Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

July 4, 2013

Flatwoods woman recalls service during World War II

FLATWOODS — Bonnie Lee Elam remembers her exact reaction when she read a sign at a recruiting station in Middletown, Ohio, during World War II.

“It said ‘Air Force Needs You!’ and I said, ‘That’s for me!’” I went home and told my mom and she said, ‘You’re too young.’ At the time I was 17 years old and I said, ‘You might have to sign for me,” Elam said after a therapy session at Kingsbrook Tuesday, where she is recovering from recent health challenges and celebrated her 87th birthday. “I kept after her and I told her, ‘I won’t leave you alone on this.” She finally said she would sign for me just to get me off her back!”

Elam, who grew up with the last name Whitaker in the Morgan County community of Malone, near West Liberty. “I had to walk to school — two miles to school and two miles back,” she remembered, before adding she later moved to Middletown with her mother. Elam was working at a restaurant and her mom was holding down a job at the Henry Clay Coffee Shop when she walked past the recruiting station and decided her immediate future would be in the military — if she could pass the entry exam.

“The written test was next and I prayed and asked for help to pass it. I passed it and got to go into the Air Force,” she said proudly, later clarifying, “They called it  the Women’s Air Force,” and noting she split her basic training time between Miami, Fla., and Fort Des Moines, Iowa, before shipping out to Sedalia, Miss.

“It was a peaceful, quiet place,” she said, explaining the base had a few barracks, nurses quarters and a movie theater.

“I worked in service records. That was my first job,” she said, recalling her very first task was to help an irate soldier who hadn’t received his pay for three months. Elam said she took the unpaid sergeant to her commanding officer to get the problem resolved. When they were done, the sergeant joked that he owed Elam dinner if he ever did get paid, and she decided to treat the underfunded man to dinner from the women’s mess hall.

“We had all women cooks, so he enjoyed that,” she said with a giggle.

In her off-duty evening hours, Elam said she volunteered “doing just anything they needed done,” at the hospital on base, where many who had been wounded overseas were being treated. She remembers nearly each of the wounded having a positive outlook despite their experiences.

“Most of the wounded had a good sense of humor and they didn’t ask, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ They seemed to be just proud to serve their country and be able to do what they could do,” she said.

Elam said she never flew in an airplane during her two years in Missouri, where she stayed during her entire enlistment. She was working in the base hospital when a radio announcer informed them the war was over.

“I said, ‘Thank the Lord. It’s ended. It’s all over. We don’t have to have any more wounded men with arms off and legs off. We can go back to normal.”

Throughout her military days, she had been “going with” a young man from Flatwoods named Ralph Elam, who was in the Navy and served aboard the USS Wyoming before going aboard the USS Quincy, where he was stationed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. She moved back to Ohio and secured a civilian job, once again in service records, at Wright Air Force Base. Elam got out of the Navy and they built a home together in Flatwoods in 1945 where they moved in a year later and soon raised two sons.

“That’s where I’m living now. Of course, I’ve done a lot to it since then,” she said.

Elam’s husband passed away in 2004, and she learned he had been found dead of a heart attack on the night after she had surgery to amputate toes from her left foot. Her oldest son, Greg, died in 2005 and she learned of his passing the day after losing toes on her right foot.

“I have one son, Tony. He’s the only one I’ve got left,” she said, quickly adding her pride in her son’s accomplishments as well as his own status as an Air Force veteran.

A big fan of Andy Griffith, good hot dogs, laughter, reading the Bible and the people at Russell Baptist Church, Elam often spends her time these days researching Holy themes and writing religious poems. On her birthday, she carried a copy of “The Tomb,” which is one of a half dozen poems she has drafted during the past year. She can recite her poem “Up on the Mountain” from memory, and credits the role of God in her own life while citing his comforts as the most precious thing in life.

“It’s not just belonging to the church,” she said, advising people should have God in their hearts, and know they will go to a better place when this life ends.

Reflecting on her years and travels on her 87th birthday, Elam agreed she’s had a good view of great change during her lifetime.

“It’s changed tremendously since I was a child,” she said, shaking her head slightly before perking up as she remembered hearing a tune which captures the essence of her answer. “Have you ever heard that song that says, ‘I’d like to throw the computers and the cell phones out the window’? Brother ... I’m with you on that!”

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.

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