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Women WWII veterans honored, to fly to Washington

Nesconset, NY: Monday, October 5, 2009-- A photo

Nesconset, NY: Monday, October 5, 2009-- A photo of Long Island women who served in the Navy (WAVES) From left: Anne Ercolano of Nesconset, Olive Lazio of West Islip, Doris Fechter of Mastic (seated), Lillian Sharkey (light blue shirt standing) of Melville, Millicent Tucci of Manorville (striped shirt) Sophie Visalli of Port Jefferson all of whom served in the Navy during World War II as WAVEs. For a Martin Evans story. Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

As the Battle of the Bulge raged just over the horizon in January 1945, Anne Santacroce helped treat the mangled limbs and frostbitten feet of wounded soldiers at an Army hospital in Belgium.

As young trainees learned to fly at a Navy airfield in Texas, Millicent Tucci was one of the mechanics who kept the planes running, but endured sexist comments.

These and other women, who in their youth helped America prevail during World War II, are among hundreds of Long Island veterans in their 80s and beyond who are being flown to see Washington's war monuments by a group dedicated to honor them while there is still time.

Tucci, Santacroce, and about a dozen other women will be among about 50 World War II veterans aboard a flight scheduled to leave MacArthur Airport early Saturday. Another such flight is scheduled for Nov. 7.

The women who will be traveling Saturday are among the 400,000 women whose World War II service as pilots, mechanics, nurses and in other roles challenged anti-female traditions in the armed forces and throughout society.

"Women are strong today because we served," said Lillian Sharkey, of Melville, who served as a technician at a naval hospital in Oakland, Calif., and who plans to make Saturday's flight. "We were the forerunners."

Women have served in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, when Deborah Sampson, a Massachusetts schoolteacher, joined after passing as a man. Shot during a 1782 battle north of Manhattan, she gouged a bullet from her thigh to avoid discovery during medical treatment.

But women were not formally allowed to join the regular military until the Navy's WAVES was formed in August 1942. Manpower shortages persuaded the War Department to grant regular military status to the Women's Army Corps in 1943.

Even then, women in the military often faced dismissive attitudes of male troops, who accused them of being less competent or sexually distracting, or of displacing men from safer jobs into combat roles.

Tucci, 88, of Manorville, who left college to join the Navy in 1943, learned aircraft mechanics at the Naval Aviation Training Center in Memphis, Tenn., then went to work servicing warplanes at Chase Naval Air Station near Corpus Christi, Texas.

There, she said, an officer tried to bar her from working on engines. He relented because she was able to loosen engine bolts other mechanics could not reach. But he provoked laughter among her male colleagues when he made a crude remark about her breasts.

"It was disgusting," she said. "But nothing was ever done about it."

That same year, Santacroce, then 22 and working at a New York bank, enlisted as an Army nurse after answering a recruitment ad. After training at Bethesda Naval Hospital, she sailed to duty in Europe aboard the Queen Mary, which had been refitted as a troop ship.

Adventure gave way to edgy reality when she found herself working as an operating room nurse at a military hospital in Belgium.

Bitter winter winds rattled the hospital's windows. Further distant, a battle that engaged a combined 1 million troops - the war's largest - was sending streams of wounded men from a breach in the Allied lines known as "The Bulge."

"It was heartbreaking to see them come in," said Santacroce, 89, of Sag Harbor. "So many of them were such young boys."

"You toughen up," she said. "Not that you don't feel for them, but you had to if you were to be able to continue."

The trip is being arranged by the nonprofit group Honor Flight. The national organization is in a race against time to help as many veterans as possible visit the World War II memorial in the nation's capital while they are still alive.

World War II veterans are all in their 80s or older, and are dying at a rate of about 800 per day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Santacroce's husband, Frank, 93, an Army combat engineer with the 36th Infantry Division during the war, died a few days after she was interviewed for this article.

"We started out with 100 but we're down to 15, 20 active now," said Anne Ercolano, 83, past president of the Suffolk Sea Gulls, an organization of female Navy veterans.

"It will be nice to go with the other Navy girls," said Sophie Viselli, 92, of Port Jefferson. "I feel we have something in common."

Doris Fechter, 86, of Mastic, said she has seen Washington's war monuments before, but is looking forward to going this time with women who served as she did. She followed her brother into the Navy to get away from small-town Aurora, Ill., married a sailor from Blue Point she had met a month earlier while celebrating Japan's surrender, and lived with him until he died in 1997.

"I'm so happy I will have the chance to see it again," she said. "This may be our last chance."

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