As a child, Elsie Mae Parrott Herron went to Bartholomew County cemeteries every Memorial Day.
During the 1930s, the Hartsville girl thought it was fun to tag along with her World War I veteran father and hear him play taps on a bugle at military ceremonies.
Visits to the cemetery aren’t so much fun anymore.
Her mother, Mary Parrott, died in 1974. Her father, Ingle Parrott, died the following year.
Tears may be shed as Herron places a floral arrangement at the headstone of her parents.
“I still cry and think of Dad every time I hear a bugle,” Herron said.
But the most emotional part of her visit to Hope Moravian Cemetery likely will be when she places a second flower arrangement at the final resting place of her husband of 43 years, Navy veteran Paul Herron.
Elsie Herron was named grand marshal of the Hope Heritage Days parade in 2003 to honor her two years of military service that began a month after Germany’s surrender in 1945.
She was one of 70 veterans flown to Washington — at no cost to them — this month to visit the World War II Memorial as part of the Indy Honor Flight program.
As she reflects on these accolades, Herron’s mind begins to compare her two years of stateside service to the seven years
her husband gave his country, often amid combat conditions.
Paul Herron placed his life in danger by serving aboard destroyers and minesweepers throughout the European and Pacific theaters. Thinking about that makes her voice crack with emotion.
“Paul really went through a lot, and he’s the one who deserves all this praise,” Elsie Herron said. “I don’t deserve it. I didn’t fight the war. I just took care of the ones that did.”
Angel of mercy
When compared with other military personnel of her generation, Elsie Herron did catch a few lucky breaks. For example, she was singled out from the rest of her platoon to carry the Navy flag during a parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City while in boot camp.
After completing basic training at Hunter College in the Bronx in New York City, Herron was first sent to the Farragut Naval Training Center on northern Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille.
Her assignment as a pharmacy technician first class was to treat German and Austrian prisoners of war suffering from infections, rather than wounds, in a medical unit.
With moderate winters and scenic snow-capped mountains in the distance, Farragut was a peaceful place, Herron said. Prisoners were allowed to play soccer, table tennis or pool and had a band, a choir of 30 voices and a library.
Naturally, some Americans thought the former soldiers for the Third Reich were being pampered, according to historic accounts. But archived records state it was the military’s official policy to treat enemy prisoners as we would want the Germans to treat captured Americans.
The result of that policy helped Herron form a core value she still holds today:
If you give respect, you get respect.
“The prisoners were so nice to us,” Herron said. “If they saw me with a broom, they’d come and sweep up for me. If anything heavy had to be moved, they would volunteer to do the work.”
But the environment wasn’t as peaceful after her transfer to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Seattle, where Herron was assigned to give shots and physical therapy in the medical facility’s burn unit.
Herron remembered how the smell of burned flesh revolted her. She also recalled how some of the wounded, mostly Marines, had burns so severe that strings were used to elevate their legs to keep the sheets and blankets from taking away the flesh.
“Very tearful,” Herron said. “But you eventually set aside the sadness by reminding yourself you are not there to pity them. You are there to help them.”
Instead of using her off-duty hours to escape the pain and misery, Herron spent most of her spare time playing cards with her patients and reading or writing letters for the wounded.
“I felt it was my duty, to do my part in serving my country,” Herron said. “I wasn’t there for pleasure.”
As a result, the wounded servicemen were exceptionally appreciative and courteous to the young woman from Hartsville they came to consider as their angel of mercy.
Memories of those burn victims will likely emerge for Herron today on Memorial Day, as well as memories of her father and husband. Reflections about two classmates from Hartsville who were killed in World War II are also likely to surface, she said.
There’s also her brother, Donald Parrott, a naval machinist during World War II who died in 1964. And a sister, Jeanne, who served as a naval hospital assistant in the WAVES division during the same war.
Good memories, too
But by no means does Herron expect her sentimental journey to be completely sad. A memory that frequently surfaces while visiting Paul Herron’s grave is how her husband enjoyed telling humorous wartime sea stories to the couple’s five children.
For example, she recalls how hard her kids laughed as their father described chattering monkeys climbing out of trees in the Philippines during outdoor pingpong games and trying to steal the pingpong balls from the players.
This year, she’s also preparing for an upcoming visit from Travis Herron, one of eight grandchildren, who is carrying on the family tradition by serving in the Air Force.
He is expected to bring Herron’s great-grandson, whom she hasn’t seen in three years, to Hope after leaving Utah while on his way to serve his third overseas tour of duty.
Elsie Herron has no doubt she will take several moments today to reflect on the blessings she’s enjoyed as an American, as she does every day.
Her gratitude includes her husband’s 35 years as a Marathon Oil distributor in the Hope area, and investments that are still providing her and other family members with financial security 24 years after he died of cancer in May 1990.
Elsie Herron also is grateful that she has been able to devote much of her life to her passion: children. Not only hers but also thousands of others she transported back and forth from classes for 32 years before retiring as a bus driver for the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. in 1997.
While she expressed deep concern for the number of younger Americans struggling financially today, Herron can’t bring herself to criticize a country that has given her so much.
Instead, she urges all Americans to take a break from their money worries, count both small and large blessings, and be proud of what they’ve got.
“We should all take just a little time to thank the ones who gave their lives so we can have our freedoms and opportunities,” Herron said.