LISTEN to Helen Kearney on Hometown Heroes
91-year-old Helen Kearney of Salinas, CA appears on episode #331 of Hometown Heroes, debuting September 6, 2014. Growing up with three sisters in Clarinda, Iowa, she was Helen Huddle, daughter of a World War I veteran. In fact she still has her father’s World War I uniform and helmet.
She was studying nursing at the University of Nebraska in Omaha when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After graduating, she decided to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps. By the time she headed overseas on a hospital ship, the war was nearly over, but that didn’t stop her from experiencing some adventures most 21-year-old would never imagine. You’ll hear her recall that 40-day journey, through the Panama canal, and all the way to Saipan, where she served with the 39th General Hospital. Upon arrival, she was immediately warned about the perils of being a woman on the island. A nurse had just been kidnapped and buried alive. She does remember a few situations that produced concern, but on the whole, being one of the few American women on Saipan had its advantages. “There were 100,000 men on the island, and less than a hundred of us,” Helen remembers. “That’s a pretty good ratio if you were a woman.”
You’ll hear her remember suitors like a B-29 pilot, and a redhead Marine nicknamed “Pinky,” but eventually she met a man who “swept her off her feet,” and the way they met was hard to anticpate. Listen to Hometown Heroes to hear the unusual manner in which she encountered a tall, athletic officer named Bill Kearney. One of their early dates was to a boxing match, where Bill arranged for military police to protect her as the only woman in a crowd of 20,000 servicemen.
She returned home to the U.S. before he did, but once Bill made it home, they got married and settled in Salinas, where Helen has lived since 1947. Bill, who died in 2011, was a longtime educator, coach, and administrator in Salinas, and in 1991 a track meet was named in his honor. Competitors go head-to-head annually in the Bill Kearney Invitational. Among the athletes Bill coached in Salinas was the namesake of one of the city’s high schools, Everett Alvarez, Jr. Alvarez was a navy pilot shot down over Vietnam. He was captured and remained a prisoner for more than 8 years, the second-longest captivity of any Vietnam era P.O.W. Alvarez has written two books about his experiences, Chained Eagle and Code of Conduct.
Helen sang in the choir during her time on Saipan, and she continues to perform with a senior chorus in Salinas at age 91. “I love to sing, for one thing,” she says. “and we go around to nursing homes. It’s a way to give to the community.” Asked how she stays so seemingly young at 91, Helen says it’s a combination of things. “Mostly, you know that God’s giving you help all the time,” she says. “You need to turn to God for help, and also keep active and keep contributing, and keep going no matter what.” For more photos relating to Helen’s story, visit the Hometown Heroes facebook page, and if you run into this energetic nonagenarian, please thank her for serving our country.