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Sense of duty goes well beyond war

Beverly J. Busenlehner does not have a Silver Star or a Bronze Star from combat in World War II, but she was in the stateside trenches fighting for the country in its time of dire need.

Busenlehner would take on any job, unafraid to break through the gender barrier, and later would fight for fellow disabled veterans to obtain benefits and recognition.

Even at 86, she remains a warrior at heart yet carries a song in that heart and on her lips.

Her journey in the military began as a young woman living in the Town of Tonawanda. She enlisted in the Navy and received training as a pharmacist's mate as a member of the Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service, or WAVES, at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia.

But when an opening occurred in the mortuary service, she volunteered, becoming the first woman in the 5th Naval District to take on work normally reserved for men.

"I witnessed an autopsy, and I got sick. Then, I said, 'Why should I let something like this bother me?' It wasn't going to get me down."

She stuck with it, learning mortuary skills to give the last measure of devotion to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Though it may make others shudder, she recalls how the mortician who taught her also helped her conquer her fears as they readied a deceased Navy seaman for his funeral.

"The undertaker said to me, 'He won't hurt you. Here, hold his hand.' And I did," she said. "We had a raft of service people, drowned and killed. There were so many."

Busenlehner's goal was to be sent overseas, or at least up to Alaska, but because of her versatility, she says, she was denied a transfer.

As a pharmacist's mate, she not only dispensed medications, but also worked in the hospital wards packed with the wounded, often working late into the night attending to their needs.

But there was merriment along the way. Because she could carry a tune, Busenlehner performed with the local Navy and Coast Guard bands as a singer.

"Every Friday night, we'd have a band dance at our station," she recalls. "For special shows, we went over to Norfolk Naval Base. I sometimes performed with Kenyon Hopkins."

A music legend, Hopkins later worked as the musical director for "The Odd Couple" and "The Brady Bunch" television shows and wrote scores for Hollywood movies.

When the Navy was asked to provide bands to star at a show in New York City's Carnegie Hall, Busenlehner was among the musicians called upon to perform on the stage of that storied temple of music.

But her story does not end there.

She suffered injuries to her feet dating from her time in basic training and would, in her years after the service, undergo more than 30 surgeries that left the soles of her feet looking like "road maps" from surgical scars.

When she first went to the VA Hospital on Bailey Avenue in the 1950s, she was turned away.

"This woman met me and said, 'Well you can't come here. Women are not veterans.' She certainly wasn't versed. But a couple days later, I was admitted and treated," Busenlehner said.

She was married to a Marine Corps veteran of World War II who died in the Town of Tonawanda Lucidol factory explosion of 1953, which left her to raise four young children on her own.

As the years passed, she became active in the Disabled American Veterans and twice served as post commander of Chapter 142 in Dunkirk and Chapter 47 in Jamestown.

She also fought for legislation that in time allowed disabled veterans to collect their regular military pension as well as benefits for the disabilities they suffered in war.

Her accomplishments also included leading an effort to have Route 20 from Irving in Erie County all the way to Massachusetts designated the Disabled American Veterans Highway.

In addition, Busenlehner worked at getting legislation passed that provided education benefits for the children of veterans who lost limbs in the service, along with securing handicapped parking.

She became one of Western New York's go-to people for the rights of disabled veterans and, at one point, served as legislative chairwoman for the Disabled American Veterans' New York State Department, and was the first woman to serve as commander of the Chautauqua County Veterans Council.

Even with a deep sense of pride in having served the country, she says she has no illusions about war.

The injuries to her feet are constant reminders. She walks with a cane and uses a VA-provided stair-lift to get to the second floor of her home.

"War makes me sick," she said. "It just goes on and on and on."

***

Beverly J. Busenlehner, 86

Hometown: Dunkirk

Residence: Dunkirk

Rank: Seaman

Branch: Navy WAVES

Years of service: January 1943 to August 1945

Decorations: Several ribbons for World War II duty

Specialty: Pharmacist's mate

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