By Paul Wood
PAXTON — Talking with one tough Marine, it’s impressive that Hazel Peterson was in the first class of women to be able to enlist to help in the World War II effort.
She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, four miles from Lake Michigan, and she was taught patriotism from her grade school days.
Now 96, Sgt. Peterson can still recall the preamble to the Constitution, which schoolchildren memorized in the 1930s.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America,” are the stirring words she committed to memory.
She said school always began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a rousing version of “God Bless America.”
Recently, the 60-year Paxton resident has had to undergo unsettling MRI testing, and she kept herself sane by going back over and over again to those words and melodies.
Given that she was raised that way, it’s no surprise Peterson wanted to be a part of America’s war effort.
The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was created in 1943, right in time for Peterson to turn 21 and be among the first 34, she said.
More than 20,000 women served in the Marines during the war, often working in headquarters positions. Their roles have continued to grow. Since 1993, women have flown combat missions.
In the Second World War, the deal for female Marines was they could only serve for the duration of the war plus six months, but Peterson loved every minute.
Unlike the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and Navy Waves (“Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service”), female Marines did not have an official nickname, though several uncomplimentary ones are recorded.
She did her basic training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, then spent the rest of the war across the country at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif.
Her male co-workers were always a pleasure to be around.
“They were as respectful to me as I was respectful to them,” she said.
Peterson said she loved marching drills.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said. “Everything about it was the most wonderful historical time of my life.”
Most wonderful? Meeting her future husband, a fellow Marine.
“We just kept running into each other,” she said.
John had been in the Marines before her and, in fact, had barely survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japanese bombs and torpedoes sunk his ship, the USS West Virginia.
“His ship was trapped (in the harbor) behind the USS Arizona, and the men from his ship had to climb rope ladders to get on the USS Tennessee,” she said.
He didn’t like to talk about the war very much, she said.
On a happier note, she had her own ocean experience, frightening at first.
She worked in the transportation maintenance office and a sergeant told her while she was doing the paperwork for an amphibious boat that she needed to go out on it.
“You could hear me scream all the way from the beach,” she said of the trip, which she came to treasure in her memories.
Hazel and John were married in 1945. Her husband served on active duty for more than 20 years.
The family — two children in tow — moved from base to base. But John was away from them for two years when he served in a classified role in Japan, she said.
After moving to Paxton, where her sister lived, she eventually went to work as a secretary at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul for 17 years, retiring when the base closed.
John died in 1971.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.