My World War II Parents
by Elly McGuire
Recently I have been researching statistics about World War II vets. In talking with the VA Medical Center in Providence, Rhode Island, a rumor is swirling about that my mom and stepdad may be the last surviving married couple in the state who both served in World War II.
They may be the only two World War II veterans in the country who are married to one another and legally blind.
In my eyes and in the eyes of folks at restaurants, stores, and places they visit, Ed and Eileen McLellan are rock stars. I proudly tell everyone they meet of this unconfirmed statistic while E. and E., as we fondly call them, blush with embarrassment at the attention bestowed upon them.
As I have heard them say so many times before, they were just doing what they were supposed to do and it was an honor and a privilege to serve and protect their country.
Ask Eileen Kilmartin McGuire McLellen what her favorite part of being in the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in WW II was and she’ll gleefully say, “The men!” Her sassiness has helped her through many of life’s ups and down but I dare say her time spent in Japan helping American soldiers at the end of the war was a high point of her 93 years here on earth.
In boxes throughout the house in which she has lived for 55 years, one can find pictures of Eileen in her nurse’s uniforms from her days studying at the Roger Williams Homeopathic Hospital and during her residency at Yale University. She is also depicted sitting in an Army jeep in her Army uniform with soldiers next to a Buddhist temple. She also holds a Japanese baby in her arms that she moments earlier helped to deliver. In the closet still hangs a Japanese Kimono and behind her bedroom door is a classic poster used at her 90th birthday party that shows her posing with two other nurses at a bar in Manhattan. The three are toasting drinks before heading off on a hospital ship to Japan.
Eddie, on the other hand, wears his military life closer to his vest. However, give him a scotch and water at dinner out at one of his favorite restaurants and his life at sea as a radar man in the Navy on the USS J.R.Y. Blakely Destroyer Escort-140 becomes a topic of conversation. Shipping off from the Brooklyn Navy Yard at 18 years of age, he saw the world: Casablanca, Cape Town, and Brazil. When the Germans surrendered, he was off to the Pacific. Eddie landed at Pearl Harbor the very day the Japanese surrendered. He saw a celebration this soon-to-be nonagenarian will never forget.
One of my favorite stories Eddie tells is about a native he met on Bikini Island. To show his appreciation to a group of American soldiers, including Eddie, the native climbed up a very tall tree to retrieve coconuts, chop them open. He then passed them around. Fast forward to when Eddie was back in the states at a theater watching a newsreel before the movie started. Up on the screen was a story about the King of Bikini Island. Eddie recognized this man of royalty as the very same man who climbed up that tree and graciously gave the soldiers coconuts.
Of course, there are also stories too hard to share. Nonetheless, both Eddie and Eileen say that if they had to do it over, they would never think twice about serving.
Getting old is now the thing against which they do battle every day. And it’s not easy—especially since now it is about them and their welfare after they have always served others first.
I realize that I am in the presence of two very special people. Tom Brokaw was right when he called them the “Greatest Generation!” We are losing our World War II veterans all too quickly. Maybe we should make a bumper sticker – “Did you hug a WWII vet today?” I just hope that my folks will be here for a long time to come and, even when it’s not easy, I do my part to help take care of them like they have helped to take care of us and our country. They deserve the very best.
Elly McGuire is a children’s book author and part of the Schmitty The Weather Dog Weather/Science Assembly – a STEM enrichment program that visits schools across the country. Eileen and Ed McLellan are proud to have the VA Hospital of Rhode Island as their health care team that makes home visits.