Last female WWI veteran dies

Longtime Md. resident, 109, fought for women's right to enlist in Navy Charlotte L. Winters 1897-2007

March 29, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

In 1916, Charlotte L. Winters called on the secretary of the Navy and asked why women weren't allowed to enlist.

A year later, she had begun her military career.

This week, Mrs. Winters - the nation's oldest female military veteran - died in her sleep at the Fahrney-Keedy life care community in Boonsboro. She was 109.

"She is the last female World War I veteran," American Legion spokeswoman Ramona E. Joyce said yesterday.

With Mrs. Winters' death, there are only four surviving U.S. veterans from the "war to end all wars," according to the Scripps Howard News Service, which tracks living veterans of that war. Since the beginning of the year, six - including Mrs. Winters on Tuesday - have died.

The former Charlotte L. Barry was born Nov. 10, 1897, in Washington, the daughter of a haberdasher. Raised in Washington, she was a 1915 graduate of the Washington Business High School.

In 1916, in the midst of the war, she paid her historic visit to Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels.

"She convinced him that women could be in the Navy, and her visit is corroborated in his journals. While he did not admit that she directly influenced him, he did acknowledge that they had met," said a niece, Kelly N. Auber of Middle River.

After meeting with top Navy brass, Daniels discovered there were no existing regulations prohibiting women from serving.

"A year went by before she and her sister, Sophie Bean, joined the Navy," Mrs. Auber said. They were designated yeoman 3rd class (F), the (F) being for female.

"The only restrictions were they couldn't be sent overseas or into battle," Mrs. Auber said. "Over 10,000 women joined [the Navy] by 1918."

Mrs. Winters was assigned to the Washington Navy Gun Factory, also known as the Washington Navy Yard, where she worked as a typist during the duration of the war.

"She worked in supplies and said they were so busy during the war trying to supply existing bases and the new bases that were being built," Mrs. Auber said.

Within months after the end of the war, all of the enlisted women had been released from active duty. Mrs. Winters, discharged in 1919 with the rank of yeoman 2nd class (F), returned to her old job as a civilian employee at the Washington Navy Yard, where she continued working as a typist through World War II and the Korean War. She retired in 1953.

Mrs. Winters joined the American Legion in 1919 - the year it was founded - and was a member for the next 88 years.

She was among 20 enlisted Naval Reserve women, all former yeoman (F), who established American Legion Betsy Ross Post No. 1 in Washington in 1919, which was one of the first American Legion posts in the country. It was later renamed the USS Jacob Jones Post No. 2.

"Women could join the American Legion and vote for their post officers before women were given the right to vote nationally in 1920," Ms. Joyce said.

Mrs. Winters, who held numerous offices in the post, was chairwoman of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the U.S. Constitution celebration. She coordinated the activities of all American Legion chapters for the event that was held in Washington.

She also was a founder in 1926 of the National Yeoman (F) Association and served as its commander from 1940 to 1941. She was a frequent contributor to The Notebook, the organization's publication.

She was married in 1949 to John Russell Winters, who was a Navy Yard machinist. The couple moved from their Washington home to South Mountain in western Frederick County in 1956.

They shared an interest in Revolutionary War and Civil War history and frequently visited battlefields, where they documented campaign strategy and the lives of the soldiers who had fought there.

"They liked traveling all over the U.S. and documenting Civil War graves. When they found a grave, they'd record the information, touch the stone, take a picture and then give a salute," said Douglas G. Bast, founder of the Boonsboro Museum of History and the executor of Mrs. Winters' estate.

"They recorded the information on cards - they must have had three or four thousand of them - which they donated to the Hagerstown Library," Mr. Bast said.

Mr. Winters died in 1984.

Mrs. Winters, who drove until she was 95, gave up her home in 1990 to move to the assisted living community because "she didn't want to cook anymore," Mrs. Auber said.

Mrs. Auber ascribed her aunt's longevity to "good genes" and the fact that she didn't smoke and liked to walk and garden.

"She also enjoyed one martini, and only one, every afternoon," Mrs. Auber said.

Mrs. Winters maintained a vigorous correspondence with friends and family, and was an avid reader.

"She was a feminist and an early one but always had a sense of humor. She also had an uncanny ability at charming people and drawing them in," her niece said.

Mrs. Winters donated her World War I uniform and other Navy memorabilia to the Navy Museum in Washington. She was a member of the Boonsboro Historical Society and the Boonsboro Homemakers.

She was a member of All Saints Episcopal Church in Frederick, where services with full military honors, including Navy pallbearers, will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

She will receive a three-volley salute at her interment in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

In addition to Mrs. Auber, survivors include two nephews, Dudley Winters of Canton and Dennis Lynch of Hampden; and two other nieces, Sonya Taylor of Baltimore and Joyce Lynch of Stockton, Calif.

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