By Brianna Kelly, American Red Cross
Cecily Barker Finley was born August 31, 1919. Over the next century, she would go on to live an extraordinary life of adventure, and one of meaningful service to her country.
One of Cecily’s most incredible journeys was her time spent as a Red Cross volunteer during World War II. “Every adult in my life served in World War II and it really defined my generation,” says Jeanne Finley Montgomery, Cecily’s daughter. “As children, we used to play games based on World War II stories, and those were based sometimes on stories that my mother told,” she says.
During World War II, Red Cross volunteers served in a myriad of capacities across the United States and overseas, supporting U.S. and Allied troops. Over the course of the war, more than 16 million service members received Red Cross aid, made possible by over 7.5 million Red Cross volunteers. From producing war-time emergency supplies, to collecting blood and plasma for troops, to serving soldiers in hospitals and hospital ships and trains, to running specialized programs like Prisoners of War relief, the Red Cross played an integral role in providing help and hope where it was needed most. During the war, nearly everyone in the United States played a role in the Red Cross mission, either as a volunteer, a blood donor, or a recipient of Red Cross services.
In an address to Congress in 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked: “The Red Cross, with its clubs for recreation, its coffee and doughnuts in the forward areas, its readiness to meet the needs of the well and to help minister to the wounded…has often seemed to be the friendly hand of this nation, reaching across the sea to sustain its fighting men.”
As a Red Cross volunteer, Cecily served aboard the USS Chateau Thierry, a ship that served both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy during its decorated history. Cecily crossed the Atlantic many times, caring for Allied troops on the ship. She was there during liberation of Southern France and Italy, witnessing history as she served those returning from the battlefield. Jeanne recalls stories her mother told of seeing concentration camps liberated, and witnessing the horrors of war – including soldiers returning with grave injuries and wounds of war, both seen and unseen.
Aboard the USS Chateau Thierry, Cecily and fellow Red Cross volunteers provided compassionate care to soldiers, offering comfort and companionship. “She was there to facilitate the lives of the soldiers, in non-medical capacities,” says Jeanne. Many wounded soldiers depended on Red Cross volunteers like Cecily to help them with daily tasks and to adjust to their new reality. “She would write their letters, she would make sure letters got home to their families. There was a small library on the ship that had records and books…she would come in with a portable record player and play their favorite songs and read them books,” says Jeanne. “Her job was to attend to anything to facilitate their lives in this new reality they found themselves in.” A hero serving heroes.
Cecily’s selfless service, and the service of all Red Cross volunteers during World War II, is part of the proud legacy of the American Red Cross, and one that continues today though Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces, which continues to provide support for military service members, veterans and their families.
After the war, and raising her three children, Cecily earned a law degree, and continued her service to others by becoming a teacher, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), as well as teaching citizenship classes. Cecily formed lasting and meaningful relationships with her students, attending their swearing in ceremonies, keeping in touch with them and paying them visits when she could.
“She had a real openness to people and a wonderful curiosity. She was a very curious person and very adventurous,” says Jeanne.
Jeanne recalls a humorous story that captures Cecily’s sense of fearlessness and zest for adventure. “Our cousin was a pilot, and piloted a small plane. He flew her [Cecily] to a family reunion once, and they hit turbulence. For a normal person, there would be a lot of fear, but my mother had a big smile on her face.” Jeanne remembers her mother as an optimist, a humanitarian, and a hero.
Cecily’s name and history of service is now reflected in the Service to the Armed Forces: Our Legacy Continues Project, which memorializes the names and stories of Red Cross volunteers who have served alongside the U.S. military.
On July 6, 2021, Cecily’s family honored their mother, who lived a memorable 101 years, with a burial at sea. The ceremony is in homage to Cecily’s love for being on the water, which her family believes grew out of her time aboard the USS Chateau Thierry with the Red Cross. Before the burial, Cecily’s family was presented with a Red Cross letter of appreciation, certificate of commendation and a Red Cross flag in thanks for her service to the Red Cross, to our country, and to our nation’s Greatest Generation.