Wives of airmen share memories
RANTOUL — Sarah Hunsucker and Dennis Rodman have something in common.
And it's not the earrings.
Both have set foot in North Korea.
Granted, former NBA basketball star Rodman's stay was a little longer, as he traveled to that communist country to hang out with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But both Hunsucker and Rodman can say they've been there.
Hunsucker and her husband, Billie, set foot into the country while he was stationed in South Korea with the U.S. Air Force.
While Sarah Hunsucker was visiting her husband for three months during his tour of duty, they were allowed to take part in a program in which they would step one foot into North Korea — under the watchful eyes of North Korean soldiers. The couple had to take a three-hour class just to learn the do's and don'ts of their actions. (For example, don't look directly into the eyes of the soldiers and don't make any sudden moves.)
Sarah cited her visit to South Korea among the memories she will treasure as a former military spouse.
Some wives couldn't stand the frequent moving, the being away from family, the privations. Others embraced it. From interviews by the Rantoul Press with four former Air Force wives, it appears that people who love people and who like adventure embrace the role of a military wife far better than those who don't.
For Viola "Brocky" Wright, it meant five years without her husband while he was a prisoner of war during World War II and then his death at a young age after the war.
For Lillie Collins, it meant getting to meet many new people and become involved in the communities where she resided.
And for Ruth Morris, it meant being able to travel and see how the other half lived.
People who like to stay close to home and their families wouldn't enjoy being moved around so much, said Sarah Hunsucker, who with her husband of 43 years has put down roots in Rantoul.
Billie Hunsucker was stationed in South Korea from 1982-83. They lived in England from 1972-76.
"We've seen the top of England and the bottom of England," Sarah said. "My first camping trip with my husband was in the middle of a cow pasture."
That's how they do it over there, and picnics are generally taken on the side of a road, not in a park, no matter how busy the traffic.
While there, she was able to visit France, Germany and Italy, and while admiring the culture, was able to see that people in those countries don't have many of the things Americans do.
For one thing, space. Things are jammed together in many countries compared to the U.S., she said.
For another, bathroom facilities. In many countries, it's a hole in the floor, or people relieve themselves outdoors.
In England, they told her they had to spend a penny to use the restroom facilities.
In South Korea, "That's where I found out they eat cat and dog," she said. "It's a poor country. In the cities, it's different. In Seoul, it's rich. In the country, they still wash their clothes in the river."
Sarah said bathtubs in South Korea are used to hold water because the water is frequently turned off without warning.
And many of the floors are dirt.
"I could see why a lot of the wives wouldn't like it," she said.
But it was exciting for her.
Sarah is a native of Homer; Billie, a native of North Carolina. It was the Air Force that brought them together, and it was the Air Force that took them to many parts of the world.
It's a good life for many women, she said. For others, not so much.
"I think it's an eye-opener," she said. "All you need is one tour to find out if you want to be one (a military spouse). You have to love your husband a lot."
Viola "Brocky" Wright knows the uncertainty of being a military wife.
A resident of Prairie Village in Rantoul, Wright spent five years not knowing if her husband, William, was alive during World War II.
William, stationed in the Philippines, was captured by the Japanese early in the war and was part of the barbaric Bataan Death March that took the lives of between 2,500 and 10,000 Filipinos and Americans.
Both natives of Niantic, near Decatur, Brocky and her future husband got to know each other when William was home on leave at the Selfridge Army Air Corps base in the Detroit area.
"We used to have street movies," said Brocky, her mind still sharp despite her 101 years. "He came to a street movie in Illiopolis. He was coming out of the drug store, and I was coming in."
They got to talking, and he asked her out on a date. They were married in 1933, and lived in Mount Clemons, Mich.
She remembers the date like it was yesterday. Sept. 6, 1940, the day her husband arrived in the Philippines, 15 months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Married for seven years, Brocky had three children to raise.
Some military personnel brought their wives with them, but not William.
"He had a feeling there'd be trouble," she remembers.
He was right.
In early 1942, Americans and Filipinos battled the Japanese for three months before succumbing. Then 60,000 to 80,000 of them were forced to march more than 60 miles. William was among them. The march and the Japanese soldiers' actions were later judged to be a Japanese war crime by an Army military commission because of the physical abuse and murder inflicted on the prisoners.
After the war, "he told me how brutal the Japanese were," she said.
Brocky received word that the government believed her husband had been taken prisoner.
"The government did call and say they couldn't say for sure, but they were pretty certain they'd all been captured," she said. "It was pretty bad, but we were suspicious of it."
She was never sure if he was alive until after the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.
Her youngest son, Jerry, was 3 when his father left for overseas.
"He said, 'Will I know my daddy?'" she remembers.
