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Marine reservist in World War II put safety, pride in her designs

Elizabeth S. Herberger refused to be outdone by her “boy cousins” who went around bragging about enlisting to fight in World War II.

She says she was not to be outdone by their patriotism.

“They’d go around with their thumbs in their suspenders and say, ‘I’m going to serve.’ Well, I couldn’t let them beat me at serving the country because I was a woman,” the 92-year-old Herberger recalls.

At first, she considered joining the Coast Guard but decided against it because one of the male cousins had already enlisted in that branch. Herberger wanted to be different among her relatives.

After doing a little investigating, she determined that none had wanted to become a leatherneck, so she joined the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

The oldest of five children who had grown up on a small Indiana farm, the former Elizabeth Stanley says she breezed through boot camp at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

“It wasn’t so tough,” she says. “I’d lived out in the country and was used to doing things outside. When they blew the whistle at boot camp, it was a matter of getting up and doing things.”

The Marine Corps took notice that Herberger, before her enlistment, had worked as a commercial artist at an advertising agency. So, ending her dreams of seeing the world and getting close to the action, she was sent to Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., where her artistic skills were put to work designing decals for warplanes.

Some might chafe at designing and producing “step here” labels to be placed on the wings of airplanes or climbing into the cockpit to paint labels indicating radar unit “on-off” switches on the instrument panel.

Yet in looking back, Herberger says she was grateful for the chance to serve, especially after she came close to being drummed out of the military because of her nearsightedness. Recruiters had not made a big deal of visual limitations when she signed up.

“They wanted anybody they could get. But when I was in boot camp, I was called in for a special eye test,” she says. “They told me to take my glasses off and walk until I could see the lettering on the eye chart. I walked really fast toward the wall and they said, ‘Wait a minute.’ They realized how nearsighted I was. But they decided I could see well enough with my eyeglasses.”

Among her more creative duties was designing insignia patches for the flight jackets of pilots and crew members.

The flyboys, as they were known, took great pride in those patches that were sewn onto their leather jackets.

As a Marine, Herberger says, she also learned a valuable lesson that has served her well throughout life – getting along with other people. And the barracks was the perfect classroom.

“What affected one person at one end of the barrack affected everyone else all the way to the other end of the barrack,” she says.

A gentle soul, Herberger says disagreements and uncomfortable situations provided the opportunities for growing as a person.

Herberger remembers the time when a woman developed a rash and was unable to use deodorant and started relying on perfume.

“She used lots of gardenia water that just about gagged you. Well, we tried to get ourselves to realize she had a problem, and we took her to sick bay, and they were able to give her some help,” Herberger says with a bit a giggle.

After the war, she attended Taylor University in Upland, Ind., on the GI Bill of Rights, studying to become a teacher. But after graduation, she decided that teaching wasn’t for her. Paying out of her own pocket, she studied occupational therapy at Western Michigan University and in time was hired by the Niagara Tuberculosis Hospital and Sanitarium on Upper Mountain Road in the Town of Lockport. She worked there for 25 years before deciding to take an early retirement when her first husband, Howard Pilkey, retired from Carborundum. Pilkey died in 1985, and 15 years later, she married Donald Herberger. He died in 2008.

Sometimes, she says, she laments not having had the opportunity to serve overseas in World War II and catch a glimpse of the world, although she takes heart in the chances she has had to travel later in life. Europe, China and the Middle East are among the places she has visited.

And while her globe-trotting days are over, Herberger has by no means slowed down. To this day, she remains of service just like when she was a young woman and volunteered to perform her patriotic duty.

“I drive for the Niagara County Office for the Aging nutrition program delivering meals. I have a regular route. It’s great to see the people when you bring them food.”

Their smiles, she said, make it all worthwhile.

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Elizabeth S. Herberger, 92

Hometown: Huntington, Ind.

Residence: Town of Lockport

Branch: Marine Corps Women’s Reserve

Rank: Sergeant

Area of operation: Stateside

Years of service: 1944-46

Honors: Good Conduct Medal, Honorable Discharge Pin and Honorable Service Pin

Specialty: Artist