More about 839 Mississippi: Lakeland Woman Left Teaching Career for War

Reprinted from the Ledger

By Bill Rufty

Published: Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 4:53 a.m.

Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson of Lakeland holds a photo of herself as an officer in the Navy during World War II.

LAKELAND | Elizabeth McGinnes Thompson disliked teaching school so much that she strapped on a .45-caliber pistol and took hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes alone, into isolated Navy and Marine training stations in southern California during World War II.

Now 90, Thompson, a lifelong Lakeland resident, still speaks with the blunt, no-­nonsense voice of a Navy disbursement officer. Male chauvinism in the military didn’t bother her because she ignored it and the men it came from.

“I was in Norfolk for eight months as an ensign but was a glorified secretary, collecting statistics on the amount of paper, glass and other materials used. I put in for a transfer and the commander thought he was punishing me by sending me to San Diego.

“I loved it and the boys loved to see me coming. I was paying somebody all the time.”

She was born in Lakeland and grew up on Mississippi Avenue, attended Lake Morton Elementary School, swam with friends in Lake Morton and graduated from Lakeland High School — the one on Florida Avenue, which is now Lawton Chiles Middle Academy.

Lakeland was a small, close-knit town in the 1920s and ’30s where almost everyone knew almost everyone else.

Her father owned McGinnes Lumber Co. in Lakeland, and later another location in Plant City. Her two brothers, Clyde and Willard, took over the companies after the war and kept them in the family for a long time before they were sold.


After graduating with a major in math from Stetson University, Elizabeth taught school for two years in Madison County.

She did not like the job.

“Most people joined the military for patriotic reasons,” she said. “I joined because I didn’t like teaching school.”

With the majority of men in combat, the military branches were in need of female officers and enlisted personnel in the United States.

The military in the early 1940s, however, was not the fully balanced group it is today. And while some regular military officers had to tolerate change, they didn’t have to like it.

Thompson and other female Navy officer candidates, WAVES, were trained at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., after she enlisted in 1943. She was then sent to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., for training in payroll and accounting.

First posted to the Navy yard in Norfolk, Va., she said her commander put her through menial tasks, and she suspected he didn’t like female officers.

“After eight months, I put in for a transfer. My brother, Clyde, was a Navy commander in Jacksonville and I asked to be transferred there. My boss approved my transfer but sent me to San Diego,” she said. “He thought he was punishing me, but lo and behold, it was the land of milk and honey.”

She worked with another female disbursing officer, paying sailors at the Naval Air Station North Island from a milk truck that had been converted into a pay wagon.

“Clara had A through K and I had L to Z,” she said, explaining pay was handed out alphabetically by last name.

There were times when she also went to the small installations and naval airfields in the surrounding area.

“I would take two or three hundred thousand dollars. I didn’t have sense enough to be worried,” she said. “Besides, we all had our minds on the war in this country. They didn’t have any thoughts of robbing anyone.”

She did have a sidearm, but laughs whenever asked about it.

“We had to take target practice every week,” she said. “Once, when we had to take the weapon apart and put it back together again, I did it, but when I put it back together it was so jammed they had to take it to a gunsmith downtown to fix it.”

But by then, Lt. Elizabeth McGinnes didn’t just deliver sailors’ pay; she sang for them as well. She played the organ for Sunday services on ships docked at the San Diego port and she also sang with a band on the base.

“I had to get special permission to sing with it because I was an officer and (the band members) were enlisted men.”

The band performed at several nearby bases and training stations in the area and in itself helped morale, she said.

Returning home after the war, she continued her music, playing organ at several churches, including a long period at Wesley Memorial on Massachusetts Avenue.


After the war, she spent three years in what she said was a bad marriage before she met Kenion Thompson, an Army veteran, at a Baptist summer camp in Ridgecrest, N.C.

Kenion Thompson was working on his master’s degree in agriculture at LSU. They were married in 1951 and had two daughters and a son.

Kenion Thompson worked for the phosphate industry in Polk County and later the McGinnes Lumber Co. for a while and then was hired by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he worked in the Farmers Home Administration for many years. He died in 2003.

“I never talked about my time in the service,” Elizabeth Thompson said. “I had been an officer and he had been an enlisted man. I didn’t want to upstage him.”

There was one area where Kenion Thompson upstaged his wife, however: cooking. He had been a chef for a general in the war.

“He took over all our cooking. He was lucky that he knew how,” said Elizabeth Thompson, who said she did not like to cook.

Having women in the military is not odd today, but in World War II, female officers were in the minority. “I thought they (women) made an important part of the war effort,” Elizabeth Thompson said.

“It is not a thing I would want to go through again because things are so different now,” she said. “But I am glad I had the experience. Every Veterans Day (celebration at Carpenters), I stand up. I feel like I did my part, so I stand up.”

[ Bill Rufty can be reached at or 802-7523. ]

Comments are closed.