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Oct. 21, 2020

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On the frontline of history

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
4 Photos
Steven Lane/The Columbian
As a member of the Women's Army Corps, Dorothy Dwyer served in Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters in Algiers during World War II.
Steven Lane/The Columbian As a member of the Women's Army Corps, Dorothy Dwyer served in Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters in Algiers during World War II. Photo Gallery

Local female WWII veteran broke ground, brushed greatness

RIDGEFIELD — Dorothy Dwyer was among the first women shipped overseas during World War II as part of a fledgling Army corps. That wasn’t the only distinctive part of her military service, however.

Her boss was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Dwyer ran into French Gen. Charles de Gaulle — literally — in a hallway.

And yes, that’s Winston Churchill in one of the 66-year-old snapshots spread out on the table.

The Ridgefield resident was part of the first step in the offensive against Hitler’s European fortress, when the Allies moved their forces into North Africa in 1943.

At that point, Dwyer was working in the nerve center of the Allied effort in Europe and Africa.

“Churchill was there a lot to meet with Eisenhower,” she said. “I was going around a corner and walked into the stomach of Gen. de Gaulle,” who stood about 6-foot-5.

“I saluted and left.”

The young woman — she was Dorothy Grassby back then — actually got into the war effort before she enlisted. She was part of the Boston area’s aircraft warning system. From midnight to 6 a.m, she would listen for airplane engines; if she heard something that she didn’t recognize as an American plane, she would radio a fighter pilot who would check out the suspicious aircraft.

Dwyer also registered military-aged men for the draft. As Dwyer signed up future servicemen at the Commonwealth Avenue Armory, she started to think about joining up, too.

“I was four months short of 21, but they needed us,” she said. “Dad said it was too dangerous. I went anyway.”

She enlisted on Oct. 1, 1942, in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps — forerunner of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs). Ten days later, she was undergoing basic training at a former Army cavalry post in Fort Des Moines, Iowa.

In the summer of 1943, Dwyer’s unit boarded the Santa Rosa, a luxury liner that had been converted into a troop ship.

“They had told us to study Spanish because we were going overseas, and we thought we were going to South America,” she said. “We realized looking at the Rock of Gibraltar, this is not South America.”

They landed at the Mediterranean port of Oran, Algeria, on Aug. 21, 1943, then boarded a train for Algiers.

“Eight of us were unassigned, and we were told we’d be going to meet Gen. Eisenhower,” Dwyer said. “That scared us.

“We were assigned to his staff,” she said, adding that they were given instructions to “forget everything we ever saw or heard.”

It was a lot of secretarial work, she said. It included taking messages that had been decoded and handing them off to an officer who passed them along to Eisenhower.

The American women drew a lot of attention in Algiers, Dwyer said, and their military duties were augmented by ceremonial roles. Vintage photographs show Dwyer carrying an American flag during 1943 military reviews featuring her WAC unit, as well as soldiers from France’s First Zouave Regiment and a French army women’s contingent.

Two months after Eisenhower moved to England to set the stage for the D-Day invasion, Dwyer and several other WACs were transferred to Italy.

While crossing the Mediterranean, their ship was targeted by a German U-boat. The troops were ordered up on deck and positioned by the railing in case they had to abandon ship, Dwyer said.

“I don’t swim, so I had two good swimmers next to me.”

Their ship wasn’t hit, but not everybody was so lucky. When their transport steamed into Naples, there was a sunken ship between them and the dock.

“We walked on the side of that ship to reach land,” Dwyer said.

She joined the staff of Gen. Benjamin Chidlaw, deputy commanding general of the 12th Tactical Air Command. Her job was to write letters home to the families of people killed or missing in action.

“No two letters could be the same,” she said. “It was a hard job. Another GI and I did that.”

Long after the war, Dwyer was ensuring that the contributions of America’s veterans are remembered. Until recently, she was chairwoman of the state’s Blue Star Memorial Marker program, an effort to place markers honoring WWII veterans along the nation’s highways.

And at the age of 88, Dwyer still is an active veteran — a member of American Legion Post 44 in Ridgefield.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter