MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - Nell Meinhardt of Mankato, unlike many women who served in the military, knows what it’s like to be recognized as a veteran and to have respect from men in the military.
Meinhardt joined a branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve 75 years ago during World War II. She was in her 20s and known as Chief Petty Officer Nell Pecora.
Meinhardt, 96, recently reminisced about her experiences in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
Her uniform was a Navy blue skirt and a smart-looking cap - and a revolver.
“I carried a .38 on my waist,” she told the Mankato Free Press .
The gun for the petite woman was worn as protection when she went aboard ships.
“The men on the ships would see me and start singing ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama,’” she said and smiled while reciting some of the lyrics by Al Dexter, which in 1943 was a hit record by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
“I was always accompanied by a Navy officer who carried the box with the crew’s payroll. I had to protect him,” she said.
Meinhardt said the gun was never put to use.
“I was never too keen about carrying a weapon,” she said.
Her duties focused on Navy payroll and she worked at Manhattan’s shipyards.
“I tested for aviation, but I just couldn’t get away from working with money,” she said.
Before she signed up, Meinhardt attended a business school in Pennsylvania, worked for a hardware store and had a financial role for a chain of grocery stores.
“Back then, jobs were hard to find,” she said.
Meinardt became interested in serving after a friend joined the Army, but she preferred the Navy.
She and her late husband, Steve, both were stationed on the East Coast in the 1940s.
“He would drive a commander around. That’s how we met,” she said. “We courted long distance. He was in Maine and I was in New York. After the war, I got out of the Navy. We bought a home in Glencoe and had three kids.”
The Meinhardts lived in North Mankato before they moved to an apartment in Mankato.
The couple didn’t talk about their military experiences often.
“We felt it was just something we did. It was at a time when we all were very patriotic,” she said. “Now I think a lot about them.”
The change came a few years ago, after the couple traveled together on an Honor Flight, the complimentary trips for veterans to view veterans’ memorials in Washington, D.C.
“We had people greeting us, including children. I remember I was crying and trying to wipe my eyes,” she said. “Up until this time, no one had honored us (the women veterans). I began to think, maybe we did do something.”
For a time it was necessary for WAVES to find places to room together. As a result, Meinhardt formed close friendships with other women veterans.
“They are all gone now,” she said.
A St. Paul woman is heading a campaign to ensure the stories of women military veterans are not lost.
Bridget Cronin, executive director of Arts Bellum Foundation, is encouraging women to share about their lives and the contributions they made in military service.
Cronin is working with several veterans groups to organize a traveling photo exhibit.
“We want to bring more awareness about their contributions. They have earned it,” Cronin said.
The “I Am Not Invisible” exhibit was part of a Veteran Theme Night during the Minnesota Wild game at Xcel Energy Center.
The exhibit is tentatively scheduled to visit this region in summer.
Photos of Meinhardt are not part of the exhibit; however, she’s proud to support other women veterans, especially the young in active service.
“When we meet, I make a point to congratulate them,” Meinhardt said.
Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com
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