World War II veteran has never stopped serving
On a painfully brisk night in the midst of Cincinnati’s harshest winter in more than three decades, I and my classmates joined the members American Legion Post 644 at their monthly dinner at the IHOP in Colerain.
One of the last members to arrive was Mary McHugh, referred to by all as Sister Marguerite, the chaplain of Post 644. She was sporting a turquoise track suit and well-kept curly grey hair atop a face with stern eyes and a smile.
Sister Marguerite has been a staple of these dinners for the past 34 years. She is both the guest of honor and the heart of the post. Everyone greeted her as the night went on, not because post members were keeping up appearances, but because her presence was important — an enduring symbol of the post’s history, resilience and survival as one of few all-female American Legion Posts remaining in the entire country.
“I think all the other women are somewhat in awe of her a little bit, not only because she’s served since World War II, but also because of her attitude toward the post,” said Darleen Adkins, the commander of Post 644. “She’s always thought the post was very important to women.”
Sister Marguerite was reserved for much of dinner, but her personality began to show through by the night’s end. As two other female veterans demonstrated the many ways in which a male attacker could be immobilized – which included chopping the throat, firmly planting one’s palm into the solarplex and, of course, exploiting the groin – – Sister Marguerite laughed her trademark laugh, which came across as more of a slightly nervous giggle, and applauded along with even the most boisterous in attendance.
“I certainly wouldn’t mess with her,” I said about one of the female veterans.
“No you wouldn’t, Jack,” Sister Marguerite said, utilizing “Jack” as an old-school reference to a young man, not as an incorrect use of my name. Her memory is far too sharp for that type of mistake.
Nothing about Sister Marguerite – her looks, mannerisms, choice of words or her witty personality – reflects that she is 91 years old (turning 92 in November), or that she’s spent the latter 60 of those years as a nun, a Sister of Mount Notre Dame. She was the elder of everyone in the room, but in no way was she elderly. Elderly implies old and, for someone like Sister Marguerite, a number does not determine youthfulness.
“She has such a great personality,” Adkins said. “I’m just amazed personally by her age, to have such a great sense of humor. I love her giggle, it always makes me laugh.”
A few weeks later, I visited Sister Marguerite at the health center on the campus of Mount Notre Dame, where she had dedicated her life since the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency. It’s a beautiful place, worthy of housing women that devoted their lives to the work of their Lord.
Everything was floral – floral chairs, floral carpet, floral wallpaper – and everything was spotless, fresh, inviting. The full trophy case in the lobby sang the center’s praises. I sat on a crimson couch in the foyer, where Sister Marguerite – photo albums, medals, plaques and pins in hand – soon joined me to delve into her more than 90 years.
In her early 20s, and working as a beautician with two other women in a small shop, Sister Marguerite was earning a good living. Still, she felt compelled to join the Navy. It was early 1944, and America and the Allied Forces were finally gaining an increasing foothold in Europe.
“My two brothers (Patrick and Red) were in and the war was on,” she said of her reasons for joining. “I thought if I got in that maybe we could get the war over or at least get the Japanese part of the war over.”
Sister Marguerite left Cincinnati, where she’d lived her entire life, on April 6, 1944, via train bound for Hunter College in the Bronx, N.Y., where more 95,000 women were trained for volunteer service during World War II.
“I was so excited that I didn’t realize my mom felt it so much. She said later on that they went home, and my younger sister was with her, and they just cried and cried and cried.”
Sister Marguerite arrived at Hunter College at 11:30 that night, at which point she was shown her sleeping quarters and promptly told to turn in for the night.
“To give you an idea of what the Navy was like in those days, they rang a bell – really it was more like a gong – after we had gotten into bed, and they said ‘Welcome to the Navy, ladies,’” she said with yet another appearance of the definitive laugh.
The laugh comes often and can be provoked by anything from a fond story, all of which she recalls equivocally and with stunning recollection of detail, or when she realizes just how long it’s been since the story she’s recalling. The two frequently coincide.
She spent six weeks at Hunter College. Sister Marguerite recalled that coats and jackets were mandatory at all meals, which resulted in the ruination of a beautiful, expensive red coat she bought just before departing Cincinnati.
It is this sharpened memory, untarnished by 91 years, that often makes Sister Marguerite the apex of the evening at Post 644.
At a gathering of post members just one week earlier she looked at a log of post meeting minutes more than 50 years old and, with no hesitation, identified the woman who wrote it by only her penmanship.
With the same attention to detail she recalled her experiences in Norfolk, Va., where her group was sent for basic training after leaving Hunter College.
“They had signs on the patches of grass, like a park. ‘Sailors and dogs keep off.’”
“They called it the hell hole of the South,” she said. “They (people in the town) tricked the sailors, as many as they could. They were willing to take their money; they had no problem with that.”
Showing a bit of her age and even more of her morality, Sister Marguerite recalled – 70 years later – that a store owner once tried to sell her a fountain pen and colored pencil set, which were not matching colors, a monumental act of deceit in her mind.
