As the United States commemorated its 100th anniversary of entering World War I on Thursday, Yellowstone County honored 23 women veterans who served in the war and had local ties.
Largely unrecognized for a century, the names of the women veterans from the U.S. Army and the Navy now are engraved on a bronze plaque on the courthouse lawn, next to the memorial garden and other war memorials.
The memorial plaque for WWI women veterans is the first in the county and probably the state.
Officials formally unveiled and dedicated the memorial in a ceremony conducted by the Disabled American Veterans, Billings Chapter 10. About 100 people attended the event, including veterans from local and state organizations, government officials and other dignitaries and citizens.
Relatives of some of the women veterans also attended the dedication.
The long overdue recognition is the result of dogged determination by Laurel resident Ed Saunders, an Army veteran and DAV member.
Saunders spent more than five years researching military and medical records in Montana and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to document the service of the 23 women veterans who either were born in, entered service from or are buried in the county.
Although women still could not vote in federal elections, they served in WWI in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, mostly as nurses or in administrative posts.
Of the 23 women veterans identified on the plaque, 21 served in the Army Nurse Corps and two served in the Navy.
Saunders has dedicated himself to ensuring the women veterans’ service was not forgotten.
In getting Yellowstone County commissioners' approval for the memorial, Saunders asked the commission to correct “that unacceptable and long-standing error.”
In remarks on Thursday, Saunders highlighted the service of a few of the women veterans and said Montana’s women served honorably and proudly despite not getting equal pay, status or rank.
“These 23 women will not be forgotten on my watch, so help me God,” Saunders said.
“Welcome home. Receive your rest,” Saunders said. “Well done, women veterans of World War I. You are forgotten no more.”
'Means the world to us'
The ceremony was personal for some.
Cynthia Myers-Morrison, of Chicago, and her sister, Candace Myers, of Albuquerque, N.M., along with other family members, came to honor the service of their grandmother, Florence Biddles Myers, who served as a nurse in the Army in France and is buried at Mountview Cemetery in Billings. The sisters’ mother, Norma Myers, who was married to Florence Myers’ son, Robert, also attended the event.
“We are thrilled,” said Cynthia Myers-Morrison, who praised Saunders’ work to establish the memorial. “It means the world to us that Ed and the DAV made this happen. We’re very proud of our grandmother,” she said.
Candace Myers had with her a large scrapbook of war-related documents and photographs saved by her grandmother and gleaned from family research. Candace Myers said many of the items were found stuffed in a suitcase that had belonged to her grandmother.
Putting together the scrapbook helped her get to know her grandmother better, she said. “She didn’t really talk too much about the war,” Candace Myers said.
Candace Myers wore her grandmother’s Army bracelet, while Cynthia Myers-Morrison wore her grandmother’s Army Nurse Corps lapel pin.
Born in England, Biddles Myers was a surgical nurse in London and served in the British Army in 1915. But because of the bombing, Biddles Myers moved to Canada in 1917 and eventually to America where she joined the Army Nurse Corps in Buffalo, N.Y., and went to France, Saunders’ research said. She became a U.S. citizen in 1919.
Biddles Myers married a WWI veteran, Neil W. Myers, and worked as a Red Cross nurse and Army Nurse Corps reserve nurse from 1920 to 1942. The couple eventually moved to Billings, where they operated Myers Dental Laboratories. Florence Biddles Myers died in 1976.
To dedicate the memorial, Erma Klatt, a long-time Billings resident and volunteer foster grandparent who contributed to the WWII effort as a teenager, and Chris Enget, an Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient who served in Afghanistan, each laid a single red rose on either side of the memorial.
Enget gave the memorial a sharp salute before taking his seat.
Klatt, who was escorted to the memorial, was a “Rosie the Riveter,” a universal name given to women who worked in factories and industries to support the war effort.
Klatt was 16 when she went to work in 1944 as a welder in a Portland, Oregon, shipyard. The shipyard was building ships, landing craft and sub chasers for the U.S. Navy and hiring women because so many men were in the service.
Other special guests included three women veterans from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, in northwestern Montana, in honor of a tribal member who also served in WWI and of all women veterans. Representing the Mission Valley Honor Guard were Catherine Baylor, Pamela Wilson and Lisa Shourds.
Saunders’ continuing research found that Regina McIntyre Early, a member of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai, appears to be the first known and proved WWI military woman tribal member of an American Indian tribe in Montana.
McIntyre Early, Saunders’ research found, was a nurse in the Army and served in four hospitals in France. She died at age 27 and is buried in Polson.
The DAV Chapter 10 provided the bronze plaque, while the county provided the space near the county’s existing war memorials.
The memorial’s pedestal was designed and made by teachers and students at Montana State University Billings City College metal fabrication department.
The pedestal has two emblems, one for the Army’s registered nurses and the other, a dove with an olive branch, for the Navy yeomanettes who served in administrative support.
The ceremony concluded with a 21-gun rifle salute by a joint color guard and Taps, bugled by Randy Grow.
With Thursday’s dedication, the Yellowstone County memorial will be entered into the U.S. National World War I Centennial Commission’s national data base. The information can be found at worldwar1centennial.org.