On a wall inside Langhorne Presbyterian Church hangs a framed list of 25 names, handwritten and stacked under a bold banner: “OUR MEN ENLISTED IN NATIONAL DEFENSE.”
Toward the bottom of the service roll, though, two names stand out.
No. 17: “Lillian G. Allison.”
No. 24: “Elizabeth S. Coyle.”
For more than half a century, as the outside world wrestled with shifting gender roles, the well-intentioned, little-noticed plaque evolved into an unlikely marker of the progress of women in the military, now numbering more than 200,000 in an active-duty force of about 1.4 million.
Elizabeth “Betty” Coyle has made it to age 97. It is a safe bet that she has outlasted most of the men on the list. She no longer talks much about her years in the Women’s Army Corps, “and I don’t know why,” she said last week in her Burlington home. “Maybe it’s envy or jealousy. Now, they’re on the front lines, but at my time, we were not allowed.”
All these years later, she hadn’t the slightest idea that her hometown had paid tribute to her service. Not until the plaque was rediscovered at a funeral.
World War II provided Betty Coyle with an identity, and a husband.
From 1942 to 1945, she served in the 150,000-member Women’s Army Corps, the first group of women in American history, other than nurses, to be accepted into and receive ranks within the U.S. Army.
“Both the Army and the American public initially had difficulty accepting the concept of women in uniform,” author Judith A. Bellafaire wrote in The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service. “However, political and military leaders, faced with fighting a two-front war and supplying men and materiel for that war while continuing to send lend-lease material to the Allies, realized that women could supply the additional resources so desperately needed in the military and industrial sectors. Given the opportunity to make a major contribution to the national war effort, women seized it.”
After boot camp, Coyle was tasked with domestic recruiting and public relations outreach, focused mainly in the South. During a tour of Memphis, she received a surprise visit from her boyfriend, Clifford Spooner of Crosswicks, N.J. The two had met on a blind date as civilians.
On Sept. 2, 1944 — a furlough day during his transition from air cadet to medic — he proposed an idea. Finding ministers hard to come by in Memphis, the couple rented a car and eloped to Arkansas. Dressed in matching olive uniforms, they were married by a justice of the peace.
After the war ended, the Spooners settled in Crosswicks and quickly produced two daughters. The marriage lasted until the girls were grown, at which point the couple divorced.
Coyle moved to Miami, expressing herself in watercolor paintings and working as a government document examiner. The death of her older daughter brought her back to the Philadelphia area, eventually to Burlington.
In Miami, Coyle had joined the VFW, so upon arriving here, she sought out the closest chapter and applied. But she was offered a lesser membership, available to auxiliary military members.
“I’m not an auxiliary, I’m actually a soldier,” she protested, to no avail.
“I said the heck with it, and decided to keep my membership in Florida. Had it for the last 40 years,” she said. “… I was the only woman who had applied for it here, and they didn’t accept me. What can you do?”
Lillian Allison, the other woman listed on the church plaque, died at her Maine home in 1999, at age 86. The fellow Langhorne native is survived by her only child, daughter Virginia, who did not return a call for comment. The church’s Pastor Bill Teague declined to comment, saying only that he did not know much about the names on the service roll.
Coyle might never have known she was among the men on it were it not for a family memorial service at the church in March 2010. Her niece, Nancy Janyszeski, was waiting in a reception line when something on the wall caught her eye: a plaque and a familiar name. She snapped a photo with her cellphone.
“No one remembered ever seeing it before,” Janyszeski said.
As for Coyle, “I don’t care,” she said. “It was different in those days than it is today. Women have rights now.”
Nearly 70 years after she signed up for the WAC program, she sat inside the sun porch of her Burlington home, and gently rocked. She is hard of hearing and has trouble walking. “And at my age, I’ve forgotten so much,” she said.
She dipped into a dark blue scrapbook, attempting to piece together strands of fraying memories. She waded through hazy photos, passing over a young man in a jeff cap, but pausing at a woman sitting on a stone fountain.
Her porch window offers an uninterrupted view of the Delaware River. She parks herself there daily, starting at the water for hours, mesmerized by its unstoppable force.
“I wish I stayed in [the Army],” she said. “I think the opportunities today are much greater than they were then. You were classified as a woman, and you could only do certain things. And today you’re open to everything.”