“The man said: ‘Well, it’s just fine. We’ll wrap it up and give it to the little lady.’ So I said ‘No you won’twrap it up and give it to the little lady,’” she recalled, pointing at my dime-a-dozen Bic pen, again with the laugh.
After basic, which Sister Marguerite recalled as an initial two-week period of cleaning their barracks and nothing but “Marching. March. March. March,” she remained stationed at Norfolk for the entirety of her two years (1944-46) of service. She was trained to be a trainer. Her task: preparing her male counterparts to utilize the massive weaponry on Navy gunships.
As one might assume that most men in the 1940s were less than inclined to like the idea of being taught about weaponry by women. But the tragedies and tales of suicide pilots quickly led the men to come around to their female instructors.
“When they started shooting they thought they knew a lot more than they did,” Sister Marguerite said. “When a couple of them came back (from the war), I’d say ‘Well, where’s this guy?’ They said, ‘He didn’t make it.’ That’s when they said they would be willing to be taught by women, and we went from there.”
With the Allied Forces, including Sister Marguerite’s brother Patrick, having already forced Germany to surrender, many of the men she trained helped to reclaim the Pacific from the Japanese before the atomic bomb ended the war for good Aug. 9, 1945. With the war over, Sister Marguerite was discharged on her two-year mark, leaving the Navy with the rank of third class petty officer.
She returned to Cincinnati, working first as a beautician in Price Hill and then as a telephone operator at AT&T. Eight years after returning, Sister Marguerite finally succumb to years of plying, on the part of her aunt, to join the Sisters of Mount Notre Dame Convent. She did not join, however, on the first attempt.
“The first time I was going to enter, I had just bought a fur coat and I had a diamond ring from my great aunt,” she said, once again saying something you’d not expect to hear from a nun. “My sister said, ‘Well I’ll take your coat.’ And I said, ‘You will not either, boy, I’m not going to go.’ It took me a while to make up my mind. I was the oldest in my group. They called me Granny. It was 1954.”
While she wasn’t necessarily ready to give up some of her beloved belongings when she joined the convent, she already possessed more than enough mental fortitude to handle its trials and tribulations. Her time in the Navy saw to that.
“Well, we used to have to get up at 5 o’clock (in the morning) when a bell rang,” she said. “When I entered the convent it was almost the same experience. In the Navy the bell rang at 5 o’clock and [at the convent] we had to be dressed and pressed and getting to the chapel by 6:30 a.m. The same discipline that was in the Navy is in the convent.”
It was still quite some time until Sister Marguerite joined Post 644 – the exact year was item of confusion, but the official books say it was 1980 – which she’d briefly been a member of upon her return from the war. Unfortunately, it was the death of her cousin Ann McHugh that brought Sister Marguerite back into the fold.
“When I first came home I was in the legion, and I got out because they were down near Broadway, and it wasn’t too swift a place for women to be so I stopped going there,” she said. “But when Ann died they asked me to be the chaplain of our group.”
From chaplain, Sister Marguerite slowly climbed the ranks at Post 644, eventually taking over as commander.
“I was the chaplain, then I was the second vice, then the first vice and I was the commander for about nine or 10 years,” she said. “One by one those ladies were just dying. I’m 91, so a lot of these people were much younger than I am.”
As more and more women passed away, Post 644’s membership dwindled drastically. There were threats of having the charter revoked or absorbed by another post. But with help from Kelly Knox, who works at Veterans Affairs, Patricia Johnson and Adkins – the three women who have since followed in Sister Marguerite’s footsteps as Post 644 Commanders – the Post reached all-time high membership in recent years.
“Kelly Knox got in touch with Sister and said she’d like to come back to the women’s post and help rebuild it. Sister was all for that, and it really changed the momentum,” Adkins said. “But for a while it was very rough. I remember reading back through old post logs and emails and realizing how much tougher it was than I ever knew. We were the talk of the town and the state for really turning it around.”
For her service to Post 644, among her many other works with veterans groups, Sister Marguerite was inducted into the Veteran’s Hall of Fame in 2012. Marilyn “Lyn” Ashley, a long-time member of the post and dear friend who passed away in 2013, nominated her.
The final thing I asked Sister Marguerite, as she was growing notably weary from our time together, was if she’d do it all again, referring mostly to her experiences in the Navy. She said she would, but it was what she said just before that – a response not prompted by a question – that resonated with me.
“So many of us die every day, they say, from the second World War,” she said.
Sister Marguerite and the so very few remaining like her – if there ever were any truly like her – has so many more stories that should be told, stories that have brought joy and sorrow and laughter to so many for so long. Too soon she won’t be here to share them, in all of their exquisite detail.
“I get emotional thinking about it,” Adkins said.
The post lost two of its World War II members last year - Adkins said - Dr. Lynn Ashley and Cathy Welge.
"It’s very very sad when they all go,'' Adkins said. "But there’s one thing I keep in my mind: Other than their bodies aging and getting to the point where one must pass away, their minds were intact. They’re our guides, our mentors so it’s just sad. It’s sad to ever think that we might lose Sister, too.”
Joshua Miller is a student in UC's Journalism Department.