Mabel Stamm had no idea how to swim when she signed up for the United States Coast Guard in April of 1943.
"They put us out in the ocean for swimming lessons...being from the country I had never been around water," the 93-year-old Laclede Groves resident said with a laugh.
But she wasn't afraid - she just did what her instructors told her to do and learned how to swim. She was glad about one thing - she got to take most of her swimming lessons in a pool instead of the ocean after an incident that left her with a broken toe.
"During the swim lessons in the ocean a big wave hit us and I got pushed into another girl and fractured my toe, so then I got to use the pool," said Stamm, who grew up in a small town in Illinois. "I did pretty good for never having been near water."
In addition to the swim training, which was held in Florida, Stamm's all-female unit was made to march in the sun for hours at a time.
"We had nothing to protect us from the sun - no sunglasses, no sunscreen - my arms would blister," she said.
But it wasn't all bad.
"We laughed so much on the drill field one time at our instructor who was from Brooklyn (because of his accent) that he walked off the field," she said, chuckling. "We were terrible, but we couldn't help it."
After finishing six months of basic training in Florida, Stamm was transferred to the Coast Guard office in St. Louis, which was located in the old U.S. Post Office building downtown. Her main job was taking dictation, which wasn't always easy.
"The commander I worked for was from Georgia and he had a southern accent, so he was very hard to take dictation from," Stamm said. "That was the hardest job ever."
She then worked in personnel and rose through the ranks during her three years in the Coast Guard. She entered as a seaman apprentice, then became yeoman third class, then yeoman second class and eventually was promoted to yeoman first class. In the Coast Guard, a yeoman rating is usually associated with secretarial, clerical, payroll or other administrative duties.
"I went in with one stripe and by the end I had three stripes for first class yeoman," she said.
Although her parents have long since passed away, Stamm fondly recalled tender words from her father.
"I was one of six kids and he always called me his little soldier girl," she said.
Stamm said she still doesn't know what possessed her to sign up for the Coast Guard.
"The war broke out in 1941 and a lot of girls started going into the Army, the Navy and the Marines, and I just thought, 'I'm going to go in the Coast Guard,'" she said.
Prior to her service, Stamm graduated from Colchester High School in Illinois, then attended six months of business college in Quincy, Ill. She then worked in the office at Carthage College, making 25 cents an hour.
"My kids still don't believe that," she said, adding she also worked a state civil service job in Springfield, Ill., before enlisting.
After her three-year stint in the Coast Guard, Stamm got a job at Union Electric and married Peter Hellberg soon after. She was a stay-at-home mom until her daughter and son were in high school, then worked various jobs after that.
After retiring, she and her husband enjoyed traveling to the Philippines and Hawaii. The two had been married 47 years when Peter died of cancer. Several years later, Mabel married Fred Stamm. They lived on Eichelberger for a number of years before Fred died and Mabel moved into Laclede Groves, a senior living facility located in Webster Groves.
Stamm is looking forward to celebrating Memorial Day because Laclede Groves puts on a special celebration. She hopes others will take time this holiday to remember all who have served.
Over the years, Stamm kept in touch with several of the women who were in her unit, sending Christmas cards and attending reunions throughout the country. Sadly, she has no more Coast Guard friends left to correspond with.
"I'm the only one still alive," she said.
Stamm gives the Coast Guard a lot of credit for her stamina and can-do attitude.
"The Coast Guard is one of the reasons I'm still here - it made me tough," she said.
Tough as it was, Stamm said she wouldn't trade her service experience for anything - those three years helped shape her for the rest of her life.
Nearly 70 years since Stamm enlisted, the experience is still with her. She stole a glance at a black-and-white photo of her 24-year-old self in her Coast Guard dress uniform.
"Dress up uniform was a white dress, white shoes and a white hat," she explained. "We couldn't carry anything in our right hand because if we saw an officer we had to salute them. To this day I still carry everything in my left hand."