WWII veteran, one of Army’s first female drill sergeants, finds new home

By Kristin Adair  |  November 30, 2014  

Elizabeth Lloyd moves down the long clinical hallway with a slow determination that only hints at her age. Her shoulders hunch slightly above her tiny frame as she nods in greeting to an elderly man who shuffles towards us.

“How are you today?” he asks.

“As long as I wake up and stand up, I’ll continue to march,” Lloyd quips.

Minutes earlier, Lloyd had lamented getting out of bed this rainy morning with an aching back and the asthmatic breathing that troubles her this time of year. But she doesn’t air those complaints publicly; that’s not what soldiers do.

Lloyd, who is 90, answers to the nickname “Little Bit,” a moniker she picked up not long after she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1944, at the height of World War II. It has stuck. Some of the other residents at the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in Washington, DC—like many of the soldiers she served with during nearly 26 years in the Army—don’t know her full name.

Lloyd went to the Army recruiting office to enlist when she turned 20 (the minimum age for women at the time) because, she says, she wanted to contribute to the war effort. Her new husband and two brothers had already shipped out.

“I decided, well, I’m going to do my part. You could give up your nylons and you could buy bonds, but I wanted to do more,” Lloyd says firmly of her decision to enlist seven decades earlier.

But she was turned down because she did not meet the physical requirements; women had to be five feet tall and weigh 100 pounds. She went home with a weight gain plan. When she returned several months later, the recruiter grinned as he signed off on her form: “five feet and 100 pounds,” Lloyd remembers.

Lloyd smiles coyly when she talks about her favorite role during her years in the Army: drill sergeant. In 1945, she proudly helped to train the first regular Army company of women. Over the years, she led dozens of groups of new recruits through basic training, physical drills and classroom lessons to prepare them for service.

When she was discharged after the war in 1946, she craved the confidence and camaraderie the service had given her and soon reenlisted.

She “enjoyed every minute” of being in the Army, she says. “Because I fit in. It was like I was born again,” she remembers of her early days as a private first class in Ft. Oglethorpe, GA.

What “Little Bit” Lloyd missed most after she ultimately retired from the military in 1971—companionship and independence—she found again more than 40 years later when she moved to the AFRH in 2013.

A home for veterans

On the way back to her room after an ice cream social the Sunday before Veterans’ Day, Lloyd pauses as she steps off the elevator on the second floor. Large windows line the hall, overlooking the sprawling 272-acre campus. On the windowsill sits a decorative arrangement with artificially vivid green plants and two crisscrossing American flags. “I love the view from here,” Lloyd says.

The AFRH is green and lush, improbably tucked away in the Petworth neighborhood in Northwest DC, just a few miles from the White House and the downtown war monuments. In addition to the newly constructed main building and several older dormitories, the grounds house a chapel, a 9-hole golf course, and a cottage where President Lincoln lived for a time during the Civil War.

At the home, Veterans’ Day brings ice cream socials, bingo games with special prizes, small armies of volunteers, and a few minutes of military-style pomp and circumstance.

This year, Lloyd celebrates her second Veterans’ Day in front of the home’s flagpole on Tuesday morning. She stands at attention, saluting as two male veterans—garbed in dress uniforms for the occasion—lay a wreath in the home’s central courtyard. She dabs her eyes with a tissue pulled from her oversize purse, looking on as several young women in uniform, an ROTC unit from nearby Howard University, salute the aging veterans who sit amidst a tangle of walkers and canes and wheelchairs.

Of the more than 450 veterans living here, 125 served during World War II and only 16 of them are women. This population is shrinking monthly as the oldest veterans pass away.

According to Sheila Abarr, Public Affairs Officer for the AFRH, the female WWII veterans who live at the home share the unique experience of being some of the first women to serve in the armed forces as soldiers and sailors during wartime.

“There’s always that common bond with that generation, unlike any other. They were paving the way for the female service members of today,” says Abarr.

Most of the female WWII veterans—who range in age from late-80s to mid-90s—are here because of a special provision in the eligibility requirements for the AFRH, which is run by the Department of Defense. Any woman who served in the military prior to 1948 is automatically eligible for entry into the home, the cost of which is heavily subsidized by the federal government. Other veterans are eligible only if they served for more than 20 years or were disabled in the line of duty.

This exception was made because many of the women who served during WWII may have wanted to make careers in the military, as Lloyd did, but were barred from doing so. At that time, women had to leave the service in most cases when they got married or became pregnant, according to Abarr, forcing them to choose between career and family.

