron Memorial Park. Admission is free.
At last year's WWII weekend, Miles visited Allied and German encampments, met tribute artists portraying 1940s comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, debated with a Russian re-enactor and talked for an hour with D-Day paratrooper Richard "Red" Falvey. Falvey trained at Fort Benning, Ga., where Miles was assigned after her basic training.
About 100 re-enactors participated last year. Miles said she plans to return to this year's WWII weekend.
Gearing up for battle
Miles said she reads about the war and keeps adding to her scrapbooks. Recently, an article in a military magazine caught her attention. It was about the Battle of El Guettar.
"This was the first time after 69 years, they finally put a story in. I was so happy, I wrote to the author, and I told him how delighted I was that we finally got it in (a) magazine," she said. "He sent me about 10 pages describing the battle. So now I'm able to read my brother's letters — I have his letters — and I'm able to see where he was on March 3 and what battle he was in. All the way down the line."
Russell Daudelin enlisted in 1939, just after Adolf Hitler's German troops attacked and occupied Poland. Americans' patriotism was high, but the nation's military might was much reduced two decades after the so-called Great War — now called the World War I.
"We weren't ready for a war," Miles said. "Before my brother went overseas, he brought home a spoon that he had been eating with, and on it, it said 1917. It was from World War I."
Daudelin was assigned to the Army's First Division, known as the Big Red One. Some of his training took place close to home — in Camp Dix in New Jersey and Fort Jay in New York City.
"So when he was stationed there, he used to come home, because we lived in Brooklyn," Miles said. "So he could come home every once in a while."
Miles' brother would send photographs of Army life. Miles also collected newspaper photos of soldiers for her books. She drew pencil versions of many of the photos. Her scrapbooks are drawings are covered in pencil drawings of military personnel, with detailed renderings of faces, uniform fabric, buckles and other items.
Her drawing of her brother's photo is almost an exact duplicate, but Miles downplayed her artistic talent.
"These are snapshots he sent to us, and I drew them," she said. "I was just looking at the picture and copying it."
Remembering North Africa
Although American soldiers were training for possible combat, American politicians resisted getting involved in growing military conflicts in Europe and Asia. But on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American naval base Pearl Harbor. Germany and Italy joined Japan in declaring war on the United States. On Dec. 11, America declared war on all three countries.
The German army occupied nearly all of Europe and fortified the coast, making an assault difficult. The Germans also occupied parts of North Africa, and that's where the Allies — England, Canada, the United States and French resistance — began their campaign to defeat the Germans.
American troops landed in North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942; six months later, the Germans left Africa and retreated to Italy.
Miles is upset that battles of the North African Campaign — the first part of America's involvement in World War II — don't get the attention of battles on the continent of Europe. But she said she will try to remind area residents.
"Seventy years ago this Nov. 8, the Allies invaded North Africa, but a lot of people forget that," she said. "That's what I'm going to write to (The Herald-Mail)."
There's a sepia-colored photo of Russell Daudelin in Miles' scrapbook. On the same page is Miles in her uniform.
An independent woman
But she had her own ideas about military service. In her scrapbook, she pointed to a movie still of a sailor and his girlfriend. Miles smiled.
"I was going to join the Navy. I love sailors. I thought sailors were cute. They used to go around the city in their uniforms, with the little sailor hats and the bell-bottomed pants," she said. "So I told my brother I was going to join the Navy, and he wrote back and said, ‘I don't think Flo should join the Navy. But I guess it's up to her.' So he never knew I had joined the Army."
To enlist, Miles left her neighborhood for the first time in her life.
"I went all by myself over to Manhattan. I joined all by myself. I'd never been out of Brooklyn before," she said.
She said she joined the Women's Army Corps. "It used to be WAAC — the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps — but when I joined, it was WAC. Now it's just Army."
