Seventy-five years ago this summer, long-time Las Cruces resident Betty Somppi became one of the first women ever to volunteer for the U.S. military.
She joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC, and later WAC) to serve her country during World War II.
"It makes you feel good that we got something started," said Somppi, who turned 102 on June 30.
After living in Las Cruces for 20 years, Betty moved to El Paso in 2014.
She’s looking fo! rward to returning next spring for the dedication of a monument at Las Cruces’ Veterans Memorial Park honoring women’s service in all six branches of the military.
A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Betty Jobes (her maiden name) was a hospital lab technician in Cincinnati when she and about 1,400 other women joined the WAAC "to support the war effort," Betty said, "to help the country."
The women began basic training in July 1942 at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.
Betty was in the first group of WAC inductees to train as officers, was a map reading instructor and later became chief of training.
Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States, and New Mexico had been a state for less than four years when former Las Cruces resident Betty Somppi was born on June 30, 1915.
That same year, World War I was raging in Europe and Babe Ruth hit his first home run at the Polo Grounds in New York.
BULLETIN PHOTO BY MIKE COOK
Visitors to the fort included psychologist and industrial engineer Lillian Evelyn Gilbreth, later immortalized in her son’s and daughter’s book, "Cheaper by the Dozen"; and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Betty met Mrs. Roosevelt in a receiving line at the base, and said the First Lady "made everybody feel like she knew you personally."
For male officers, an assignment to Fort Des Moines to train the WAACs "was the last thing they wanted to do," Betty said. "But they loved it when they got there."
Betty was one of the first women at the base to receive weapons training. The group learned to take apart a .45 pistol and put it back together. But, she said, "someone squealed on us," and word came down from Army headquarters that "WAACs will not – repeat – will not – be firing weapons."
Betty married Jim Somppi on Dec. 20, 1943, while he was home on leave from his Army Air Co! rps service in China.
Betty left the WACS after WWII with the rank of captain. Jim joined the U.S. Air Force after the war, and Betty was "an Air Force wife for 25 years," she said – even pinning Jim’s second lieutenant and first lieutenant insignia and captain’s bars on him herself. The couple had three daughters and six grandchildren. Betty was 95 when her first great grandchild was born.
After Jim’s retirement, the couple spent 20 years traveling the United States and around the world. "We had a lot of fun," Betty said. They moved to Las Cruces in 1994 to be near family. The couple had been married 72 years when Jim died in March 2016.
Betty moved to El Paso to be near her eldest daughter, Sharon Amastae, who visits her mother daily at Good Samaritan Society-White Acres independent living community in west El Paso.
Another daughter, Stacey Somppi, now lives in Georgia with her husband. "Although my sisters and I have distinct personalities, it is interesting that certain facets of my mother are evident in all of us: the importance of volunteering, a love of cooking and baking and the significance of family," said Stacey Somppi, who worked for Las Cruces Public Schools for many years.
Betty still has many friends in Las Cruces, where she volunteered at MacArthur Elementary School Library for 12 years. She also volunteered for El Caldito Soup Kitchen and for Mesilla Valley Hospice, and was a long-time volunteer with Girl Scouts and with Planned Parenthood.
"There’s a lot out there to do," Betty said. "The main thing is, if you do enough for enough other people." Another key to her longevity, Betty said, was "to marry a younger man."The WACS were disbanded in 1978, as men’s and women’s units were integrated. The ban on women serving in combat was lifted in 1994.
Somppi is proud of her part in helping to bring parity between men and women in the military. Mike Cook may be reached at mike@lascrucesbulletin. com.