Elizabeth Tallichet: Captain led the way

October 24, 2005 

A chill lingered in the spring air of Washington, D.C. Sunshine bathed bare branches and cherry blossom buds.

Down on Constitution Avenue, Elizabeth Tallichet was crying.

Through her tears, she marched in her olive-drab jacket, gray skirt and yellow gloves, eyes forward, chin up. Tallichet, then Capt. Machen of the Women's Army Corps, led 195 other WACs past weeping people who were crowding to glimpse President Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral procession.

A commendation from the WAC commander later praised Tallichet's company for the "military precision" and "solemn dignity" displayed on April 14, 1945.

"It was agonizing," said Tallichet, 86, a retired Army major and former school counselor who lives in Harris Township. "It was a slow cadence, which made it more difficult for us. And everybody was just desolate about FDR's death."

Still, she couldn't miss one bystander's comment as the rows of WACs stepped in unison.

"There was a Marine standing on the sidewalk watching the parade, and he said, 'Wow, look at those girls march!' " Tallichet said. "I guess he thought women couldn't do that."

He wasn't alone.

More than 400,000 women served during the war, the first time women other than nurses were able to don their country's uniform. They struggled for respect from some in the armed forces. Tallichet recalls a few higher-ranking male officers not returning her salute or even meeting her eyes.

A Harrisburg native, Tallichet was an assistant accountant for an insurance agency in 1941 when she volunteered at Eastern Defense Command's Anti-aircraft Operations in Philadelphia. She and four friends shuffled in their socks along a huge map of the Eastern Seaboard, helping track aircraft by placing reports on top of model planes.

After Pearl Harbor, military personnel took over the job. A colonel, who liked the women's work, suggested they enlist so that he could bring them back.

All five did in the fall of 1942. Tallichet had been thinking of joining the Army anyway -- partly from the example of her brother, Bob. He belonged to the 101st Airborne Division regiment, the 506th, celebrated in the 2001 "Band of Brothers" television series.

"We were just a patriotic family," she said.

The reality of Army life hit her in basic training.

Standing at attention on icy mornings in Des Moines, Iowa, made reveille almost unbearable, even in ill-fitting GI overcoats.

"There was one woman in front of me in formation, and she was shorter than me," Tallichet said. "She put her collar up -- we all did, it was so cold -- and you couldn't see her. And we called her 'Walking Coat.' You couldn't see her feet or her head."

Once on KP duty, Tallichet didn't immediately heed a sergeant's order to scoop garbage with a ladle from one can to another.

"I never asked another question again in basic," she said. "You could hear her for five miles away, reaming me out in no uncertain terms."

Officer Candidate School presented a different challenge.

"We were reminded all through OC school: 'You have to do better than the men.' " she said. "That was drilled into us. And there were quite a few who dropped out. They couldn't take it."

After becoming a second lieutenant in February 1943, Tallichet did return to the Eastern Defense Command as an anti-aircraft operations officer. A year later, she transferred to Washington.

Starting in March 1944, she commanded the Mayfair Detachment, named after the old, eight-story hotel where the WACs were billeted. The women mostly worked in the upper echelons of the War Department as clerks. Some typed the D-Day invasion plans.

Among her duties, Tallichet accompanied capital military police every time they took female officers or enlisted personnel into custody.

"They'd come for me around 2 or 3 in the morning, and I would have to get up and go with them," she said.

She did another job alone. Five times, she sat down with one of her women and delivered shattering news.

Her turn came with a call.

She was in her office, and the lobby pay phone rang. With the guard on break, she picked up the receiver. It was her sister-in-law. Days after jumping into Normandy on D-Day, Lt. Bob Machen had been killed.

WACs, typing his name on casualty lists, couldn't bear to tell her.

"I came back to my office and closed the door," Tallichet said. "And my first sergeant came in, and she was terrific."

Tallichet was younger than most of her women, but that didn't stop them from tacking up a Mother's Day card for her as a joke.

They followed her through marching drills in the alley behind their hotel every morning as faithfully as they did for miles on that sorrowful April day in 1945.

She would go on to a stellar career -- youngest WAC staff director of Washington's military district, a regular Army appointment and five years in the reserves until a regulation prohibiting servicewomen from having dependent children forced her to retire in 1954.

But like her old uniform hanging in a case, she'll always treasure the memory of her wartime friends.

"It was an honor to have that company," she said. "They were such wonderful women."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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