It was on 15 May, 1942, the US Army created the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), an auxiliary branch meant to bring women into military service during World War II. And if you’re picturing nurses, women in the WAC actually served a variety of non-nursing purposes, including driving trucks, repairing and flying airplanes, operating radios, analyzing photographs, and even training anti-aircraft artillery gunners by serving as flying targets. Of course, they also served as nurses; 16 Army nurses were killed by enemy fire while tending to men near the front lines. Other nurses were at Normandy on the fourth day after the initial D-Day invasion and more than 1,600 were decorated for meritorious service and courage under fire; 565 WACs won combat decorations in the Pacific Theater. And in the Philippines, where Lucy Coffey served, 68 service women were taken prisoner.
Veteran Lucy Coffey joined the WAC in 1943; she was living in Dallas, and as she recalls, she simply “answered the call.” Women were not part of the draft, but more than 150,000 women enlisted with the WAC during World War II. Coffey was one of those women. The petite woman grew up on a farm in Martinsville, Indiana, and ended up in Dallas by way of Chicago. In Dallas, she obtained a job at the local A&P, and that’s where she was working when she decided to join the WAC. She was about 37 when she enlisted and was forced to make multiple attempts to get in because the Army felt she was too slim and short for service. Her tenacity paid off, though, and she was finally allowed in. To this day, Coffey is abundantly proud of her service, as well she should be.
Details of her service are scarce, but what is known is mightily impressive. During her time in the service, Coffey reached the rank of staff sergeant, and Staff Sergeant Coffey was out there risking her life. One of the most well-known campaigns she was involved in was the Battle of Luzon, which took place between January and April of 1945. Luzon was the largest island in the Philippines, and the Philippines were of immense strategic importance during World War II. The Imperial Japanese managed to take control of Luzon in 1942, and it was General Douglas MacArthur who immediately began pushing to retake the island. It took two years for him to get his wish, though; in 1944 the Allies began fighting to establish bases of operation around the island, and finally, on 9 January, 1945, the direct assault took place. In the course of fighting – which resulted in an Allied victory – the Japanese lost 205,535 men and 9,050 were taken prisoner. The Allies lost 8,310; a staggering number for a single campaign, to be sure, but significantly fewer than the Japanese lost. And sometime after the initial invasion, the Army used the women of the WAC.
According to sources, Staff Sergeant Coffey was present during the Luzon campaign. She was awarded the Philippine Liberation Medal for her part, an award only given to those who either participated in the initial landing at Leyte and nearby islands or participated in some engagement “against hostile Japanese forces” during the Philippine Liberation Campaign. She was also awarded a Bronze Star for her part in the Luzon campaign; before her service ended, she was awarded two Bronze Stars. Many World War II veterans are silent regarding their role in the war, and Coffey is no exception. But as a woman serving in a unique capacity in a war that resulted in a crushing number of American deaths, her awards speak for themselves: in addition to the two Bronze Stars and Philippine Liberation Medal, she earned a WAC Service Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, and a World War II Victory Medal.
When the war ended, Coffey ended up in Japan for some time. Upon her return to the States in 1958, she was stationed at Kelly Air Force Base. She retired in 1971, having served with pride and honor in ways only a rare few women were able to in that era. It is important to note the Army disbanded the WAC when the war ended, but Coffey remained. Her patriotism and desire to serve were not only sincere and heartfelt, but things she felt required action. Women like Staff Sergeant Lucy Coffey were few and far between then and continue to be a rarity today.
Today, Coffey is 108 years old, making her the oldest living female veteran. She resides in San Antonio, Texas, and friends say she has good and bad days. She is on oxygen and wheelchair-bound after suffering a stroke last year, but her fiery spirit remains. Speaking to a reporter, Coffey relayed how her mother was instrumental in her own desire to serve. When women were finally given the right to vote, she accompanied her mother to the courthouse to cast that first ballot; both she and her mother were escorted by her father, who was born during the Civil War. When asked if she was happy to be the oldest woman veteran in America, she simply replied, “Yeah.”
It took a great deal of maneuvering to arrange Coffey’s transportation to Washington, D.C. in July 2014. The trip was deeply meaningful to Coffey, and after the initial plans fell through, veterans’ supporters worked tirelessly to make the outing happen, regardless of complications. In the end, it was a pair of retired Marines who obtained free first-class, round-trip tickets for Coffey and her caretaker from American Airlines. It was the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery she had always wanted to see; it is, after all, the memorial for her and her sister service members. Finally, on 25 July, 2014, Coffey boarded an honor flight, and got her wish.
America’s eldest female veteran may be weak in body, but she is clearly strong in mind and spirit. Her caretakers and supporters took her to the various locations in Washington, D.C., that she had long desired to visit, including the White House. At the White House, she was greeted by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and given a tour not only of both wings of the White House but also the Rose Garden. Coffey was able to visit the Women in Military Service for American Memorial and also the World War II Memorial. It was at the latter she met Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas). At the memorial, she nodded enthusiastically when a younger female active-duty soldier asked if she was enjoying herself. Her brightly colored shirt spoke to her upbeat spirit and her smile made her joy clear. The visit was a success, and Coffey returned home having fulfilled many lifelong wishes.
It was the Battle of Luzon’s own General MacArthur who once said of his uniform “I suppose, in a way, this has become part of my soul. It is a symbol of my life. Whatever I have done that really matters, I’ve done wearing it. When the time comes, it will be in this that I journey forth. What greater honor could come to an American, and a soldier?” And for Lucy Coffey, the honor of her uniform remains nearly 70 years after the war has ended. What greater honor, indeed.
Coffey’s nephew, John Mulrey, says she is shy about her service while also proud of her time in uniform. Mulrey is a Vietnam veteran and accompanied his aunt to Washington, D.C., along with his wife JoAnn. “I guess (being in the military) just runs in the family,” he said, but it was the 108-year-old Staff Sergeant Lucy Coffey who said it best. Sitting at her kitchen table with a steaming cup of coffee in front of her, Coffey summed her feelings up succinctly. “I’d love to serve my country forever,” she said, her patriotic pride gleaming in her eyes.
Your country is proud of your service, Staff Sergeant Coffey, and we thank you for your sacrifices.
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