Lo­cal re­cruiter paves the way for women vets

The Covington News - - A VETERAN'S STORY -

A Veteran’s Story

Rock­dale res­i­dent Irene Burquest fa­cil­i­tated the role of women in the mil­i­tary serv­ing as a re­cruiter and pub­lic­ity guru dur­ing World War II with the Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corp — WAAC (later called WAC). When asked why she joined, Burquest said, “Well, it was the right thing to do.” Then she grinned be­fore ad­mit­ting, “And I wanted to be where the boys are.”

The daugh­ter of a Lutheran preacher, Irene Geiken was born in 1920. “Mother went home to Aberdeen, S.D., to give birth,” she said. “But my fa­ther’s par­ish was in Toledo, Ohio, so that’s where I spent my early years.” Mov­ing with her preacher fa­ther and fam­ily, Burquest com­pleted her teenage years in Boone and Daven­port, Iowa.

As a trained cos­me­tol­o­gist, 21-year-old Burquest was at work when Pearl Har­bor was bombed. She said of that day, “We were mo­ti­vated and anx­ious at the same time be­cause we knew our lives would be changed for­ever.”

Burquest con­tin­ued her pro­fes­sion, but by March 1943, she wanted to ‘see the world’ and con­trib­ute to the war ef­fort. Af­ter en­list­ing, she was sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, for ba­sic train­ing. She said, “We ar­rived by truck at Fort Des Moines at 1 a.m., I was de­ter­mined to be the ‘best sol­dier’ but when I stepped out of the truck my makeup box fell open and the con­tents dropped into the snow. So there I was pick­ing lip­stick and rouge out of the snow. I fig­ured my pur­suit for ‘best sol­dier’ was at an end.”

At 1:30 a.m., the new re­cruits were served a turkey din­ner. Burquest said, “We didn’t hit the sack un­til 2 or 2:30 a.m., so we fig­ured since we ar­rived so late that we’d be al­lowed to get a good night’s sleep.” At 5:30 a.m., the ladies were rudely awak­ened for their first day in ba­sic train­ing. She said, “We sud­denly re­al­ized we were really in the Army.” Is­sued hel­met lin­ers, ugly shoes and men’s over­coats, Burquest said, “We were piti­ful look­ing.” Or­dered to smile when saluting of­fi­cers, she said, “They’d smile back, but we weren’t sure if they were be­ing po­lite or laugh­ing at us, con­sid­er­ing the un­sightly shoes and bulky over­coats.”

About 250 women were as­signed to the old cavalry base at Fort Des Moines, but seg­re­ga­tion sep­a­rated the whites and blacks. Burquest said, “We would marvel at the black ladies march­ing. Such pre­ci­sion; those ladies knew how to march.”

Af­ter learn­ing mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline and reg­u­la­tions, be­ing jabbed by a se­ries of shots, and as Burquest men­tioned ‘wash­ing a lot of win­dows,’ she was thrilled to re­ceive or­ders for Bos­ton, Mass. “I love his­tory,” she said. “And Bos­ton is full of his­tory.”

As­signed to the Bos­ton in­duc­tion cen­ter for women, Burquest ad­min­is­tered tests and per­formed cler­i­cal du­ties. She also re­ceived pro­mo­tion to cor­po­ral. To pub­li­cize women in the mil­i­tary, Burquest posed for poster pho­tos, wore for­mal dresses when at­tend­ing dances at Har­vard, and wrote an ar­ti­cle for the WAC pa­per en­ti­tled “Did You Know This about the WAAC?” Burquest even found time to sing on ra­dio with a sex­tet, songs like “Blue Moon” and “I Love You, a Bushel and a Peck.”

Trav­el­ing through­out the North­east on TDY (Tem­po­rary Duty) as­sign­ments as a re­cruiter and pub­lic­ity guru for women in the mil­i­tary, Burquest was at Fort Devens, Mass., when she no­ticed an of­fi­cer walking out­side her liv­ing quar­ters car­ry­ing dry clean­ing over

(Above) Irene Burquest on the wing of a plane for a mil­i­tary photo op­por­tu­nity. (Right) Burquest in uni­form in 1943. his shoul­der. She said, “Boy, did he look good. I said, ‘I think I’ll marry that guy.’” His name was Charles Adams, a den­tist at the NP Hospi­tal (neu­ropsy­chi­atric). In Fe­bru­ary 1945, Miss Irene Geiken be­came Mrs. Charles Adams.

Mar­ried to a den­tist and the Army, Burquest was sent for a two week TDY as­sign­ment to a base in Texas. Re­turn­ing to her bar­racks af­ter her first day, Burquest was in­formed she’d made sergeant. “I was told tra­di­tion dic­tated that I ‘drink out of the bot­tle,’ so I did,” she said. “Man, that stuff was rot-gut. I’ve never been so sick in my life! Still don’t like liquor to this very day.”

Burquest never served overseas. She said a few girls went to Italy, one to the South Pa­cific Is­land of Ok­i­nawa; all had been ha­bit­ual curfew-break­ers. Burquest was in Maine when the war ended. She said, “I’d never seen such kiss­ing and drink­ing and hors­ing around in my life! They really cele- brated, but it was hard­earned.”

Irene and Charles moved to Mont­gomery, Ala., Charles stayed in the mil­i­tary; Irene be­came a housewife and mother. “I had trou­ble with South­ern food,” she said. “I’d never seen yel­low squash or okra, but I learned to love it; well, with the okra it’s sort of a love/hate re­la­tion­ship.”

Charles’ fa­ther owned acreage in south­west At­lanta so Charles and Irene built and set­tled in Ge­or­gia. Charles’ brother built a beau­ti­ful home on Adams Drive, which he sold years later to a base­ball player named Hank Aaron.

Irene worked as a dental hy­gien­ist, went through a di­vorce, be­came an avi­a­tion clerk with the FAA, com­pleted sev­eral col­lege cour­ses, and even­tu­ally met a man named Burt Burquest. Burt loved golf and even found the time to fall in love with Irene. Since Burquest’s three daugh­ters were still liv­ing in the At­lanta area, Burt and Irene Burquest set- tled into Field­stone Es­tates so Burt could play his daily round of golf and Irene could be, well, Irene. Burt passed from this life in 2002.

Her fi­nal thoughts: “I cried when I saw the way this coun­try treated our Viet­nam veter­ans. It was un­rea­son­able and un­called for. But I’ve had a blessed life and I’m grate­ful for hav­ing a re­li­gious back­ground. Don’t know if I’ll kick and scream on the way out, but life has a rhythm and I be­lieve in an af­ter­life, so I’ll be OK.”

And on her health: “I cel­e­brated my 92nd birth­day on Nov. 8. I’ve lived a good life, a long life and I’m not afraid of death. I re­ceive good med­i­cal care at the VA, but I don’t like hos­pi­tals. Come to think of it, I don’t like politi­cians ei­ther.”

Pete Mecca is Viet­nam veteran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. Con­tact Pete at avet­er­ansstory@ gmail.com. Visit his web­site at avet­er­ansstory.us.

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