“You ever had a general kiss you on your forehead?”
This is the question 90-year-old Corporal Nell Martin Campbell has been asking her nurses since two Army generals and other “top brass” visited her at Baptist Health in Richmond (formerly Pattie A. Clay) on Aug. 25.
Campbell is a WWII-era female Marine from Waco, who was recently hospitalized after a fall that left her with eight broken ribs, bruised organs and a punctured lung. Her grandson, Lt. Col. James R. Martin, was among the visitors, who were in town for a commander’s conference conducted at the Blue Grass Army Depot.
During the visit, Maj. Gen. Robert Stall bent over Campbell’s bed and kissed her forehead, a moment “she will never forget and will relive forever,” said Dinah Martin, Campbell’s daughter-in-law.
“The realization that two generals and others had altered their plans and made it a priority to visit her was like medicine,” Dinah said. “It was a real morale-booster.”
Campbell was one of the 18,000 women Marines who were enlisted during WWII between 1943 and 1946, James Martin said.
That number was reduced to just a few thousand near the end of the war, until 1948 when Congress voted to give women “full-fledged status in the military,” he said.
Before 1948, the enlistment of women in the military was more of a “war-time, stop-gap measure” and they were not intended to serve for long terms, James said.
After training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Campbell was sent to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, where women Marines operated the military bases while every able-bodied Marine man was engaged in combat.
“Without women stepping up to the plate in WWII, there was no way those stations could have stayed open,” James said.
During the WWII era, women soldiers had catchy nicknames like “WACS” or “WAVES,” which are both acronyms for women in the Army and Navy respectively.
But, when asked what women Marines would be nicknamed, Gen. Thomas Holcomb said in the March 27, 1944, issue of Life magazine: “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one. They got their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines.”
So when James Martin joined the military at age 17, he asked his grandmother if she had been called something like a WAC or a WAVE. She seemed to take offense to his question, he recalled.
“I’m a Marine,” she simply answered.
Campbell was the 13th of 15 siblings, several of whom enlisted and went on to represent every branch of the military.
In 1943, at the age of 21, she joined the Marines to “follow her sweetheart,” she said.
Her fiance, Borda Astor Martin, was in what was then known as the Army Air Force and had been stationed in Europe for 30 months.
She and Borda had met in Louisa, Ky., where she had been a hairdresser and he a Coca-Cola truck driver. One day, Campbell was walking with her sister and she passed Borda on the street. They both turned around to look at one another, fell in love, and the rest is history, she said.
During the war, Campbell sent Borda cigarettes and love letters as he was stationed in Europe. In one of their exchanges, Borda wrote to her: “You’re beautiful and I’m proud of my little Marine.”
Campbell still has those letters today and reads them often, she said.
While stationed at Camp Pendleton, where she lived for two and a half years, Campbell’s duties included “drills and marching,” she joked. Her full-time job was as a beautician for Marine women.
Campbell also serviced the wives of officers because she wanted to, not because she was required to, she said, because “there are no servants in the Marine Corp.”
When she first arrived at Camp Pendleton, a chair was placed in the showers so she could work. Later, the military built a salon just for her, she said.
On the weekends, she went to the “Hollywood Canteen” where she liked to go movie-star gazing.
After Borda returned from Europe and Campbell left the military in 1945, they married and settled in the Floyd County community of Garrett, where Borda worked as a chemist for a coal company and Campbell opened a salon in their home.
Borda died just nine years into their marriage and Campbell was left to raise a 5-year-old daughter Liz and 7-year-old son James.
“She never received one penny of government assistance,” Dinah said of her mother-in-law. “She never wanted or expected any help, which is something she is very proud of.”
Campbell went on to raise two successful children, both graduates of Berea College. She has four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, “all of which have visited her in the hospital numerous times,” Dinah said.
“They come to pay their respect and let her know how much we appreciate and admire her,” she said. “Nell is a beautiful example to the entire family.”
Until her hospitalization, Campbell was described as fit, active and totally independent. She lived in her Waco home with her five cats. Campbell still styles her own hair and regrets that she didn’t have a chance to give herself a perm before she fell and met the two generals, she said.
Campbell has since been transferred to the Lexington VA Medical Center to recover and undergo physical therapy.
And although she has asked every nurse at the new hospital if they had ever been kissed by a general — so far, no one has.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, Ext. 6696.
“You ever had a general kiss you on your forehead?”
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