Clara Gilbert is saddened when she watches the television news and hears reports of U.S. service men and women dying or becoming injured overseas.

“You feel bad for the guys going in the service now, with that fighting over there,” she said. “You wonder if we should even be there. So many have died or been maimed. I saw one on TV today with both legs in prosthetics. I think it’s terrible.”

Gilbert, 96, of Skowhegan, is a U.S. Navy veteran from World War II who worked filing records for the Bureau of Navy Personnel in Arlington, Virginia, from 1943 to 1945.

Clara Gilbert, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, is seen at her Skowhegan home on Tuesday. Gilbert served with the Navy in Arlington, Virginia, from 1943 to 1944. Gilbert was 21 years old during her service as a Seaman 1st Class. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

“I enlisted one day after Pearl Harbor and I got my papers the first of May, 1943,” she recalled. “You had to be 20 years old. I went to Hunter College in New York for basic training.”

She had grown up in Madison, the oldest of seven children, and when she was 16, her family moved to Skowhegan. She earned her GED there. When the war broke out, she was anxious to enlist.

She became a seaman first class and loved her position at the Bureau of Navy Personnel.

“It was wonderful. We had civil supervisors. While I was serving, my mother had cancer. I knew there were young kids at home, so I put in for my discharge and came home to help. My supervisor wanted me to come back to Arlington, but I never did. We didn’t have a car in those days. Everyone was traveling by train, from Waterville.”

Her mother recovered from cancer and lived to be 94, but her father died in a car accident when he was only 63. Gilbert, who will turn 97 on Dec. 8, studied hairdressing under the G.I. bill after serving in the Navy, but ended up marrying and having three children, Roland, Shirley and Sheryl. Sadly, she lost Sheryl in February to lung cancer.

Gilbert worked at a spinning mill and at shoe shops when she was young. She also loved to quilt.

“I’ve made 17 hand quilts, all by hand. Ten were king size and all the rest were full size. My daughter, Shirley, has three of them, my son has two and my daughter who died had two. All of my grandchildren each have one, and I donated one to the American Legion in Madison. They sold chances on it and made $2,600. I also made pocketbooks — and sold hundreds. I made a World War II quilt that is in a museum in Rockland, the Maine Lighthouse Museum.”

Gilbert is a 30-year member of the Tardiff-Belanger American Legion Post 39 in Madison. She plays cribbage and bingo, and she competes in cribbage tournaments every Thursday night at the Legion. She said she lives to play cribbage, which she loves.

“We came in first last week and won $106 a piece,” she said.

Last year, Gilbert was invited to go to Washington, D.C., as part of Honor Flight Maine, where she and other veterans were flown to the U.S. Capital and ferried around to all the monuments and other attractions.

“It was the most wonderful three days I’ve had in my life,” she said. “They made me feel like a million dollars.”

Last month, Gilbert and five other World War II veterans were honored by the Madison Legion post as part of the 100th birthday of the American Legion and Auxiliary nationwide.

Clara Gilbert, a 96-year-old World War II veteran from Skowhegan, holds a photo of herself as a Navy Seaman 1st Class during World War II. She served with the Navy in Arlington, Virginia, from 1943 to 1944. Gilbert was 21 years old during her service. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

 

On Veterans Day, Gilbert will think about her beloved time in the service. She also will honor living veterans, including her brother, Philias Johnson, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives at Cedar Ridge Center in Skowhegan, and she will remember those who have died.

There was a time she had many friends who were fellow World War II veterans, but they are quickly disappearing.

“They’re all dead,” she said. “Everyone I knew is gone.”

There are about 114,000 veterans living in Maine, and of that number, about 57,000 are older than 65, according to Melissa Willette, director of communications for the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services. In 2017, about 4%, or 4,500, were World War II veterans, she said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there will be fewer than 2,000 World War II veterans in Maine by this time next year. About 400,000 World War II veterans are alive today, according to the National World War II memorial.

Nov. 11, we honor veterans, both living and dead, who served in the U.S. military.

And with a special nod to Clara Gilbert and her brother, Philias Johnson, we offer our deepest thanks.

 

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 31 years. Her columns appear here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.