By DAVID LEE
CHATHAM – Shirley Thompson, of Nassau, celebrated her 102nd birthday on October 11 with a visit to the Equine Advocates horse rescue. Ms. Thompson is one of the few women who enlisted for military service in World War II, and for her birthday she wanted to celebrate with a fellow veteran, the famous Army caisson horse Sergeant York who lives there in retirement after a career of service as a parade horse for military funerals. There to celebrate with her were Columbia County Director of Veterans Services Director Gary Flaherty as well as other veterans and friends.
At the start of WWII, Ms. Thompson was a school teacher in Rochester. In 1944, as she was finishing her school year, she saw an ad in the local newspaper looking for female teacher recruits.
At first she thought, “No way, I had just finished with a class of junior high school kids and I’d had enough of babysitting.”
But she did enlist, with three other women. They were first stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago where they learned the program, and then at the Norfolk, VA Naval Station where they taught young recruits how to shoot 20mm and 40mm deck mounted antiaircraft guns. Two people were required to operate the guns.
She remembers how a pilot would fly a small airplane towing a banner that was the gunnery target. But the guns were on shore and she believed it was important to know how it would feel on the deck of a ship. The sailors had a superstition about women on a ship being bad luck, but they convinced the officers to allow them to observe onboard a ship.
“When they called general quarters, boy you really had to get out of the way– they were fast,” she said. She described the size of the shell the guns fired. “The bullets were these beautiful copper-colored things, and the fellas would go out and collect the shells and make ashtrays and things out of them,” Ms. Thompson said.