Providence VA Medical Center, Rhode Island
My World War II Parents
Recently, I have been researching statistics about World War II vets. In talking with the VA Hospital in Providence, R.I., there is a rumor swirling about that my mom and stepdad may be the last surviving married couple in Rhode Island who both served in World War II. In my eyes, and the eyes of folks at restaurants, stores and places they visit, Edmond and Eileen McLellan are rock stars. I proudly tell everyone they meet of this unconfirmed statistic and E & 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 second lieutenant in World War II was, and she'll gleefully say, "The men!" Her sassiness has helped her through many of life's ups and downs, 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 all over their house, which she has lived in 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 doing her residency at Yale University, to sitting in an Army jeep in her Army uniform with soldiers next to a Buddhist temple, to holding a Japanese baby in her arms that she just 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, of Eileen posing with two other nurses at a bar in Manhattan, toasting drinks before heading off on a hospital ship to Japan.
Eddie, on the other hand, wears his military life closer to the vest. But give him a scotch and water during dinner out at one of his favorite restaurants and his life at sea as a radar man in the Navy on the 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, South Africa and Brazil, and when the Germans surrendered, he was off to the Pacific. Eddie landed in Pearl Harbor the very day when the Japanese surrendered. It was 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 service members, including Eddie, the native climbed up a very tall tree to retrieve coconuts, chopped them open and passed them around. Flash forward to when Eddie was back in the states at a theater watching a news reel before the movie started. On the screen was a story about the king of Bikini Island. Eddie recognized this man of royalty as the very same man who had climbed up that tree and graciously gave coconuts to the Americans.Of course, there are stories too hard to share, but both Eddie and Eileen say if they had to do it over, they would never think twice about serving. Getting old is now what they do battle with every day, and it's not easy, especially since it's about them and they were raised to think of others first. When I'm with them, 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 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 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 science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, enrichment program that visits schools across the country. She can be reached on Twitter at @petchat. Eileen and Ed McLellan are proud to have the Providence VA Medical Center as their health care team that makes home visits.