- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

GREENBANK, Del. (AP) - Bill Salerno says a yellowed newspaper clipping set him on a mission to document a long, lost part of Delaware’s past.

With World War II creating a shortage of men, the Jan. 4, 1943, story reported Delaware began a “great experiment” to have women as prison guards armed with machine guns.

These groundbreaking women - called the Annie Oakleys after the Wild West sharpshooter - never were publicly named “for their protection,” Salerno learned, but he is changing that. “They deserve to be known … and honored,” he said. “They deserve the place they earned in Delaware history.”

Salerno got bored after his retirement from DuPont Co., deciding in January 2013 to do research on his parents, who worked at the New Castle County Workhouse at Greenbank.

Now a park at Greenbank Road and Kirkwood Highway near Prices Corner, the old state prison site has one of its old brick towers still standing.

Salerno’s father, Anthony, was the prison education director. His mother, Doris, was Warden Elwood Wilson’s assistant.

“It was at the Wilmington Library that I discovered a treasure trove of articles about the prison.” In a cabinet, where librarians filed newspaper clippings from the 1920s to the 1960s, he found a “New Castle County Workhouse” file with the Annie Oakleys article.

Wondering who they were gnawed at him.

He hung fliers at the Crossroads restaurant at Limestone Road and Kirkwood Highway, and other spots popular with longtime locals, trying to find former prison employees.

He got a call from Harvey Banning Sr., who not only worked there, but had relatives who did - including his mother, Ruth Peregoy. Banning “said he had pictures of his mother and aunt holding guns.”

“I knew she was a prison guard,” said Banning, 75, who lives north of Wilmington, but as a kid, he had no idea of her job’s historic significance.

His mother became the first Annie Oakley publicly identified; second was her sister, Grace Kreer.

And when Banning invited Salerno to his home, Salerno came upon the holy grail of his hunt to document the Annie Oakleys. Amid family papers and pictures, Banning had photos of all 11 Annie Oakleys lined up in uniform. The photos were taken by a photographer for the Journal Every Evening, a predecessor of The News Journal, Salerno said, but the state forbid their publication to protect the women’s identity.

Salerno soon heard from families of two other Annie Oakleys - Alma Dolan of Elsmere and Clara Magargal Heal of Brookland Terrace. Notes on photos added two names, Harriet Cheeseman and Ethel Diamond, “but we haven’t found their families yet,” Salerno said.

The group was formed when the prison’s warden placed a help-wanted ad seeking “women, age 21 to 35 for outside guard duty in towers.”

More than 50 applied. Eleven who qualified as sharpshooters were selected. They worked six days a week, midnight to 8 a.m. in prison towers, training machine guns and watching for escapees.

The pay was $110 a month.

County Executive Tom Gordon called the recent unveiling of a state historical marker on the Annie Oakleys an “historic … overdue honor. We’re proud to have it here.”

Kenneth Banning, 79, of Delaware City, said his mother and aunt “would have been pleased” more than 100 people attended.

Sen. Karen Peterson, called by constituent Salerno as he did research, had never heard of the Annie Oakleys, but became the force for the marker.

Beyond state history, she said they are U.S. and women’s history, “so it’s doubly significant.”

She called Rep. Kim Williams and Sen. Patricia Blevins - and the three gave community transportation funds for the marker. She also called Gordon, who provided its site at the county’s Greenbank Park entrance.

Karl Hines, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Correction, which had its honor guard at the unveiling, noted that Annie Oakleys had to spent nights away from their families in jobs at great “personal risk.”

“They are highly deserving of this honor,” he said, as many in the crowd wiped away tears.

Jim Dolan of Wilmington, whose grandmother Alma was an Annie Oakley, had not known of their pioneering role.

“I knew she was a machine gunner, but I didn’t know about the Annie Oakleys,” he said. “She would’ve loved this.”

The event was moving for Annie Oakleys’ relatives, said Rhonda Hutchinson. Her grandma Clara was one, she said, but “she never spoke of it.”

Marilyn Heal Jones, Hutchinson’s cousin, said, “I didn’t even know she was a sharpshooter.”

Many of their family members attended the ceremony and joined others at photo boards Salerno made, thanking him for his work.

Seeing photos of her grandma as a machine gun-toting young woman, Hutchinson said she couldn’t imagine doing such a job and not being allowed to talk about it.

“But I know she’d be very proud today,” she said. “She’s here right now and the whole family is very proud.”

Salerno, however, says his work is not done. He remains determined to identify all the Annie Oakleys. “They deserve to be recognized,” he said. “Finally.”

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide