Owen County Historical Society News: Women warriors slowly getting honored

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By Bonnie Strassell

They come in all shapes and sizes, but their influence on families, communities, and the world is undeniable. Their stalwart determination and bravery was succinctly demonstrated as a historical society member, Dr. Tom Marshall, presented a program on “Women in War” at the historical society meeting Thursday. Tom, who served in the armed forces, worked at the Veterans Hospital for 32 years. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early ’80s that women began to receive benefits as veterans of wars, a disconcerting fact for both Tom and the nation.
From the Revolutionary War to the present wars, women have nursed the wounded, tended the sick, and served as interpreters, doctors, and soldiers. Margaret Cochran Corbin fought alongside her husband, John, in the Revolutionary War and was the first woman to receive a pension from the U.S. government as a disabled soldier.
Most have heard of Molly Pitcher, the woman in the Revolutionary War who took over her husband’s position at a cannon when he was killed in battle. Her name was actually Mary Hays and she traveled with her husband, gunner William Hays, offering water to soldiers in battle. When her husband succumbed to his wounds, Mary took his place and earned a place in history.
During the War of 1812 two women, Mary Allen and Mary Marshall, were nurses on the ship “United States;” and although documentation is scanty, it is thought over 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker served as a female surgeon for the Union during the Civil War. She was captured by Confederate forces after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy. She was sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Va., where she was later released in a prisoner exchange. Mary Walker was the only woman ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Sarah Taylor fought in the Civil War as a soldier, and although only 18 years old, she earned the nickname “Tennessee Joan of Arc.”
Elizabeth Newcomb served as a soldier during the Mexican War. Known as Bill Newcomb, she enlisted in the Missouri Volunteer Infantry, walked 600 miles with her unit to Colorado, only to be discovered as a female. She was discharged and walked 600 miles back home to Missouri.
During the Spanish-American War, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee organized volunteer nurses, and her abilities led to her appointment as the only female acting assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. After the war she wrote legislation to be included in the Army Reorganization Act, part of which established a permanent nurse corps.
During WWI, over 400 nurses died from the Spanish Flu epidemic while caring for sick and wounded soldiers, and during WWII 60,000 nurses served in the states and overseas. Women also flew planes, served as interpreters, and like Owen countian Margaret Murphy, many worked in factories producing war supplies. Two Owen county women, Willnetta Coates and Cordelia Sparrow, served during WWII and are still living in the area. Five navy nurses were Japanese war prisoners, but when they returned home they were denied benefits as veterans. Congress was petitioned over and over again and it wasn’t until the 1970s when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened making benefits available to women in the service.
Over 7,000 women served in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and Desert Storm saw a number of women in the armed forces devoted to procuring freedom for the world.
Veterans in the audience — Tom Morrison, Jarl Lee Harris, and Larry Dale Perry — offered some insights into several of the wars. As Dr. Marshall’s presentation came to a close, we were all poignantly reminded  of the sacrifices of not only the men but also the women of Owen County who, along with thousands of others, have served and are still serving our country. Surely, it is fitting that they be acknowledged and rewarded for their dedication to the cause of liberty.
The Owen County Historical Society has a new address: 206 N. Main St. The new e-mail address is owencohistory@yahoo.com. We are looking forward to the six-county picnic Aug. 30. Members must contact either President Jeannie Baker, or leave a message at the museum to make a reservation. Meat and drinks are furnished by the society and everyone is asked to bring a covered dish.