She rode an overnight train to Iowa for basic training, where she learned skills and Army discipline. Then she was assigned to Fort Benning, the only WAC from her class assigned there. At Benning, most WACs were assigned cleaning duties or clerical duties at the hospital or other facilities at the base. But Miles was assigned to the military police, where she filed police reports on soldiers, oversaw boot rations and calculated allotments of gasoline so soldiers could go home on leave.
One spot was particularly popular with soldiers on leave — Phenix City, Ala., which in the 1940s was well known for gambling, prostitution and organized crime.
"I typed all the reports that came in when they go to Phenix City. It was very popular," she said. "Soldiers would go over the Chattahoochee River (to Alabama), where they could drink. And then some of them would get into trouble, or they drowned in the Chattahoochee River. Some killed each other on the bridge."
It was an eye-opening experience for a young girl from Brooklyn.
"Sometimes I didn't even know what I was typing," Miles said. "About the soldiers, what they were doing. I'd say to the guys, 'What does this mean?' I was too young. I didn't know what they were doing, and I'm typing it all up."
A military career
She made friends among the other WACs at Fort Benning. In particular, Miles met three women, from New Jersey, California and Virginia, and the four of them remained friends for many years.
"I had a reunion with my girls (in 1994), 50 years after D-Day. So we met right here in my apartment here. So I had a pull-out bed. I had a blow-up bed. Someone slept on the floor. Then I got out four towels, and four of this and that, just like the Army," Miles said. "We went all the way around to the battlefields around here. They liked the Civil War things, because they were Army. That was fun. But so many years have passed. They're all gone now."
In mid-1945, Miles was assigned to an engineering unit in Missouri where she learned to operate a radio. But before she could be redeployed, the war ended and she was sent to Fort Meade, Md., near Washington, D.C. Her assignment: Help calculate payroll for officers during the demobilization of Army personnel.
"Eisenhower thought that was a big job, to get everybody out of the Army," she said. "So then I had to do the paperwork to get people out. It could be very time-consuming."
She met a man who was assigned to go overseas, but his paperwork was missing. The man, Waverly Miles, was stuck at Fort Meade until the matter was resolved. Turns out his family was from Baltimore. He and Miles struck up a relationship, and things developed. Eventually, they married.
The Mileses moved to Long Island, N.Y., settled down and raised a family of three girls — Terri Lee, Wendy and Robin. Terri Lee became a teacher and took a position in the tiny school in Keedysville. Wendy got a job teaching in Staunton, Va. Her marriage to Waverly ended in divorce, and Miles followed her daughters south, settling in Hagerstown in 1981. She now works as a part-time receptionist for the Washington County Commission on Aging.
Celebrating the way things were
But Miles is still keenly interested in the events of the great war that influenced her early life. She said she reads about sea battles in the Pacific. She reads about battles in North Africa. She reads about events between the first and second World Wars.
And she meets with others who served during World War II. There are fewer and fewer of them each year.
Paging through her scrapbook, Miles saw a photo of a group of Washington County veterans standing by the World War II memorial on the National Mall.
"This is the trip we made recently. I was the only woman there," she said. "And this here," she pointed to a Christmas card with quotes from Gen. George Patton, "is from the president of our national organization. He still remembers. You know, there's not too many left."
She said she's glad Williamsport is hosting a World War II weekend. It's good for remembering and reminiscing. But it's also good for teaching how things used to be during a tumultuous time in America's history.
"There will always be somebody who's interested," she said.
If you go
WHAT: Williamsport World War II Weekend
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14
WHERE: Springfield Farm barn and grounds, near Byron Memorial Park, Williamsport
COST: Free admission
CONTACT: Call 301-223-7711; complete schedule at williamsportmd.gov/wwii_weekend.html
MORE: German and Allied re-enactors, encampments and vehicles. Weekend highlights include a lunch counter selling period meals, unit demonstrations, 1940s fashion show, battle re-enactments, Abbott and Costello portrayers and a Williamsport Town Band concert.