A little bit of heaven

It’s hard to believe watching her now that Lloyd was shy as a young woman, as she claims. At 18, she ran off to marry her boyfriend—a Baptist shunned by her Catholic family (and she by his)—before he shipped out to the South Pacific.

After arriving at the women’s training center, she soon became an expert in spit-shining her shoes and scrubbing the wooden floors in the World War I barracks where she slept with other newly-enlisted women. Recognizing Lloyd’s discipline early on, her superiors recommended her for Cadre School, where she learned to lead basic training for other recruits.

Her favorite class to teach, she says, was called “Customs and Courtesies of the Army.” She recalls researching the origins of the customs she was instructing, to make class more interesting. “The salute comes from the days when the knights would raise their shield,” she notes.

Sometimes, Lloyd started classes by reading from Dick Tracy cartoons to keep her young students engaged.

Lloyd loved training women for military service, she remembers. She was there to guide them and supervise them. One of the most important lessons is one she says she has always lived by herself: “A gentleman will always respect a lady. Act like a lady, be treated like a lady.”

During her time in the Army, she was married—and divorced—three times. She talks very little about her three ex-husbands. “I don’t owe them anything,” she says.

Lloyd appears to take pride in the fact that she didn’t quite fit the mold as she forged her own path. She made a career in the military at a time when few women did, continuing to serve until the Vietnam conflict. She left during the transition to America’s modern all-volunteer Army, lamenting the loss of discipline she saw inherent in that shift.

“I was a little bit of heaven and a whole lotta hell,” she says. She recalls that the men she answered to throughout her career—from her first boss when she was assigned to a finance position during WWII to male colleagues when she was the only woman on a munitions inspection team in the 1960s—respected her and stayed out of her way. She credits her confidence, gained from being trained and then training women newly accepted into the ranks.

There’s little question that Lloyd believes women can and should serve in the military. But she doesn’t approve of the newest changes that have come to the modern military, including women in combat. Women don’t have the physical and emotional capacity to be in a foxhole, she says.

Still, Lloyd is adamant that there are plenty of jobs that women can do as well or better than men. When the “old timers” at the home say that women don’t belong in the service, Lloyd has a few thoughts.

There are important roles for women, she says. “In the old army, there were a lot of goof offs. When a woman comes in and does a better job, they don’t like that.”

An Army of women

The current debates about the role of women in the military are muted within the Armed Forces Retirement Home’s walled campus. The women who live here are content—with bingo games and discounted beauty services at the basement salon and the fact that they served their country during wartime doing the most mundane of tasks. Most women who enlisted during WWII were assigned to administrative tasks like managing payroll and secretarial duties. Many, like Lloyd, never left American soil during the war.

But, says Phyllis Bradford, who enlisted in the Marines and served in San Diego during WWII, their role was vital. She repeats an old motto—“free a marine to fight.” She took over a man’s job, she says, so he could go overseas to serve in combat.

A few of the women who live here did serve in combat theaters. Catharine Deitch was a WAC sergeant stationed in Calcutta, at the allied headquarters for the China Burma India Theater. She, like Lloyd, was recently married when war broke out. She remembers being on her honeymoon when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Her husband, an ROTC graduate, declared: “We’re going to war.” He was drafted and she decided to enlist, but she ending up shipping out a few days before he did.

Her husband, Deitch recalls, “was the only man who stood by the train and saluted as his wife went off to war.”

Deitch echoes a refrain of gratitude for her time at the AFRH. Although much of her adult life was spent as a civilian, opening her own beauty shop, raising four children and later caring for her oldest son after he was disabled while serving in combat in Vietnam, she too is comfortable surrounded by military people.

When asked what she did during the war, another female veteran, Edith Ellington, snaps back: “We did whatever needed doing.” After serving in the Air Corps in the Panama Canal Zone between 1944 and 1948, handling clerical tasks but also working in the hospital and even on the flight line, Ellington went back to school to get her Ph.D. then went on to raise a family.

Lloyd feels that the AFRH is “the best program the government has ever created,” according to her niece, Laura Bennett, who regularly spends time with her aunt at the home. “She couldn’t have landed at a better place,” Bennett says of Lloyd. “She seems to feel very safe, settled, comfortable, and at home at a time of her life when many start to feel more and more insecure in their surroundings.”

On a Friday afternoon, several of the female veterans sit together at lunchtime in the dining hall. A newcomer—a woman who arrived several weeks earlier—says that she is enjoying her time at the home so far. “It has everything, except my family,” she laments.

“We’re your family now,” Lloyd offers in her raspy tone, grinning as she turns back to her coconut cream pie.