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Female WWII Veteran Celebrates Her 100th Birthday

Marine Bernice Williams served with the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve from 1943-1945 and turned 100 on March 1, 2021.

WWII veteran Bernice Williams’ service with the US Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (USMCWR) from 1943-1945 played a pivotal role in shaping her life. Bernice was always driven. Bernice was forced to quit school at 15 to take care of her four younger brothers after their mother died, but she continued to take night classes and summer school to keep up. She graduated high school with honors and won three college scholarships, but entered the workforce instead, first at Northwest Mutual Life Insurance and then with the Milwaukee Police Department.

The Marine Corps held a special appeal; she was “enamored of the Marines.” As the other service branches began to accept female volunteers, Bernice kept her eye on the Marine Corps. In August 1943, joined by three friends, she took a bus from her hometown of Milwaukee, which had no recruiting station for women, to Chicago in order to volunteer for the USMCWR. Bernice’s employment as a court reporter with the Milwaukee Police Department would provide valuable experience in her training and placement as a Marine.

Bernice trained with the other USMCWR volunteers at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. After basic training, she requested placement on the East Coast, but when she received her orders they were to the West Coast. Three days of train travel took her to Camp Elliott, a training camp built for male recruits. She recalled how while showering, the women would hang their clothes outside the showers and how the young male recruits would steal their “unmentionables.” A few months later, Bernice was transferred to Headquarters at Camp Pendleton where she served as a stenographer and secretary to some of the camp’s commanding officers including Colonel Julian Frisbie. The stenographers used shorthand and then worked to create 10 copies of every document, taking care to get every word correct so that vital information was relayed as accurately as possible. Bernice said that during her time in service she learned patience and cooperation.

“I was able to help my fellow man and do good for someplace or another. I just think it made me a better person. I learned to give more of myself than I had ever given before,” Williams said.

The Marine Corps directed the course of Bernice’s life in another significant way, in that she met fellow Marine Preston Williams at a party in November 1943. Bernice and Preston, who passed away in 2012, married after he returned from overseas duty. They raised two sons, Tim and Mark. Both Bernice and her husband were very proud of having served during World War II. The couple’s family, which includes three grandchildren and two great grandchildren, were always aware of their dual service. Bernice’s service holds a special meaning for Carra Jane Williams, Bernice’s granddaughter and Donor Relations Coordinator at The National WWII Museum.

Carra Jane says, “Every day I am inspired by the sacrifice and difference my grandmother and so many others made through their service. She chose to serve when women were not required and traditionally remained at home. Through my work at the Museum I’ve learned the significant and diverse roles women played in World War II, and it is important that my grandmother’s and other service women's stories are not forgotten.”