The End of an Era

The Last Surviving World War I Woman Veteran Dies

Former Yeoman (F) Charlotte Winters in 2006. She was a founding member of the Jacob Jones American Legion Post 2 in Washington, DC, and was a member for 88 years. Photo by David J. DeJonge.

Charlotte Winters lived for 109 years. To some, she may have appeared to be just an ordinary woman who enjoyed an extraordinarily long life. But the passing of Charlotte Winters on March 27, 2007, marked the end of an era in military women’s history–she was the last-known surviving woman veteran of World War I (WWI). Ninety years after serving her country, the Navy yeoman (F) was laid to rest with full military honors on March 30, in Frederick, MD, leaving only four other known surviving WWI veterans.

“The passing of Charlotte Winters truly marks the end of an era,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, president of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. “The women of World War I served their country at a time when they did not yet enjoy the full rights of citizenship–they couldn’t even vote for their commander-in-chief–yet they raised their right hands and promised to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Their remarkable service helped pave the way for the passage of the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, giving women a permanent place in the US military. Every generation of servicewomen since have stood on the shoulders of patriots like Charlotte Winters.”

An American Patriot
Although she’ll probably be most remembered for this distinction at death–being the last living woman veteran of this era–a few things about Charlotte’s 109 years remind us of just how extraordinary she was in life. As a young woman, she met with the Secretary of the Navy to make a case for women to serve in the US military and she was one of the first women to wear the uniform of the US Navy Reserve during WWI. She also served her country as a civil servant for 34 years. She was one of the first women to join the American Legion and she was a co-founder of the National Yeoman (F) Association. Charlotte Winters was a true American patriot.

At Charlotte’s funeral, Navy VADM Nancy Brown, director for C4 Systems (J6), said, “She was more than just a trailblazer. She’s responsible for the trail getting blazed.”

Born Charlotte Louise Berry on Nov. 10, 1897, she was the daughter of Washington, DC, haberdasher Mackell Berry and his wife Louise Bild. After graduating from Washington Business High School in 1915, the young Charlotte was living in a world at war. A year later, as America stood on the brink of entering the “war to end all wars,” Charlotte paid a call to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. The 19 year old wanted to find out why women weren’t allowed to join the Navy. Although it is not known if Charlotte directly influenced Daniels’ opinions concerning the service of women, her long-time friend Mrs. Kelly Auber said that notes in Secretary Daniels’ journals confirm that she met with him.

The Navy Enlists Women
Sometime after his meeting with Charlotte, as US participation in WWI became imminent, Secretary Daniels realized that the Navy would be shorthanded when the need arose to send more US sailors to sea. He soon met with Navy officials and legal advisors and asked, “Is there any law that says a yeoman must be a man?” His advisors could find no legal basis for the exclusion of women and on March 14, 1917, Secretary Daniels ordered that women could enlist in the Navy Reserve as yeoman, radio electricians and “other useful ratings.” When his order became public, it is said that women flooded recruiting offices across America.

Navy Yeoman (F) Charlotte (Berry) Winters (left)
and a woman thought to be her younger sister Sophy (Berry) Bean, circa 1919. Charlotte and Sophy were two of the first women to enlist in the Navy in 1917. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Kelly Auber.

On March 21, the Navy enlisted its first women and Charlotte and her younger sister Sophy (Berry) Bean were among them. According to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) statistics, 4.7 million Americans served in our nation’s defense during WWI–35,000 of them were women and nearly one-third of those were Navy Yeoman (F). Young patriots Charlotte and Sophy easily met the Navy’s enlistment criteria. Women had to be US citizens between the ages of 18-35. Women like Charlotte who possessed a high school diploma, business school training or clerical experience had an advantage because they could be enlisted and put to work immediately. These reservists were enlisted for four years and were paid the same salary as men, $30 per month plus a $1.25 per day subsistence allowance. Hailing from all 48 states, the District of Columbia and US possessions Hawaii and Puerto Rico, nearly 12,000 women served as Navy Reservists from 1917 until 1919.

What’s in a Name?
For young women like Charlotte, being a pioneer came with its share of challenges, including how this new crop of enlistees would be addressed. The women who joined the Navy in WWI were, like their male counterparts, called yeoman, a role-based title for those assigned clerical duties. Soon, a variety of nicknames abounded; names like “yeomanettes,” “yeowomen,” “lady sailors” and even “petticoat pets,” but Secretary Daniels soon put an end to the nicknames. He said, “I never did like this ‘ette’ business. … If a woman does a job, she ought to have the name of the job.” The Navy’s Paymaster General, RADM Samuel McGowan, agreed: “These women are as much a part of the Navy as the men who have enlisted. They do the same work … and have done the same yeoman service.” To make the distinction between the sexes, the Navy added “(F)” to indicate the yeoman was a woman.

More Than Three Decades of Service
Soon outfitted in the newly-created women’s uniform, which included a long skirt, a belted Norfolk jacket and a straight-brimmed sailor hat, Navy women reported to assignments at a variety of stations around the country. The majority of Yeoman (F) were employed doing the Navy’s clerical work, such as typing, filing and stenography. Charlotte, a yeoman third class, was assigned as a typist at the Washington Navy Gun Factory, also called the Washington Navy Yard. One of 2,000 women to serve in the Washington, DC, area, Charlotte earned the rank of yeoman second class by war’s end. She was honorably discharged in 1919. Although the war was over, Charlotte’s service to her country was not. Almost immediately, she returned to the Washington Navy Yard where she was employed as a civilian typist–a post she held through another world war as well as the Korean War. In 1953, she retired from civil service after 34 years.

WWI Navy Yeoman (F) Charlotte Louise (Berry) Winters, circa 1920. Photo courtesy of Mrs. Kelly Auber.

Always proud of her military service, Charlotte continued her association with military organizations immediately following her discharge. She joined the American Legion in 1919, held several offices and remained a member for nearly 90 years. In fact, she helped form the Jacob Jones American Legion Post 2 in Washington, the first chapter for women only. Charlotte also co-founded the National Yeoman (F) Association in 1926 and served as its commander in 1940-41. Charlotte also became a charter member of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial in 1987, one of its first members.

To Love a Navy Man
Some might say that Charlotte’s love of the Navy even found its way into her personal life. She met and married fellow sailor John Russell Winters, a Navy Yard machinist, in 1949. The two were avid Civil War historians and their passion for documenting campaign strategies and the lives of Civil War soldiers took them all over the country. The pair lived in a pre-Civil War era home in Maryland–which they restored and modernized themselves–until John’s death in 1984. In her final years, Charlotte made her home at the Fahrney-Keedy Senior Residential Home in Boonsboro, MD, where she passed away at the age of 109.

Of her passing, Chief of Naval Operations ADM Mike Mullen said, “Ms. Winters was a trailblazer, one of a relatively small group of women to serve in our Navy during World War I. She did so honorably and nobly, helping through that service to bring freedom to millions of people all across Europe and hope to thousands of young women across America. She and her shipmates answered the call when the nation needed them most. …They were patriots, and we will remain forever in their debt.”

From that pre-WWI meeting with the Navy Secretary through every decade of her life, it is clear that Charlotte believed women had a right and a duty to serve their country. She will be forever remembered as the last WWI woman veteran and the last Yeoman (F), but most of all Charlotte Winters will always be known as a true American patriot.

(March 2007)

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