At 101, Crystal Lake woman recalls enlisting in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor’s bombing

Lorraine Miller was among the first 200 women to join the Navy in 1941

U.S. Navy veteran Lorraine Egan holds a photograph of her self from when she was in the Navy during World War II, on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, at her home in Crystal Lake.

On Dec. 7, 1941, teenager Lorraine Miller was on a double date.

As she waited in the car for the other couple to arrive, she heard on the radio that the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor was under attack.

That night, while still a senior at Crystal Lake Central High School, she declared, “I’m joining the Navy.”

The next day, the now 101-year-old Lorraine Egan of Crystal Lake went with her father, a World War I veteran, to the Navy recruiting center and enlisted.

She was among the first 200 women to join what the Navy called WAVES – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – and was referred to as “little ripples,” she said.

“I was tough,” Egan said with a laugh about pushing back against some of the men who were less supportive of women in the military. “I learned to be tough in a gentle way.”

She was among three women in her family and the only one to join the military.

Her father, who worked as a screw machine operator in Chicago after his service, was supportive of her decision, she said.

The Navy paid for her to go through nursing school at Hunter College in New York then sent her to basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County.

She worked as a nurse at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and was involved in surgeries and delivering babies, which she said she loved.

Her daughter, Kathy Meyer, said her mom shared many stories of her time as a nurse in the Navy.

“She just loved all the work,” Meyer said, adding that her mother said she liked being present, even during autopsies. “She said it was just about lunchtime when they did an autopsy and nobody else was hungry [afterward], and she was still hungry. Nothing bothered her.”

Nothing, that is, except for her time stationed at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. Egan said she had to work with doctors engaged in germ warfare, which she did not like.

The camp was the site of the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories, which was responsible for researching bio-containment, decontamination, gaseous sterilization and agent purification, according to the Fort Detrick Alliance.

“I said, ‘I don’t like this,’ ” Egan said, recalling seeing rabbits, as well as people, being tested on with unknown agents.

She recalled sometimes having to give the shots and seeing some people carried out of the facility looking “like they were dead.”

She begged to be transferred out of the camp and eventually was, but not before meeting John Egan, who would become her husband of 55 years and father to their three children. He died in 2002.

They got together even though she’d sworn she would never marry an Army man, Egan said, laughing.

When they met on a night out off the base in Maryland, he was not in uniform, so she did not know he was in the Army. By the time she realized it, it was too late, she said – she already had fallen for him.

But her other longtime love is actor Matthew McConaughey, of whom she unapologetically displays a poster in her living room. Her daughter said there is one in her mom’s bedroom, too.

Egan said she liked the regimen of the Navy and eating baked beans for breakfast every Saturday.

Being in the military taught her to be kind and always stick up for the person being picked on.

When she joined the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she said it was because “I just wanted to be a part of it. I just knew I wanted to go in.”

After her service ended, she became a stay-at-home mom, raising her children with her husband first in an apartment in Woodstock before moving to Crystal Lake.

She said life has taught her to be nice to everyone and not let anyone be bullied.

In her 101 years, she said she has seen the inventions of television, airplanes and computers. She recalled being the first house in the neighborhood to have a TV set. She said all the neighbors gathered at her house, ate popcorn and watched programs such as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and she laughed at the uproar over Elvis Presley dancing.

To women considering joining the military today, Egan said she would encourage it. The military pays for education, instills a strong work ethic and teaches people to be thoughtful and care about others.

Nicole Eisenrich, 44, of Lake in the Hills is a retired Air Force staff sergeant who was an armament specialist on F-15 and F-22 aircraft. She said Egan not only paved a path for women to join the military, “but she had to figure out the path … and bring the stones.”

“I’m sure she didn’t know what she was getting into,” Eisenrich said. “Because of people like her willing to go [into the military], I got to do something. The rest is literally history. She’s more than just an inspiration – she was part of a movement and probably didn’t even know it at the time.”

Egan still lives in the home she shared with her husband, which is on land once farmed by her great-great-grandfather, she said.

She often has visits from neighborhood children and is a member of the American Legion William Chandler Peterson Post 171.

Vets from the post saluted her at her 100th birthday celebration last year at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church. That celebration also included a drive-by of dozens of Harley-Davidson motorcycles roaring past her house and a visit from Crystal Lake Mayor Haig Haleblian.

“She’s an amazing young lady,” Haleblian said. “She is just a lot of fun to be around. I hope when I grow up I can grow up to be like Lorraine.”

This year’s birthday celebration on Sept. 29 was a smaller, quieter gathering.

Egan’s only birthday wish was for peace and that “everybody believe in God and be honest.”