Pfc. Slocum one of many women to serve in WWII

The Vancouver woman will get the VIP treatment at this year's Veterans Parade at Fort Vancouver

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

 

Veterans weekend

Saturday:

• What: 27th annual Veterans Parade at Fort Vancouver, presented by the Lough Legacy.

• Where: Parade route goes along Officers Row, turns south at the traffic circle and follows Fort Vancouver Way through Vancouver Barracks. It then turns east onto Fifth Street, passes in front of Fort Vancouver and ends at the Pearson Air Museum.

• When: Opening ceremony starts at 10 a.m. at the Marshall House, 1301 Officers Row. Parade starts at 11 a.m. and typically lasts two hours. Event ends at 4 p.m.

• Cost: Free

Information.

Sunday:

• What: 11th Annual Veterans Convoy

• Where: Vehicles line up at Clark County Fairgrounds and travel down Veterans Memorial Highway, I-205, in Washington and Oregon.

• When: Gates open at 7 a.m., ceremony starts at 11 a.m., convoy leaves at noon.

• Cost: Free.

Information.

Monday:

• What: Celebration of service, with guest speakers Colonel Mark Snyder and Major General Curt Loop.

• Where: Armed Forces Reserve Center, 15005 N.E. 65th St., Vancouver.

• When: 11 a.m.

• Cost: Free.

Information.

When World War II started, Irma Slocum just knew she had to find a way to serve her country.

The problem was that she didn’t know where to start. Then she came across a sign while walking down the street in Tacoma.

“When I saw Uncle Sam pointing at me — saying ‘I want you’ — I thought, ‘Finally! Somebody wants me,’” said Slocum, who lives in Vancouver.

She walked into the recruiting center, and after what she says was a very brief talk, she swore allegiance to the United States “and I was in,” she said.

Pfc. Slocum, 92, will be one of many soldiers from a variety of eras looking on from the VIP section at the 27th annual Veterans Parade at Fort Vancouver.

As part of the festivities, she’ll get to see Col. Ramona Fiorey, commander of the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, give a speech as the first active duty female reviewing officer in the history of the parade, which is organized by the Fort Vancouver National Trust.

“We try to get a high-ranking officer each year,” said Cara Cantonwine, a spokeswoman for the trust. “It just happens that we haven’t been able to find a high enough ranking female officer before. We’re really honored to have Col. Fiorey this year.”

In the past few decades, women have taken on a greater combat role in the armed forces. But women have been serving in the U.S. armed forces for decades.

Slocum was far from alone after the Army came to call her up about a month after she signed up in 1943.

She still remembers well when the service came to get her.

“I was visiting my sister and my family, and they had planned to go camping at Mount Rainier,” she said. “That’s when the call came. Here one of the mounted police came trotting up to our campsite and handed me the greetings letter. So the family had to cut the visit short.”

When she reported in, she was put on a train with other Washington women and taken to Des Moines, Iowa, for basic training.

“The trains were all very old -- oh, man -- and no air conditioning,” Slocum said. “It was very hot. It was August.”

At one point, the train stopped, and she got out to get some air, only to get covered in sooty coal from the train’s engine.

“I couldn’t wait to get there and take a shower,” she said.

Once at the site, Slocum and her fellow recruits spent basic training “mostly marching” and cleaning up the parade grounds, “which involved a lot of picking up cigarette butts each afternoon.”

That was odd, because “I never saw anyone smoking out there,” she said.

Still, it was a lot easier than modern basic training for women, Slocum said.

“When I see what the women do now, oh, man. They have rigorous, rigorous training,” she said.

After picking up a sufficient amount of cigarette butts, Slocum was sent to Nacogdoches, Texas, to administration school, where she learned about Army ranks and other aspects of military life in the morning and continued the practice of marching in the afternoon.

“I think somewhere in there, we also ended up picking up more cigarette butts,” she added, with a laugh.

After several weeks in Texas, she was assigned to Fort Dix in New Jersey, which was a very different experience than what she was used to.

“New Jersey isn’t a single bit like Texas,” Slocum said. “That was a real change. We had a long, long train trip. And when we got there, we were ordered into a truck, and we went to Trenton to be in a parade.”

They never told her what the parade was for, although she suspects it might have been Veterans Day, called Armistice Day at that time, to honor the end of hostilities in World War I.

“After the parade, I got to my new cot, where I just slept,” Slocum said. “And for the next two years, I lived in the space of that single cot.”

Marching in parades is a fact of life in the Army, and Slocum attends the Veterans Day parade at Fort Vancouver every year. But she said this year will be extra special, because she gets to look on from the VIP section.

Joan Lough of Woodland, whose family helps pay for the parade, invited Slocum after reading about her in The Columbian in 2012.

The parade also looks to be larger than it was this past year, with at least 124 groups planning to march. In 2012, there were 114, Cantonwine said.

“We have a lot of new groups and a lot of marching bands,” Cantonwine said. “We’ve also got lots of new Girl Scout troops marching this year.”

Slocum said she’s thrilled to see more women in the parade, although she’s proud of everyone who has served.

Slocum’s husband, Bill, who died in 2001, was also a soldier. He was a corporal in the Pacific theater while she served on the East Coast.

“People on the East Coast didn’t even know we had a war in the Pacific,” Slocum said. “All they heard about was Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.”

She started out working in the reception office, sorting out letters and dealing with requests from soldiers stationed overseas. From there, she decided she wanted to be a chaplain’s assistant, because that was her husband’s job in the Pacific.

But when she was transferred, she found the chapel already had three chaplains, and there wasn’t much to do.

“I never did type a single letter there,” she said.

So she transferred again to an office that taught returning soldiers how to type, along with other job skills, for when they returned to the work force.

“The men were so delighted to learn something useful and not (learn) how to kill people,” she said.

As an instructor she worked with another woman who was a teacher at Clark College, and the two became great friends.

“She taught me how to teach,” Slocum said.

In 1945, with the war winding down, her husband was injured and was set to be sent back to the United States. But he was set to be sent to the Midwest, not New Jersey, which was a bit of an issue, said Slocum, who found a way to arrange for him to end up with her.

“I had to tell a lie,” Slocum said. “In the Army, it’s OK to tell a lie if you know how to do it. In civilian life, it’s not OK.”

So she wrote to her husband and told him to tell the Army that he no longer had relatives in the Midwest, and that he was going to live at his aunt’s house in Brooklyn. Of course, she wasn’t actually his aunt. The address was for a woman that was the aunt of one of Slocum’s friends.

“It worked,” Slocum said. “So we got to live together. All they really needed was the address.”

After the war ended, the two traveled for a bit before deciding to return to the Pacific Northwest and settle down.

“We thought Vancouver was just the perfect place,” Slocum said.