In the 'women army'

91-year-old recalls service in World War II as a radio operator

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHEEPSPRINGS, N.M., Nov. 23, 2011

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: World War II veteran Cpl. Ester Denetclaw, 91, who was with the Women's Army Corp from 1945 to 1946, poses at her home in Sheepsprings, N.M.

BOTTOM: A photograph of Women's Army Corp Cpl. Ester Denetclaw shows her working during World War II.

When it comes to the battles of World War II, most would think of Japan and the United States, and the involvement of the treasured Navajo Code Talkers.

Most, however, would not have thought of Ester Denetclaw's role in the war.

Denetclaw, who is Tlaashchii, born for Kinyaa'aanii, served in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corp from 1943 to 1946 during World War II as a radio operator in London and Paris.

Early in her young life, Denetclaw, 91, knew from the beginning that she was headed to the Army.

In fact two of her brothers - Clarence and Harry Denetclaw - served with the Army during World War I from 1914 to 1918, and her favorite childhood brother, Pierce Denetclaw, had enlisted during the Second World War in 1942.

"Pierce was in the service and I wanted to be in there," Denetclaw said, adding that as children she followed him wherever he went and he influenced her to enlist.

The evening before the Navajo Times caught up with Denetclaw for an interview, she wrote an account of her experience as an Army service woman.

"I got interested of joining up with the women army," Denetclaw wrote. "So I enlisted. This was the year of 1943 in February time. I was told, I'd be called to get to the Army station later."

Once she was called to the Army station for her service, Denetclaw said, she went to basic training in Fort Orgathorpe, Ga.

"We did the same thing as men do in basic training - running, climbing and all that," Denetclaw said.

Denetclaw, who enlisted at age 21, said her role as a radio operator involved connecting calls and transmitting messages between the Army forces overseas and at home in the U.S.

"They talked about their work, how they're doing and how the war is," Denetclaw recalled. "That's what they talked about over the line."

While serving in England, Denetclaw said she and the other Army service girls stayed in hotels or wherever it was safe to dodge the bombs of the German army.

"When it was coming to us, we covered for safety," Denetclaw said, explaining that the Germans sent bombs over London. "I was scared. We stayed in a place where we all thought we would be safe. We were always in a group."

Following her stay in England, Denetclaw said she moved with the Army as soon as the German forces retreated and was stationed in France until her tour ended in 1945.

"After the war ended we started moving back to the states in the early fall," Denetclaw wrote. "We traveled by boat, across to Massachusetts, from there we came by train to Houston, Texas, to a separation center, and came back home from there in November 1945."

Asked if she still could do the marching drills she had learned, Denetclaw said, "No, I can't do it now."

"I'm proud of her and what she did for our country," her son, Timothy Denetclaw-Jeans, said. "I think of her as a code talker. She was a telecommunication officer in the branch of the Army."

As a veteran of one of the U.S. military's formidable forces, Denetclaw has inspired many of her kin, including her grandson Rayland Jeans, to join.

"I encouraged him to go to school but he preferred to step into grandma's place," said Rayland's father, Denetclaw-Jeans.

To date, Jeans has served four tours in Afghanistan and one tour in Kuwait. He is a first sergeant with the army.

Despite the dangers of war, Ester said she is glad her grandson enlisted and has ascended up the Army ranks.

"I'm glad he went and that he's safe," she said in Navajo, anticipating his Thanksgiving visit. "I pray for his safe return."

After completing her service with the Army, Denetclaw said she attended school briefly on the GI Bill at the now defunct University of Albuquerque to study early childhood education.

She worked at various boarding schools on the Navajo Nation, including at Crownpoint, Crystal, Mexican Springs and Tohatchi, before finally retiring in 1979.

Over the Veterans Day holiday, President Ben Shelly honored Denetclaw, as well as many other Navajo veterans for their service in the military at a veteran's event at Veteran's Memorial Park in Window Rock.

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