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Farm girl helped on the homefront as a Navy WAVE

Special Photo. Conyers resident Ona Lester joined the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943 after a co-worker in the U.S. Treasury Department announced she had joined to support the war effort.

Special Photo. Conyers resident Ona Lester joined the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943 after a co-worker in the U.S. Treasury Department announced she had joined to support the war effort.

Ona Lester joined the WAVES, the U.S. Navy's Women's Reserve, in 1943 after a co-worker did so. Lester, who grew up on a chicken and turkey farm in Minnesota, said she believed she had as good a chance as anyone to be accepted.

Lester left Minnesota for the first time in her life to work for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. She was later transferred to Chicago in 1942.

"I was in Chicago for six months when this girl I worked with said she had joined the WAVES, the women's Navy," Lester, 94, said from her Conyers home. "I thought, 'Shoot, she wears thick glasses, I don't. If she can get in, so can I.' So, I went down to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and joined the Navy on May 17, 1943."

Lester went to Hunter Women's College in New York for preliminary WAVES training. She recalled sharing a room with a young lady from Iowa until the Navy found out her roommate was underage. "They sent her straight home," she said. "Women had to be 21, but she was only 20. So, there I was, in the upper bunk with a room all to myself."

Lester had two sisters already in nursing, so she volunteered for the Navy Hospital Corps. She had many assignments in the beginning and few that actually had anything to do with nursing.

"The Navy shipped me to the Norfolk Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va., but I mostly did clerical work, including checking officers into the chow hall," she said.

Other duties included processing new recruits. Eventually, Lester was finally given the opportunity to practice her Hospital Corps training.

"I started giving inoculations, but it took me a few sticks to catch-on. The recruits were nice about it, though," she said.

She was promoted to Pharmacist's Mate First Class after supplementary training in New York and Bainbridge, Md. Lester was proficient in the performance of general hospital duties. She explained that she worked several positions so males with the rank of Pharmacist Mate First Class could hit the beaches with Marines to render first aid on the battlefield or at a dressing station.

"I enjoyed the Navy," Lester said. "It wasn't hard on me at all."

Women in the Hospital Corps normally received a transfer if requested.

"I asked for a transfer to the Navy Hospital at Great Lakes, Ill.," Lester said. "I guess I wanted a different duty."

With eye-catching loveliness, when asked if she had the time to socialize while in the military, Lester said, "Well, I was introduced to a nice boy in the hospital, but I found out he was married, so that ended that."

Four months later Lester received another transfer to the Navy Personnel Separation Center in Minneapolis, Minn. There she helped process sailors out of the Navy -- World War II was over, the killing had ceased. Lester received her Honorable Discharge in December 1945.

The oldest of seven children, Ona Thilla Lester, nee Finseth, was born in 1917 in Byron, Minn.

"I was raised on a chicken and turkey farm. When I attended school we always had prize turkeys for my 4-H projects," she said. "Everybody back then had animals on their farms. The Great Depression hurt most people, but my mother told us how lucky we were being farmers. My family didn't go hungry."

She attended school in a one room building heated by a coal stove. "I thought it was modern for the time," Lester said. "The boys had their own outhouse, and so did the girls."

Getting a good education typified the Finseth family -- her grandfather was one of the founders of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

Lester remembers when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. "We heard the news on the radio about Pearl Harbor being bombed, then listened to President Roosevelt's famous speech," she said. "None of us knew where Pearl Harbor was, but we realized our country was at war."

She met her future husband, Georgia Tech graduate and USN Lt. Barnett Reid Lester, at a Bingo Party in Washington, D.C. They married on Nov. 18, 1950. Lester sewed her own wedding dress. She explained, "The material cost $49, including the $10 I paid for my veil."

Her husband worked for Maryland Light and Power as an engineer until 1974. They moved to Lester's hometown farm in Rockdale County the same year. Barnett worked for the railroad and farmed while Ona settled in as a housewife. Reid passed away in 1982.

When asked her first impression of Georgia, Lester said, "Well, it was a lot warmer than Minnesota."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Email him at petemecca@gmail.com.