Local WWII veterans celebrate 73 years of marriage and mark 100th birthday milestone
Story and photography by Bryce McCuin
It’s a cool, crisp Saturday morning in Greensboro. James and Thelma Leys are up and dressed, resting in their wheelchairs and waiting for guests to arrive.
A Savannah Court attendant approaches them with a warm greeting. “Good morning Mrs. Leys, how are you today?” she says.
“Pretty good for an old lady,” responds Thelma.
It’s become her signature phrase around the retirement community, but this day is a little more special than most. Today, her family is coming for a birthday celebration – Thelma’s 100th.
Four children, six grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren will soon join them for dinner, fellowship, and a chance to listen to all the amazing stories Thelma and her husband, James, have to share.
It’s not often you get a chance to celebrate a 100th birthday. It’s even more rare to do it with your soon-to-be 100-year-old spouse. James turns 100 next September. According to National Vital Statistics Reports, the average life expectancy for a white male born in 1920 is age 54, while that of a female is age 66. At 100 and 99, Thelma and James have certainly defied those odds.
Two factors contributing to a shorter life expectancy were the great Depression and World War II. James and Thelma not only lived through both eras; they also served their country during the war. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, James and Thelma are two of the approximately 500,000 World War II veterans left in the U.S.
But as unique as that is, Thelma’s journey to meeting, and eventually marrying, her husband is a real treasure to share.
Born Thelma Josephine Snell in Ridgefield, New Jersey on November 6, 1919, Thelma was one of three kids born to Thomas and Lucy Snell. At age four, she moved to Babylon, Long Island, where she lived a pretty typical childhood consisting of school, church, girl scouts, and occasional camping trip with mom, dad, sister, and brother.
Her childhood, however, was anything but typical. As part of what author and former NBC anchor, Tom Brokaw coined “The Greatest Generation,” Thelma experienced the amazement of innovations like the invention of the telephone and television; followed by the grit and determination of weathering The Great Depression and contributing to the efforts of World War II.
But if you ask her what it was like to live through such tough times, her response is quite simple. “Back then, you did what you had to do.” And that’s exactly what she did.
After graduating from Babylon High School in 1938, young Thelma attended Cortland State Teachers College in Cortland, New York. She was chairman of the Girl Scouts of America at Babylon, earning the golden eaglet award during her tenure, and was also a member of Sigma Tau Delta Sorority.
But rather than pursuing a career in teaching, Thelma began working as a recruiter for the Army. While recruiting, she and a couple of friends decided they would go try and enlist as officers but were told they were too young and sent on their way. Undeterred, Thelma decided to return a few weeks later. She asked those same friends to accompany her, but they were too afraid to go. Thelma wasn’t and made her way there alone.
This time, she got in.
Thelma would be the first woman from Babylon, New York, to enlist in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The organization was established “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of women of the nation.” U.S. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill for the creation of WAAC in May of 1941. After witnessing the status of women in World War I, Rogers vowed that American women in the Army would serve with all the rights and benefits afforded to Soldiers.
Congress approved the creation of WAAC on May 14, 1942 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law on May 15. The day after signing the bill, Oveta Culp Hobby was sworn in as the first Director.
The first women arrived at the WAAC Training Center at Fort Des Moines in the summer of 1942. There were 125 enlisted women and 440 officer candidates, who had been selected to attend WAAC Officer Candidate School. Their arrival brought considerable public interest at the time surrounding civil rights.
Thelma arrived to the facility a few short months after its opening in November 1942. “Fort Des Moines was an old Army base,” explains Thelma. “I remember there being lots of horses. We were housed in stables that had been converted into barracks. It was different, but it worked for us.”
After a few weeks in basic training, Thelma reported to the aircraft warning service in Bangor, Maine. At that time, WAACs were coming in ever-increasing numbers to the Bangor Filter Center. The women relieved Army men so they could report for active duty on the fronts of the war overseas.
There were three shifts running around the clock, according to Thelma. The Army provided identification books and flash cards to help in identifying the different types of U.S., German, Japanese, and Italian planes. Operator assisted calls were made to identify incoming aircraft.
Following a brief stint in Bangor, Thelma relocated to Camp Polk, Louisiana. It was here that she decided she wanted to be an officer, which meant a return trip to Des Moines for Officer Candidate School (OCS).
“(OCS) was tough,” recalls Thelma. “There were drills to learn and lots of studying.” The toughest part, in her opinion? “Getting used to wearing a gas mask.”
Following graduation, her first assignment as commanding officer of the WAAC Detachment led her to Turner Field in Albany, Georgia. Turner Field was used for acclimatization training and advanced flight training as part of the 30th Flying Training Wing – schools providing advanced two-engine flying training for air cadets.
One perk as commanding officer, Thelma recalls, was being allowed to sign up to accompany an officer pilot to whichever destination he was going. She took that opportunity to ride along to New Jersey with a fellow officer so she could visit family back home in Babylon.
From Albany, Thelma saw a brief stint in Selma Field, Alabama, before making her way to Camp Atterbury outside of Indianapolis. Once fertile-farmland, Camp Atterbury became a popular prep site for service during World War II. The Camp trained more than 275,000 troops and housed various facilities that supported the war effort including the Wakeman General Hospital and Prisoner of War internment camps.
One officer in training at the camp was James Leys. The young man from Grand Rapids, Michigan, held a clerical position with the Army and quickly caught the attention of Thelma. A relationship began and it wasn’t long before James would pop the question.
Considering their status in the Army, getting time off to get married wouldn’t be easy. Thankfully, James knew someone who could help.
Just as Thelma pulled rank in Albany to visit family in New Jersey, she would do the same at Atterbury – this time to start a family of her own. As senior officer, it would be Thelma who would grant the three-day pass for James Leys in order for him to take her hand in marriage. The two would journey to Cleveland, Ohio, and on April 6, 1946, exchange vows at a private ceremony in front of family.
After both were discharged, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., so James could go to work for the FBI. He would spend time in the nation’s capital training to be an agent; which was a position he held prior to his being drafted for WWII.
Those plans would soon change when James would learn of his father’s passing back home in Grand Rapids. James and Thelma decided to returned to James’ hometown to help care for his mother and ailing grandmother. It was here that James would begin his career as a loan officer with a local bank in Michigan. Though Thelma didn’t work, she did hold the position of commanding officer at home, which included caring for their four children Beverly, Marjorie, Gene, and Bruce. Thelma was also an active volunteer in the community.
Following James’ retirement from the banking industry in 1982, the couple split time between Michigan and Florida before ultimately moving to Athens in 2010. In 2018, they became residents at Savannah Court in Greensboro.
Fast forward to today.
As Thelma sits, surrounded by family and pondering a wish in front of her 100th birthday cake, she already has much to be thankful for. The former commanding officer in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp played a huge role in paving the way for thousands of women serving in the military after her. Her devotion to James of 73 years is a strong testament to marriage and commitment for other couples to follow. She helped raise four successful children and even passes wisdom to the next generations to follow as a grandmother to six and great grandmother to eight.
Regardless of what her wish might be this 100th birthday, everyone who knows Thelma can certainly testify – she’s doing pretty good for an old lady.