Woman Helping the World War II War Effort in Harlingen

Part II: Other women that mattered

By Norman Rozeff, Special to the Star

Another woman serving with distinction at the gunnery school was Captain Helen Morris Deblinger. This Pawtucket, Rhode Island, native was graduated as a certified registered nurse in 1933 then went on to obtain in 1936 a graduate degree in the teaching of nursing from the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

She joined the service in 1936. When the war commenced she applied to serve overseas, but her expertise was needed at home as instructor and chief of nurses. She oversaw four nurse officers at the airfield. After serving in Harlingen she went on to Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama. In her honor, her son Jay L. Deblinger donated $100,000 to establish The Helen Morris Deblinger Scholarship Fund for student nurses attending CUA.

A human interest story probably worthy of Hollywood treatment took place at the HAAF Laguna Madre Sub-Base. Written up by Valley Morning Star reporter Minnie Gilbert in January 1946 the essence of her story is this: Mrs. Edmund T. (Dorothy) Carter lived at the Laguna Madre Sub-Base of the HAAF, one woman among a post of 17,000 soldiers. She went there in early 1943 where her husband was superintendent of construction. She made her home on a reservation in the Eighth Corps Area. In her 40s this witty, motherly, and entertaining lady immediately “adopted all the men at the sub-base.”

Not only did she do their mending, write letters to their mothers, and listen to confidences, but she brought pressure to bear to have a chaplain conduct religious services, to provide transportation to and from the isolated base (other than when men were being assigned and transferred), and inaugurated the custom of “birthday parties.”

These parties were her own idea and were carried out regularly under her supervision until they were incorporated into the program later introduced by the United Service Organization (USO).

Mom was instrumental in staging the first wedding at the range July 25, 1943. She not only arranged for the attendants, refreshments, and reception and altar decorations but, when the bride arrived without the traditional white satin costume which the groom wished to see her wear, sat up to 3:30 am to complete the wedding gown.

Because her trailer was so small and the boys taxed its small space, they built a small house nearby for her that served as a recreation center. Here a piano was placed, and Mom was busy much of the time as an accompanist, a role that she filled capably. She always had several pupils whom she taught piano. She organized amateur shows and obtained permission to take the boys to the nearby seacoast for outings and melon feasts.

It was her custom to wear a range helmet and whenever a short, stubby figure topped by a helmet appeared about the camp, the boys said they knew “Mom” was around. She attended mail call with the boys and knew how they felt when there were no letters for them. She did KP (kitchen police — a term, which for the younger set, — means working in the kitchen washing dishes, pots and pans, peeling potatoes, and doing any other menial work the cooks assigned) and helped the baker. She was assistant to Chaplain Rex and later to Chaplain Fertz, and played the piano for chapel services. It was the latter who was to perform the marriage ceremony for her son Bruce and Miss Theda Edwards of Ohio.

Every Friday she received a detail of men instructed to help her prepare the chapel for the Sunday service. Every Saturday she brought delicacies and gifts for the boys from the Range who were in the HAAF hospital.

Mrs. Carter stood in the chow line with the men. At first they ate under a big tent, being served food that was brought out from HAAF by truck. Only twelve buildings had been built when she first went to Laguna Madre; eight were under construction. The place was “like a wilderness” she recalls and still doesn’t like the memory of the time she stepped from her trailer onto a snake. The coyotes would return to the reservation after dark and their howls are about the only music Mom has no enthusiasm for.

After leaving Laguna Madre, Mom Carter spent six months at Camp Swift (opening in June 1942, this was a completely new military site of 52,000 acres 28 miles due east of Austin in Bastrop County) where she immediately found herself in exactly the same role except there were many more men. Elected as “Queen Mother” by 6,500 men at Camp Swift, Mom Carter regarded this as the peak of her career as a “service mother”. Although the coronation was carried out in a mock ceremony, it was impressively done and provided a superb tribute from the camp personnel to Mrs. Carter. On July 26, 1943 she and her husband were to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Many of the letters and autographed photos once treasured in her retirement bungalow in Harlingen scrapbook were from men who later gave their lives to bring victory to the United States.

Closer to home Verna Jackson McKenna, then chief librarian of the Harlingen Public Library, took a leave of absence in order to oranize and establish a library at the Harlingen Army Air field and its Harlingen Army Gunnery School. She then served as its librarian, When the base closed she arranged to have the base’s library books transferred to the Harlingen Library.