Thelma Shellhouse, a timeless beauty full of poise and strength, served for two years as one of this country’s WWII Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Now, 67 years later at the age of 93, Thelma remembers the details of those trying times of risk and uncertainty in our country’s history, as if it were yesterday. “I wanted to enlist immediately, but my mother was a widow and I didn’t want to leave her,” Thelma recalls. “After she died following a complicated surgery, I decided that there was nothing keeping me here anymore, so I just went.”
After enlisting at age 24, Thelma began working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “I worked at Pier 42 on the Hudson. Mine was a very dangerous assignment. After having been blown up overseas, ships would come back into the yard full of holes. Once repaired, it was my job to go onboard the ship and give the commanding officer the orders to sail back out into the Atlantic. Enemy submarines would often come very close to our shores, spying. So when I went out on these errands to the ships, they would always transport me in different vehicles, so that the enemy could not detect who I was or what I was doing. Everything I did had to be very secretive.“
During this time, when our country was still very racially segregated, Thelma remembers a young African-American man in her outfit who was a wonderful friend to her. “Neighborhoods around the Brooklyn Navy Yard were terribly dangerous. Since we both lived there, he would come every morning and escort me to work. I remember one day an officer (who’d seen us walking together) pulled me aside and reprimanded me for ‘fraternizing’ with him. I said, ‘It’s dark when we come to work; I am afraid to walk alone. We are both enlisted and that is not fraternizing.’ The officer simply looked at me and said, ‘It better not happen again!’ So from then on, to keep us out of trouble, he would walk six feet in front or behind me to still ensure that I was safe.”
After the War, Thelma returned to her native Ohio and worked in a factory, where she met her husband. They raised two children, and had four grandchildren. Now a widow, and the only surviving member of her group of Navy friends, Thelma recently finished writing her memoirs. “I like to think of myself as still very independent. I am so thankful that I am able to take care of myself and retain all of my memories.”
Thelma was recently honored with an American Pride Veteran Care pinning by Hospice of Dayton. She is one of many comrades in arms to be recognized for their military service through the program designed to support veterans with services tailored to their needs and honoring their sacrifices for their county.