WASHINGTON — There is an undeniable twinkle in Liana Kim's eyes when she talks about World War II veteran Gwen Young.
"I'm completely enamored with her," Kim said. "She paved the way for all of us."
Kim, an Army Reserve captain in the 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade in Oahu, Hawaii, escorted Young on the recent WDAY Honor Flight from Fargo to Washington, D.C. When she found out Young had been invited to go, Kim said she didn't hesitate to fly to Fargo to take her.
"It was just automatic. I knew I wanted to take her. I could take pictures. I could write a story. More than anything I could just spend time with her," Kim said.
Beginning of a friendship
Kim met Young when she was a student at Colorado State University. She became friends with Young's niece, Erin, and eventually ended up renting a room from Erin's cousin and Young's son, Vincent. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kim — who had already been in the service for eight years — was being encouraged to get out by friends and family. But she says Vincent, a Vietnam veteran, and his family provided a different perspective.
"They became like a family to me," Kim said. "They supported me and respected me."
Kim stayed in the military and was soon deployed to Iraq. But she'd have someone there with her in spirit — Gwen — who stepped forward to be the young woman's pen pal.
"I had five brothers — four of them in the service — I wrote to all of them," Young said. "That's just what I did."
Young downplays the idea that writing letters and sending cookies to Kim was important, but Kim disagrees.
"It meant the world to me. I was living in this bombed-out, old building, and I remember taping her cards to the wall. It made everything better," Kim said.
More than a pen pal
Young was more than a comforting presence from back home. She could empathize with Kim as a woman in a war zone. A 1938 graduate of Rutland (N.D.) High School, Young joined the Army in 1941 after watching her brother serve with the 164th Infantry, a famed North Dakota regiment that provided reinforcement to the beleaguered Marines during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
"People were saying they helped save the Marines," Young said. "I just decided I wanted to be a part of it."
So Young enlisted and was eventually assigned to work as a stenographer in Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's Allied Command Headquarters in Algiers, Africa. She wrote correspondences and typed speeches for top-level officials in the bustling headquarters.
"It was terribly busy," said Young, who reached the rank of sergeant. "Troops were going in and out of there all the time."
Young, now 97, has clear memories of the invasion of Sicily and bombs falling.
Sisters in arms
While Young says she felt like she was just doing her job, Kim says many female veterans barely identify themselves as veterans and downplay their part.
"They call it the 'Imposter Syndrome,'" said Kim, who has been involved with "Sister in Arms," an effort to provide women in the military with support, empowerment and mentorship. Kim says while female service members today can face uphill challenges, it's nothing compared to what Young's generation faced, including discrimination, harassment and even slanderous attacks from people disturbed that military women were upsetting traditional gender roles.
"I can see the ways women like (Young) made it easier for women in the military today. I can't imagine what they went through," Kim said.
After the war
Young left the Army after getting married in 1943 (Some branches of the service forbade women from serving if they were married or pregnant). She and her husband eventually had four sons, two of whom have since died. She worked for the Farmers Home Administration and as a postmaster before going to work at the North Dakota Capitol at the age of 59 as a legislative page — a job normally held by teenagers.
When Young's doctor applied to Honor Flight on her behalf, Young wasn't sure she should go on the complimentary trip to Washington, D.C. But Kim was one of her biggest cheerleaders, encouraging her to go.
During the two-day trip through the nation's capital, the sisters in arms saw monuments and memorials to soldiers, sailors and presidents. They took pictures with well-wishers and enjoyed the fall colors. But Young says she will most remember the people she met.
"Did you see those tiny tots at the airport?" Young asked. "They'd come over and want to give me a hug. I wish I could have hugged them all."
Women in WWII
When people think of women in World War II, images of Rosie the Riveter often come to mind. But female participation on the homefront and the front lines goes far deeper than that. Here are a few facts about women in World War II from the National World War II Museum.
How many American women served in WWII?
What branches were involved?
The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs, later renamed the Women's Army Corps or WACs), Navy Women's Reserve (WAVES), Marine Corps Women's Reserve, Coast Guard Women's Reserve (SPARS), Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Army Nurse Corps and the Navy Nurse Corps.
What jobs did women hold?
Women took on many jobs from clerical work to driving trucks, repairing planes, flying planes, serving as radio operators and analyzing photographs. They also served on the front lines as nurses.
The cost of war
Sixteen women were killed as a result of direct enemy fire during World War II. Sixty-eight American service women were captured as prisoners of war in the Philippines. More than 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery under fire and meritorious service, and 565 WACs in the Pacific Theater won combat decorations.
A long way to go
Despite Gen. Eisenhower praising the role of women "whether on the farm, or in the factory or in uniform" as an essential element of the Allied victory, women had a long way to go following the war. Despite the majority of women surveyed saying they wanted to keep their jobs, many were forced out when men returned home. They also faced roadblocks when trying to take advantage of benefit programs for veterans, like the G.I. Bill. The nation that needed their help in war wasn't quite ready for gender equality.