Overseas and at home, women serve with pride

By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Journal Features Editor
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This year’s Auburn Veterans Day Parade will be full of women who donned uniforms and filled a multitude of roles in the armed forces. When Auburn American Legion Richard W. Townsend Post 84 put the word out that female vets would be honored this year in the parade and with 500 medals, many wrote in or were recommended by neighbors and family members. Court Bradbury, post adjutant, said he’s read many military histories in the past week. They are tales of bravery and struggle, along with many happy memories. There are more than 1.5 million female veterans in the United States. Here are three of their stories. Kay Polli Army Polli, now 92, was part of the fifth wave of women to join the Women’s Army Corps, the women’s branch of the Army that was created as an auxiliary unit in May 1942. Polli signed up in June 1942. She had just turned 22 and was working as a teacher and at Bendix Aviation in Philadelphia on her summer break. “My father had served in World War I,” Polli said. “He had no boys for World War II, so I went and joined the WACs.” Her father was very supportive of her decision; in fact, he took the train to Des Moines, Iowa, to pin Polli’s bars on when she got her commission. Polli, who had started her career as a dietitian, went to cooks and bakers school to train for her WAC duties setting up and running mess halls. The already difficult duties were made harder by the fact that uniforms weren’t available for the women yet, so they had to make due with clothing the men weren’t wearing. “They were giving them men’s overcoats,” said Polli’s daughter Nancy. “My mother was 5 feet tall. They were these big overcoats that were dragging on the ground.” Because more women signed up for WAC than had been expected, women began training to become recruiters, which Polli did. “I recruited from Vermont to Texas,” she said, including for the Air Force, because by then other military branches were opening up to WAC as well. Polli married her husband, Dick, in 1942 before she left for recruiting. He was on leave from the Navy, and they found out that his break wasn’t long enough for all the paperwork required of an Iowa marriage. On the advice of the chaplain, the couple got on a bus for Trenton, Mo., where they were wed. Polli left the military as a first lieutenant. Dick served from 1936 to 1939, and again from 1941 to 1945. Although they are an Army-Navy household, they agreed there’s no rivalry, especially since they served during a time when the whole country rallied around the troops. Polli remembers leaves with her husband when they would try to get rooms in crowded hotels. If he was unable to get a room, she said, she’d walk over to him and when the clerk saw they were both in uniform, “We had a room every single time.” “It was an entirely different war,” Polli said. “There wasn’t the rancor – there was just a pulling together.” Jodi Lesnikowski Air Force Lesnikowski, Post 84 commander, served in the Air Force from 1953 to 1974. She signed up, she said, because of the patriotism of her family, her appreciation of order and ceremony and a love for aircraft that has not dwindled over time. “We would go out and sit at the end of the runway at McGuire Air Force Base (in New Jersey),” she remembered, and watch the gargantuan transport planes come and go. And when their engines and propellers started up, “It would just fill you with … I don’t know what. With everything.” Lesnikowski attended basic training in San Antonio, Texas, but her plans of attending technical school for radio maintenance were dashed when the powers that be decided women weren’t able to handle the job. So she was sent to work in personnel at Stewart Air Force Base in upstate New York, only two hours from her home in Amsterdam – not the adventure she was hoping for. After pleading her case for three days, Lesnikowski’s request was granted and she was sent to work in base operations. During her military tenure, she served in New York, Alabama, California, New Jersey, Japan three times and in Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada. In 1971, she volunteered to serve a tour in Vietnam. Lesnikowski’s job was at a terminal in Cam Ranh Bay, in southern Vietnam, where she worked 12-hour shifts six days a week. Grueling work, she admits, but said she had nothing to complain about when her male counterparts were fighting 24-7 in the field. Throughout her service, Lesnikowski rose through the ranks from an airman third class to a transportation officer, and on her last day of service was given the Commendation Medal for her work on a plan to speed processing of overseas passengers at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. After leaving the Air Force, Lesnikowski worked for a transportation company in Fairfield and then for the state, eventually moving to Rocklin. Looking back on her two decades of service, she said she wouldn’t have done anything differently. Not all the memories are happy ones – Lesnikowski was on duty the night an airplane crashed after taking off into a storm. But along with the bad, there are many good, including the night she went to Dallas with a pilot who needed to log more flight hours. As she sat in the cockpit with him, he yawned, asked her if she had everything under control and then headed to the back for a quick nap. Lesnikowski, familiar with Air Force radio chatter and knew how to work the controls, leveled the plane out and kept it steady, she said, her face lighting up at the memory. “We had two sailors in their summer uniforms – they were catching a hop,” she laughed. “Here I am, a two-striper flying this airplane and the pilot is in the back. Their faces were as white as their uniforms.” Gertrude Canet Navy Canet, an Auburn resident, served in World War II from 1944 to 1945, and then returned from 1951 to 1952 to serve in the Korean War. She was at the U.S. Navy Air Technical Training Center in Millington, Tenn., where she was a corpsman striker, which she said is “kind of like a nurse.” Canet said she joined the Navy because she had three brothers in the military at the time. She signed up with her fourth brother. During the Korean War, Canet was at a training station in San Diego, where she worked on payroll. She didn’t sign up to go overseas, she said, because her four brothers were already serving there and told her she should stay stateside and take care of things here. After World War II, Canet went to work for a telephone company in Minnesota and was in the Navy Reserves until being called back in 1951. She and her husband moved to Auburn more than 50 years ago. Canet is a member of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation and said it’s important to remember that women did not serve their country in small numbers. “During World War II there were 15,000 going through every six or eight weeks,” she said. “We were going through and we went through fast.” “I had a lot of wonderful memories,” Canet said. “The saddest part was that some of the people, some of the personnel I made friends with, have long been gone. … We couldn’t take many pictures, but what few I have I cherish very much.” Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at ---------- Women Wanted for Parade What: Auburn American Legion Veterans Day Parade When: 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 11 Where: Starts at Chamber of Commerce building, 601 Lincoln Way, Auburn, and heads down Main Street. Medals will be handed to as many women veterans as possible; smaller lapel pins will be sold to everyone for a $5 suggested donation. To join: Women veterans who wish to be involved in the parade should arrive at 10:30 a.m. at the staging area on upper Lincoln Way near the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. They are asked to submit a brief military history to Court Bradbury, post adjutant, in care of American Legion Post 84, 100 East St., Auburn. CA 95603, or Specify if transportation is needed.