By: Gordon Williams, Northwest Region Volunteer
A story in this blog, a couple of months back, talked about how volunteer Susan Langfitt served the American Red Cross in places as far from home as Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. That story prompted Cristy Gunderson-Meadows of Olympia, Washington, to cast back on how her mother served the Red Cross in the European battlefields of World War II.
Cristy opened her mother’s steamer trunk and footlocker, long stored in her garage, filled with relics of the days when Martha Owens Williams kept pace with frontline troops in wartime Europe, serving them coffee and donuts. The trunks held Martha’s Red Cross uniforms, lots of photographs, and a map that traced her route from New York via ship to landing at Omaha Beach in 1944 and travels across England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, accompanying the front line troops for the next two years.
Martha landed in Normandy just a month after D-Day. Active fighting was not far away. As the Army moved forward, her Red Cross unit moved with them. Their vehicle was called a clubmobile (precursor to Donut Dollies) and was actually an Army two-and-a-half ton truck stocked with donut fryers and coffee urns.
Cristy relayed stories from her mom, “Wherever the front line troops were, they were there, too."
There were eight clubmobiles in Group C, all named after American sites back home. Martha’s clubmobile was nick-named Dixie Queen, which her mother found entertaining since she was a true Chicago girl and her Red Cross partner was from New York, both raised far away from Dixie.
Driving the big truck was a challenge for Martha who stood barely five feet tall. “She tied blocks onto her combat boots so she could reach the pedals,” Cristy says.
Combat conditions meant no headlights as they drove in convoys through the dark. People back home had sent Martha’s team a bouquet of plastic fluorescent flowers to brighten their day not realizing how often times complete darkness was a necessity. They however used one tiny glow-in-the-dark petal of one
flower and taped it to the bumper of the truck in front of them so when in convoy they could see the vehicle ahead, helping to keep them on the road.
Wartime rules prevailed, but once the war was declared officially over, even the Red Cross crew had a rare day of rest. Cristy recounted how, “A soldier asked my mom out to celebrate, they were allowed to dress in civilian clothes and low and behold when he came to pick her up he was driving a tank!”
One of the treasures found in that locker was Martha’s uniform including her paratrooper boots. “She lived in those boots for two years,” Cristy said.
Pictures were of the trucks being unloaded from the ship, their setup with camo nets, and serving the troops. A handful of band instruments accompanied them and another picture shows Dinah Shore, a popular singer in the 40s and 50s entertaining the troops.
Martha was in her late 20s when the war broke out. She was working as a clothing designer and was volunteering at one of the induction sites in Chicago but desperately wanted to contribute far more to the war effort, so when she heard of the clubmobile opportunity she was first in line to volunteer. Women weren't allowed in combat in World War II, but the Red Cross beckoned, so this was her opportunity.
In all, she spent two years in the combat zone. The Red Cross recognized her service with a Certificate of Meritorious Service. The award comes from Red Cross Headquarters and recognizes the service she rendered “to the American Red Cross in the European Theatre of Operations.”
Martha returned briefly to Chicago after the war, then moved first to San Francisco and later to Seattle. The trunk which had traveled with her from Chicago overseas and back to the states followed her, full of wartime mementos. It sat in the garage untouched for years until Cristy was ready to part with it knowing her mom would be so proud for folks to see the Red Cross contribution to the war effort.
Cristy donated the steamer trunk, foot locker, uniforms, map and pictures so they can hopefully be put on display at the Red Cross South Puget Sound and Olympic chapter office in University Place, Washington. Eventually they could also be shown at the Red Cross National headquarters in Washington D.C.
Martha’s Red Cross service did not end when she returned from overseas. For many years following the war, she drove disabled veterans to and from medical appointments. Because she had been in battle, she could relate to the veterans and they could relate to her.
“She stayed with the Red Cross into her 80s when she passed," Cristy said. “She truly believed in what the Red Cross does.”
Cristy herself has a long history with both the Red Cross and the military. For many years she
was head accountant for Joint Base Lewis-McChord: a huge army air force base near Tacoma. She also served as a Red Cross volunteer at different military hospitals and organizations.
Cristy heard stories about her mother's Red Cross service as she was growing up, but only learned the whole story when she opened that trunk and found those souvenirs of wartime service. There was one way in which that service was felt in Cristy’s childhood home.
“We never had any donuts in our house,” she said. “Mom always said she had seen enough donuts during the war to last her a lifetime!”
Cristy hopes that this donation will document on one of the many ways the American Red Cross provides support to our military, both then and now.