Fairfield County resident Mary Coates Thomas is grateful for the experiences and that she was able to share them with her sister, Jean, who is now deceased.
Fate was to bring the sisters, as receptionists to the chief of staff of the United States Army, to the pinnacle of American military power, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
During their service in the Women’s Army Corp. they were able to rub elbows with such notables as President Lyndon B. Johnson; Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded American forces in South Vietnam; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley; Gen. Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff; and Lt. Col Elizabeth P. Hoisington, commanding officer of the Women’s Army Corp Center, as well as Mae West.
The sisters were born in Norfolk, Virginia and were raised in Virginia Beach. They were best friends from the beginning. Jean was the practical jokester, while Mary could usually be found nearby snickering.
“We would have a cold or something and Mom would say, ‘Come on and take your medicine,’” Mary said. “Of course it would be Jean who would take her’s first. Then Mom would say, ‘Come on Mary Lou and take your medicine. Jean would say, ‘I’m Mary Lou and you just gave me my medicine.’”
The sisters joined the Army in November of 1965.
They went to Ft. McClellan, Alabama for basic training and their first duty station was at Continental Army Command, Ft. Monroe, Virginia.
“We worked at the Staff?Message Center, where we sat there and typed death reports, what happened to people,” Mary said. “This was the start of Vietnam. That’s where we were when they sent out a memorandum that said they needed a receptionist for the chief of staff of the Army.”
Mary first worked for Gen. Howard K. Johnson whom she remembers as being both personable and humble.
Although she admires the military careers of both Johnson and Westmoreland, she believes Westmoreland had a different type of personality.
“He was more outgoing than Gen. Johnson,” Mary said. “You have to stop and think that he was over there in Vietnam with all that going on over there - Bob Hope and Mae West when they had those shows going on over there.”
When the Westmorelands were out of town, Mary was asked to babysit their children.
“The house person would come up and wake me up in the morning,” she said. “It was nice. It really was nice.”
When she was preparing to leave the Army, Westmoreland wrote Mary a letter of recommendation, which states in part, “While serving as office receptionist, your capability for greeting and assisting the many visitors to the Office of the Chief of Staff, including high ranking United States and foreign officials, proved to be a definite asset. Your efficiency, poise and miliary courtesy have been above reproach. Your clerical skill, willing attitude and cheerful disposition, together with your desire to do the best possible job, have enabled you to provide assistance of the highest quality.”
During her three - year career, Mary rose to the rank of SP5.
She was serving in the Chief of Staff’s office during the 1967 March on the Pentagon, a major protest of American involvement in South Vietnam.
“I?never thought it was such a just war, but it was a war and we had people there dying, so that I?would have the right to do what it was I?was doing in every day living,” Mary said. “You can oppose things, but there is a cost to be paid and most of the time it is human life. Unfortunately working where I?worked, for the chief of staff of the Army, this was the man who had to write the letters home to the families of those who died and it was a very hard thing for them to do. Gen. Johnson said it was one of the worse things that he ever had to do.”
Thomas is the widow of Winnsboro native Ricky Thomas who, she said, was very proud of her military career.