'I've been a helper all my life': Hear a 98-year-old Marine veteran tell her story
WOODBURY — Sitting in an armchair in her apartment at the Woodbury Senior Living villas, June Fremont flipped through a scrapbook, landing on a page that featured group photos of four young women. On the bottom left, the women stood in front of a backdrop of palm trees, all wearing grass skirts. In the photo above, they all held coconuts, one jokingly holding it up to her ear as if listening to it.
"When we got off the train, they ... took us all over Hawaii doing publicity shots," Fremont said.
It was 1945 and she was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, just four years after the Japanese military had attacked the naval base. Fremont, 98, had volunteered to be part of the first wave of U.S. Marine Corps women to serve "overseas," as Hawaii wouldn't become a state until 1959.
Before being shipped across the ocean, Fremont was stationed at Marine headquarters. She worked at the Pentagon, gathering information about missing- and killed-in-action Marines. She personalized the letters sent to families of soldiers killed on duty, speaking with fellow servicemen to learn about them and their final moments in hopes of providing comfort to their loved ones.
Nearly 25,000 Marines died and more than 68,000 were wounded in World War II, according to the National WWII Museum.
At boot camp, the women had to run an obstacle course Fremont said was "just like the men's." She and the other women Marines took turns standing guard at the compound armed with a billy club and a whistle. She learned how to shoot a Browning automatic rifle and ended up with bruises on her shoulder from the weapon's kickback. She marched behind the casket during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral procession.
In Hawaii, Fremont and her fellow servicewomen took over non-combat jobs from men returning from fighting in the Pacific, which allowed them to return home.
In 2017, Fremont was honored for her service at an annual Marine Corps birthday ball in Washington D.C. She was the oldest Marine in attendance and shared a piece of cake with the youngest Marine at the ball, a tradition meant to symbolize the passing of knowledge on to a younger generation.
"It was my honor to have served," she said. "And you know, when I think back, I was awfully bold."
Her son, Jim, a U.S. Navy veteran, asked her why she decided to enlist in the first place back in 1942.
Fremont responded: "I was patriotic."
After he pressed her for more detail, Fremont continued: "Just to help out. I've been a helper all my life."
Fremont turned her attention back to her scrapbook, pointing out comedian Bob Hope in one of the photos.
The 3M years
While stationed in Virginia, then-June Schwark met her future husband, Army tech sergeant Leo Fremont. Leo, who died in 1988, served in Europe at the same time June was in Hawaii.
After they both left the service, Leo and June married in Chicago. After briefly living in Denver and having their first daughter, the family moved to St. Paul in 1949. June went on to have four boys and another girl.
After raising their children, Fremont decided to go to work at 3M Corp.
"I didn't start 'til I was 50, when my last kid could be trusted," she said.
Fremont worked the first few years as a "floater," someone who would help out in a department for a few days or a week when needed. She then worked full-time in the audio/visual department for many years before going part-time and working in the company archives for about a decade, digitizing brochures, advertisements and other corporate literature.
Other 3M employees were some of her biggest supporters when it came to her military service. When Fremont took an Honor Flight in 2015, trips that honor senior veterans with a flight to Washington D.C. and its memorials, she said "half of 3M" was at the airport at midnight to greet her when she returned.
Fremont retired to much fanfare at age 93.
"We were all sitting there going, 'Mom, I hope you retire before we do,'" Jim said.
A life of service — with a few celebrity appearances
Leo Fremont wasn't the only person of note that June met while living in D.C. She had a chance encounter with then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt while at the Pentagon.
"She came right up to me and she said, 'Where are you from?' And I was from Chicago," Fremont said. "And she says, 'Are they treating you well in the Marine Corps? Do you like it? Are they feeding you alright?' She was so sweet."
Fremont has recounted her story about the meeting to students studying WWII, a Wounded Warriors group, people at her church and at the Marine Corps ball.
"I always say, 'This is the hand that shook hands with Eleanor Roosevelt. I haven't washed it in 75 years, so if you touch me, you've touched Eleanor Roosevelt.' You would be surprised how many people come up to touch my hand," she said. "I'm not kidding you, they're serious."
Fremont added that she also met and said hello to then-Vice President Harry Truman. Earlier in her life, back in Chicago, she and her friends even met and danced with Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Dorsey and Perry Como at the Aragon Ballroom.
"If I knew then what I know now, I'd have been nicer to them," she said with a chuckle.