Monday, August 21, 2023

A Woman in Uniform

 By Curator, Monica Groth 

During World War II, some 16 million Americans served in the military, over 350,000 of whom were women. Chemung County is home to a number of remarkable female veterans. An upcoming exhibit features the uniforms of 4 local women who served their country in different ways during WWII, the single deadliest conflict history had yet witnessed. 

U.S. Marine Capt. Marie Snow (1921-2016) was born on a farm in Norfolk, New York. She was living with her sister in Syracuse when the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corps was established in 1942. The Women’s Reserve placed women in stateside positions within the Marine Corps, freeing men for combat duty. When Marie’s brother-in-law, a veteran of WWI, teased her that she couldn’t make it as a Marine, she enlisted to prove him wrong. 

U.S. Marine Capt. Marie Snow, c. 1945

In 1943, Marie reported for boot camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. She then studied accounting, or store-keeping, at Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia and was promoted to sergeant. 

Marie, known to her friends as “Sergeant Snowy,” was posted to California, where she helped organize supplies and wages for troops shipping off to the Pacific Theatre until the end of the war. She also occasionally appeared as an extra in Hollywood morale films. 

Marie met her first husband Marine Sergeant Raymond Doyle on the train home, when she sought his protection from a drunken airman giving her trouble. Marie attended Syracuse University on the GI Bill before moving with Raymond to Elmira in 1948, where she lived until her death. 


Army Nurse 1st Lt. Clara Peckham (1917-1996) grew up on Laurel Street in Elmira. She graduated from the Arnot-Ogden Hospital School of Nursing in 1938 and worked at the Veterans Facilities at Bath and Batavia. 

Determined to serve when war broke out, she concealed a heart murmur when enlisting. As the story goes, Clara would shift her position when the stethoscope neared her heart, attempting to disguise its irregular rhythm. It worked and in 1943, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force, leaving that summer for training at Mitchel Field in Long Island. When Clara later fainted from over-taxing her heart during her time in Long Island, the doctor who had examined her when she enlisted reportedly asked, “who let you in?” To which she replied, “you did!”

1st Lt. Clara Peckham, c . 1944
Image courtesy of the Star Gazette 

By December of that year, Clara had been assigned to active duty abroad providing medical care to wounded soldiers and civilians. As of February 1944, Clara was one of 19 Elmira nurses serving overseas. She worked in the contagious diseases unit at Kuakini Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. Following training which included learning how to shoot a carbine and swim with her boots and helmet on, she was sent to a field hospital near Okinawa, Japan. She served in Japan until the war ended and was discharged in November of 1945. After returning home, Clara worked as a nurse at Arnot-Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital, and the Chemung County Nursing Facility, retiring in 1982.


Army Cpt. Rita Eisenberg was born in Binghamton, where she taught high school history classes before deciding to make history herself. As a first-generation American in a family with no sons, Rita believed it was her duty to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942. A year later, the WAAC was made an official part of the US Army and became known as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). 

Rita was assigned to the Air Force. Following training at Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines, she worked suppling the WAC base in Orlando, FL. After further schooling at Fort Leavenworth, she prepared to go overseas as a member of the general staff. However, a friend feared for her safety and used his influence as an army chaplain to have her orders rescinded. Rita was extremely angry about this. She served in Orlando until the war ended and recalls traveling to the Pentagon to finalize supply reports for her area’s bases. 

Following the war, she settled in Elmira, where she and her husband Jess Shapiro were in business on Water Street.

Rita Eisenberg Shapiro at 90, 2006
Image courtesy of the Star Gazette


Jennie Reid (1919-2006) grew up on Elmira’s Eastside. During WWII, she took her civil service exam so she could work at City Hall, where she got a job operating the elevator. Jennie also joined the Women’s Ambulance Defense Corps (WADC).

The Elmira chapter of the WADC was organized in January of 1942, when 300 women assembled at the Elmira College gymnasium. Women of every race and ethnicity, excluding Japanese, were accepted. 

Jennie Reid, c. 1943

The WADC served many roles in civilian defense and preparedness. They trained in first aid; conducted air-raid and blackout drills; and practiced blackout driving and field maneuvers. Members also studied rifle and pistol use and radio communication. The WADC operated canteens for service men at the Erie and DL&W Railroad stations in Elmira.

Jennie was a member of the AME Zion Church, the Eastern Star, Neighborhood House, and the NAACP. 

Numerous women in the county also served in other areas of civil defense, working as air raid wardens or volunteers. Women helped the war effort on the homefront by selling war bonds, planting victory gardens, and organizing scrap metal drives. Many also worked in factories making war critical technologies, and took on jobs previously held by men then serving overseas.

Stop by and take a closer look at these women's uniforms to appreciate the many ways that women assisted their country during WWII.

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