Emma Didlake was a 38-year-old married mother of five when she answered her country’s call. With the United States deep in the throes of World War II in 1943, she enlisted in the newly instituted Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and served with over 150,000 other corps members in non-combatant roles both at home and aboard. Didlake was among the first women other than nurses to serve within the ranks of the U.S. Army, and as an African-American in a still-segregated military, she was a trailblazer in more ways than one—not that she saw herself that way. “I didn’t know I was breaking barriers,” she told the San Antonio Express-News earlier this year after celebrating her 110th birthday on March 13. “But I enjoyed doing what I was doing because I had committed myself to do just this.”
Born in Boligee, Alabama, in 1905, Didlake grew up in Kentucky and married a coal miner. When she made the decision to join the war effort, she did not seek her husband’s permission. “There wasn’t no argument or anything like that, it was no trouble. I just did it,” she told the San Antonio Express-News. “I wanted to do different things.” For seven months, she served stateside as a private and a driver. For her commendable service, she earned the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, American Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.
Didlake moved with her family to Detroit in 1944, according to the Associated Press, and soon after the end of World War II, she enlisted her services in another fight—the struggle for civil rights in America. Didlake joined the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and two years ago she received a lifetime achievement award from the organization in recognition of her service. She was also an active member and educator at the Second Baptist Church of Detroit.
The woman known to her family as “Big Mama” outlived her husband and all five of her children before her death on Sunday at a long-term care facility in West Bloomfield, Michigan, where she had recently moved after turning 110. According to the San Antonio Express-News, Didlake credited her longevity in part to eating golden raisins that had soaked overnight in a pint of vodka.
Not even a month before her death, Didlake garnered headlines on July 17 when she took a whirlwind one-day tour of Washington, D.C., that was sponsored by a local chapter of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that arranges free flights to the nation’s capital for veterans to visit the memorials dedicated to wars in which they fought. Didlake visited the World War II Memorial, Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. She also toured the Women’s in Military Service for America Memorial where she was presented with a copy of her official record.
The highlight of the trip was a White House visit and a meeting with President Barack Obama. Wearing a green veterans hat and dressed in a stars-and-stripes neck scarf, a navy blue suit and red sneakers, Didlake sat in her wheelchair in a spot usually reserved for foreign dignitaries—in front of the presidential fireplace in the Oval Office. “We are so grateful that she is here with us today,” the president told the press as cameras whirred and clicked. “And it’s a great reminder of not only the sacrifices that the greatest generation made on our behalf, but also the kind of trailblazing that our women veterans made, African-American veterans who helped to integrate our Armed Services. We are very, very proud of them.”
“I’m saddened she’s not here,” Marilyn Horne told the Detroit Free Press after her grandmother’s passing, “but glad that she got an opportunity to do everything in her life that she wanted to do, including meet the president.”
“Emma Didlake served her country with distinction and honor, a true trailblazer for generations of Americans who have sacrificed so much for their country,” President Obama said in a statement. “I was humbled and grateful to welcome Emma to the White House last month, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Emma’s family, friends and everyone she inspired over her long and quintessentially American life.”
Out of the 16 million Americans who served in the military during World War II, fewer than 1 million now survive, and according to the U.S. Veterans Administration, veterans of that war are passing away at a rate of approximately 500 a day. With Didlake’s passing, the oldest known American veteran is now Texan Richard Overton, who was born in May 1906 and served in World War II.