March 19, 2018
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Female Marine veteran’s service memoir a fitting Memorial Day observation

By Joni Averill

Monday, May 30, is Memorial Day, a federal holiday set aside to honor the men and women who have died in service to their country.

There are many ways to remember those who have lost their lives while on military duty.

Some of us attend or participate in parades, listen to or give speeches, visit cemeteries and decorate graves with flags and flowers, or host meals or activities for veterans who served with those who died.

And while some of us may spend the day in other ways, we can still honor deceased members of our military by flying American flags and observing the National Moment of Silence at 3 p.m. But some people have created their own special, and permanent, way to honor those who died and those who served.

Frances Robinson Mitchell of Veazie is an 87-year-old veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

She has such a deep admiration, respect and love for members of the 1st Marine Division of the U.S.M.C. that, several years ago, she put her thoughts on paper and into a book so her memories of World War II, that special division of the Marines, her military service and life before the war would forever be available, on the record, for anyone who is interested.

“I just had to write a book,” Fran told me. “I wanted to describe the 1st Marine Division in World War II, so I wrote the book, published it and collected information to back up what I said.”

The book, “Experiencing The Great Depression and World War II” (1989), was  actually written backwards, Fran explained.

“Usually you do a lot of research before you write a book, ” she told me, and usually you write it from beginning to end.

But not Fran.

“I wrote what I remembered and then did the research,” she said, and she wrote the second part, about the Marines and World War II, first.

Because she was writing for her family, for posterity, and not necessarily to become famous or create a best-seller, Fran decided she must also describe what life was like before World War II: what made people of that generation the way they were, what life was like for Americans during the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929 when Fran was 5 years old.

Fran’s father owned a lumberyard in Brewer, blueberry barrens in Washington County and  a lumber mill in Staceyville, where she grew up.

Fortunate were those who were able to live off the land during the depression, Fran will tell you. She is forever grateful for having had the opportunity to be raised in The County, which she believes is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and for the life lessons and values she learned and acquired there.

After graduating from Ricker Classical Institute in 1942, Fran attended the University of Maine in Orono.

By then, however, life as she knew it had changed, drastically, because the U.S. was now in the war.

And Fran experienced the deeply personal tragedy of the loss of a very dear and beloved friend who was a member of the 1st Marine Division of the Marine Corps who fought at Guadalcanal.

But, more than that, she told me, “it bothered me seeing all those obituaries” in the newspaper.

“I knew I just couldn’t stay there,” she said of remaining in college as the war wore on and young men like her friend were dying every day.

Fran knew what she had to do.

In April 1944, she turned 20, the minimum age for women to join the military.

With her mother along as chaperone and to give her permission as was the custom at the time, Fran went off to Boston to enlist in the Marine Corps.

And while these new recruits were officially known as members of W.R., or Women’s Reserves, her commandant, when asked what they would be called replied, “Well, they’re going to be Marines, aren’t they?”

Fran was assigned to Camp Lajeune in North Carolina and is proud of the fact that she was one of 20,000 women Marines  “who made the 6th Marine Division possible, because we freed them up to fight.”

Fran looks back fondly, and with a fierce pride, on those days of service to her country while members of the 1st Division were fighting in the Pacific, helping bring the war to a close.

“All Marines are special,” she said, but she is particularly proud of the 1st Division because of her close ties to it.

“They really had the pick of the lot,” she said of men she described as “big-time fun, intelligent and good people.

“Even [the late comedian and longtime troop entertainer] Bob Hope said the 1st Marines stood out among all of them,” she told me.

Fran’s book is a good, quick read filled with wonderful memories and acute observations about rural life during the depression, and how that shared agrarian experience contributed to the military lifestyle of her generation.

Most of the 1,000 published copies have been sold, but five books are available at the Bangor Public Library, and other Maine libraries have copies as well.

The book is a fitting read for Memorial Day, or any day of the year, and a delightful, truly Maine  recollection of the life of a woman who served, in memory and honor of those who died for their country and those who were fighting for it.

Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402;; 990-8288.

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