When William returned home, his family welcomed a man who had lost a lot of weight and whose head had been shaved. He had worked as a welder at a coal mine, his wife said. He tried to steer clear of the Japanese camp commander, who let Americans know of his hatred of them by his actions, including one time slapping Williams repeatedly about the face until his face was raw.
When he returned to the states, William wanted to become a watchmaker. But the school that he planned to attend in Ohio closed, and he went back to something he knew how to do — aircraft mechanics. He taught it at Chanute.
After being together for seven years before he was sent overseas, William and Brocky Wright had only another seven years together after he got back home. He died in 1952 from heart problems that Brocky believes were caused by what he experienced as a prisoner.
She never remarried.
"I lived on Grove Avenue for 69 years," she said.
"Until the war it was a very good life. Overall it was a good life. It was a bad time during the war. I had never known a military person until he came wanting a date."
Lillie Collins said staying involved in the community where she and her husband, Percy, were posted, and her love of people, especially children, have made being a military wife an enjoyable experience.
The Collinses have seen two Air Force bases close — Chanute and one at Amarillo, Texas. (For the latter, her husband was involved in the ceremonial locking of the gate to signal the closure.)
Both natives of Alabama, the Collinses, who were married in 1955, have also been posted at Lackland Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., and Naha Air Force Base in Okinawa for four years. Percy Collins retired Jan. 1, 1971.
Probably the biggest culture shock was living on Okinawa, Lillie said.
"Christmas was like a summer day to me," she said.
Her son, Michael, was born there. (The Collinses also had a daughter, Gwen, who is deceased.)
"It was exciting to me seeing how they live," she said. "I'd never been overseas."
An Okinawan girl helped her take care of her baby.
Merchants came by selling fresh flowers. "Every day we had fresh flowers in the house," she said.
She was involved with the officers' wives group and enjoyed traveling. Not one to sit still, she said she has more energy than she knows what to do with, and that prompted her to get involved wherever they were posted.
"I am a people person, and I enjoy meeting new people," she said.
She hit the ground running when they were transferred to Chanute in 1969. A month after the Collinses arrived in Rantoul, she was named director of the Champaign County Head Start center in Rantoul. Head Start is a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families. She held the job for 27 years until her retirement in 1997.
"It was a blessing to me," she said in the living room of the Rantoul home she shares with her husband. Mayor Joe Brown proclaimed Sept. 6, 1997, Lillie Collins Day upon her retirement from Head Start. She has also been honored by the NAACP, by her church and by the Vermilion County Regional Planning Commission as the Head Start Employee of the Year.
She said her greatest asset was not only her love for the children but her strength and dedication to her job.
One thing that helped, she said, was that she and her husband weren't moved around a lot and were able to stay in one spot for long periods. That's something many military wives weren't able to say.
But there were times of separation. While they were stationed in Amarillo, Percy was sent to Vietnam for 13 months. But she said those around her helped ease the burden.
"I was in a community where people looked out for you," she said.
Lillie Collins believes being a military wife has been a good thing.
"I think the Lord has blessed me because that is my calling — people. I'm energetic, and people don't believe how old I am.
"I'm not going to tell you how old I am."
Ruth Morris is a native of rural Gifford. Her husband, Ronald, hailed from nearby Armstrong. They met through her sisters. He also worked for her aunt before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942.
Like William Wright, Ronald Morris was an airplane mechanic and later worked on airplane instruments and was an instructor.
During the war, Ruth lived most of the time in Champaign, where she worked at Robeson's Department Store.
Now a resident of Prairie Village, like "Brocky" Wright, Morris said she got to see the world as a military wife. The Morrises were stationed for three years each in Japan and England. They were also stationed a year in New York state and Wichita, Kan., and 14 years at Chanute.
The Morrises had a son, Marvin, who lives in Kentucky, and a daughter, Sharon, who lives in Cincinnati.
Ruth said being stationed overseas was difficult, but it was "also an adventure."
"It was good for the kids that they got to play with the Japanese kids. We lived off base for six months in Japan," she said.
Housing there was good, she remembers. At one point they lived in a two-story apartment building, and in England they lived in a "nice one-story house" on base.
The Morrises had the unique experience of having their son also in the Air Force. While they were in England, he was stationed at another base but was able to live with them.
England was her favorite stop, in part because they got to travel to other countries.
"It was adventuresome," she said of their time overseas, noting it gave them a chance to see things they wouldn't otherwise. "It was tough taking the kids out of school (to move), but it was just something you learned to live with." Ruth said.
"I'm just glad it happened, and I know he always was, too."
Mr. Morris retired as a chief master sergeant after 26 years in the military, and prepared tax returns in civilian life. He died in 2006.