Shirley Beachum used to tell stories about her World War I days.
The war ended in 1918, three years before she was born.
But her father, a U.S. Army veteran, was such a vivid storyteller that she believed she had been fighting right alongside him when she was a little girl. Her family laughed whenever her father started to tell a story and she took over for him, telling about the places she believed they had been together.
Beachum also has stories about serving during World War II — only they, unlike her recollections of the previous war, actually happened.
On May 8, 1945 — which would become known as V-E Day — Beachum was serving as a staff sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She was taking incoming messages at the 5th Wing Army Airway Communication System in London, when she received the message that Germany had surrendered. She could hear the celebration from the street.
She headed straight to Piccadilly Circus.
“Everyone was laughing and cheering and drinking and just having a high old time,” Beachum said.
Today, people are sometimes surprised when she tells them she’s a World War II veteran. In fact, of the approximately 16.1 million Americans who served in the war, less than 400,000, or around 3%, were women.
Beachum will be 92 in August. She paints her nails neon green and purple and can often be found with friends at Wednesday night happy hour at Cedars Tennis Resort. Her family’s roots in the Longbeach Village go back to the 1950s. Beachum operated Tail o’ the Pup restaurant on St. Armands Circle with her late husband, Stanley Given, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and has lived in the Village since 1981. She’s president of the Longboat Key Historical Society and continues to paint vibrant scenes that fill her walls.
The two-and-a-half years she spent in the military make up just a tiny fraction of her life — but also a priceless one.
“I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” she said. “I would have never had the experience I did had I not served.”
A few good women
The judge at the courthouse in Bloomsburg, Pa., teased Beachum when, at 21, she showed up seeking to enlist.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” asked the judge, who lived across the street from her family.
She had learned about the formation about the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) — which became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during the war — through the newspapers. She decided to enlist in 1943.
Her inspiration came from both her father’s World War I service and her friends who died in war.
Shortly after her acceptance into the Army, she received a train ticket in the mail to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., for basic training.
“That’s where I learned to smoke,” Beachum said of the habit she wouldn’t give up until 1974. The classes were long with breaks that were 10 minutes, at most. “Every time we went out to smoke, somebody would hand me a cigarette. After a couple of weeks, I went out and bought a pack.”
She went on to administrative school in Texas before going to the Pueblo, Colo., Army airbase, where she was a dispatcher for B-24 pilots and a link instructor for B-28 instrument flying.
There, in September 1943, she married pilot Grady Hunt, who was sent to Europe.
But three months into the marriage, Hunt was killed in action.
Beachum volunteered to go overseas and arrived in London June 6, 1944, as Nazis blitzed the city.
She was in the 5th Wing headquarters on Upper Broad Street on two separate occasions when bombs struck nearby. The second impact was so strong it sent Beachum and her desk flying across the room, although she wasn’t injured.
At night, she and fellow WACs would sit around her apartment and crochet sweaters for soldiers on the battlefield.
“I always wonder who got my first English sweater,” she says laughing at her then-shaky knitting skills. “He must have been one hell of a big guy.”
Soon after V-E Day, Beachum and her headquarters were transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany, where she served until her discharge in November 1945.
For decades, Beachum wanted to go back to England.
Finally, in 2002, her son, Stanley Given II, surprised her with a trip.
She found that her old Upper Broad office had been turned into a McDonald’s. She also saw Queen Elizabeth riding in a Rolls Royce with Prince Phillip. The last time she had seen the royal, she was an 18-year-old princess walking out of Buckingham Palace with her parents.
Next month, Beachum hopes to see more familiar sites, but, this time, she’ll be going to Germany for the first time since the war. It’s one stop she and her family will make as part of a family vacation that will include a trip to Austria, where her daughter-in-law has family, and a Viking Cruise.
Although Wiesbaden isn’t their main destination, she’s hoping to rent a car and drive to the city that’s just 10-to-15 miles outside of Munich.
There, she plans to drive around to see whether the old Metropol hotel and the old office she worked out of, that was partially bombed, are still there, along with the street where she and 25 other WACs lived.
The last time she saw Germany was just after the war ended in 1945, when Beachum returned home to close a chapter of her life — one that she wouldn’t trade for the world.
Who were the WACs?
More than 150,000 women served during World War II in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). Members were the first women other than nurses to serve in the ranks of the Army.
Congress initially established the branch as the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACs) to serve with the Army as civilians. Congress converted WAACs to the WACs in 1943 and gave members the choice to become members of the Army or return to civilian life.
Of WACs in the European Theater, 35% worked as stenographers and typists; 26% were clerks; 22% did communications work; and 8% served in other roles, such as mechanics, draftsmen, interpreters and weather observers.
Source: U.S. Army, history.army.mil