Once Betty Cowgill makes up her mind, you know there is no stopping her. You sense that minutes after meeting her.
So it’s easy to see there would be no stopping her when she decided to enlist and join the World War II effort, despite objections from her parents and others around her.
On Oct. 7, her strong will and determination will lead to new milestone, her 100th birthday. The event will be celebrated on Oct. 9 at the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer.
“It feels, of course I feel this way, because I am a veteran, proud,” she said.
Recently, Cowgill recounted her time in the service in a four-hour interview that will become part of the Veteran’s History Project at the Library of Congress.
It was her admiration for her little brother that drove her to join the military, after he enlisted in the WW II effort in 1942. She was Betty J. Stephens then, working in Cincinnati at the time when she came home to Tipton for Christmas and revealed her decision to her parents.
“I told the folks, ‘I’ll be in the service within six months.’ He’s going in, I want to go in,” she said.
Her brother passed away 11 months ago at 97. Her youngest sister died at 94 just four months ago.
In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law that allowed women to serve as officers during the remainder of WWII. The reason for this was to free up men who were doing other military jobs so that they could be shipped to the warfront. One branch of service was the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the United States Naval Reserve. Another branch was the SPARS (Semper Paratus — Always Ready) in the Coast Guard. There were also the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) and the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), both precursors to the WASPs.
The WAVES already had filled up with women, so Cowgill went into the SPARS.
She was sworn in at Chicago and then returned to Tipton, waiting for her orders. In June of 1943 she was shipped to Palm Beach, Florida, for basic training. The train ride took two days and she met other women with similar backgrounds like hers, a farm girl from Tipton.
“Mercy, it was so hot,” she said of the trek.
After finishing basic training, she returned to Tipton via Chicago for 10 days before she began the next phase of her service in New Orleans. She took a train from Elwood to Chicago on a Friday, and around midnight she departed from Chicago to New Orleans, arriving Sunday morning, just 90 minutes before she had to report for duty.
Cowgill served as a storekeeper throughout her time in the military, eventually being promoted to storekeeper 2nd class. Part of her duties included taking care of supplies like paint, clothing and the commissary.
She had to adapt to the size of New Orleans, the traffic and learning the military way of doing things. But she didn’t see these as challenges.
“I just said they were new ideas I had to meet,” she said.
In December 1943 she was transferred to Biloxi, Mississippi, where she stayed for two years. She worked as a storekeeper, keeping records of the paint being used. She would travel with the chief to Pensacola, Florida, to get supplies. She learned how to issue flight gear to pilots, how to purchase food, and learned accounting and how to do payroll. She also stood guard duty.
“I didn’t hurt anyone,” she said. “But I was good and there were rumors that the commanding officer was a sharpshooter. They were going to put me up against him. About every time I had practice I hit the bull’s-eye or was very close.”
Cowgill was given the opportunity to go to officer school, but classes were full. The war ended in 1945 before she could attend, and Roosevelt shut down the women’s service branches.
She was disappointed for the missed opportunity, but she already had decided what she would do when the war ended. She returned to Tipton and celebrated Christmas with her family, and then began business school in Kokomo.
After two years of school she took a job with Shell Oil. Each weekend she would take the bus back to Tipton. The bus driver became her husband. He was a widower with three girls from his first marriage. They added a fourth.
In 2016 Cowgill was invited to join an Honor Flight with other Hoosier WWII vets. They flew to Washington for a one-day tour and then returned to Indiana that evening. After landing, they were taken to Plainfield High School, were a packed gym was waiting to meet them. Cowgill was the 50th veteran to enter the gym and the first woman. The crowd exploded, bringing newfound life to the exhausted Cowgill who jubilantly waved at the audience.
“I think we set the pace for all women that are in the service,” she said of the many women who joined her in the war effort back in 1942.
“I love my country,” she said. “I was privileged to serve my country.”