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Chad Hunter
Cherokee Phoenix 

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — A 100-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen was honored Aug. 15 for serving her country during World War II as part of the groundbreaking Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

“My great-grandmother came over on the Trail of Tears,” Winifred Dudley, of Owasso, said. “I’m just thankful to be part of the Cherokee Nation. We serve a great God. He will never leave us nor forsake us. He’s going to take care of me. I don’t care if I am 100 years old.”

The centenarian was dubbed a “Cherokee Warrior” and awarded the tribe’s Medal of Patriotism at the monthly Tribal Council meeting.

“She’s from what we refer to as the Greatest Generation,” CN Secretary of Veteran Affairs S. Joe Crittenden said. “In 1944 at the height of World War II, she enlisted in the newly-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. One year later, this auxiliary unit was changed to the Women’s Army Corps, which granted official military status to those women volunteers … a groundbreaker for women in U.S. active service.”

Born and raised on her family’s allotment near Westville, Dudley served in the U.S. Army for nearly two years as a clerical worker, military postal worker and chaplain’s assistant.

“She was a forerunner for women,” her son, Wayne Dudley, 67, said. “Prior to World War II there were no women enlisted in the military of the United States. But they had already used up all of the boys in the U.S. basically. There was a need for certain jobs in the military operation they needed to fill, so they began enlisting women for the first time ever.”

According to the U.S. Army, the purpose of the WAAC and later WAC was to make available “to the national defense the knowledge, skill and special training of women of the nation.”

“The mission of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was to provide support to the Army by releasing men from administrative duties to serve in combat,” a historical recap from the U.S. Department of Interior states. “From the beginning, the WAAC bill met opposition. At this time, most women did not work outside the home, and a woman serving in uniform was unfathomable.”

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In total there were 150,000 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. Dudley, whose name was Winifred Whelchel at the time, was discharged approximately a month after the war ended, in September 1945.

“When the war was over, she returned home on leave for a couple of weeks and ran into my dad (Jess “Jay” Floyd Dudley), who was also born and raised in Westville,” Wayne Dudley said. “They had known each other, but not well, before that. They met each other on the main street and two weeks later were married.”

A year older than Winifred, Jay Dudley died in 2016 at the age of 95. He had served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and earned a Bronze Star for his involvement in the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge. They had been married for 70 years before his passing.

“My mom has lived a full life,” Wayne Dudley said. “She had four birthday parties because she is so widely known and loved. At least three of those parties, there were well over 100 people at each one. Anywhere she has ever lived, she has been known well and loved because she’s been such a servant of others and has just been endeared to everybody.”

Growing up, he never saw his mother wear her military uniform, but “now she wears it every day,” he said.

“That is her identity,” he said. “At this stage in her life, she is a veteran, and over the years she’s belonged to multiple veterans’ organizations. She has volunteered for many years until just about two or three years ago at the veterans’ clinic. But growing up, that was not her primary identity. She was a mom. She was a wife. She was a community member.”

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. also announced during the Medal of Patriotism presentation that Dudley would be receiving an additional award from the tribe.

“In addition to this award, we are going to present Ms. Dudley with the Patriotism Award at this year’s Cherokee National Holiday, so we hope she will come back and see us here in a few weeks,” Hoskin said. 

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This article was first published in the Cherokee Phoenix.