An Alpine woman who enlisted in the Navy to fight for her country in World War II is turning 100 years old Friday.
Olive O’Mara was 21 years old when Japanese planes attacked a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She was a school teacher living in the small town of Scottdale, Pennsylvania, 49 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The first of five children, O’Mara was born to a coal miner and his wife in a town where everyone knew everyone. She said she watched as the attacks on Pearl Harbor happened and President Franklin Roosevelt declared war.
“Right away, I said I’m going,” O’Mara said with a laugh. “(Our dad) taught us to be very patriotic. There are very few things, he told me, that you should ever give your life for, and one of them is your country.”
When the first draft came, O’Mara couldn’t go because she had to finish her teaching contract at a local school. However, she went in the minute she could, O’Mara said. Arm in arm with one of her childhood best friends, the pair took time out of their Christmas vacation to enlist.
She was proud that she was able to serve her country.
“It wasn’t just a job for me,” O’Mara said.
The small-town teacher left Pennsylvania almost a year into the war and made her way to New York where her life changed forever, she said. Once they arrived, each of the new recruits were tested and given jobs based on their scores.
In her mind, O’Mara enlisted to become a nurse.
“I would do these great things saving lives and people,” she said. “I figured in a war, you would have to have nurses, and I liked that idea.”
She went into her meeting with officers ready and willing to help people from the sidelines and was shocked when her orders weren’t what she expected. O’Mara was to become an electrician.
She initially told the woman “no,” O’Mara said, and that she didn’t want to be an electrician, but it’s not that easy in a war. Her protests evolved into questions.
O’Mara was one of only two women on the East Coast to score high enough to qualify for the electrician position.
She served in the Navy WAVES, the women’s naval reserve established in July 1942. O’Mara enlisted in the Navy six years before President Harry Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act that allowed women to serve as full, permanent members of all branches in the military.
After a couple of years, O’Mara was moved to the cable office for classified communications in New York.
“I liked that because it was mysterious, and I got to know things before anyone else,” she said. “You had to keep your mouth closed and be very, very quiet about everything. I liked that idea.”
In early September of 1945, O’Mara remembers hearing over the cables that the war was officially over. She and others working in confidential communications walked about the office grinning from ear-to-ear but never saying a word.
O’Mara went home early in the morning, walking the dark and silent streets of New York as residents slept still believing the war was on going. Almost 12 hours later, the public announcement was made. O’Mara hadn’t told anyone about her experience at the end of the way until the 50-year anniversary of Victory Day.
After the war, O’Mara went home, finished a couple more degrees using the GI Bill, and started teaching once again. O’Mara taught for over 40 years in inner-city and underprivileged areas.
O’Mara moved to Utah County in 1987 after her daughter, Mary Jensen, had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was admitted into Brigham Young University, and had started a family. She said she remained in Utah because of the caliber of people.
In her 100 years of life, O’Mara said she only had one piece of advice.
“Love life, work hard and serve someone,” she said. “Give life back what it’s given to you.”
After raising three children of her own, O’Mara now resides in Alpine where her 12 grandchildren and handful of handful of great-grandchildren visit her as often as they can. She is now a member of American Legion Post 49 in American Fork, where veterans find community after they are discharged from service.
O’Mara’s family is holding a dinner with all four generations Friday, but would like to welcome the community to a reception at River Meadows Senior Living on Saturday from 1-3 p.m.