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Posted: September 10, 2013 6:14 p.m.

Recruiter filled big (but ugly) shoes

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, Irene 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, Irene completed her teenage years in Boone and Davenport, Iowa.

As a trained cosmetologist, 21-year-old Irene 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."

Irene 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. Irene said, "We didn’t hit the sack until 2 or 2:30 a.m.; 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 women 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, Irene said, "We were pitiful looking."

Ordered to smile when saluting officers, she recalled, "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. Irene recalled, "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 Irene mentioned, "washing a lot of windows," she was thrilled to receive orders for Boston.

"I love history," she said. "And Boston is full of history."

Assigned to the Boston induction center for women, Irene administered tests and performed clerical duties. She was also promoted to corporal.

To publicize women in the military, Irene 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?"

Irene even found time to sing on the radio with a sextet, performing songs such as "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, Irene was at Fort Devens, Mass., when she noticed an officer walking outside her living quarters carrying dry-cleaning over his shoulder.

She said, "Boy, did he look good. I said, ‘I think I’ll marry that guy.’" His name was Charles Adams, and he was a dentist at the NP Hospital (neuropsychiatric). In February 1945, Miss Irene Geiken became Mrs. Charles Adams.

Married to a dentist and the Army, Irene was sent for a two-week TDY assignment to a base in Texas. Returning to her barracks after her first day, Irene was informed she’d made sergeant.

"I was told tradition dictated that I ‘drink out of the bottle,’ so I did," she recalled. "Man, that stuff was rotgut. I’ve never been so sick in my life! Still don’t like liquor to this very day."

Irene never served overseas. She said a few women went to Italy, one to the South Pacific island of Okinawa; all of them were habitual curfew-breakers.

Irene 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 celebrated, but it was hard-earned."

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 Irene’s three daughters were still living in the Atlanta area, Burt and Irene Burquest settled 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 a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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