CHULA VISTA, Calif. --
As a child, one usually counts down the days until his birthday; anticipating the cake, ice-cream, and gifts galore, a day all his own. But, as he ages, birthdays often become less important. Instead of signifying happiness and glee, they just represent another year older and more responsibility.
This year, Shirley Kornegay’s 87th birthday signified something more than just another year older. It signified a time to reminisce about her enlistment in the Marine Corps, and a time to share her stories with her loved ones and Marines at the Veteran Home of California, Chula Vista, Calif., Jan. 30.
Kornegay enlisted in the Marine Corps in July 1943, in the middle of World War II, at age 18.
“After seeing the Marines come home in their dress blues, I knew that the Marine Corps was for me,” said Kornegay.
She enlisted in the Marine Corps the same day her brother enlisted in the Navy, and left for boot camp shortly after. In 1943, boot camp was a bit different than it is today. It was a 6-week course at Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, N.C. Marksmanship and weaponry were subjects female Marines were not taught. Instead they were taught basic administration skills, proper wear of the uniform, and Marine Corps history.
While in basic training, Kornegay befriended Lena Mae Riggi, the wife of the famous Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipient, John Basilone.
Riggi became the godmother of one of Kornegay’s daughters.
“At our age we didn’t realize how lucky we were to have a woman like Lena in our lives,” said Shawnee Miller, Kornegay’s daughter. “We always just knew her as Aunt Lena we didn’t realize how important she and her husband were.”
Upon completion of her basic training, Kornegay, along with 48 other women Marines were sent to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Calif. These women, later nicknamed “the 49-ers,” were the first female Marines aboard the depot.
“At first I thought I’d be homesick being so far from my home in Indiana, but once I got here I knew I wanted to stay,” said Kornegay.
Originally, Kornegay was assigned the job of a telephone operator, but eight weeks into her work aboard the depot, her commanding officer called while she was working the switchboard, and she requested the opportunity to switch job to motor transportation because telephone operator was too mundane. The colonel obliged and allowed her to change jobs.
“In just the two years I was in, I changed 100 percent. I went from being too shy and timid, to too brave,” she said.
During the time she was in the Corps, Kornegay met the man to whom she’s been married for 65 years. His name is Kenneth Kornegay.
“We met and married as privates first class, and have been in love ever since,” he said.
Now, Shirley and Kenneth, shared their stories and time spent in the Marine Corps with Marines from the depot.
Col. Stephanie Smith, commanding officer, Headquarters and Service Battalion, Master Sgt. Yolanda Hamilton, staff noncommissioned officer in charge, property control office, and Staff Sgt. Heather Vecchia, Substance Abuse Control Officer, all came to visit and give birthday wishes.
As Kornegay came through the hallway she was greeted with hand shakes, hugs, and kisses.
“This was her first real birthday party,” said Susie Krystek, Kornegay’s sister. “We grew up as ‘depression kids’ so we never really had the opportunity to have a birthday party,” she said.
During the party Kornegay was sporting her old service uniform cover, which she has held on to since boot camp and has kept in mint condition. Her family showed off old photographs of her during her time spent in the Marine Corps.
Kornegay labeled this day as the ‘happiest day of her life’ and a day that she would always remember.
“Even though I never did get my dress blues, I’m still glad I joined, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” she said. “I love the Marine Corps with all my heart.”