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Detroit woman deemed oldest veteran meets Obama

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Longtime Detroiter Emma Didlake, believed to be the nation’s oldest living veteran at age 110, met President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday.

President Barack Obama meets with the country's oldest living veteran, 110-year-old Emma Didlake, in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday.

Obama described Didlake as serving with distinction and honor and having won “every kind of commendation.”

“We are so grateful that she’s here with us today, and it’s a great reminder of not only the sacrifices the greatest generation made on our behalf, but of the kind of trailblazing that our women veterans made, and African-American veterans who helped to integrate our armed services,” Obama said.

“We are very, very proud of them. That’s why we have to make sure we do right by them.”

Obama sat next to Didlake, who was in a wheelchair, in the Oval Office. Seated on the couch next to them was her caretaker and granddaughter, Marilyn Horne of Farmington Hills.

Didlake arrived here Friday morning courtesy of Delta Private Jets and Talons Out Honor Flight, the southwest Michigan chapter of a nonprofit organization that provides free day trips for veterans to visit their memorial in Washington.

Didlake, born in Boligee, Alabama, in 1905, joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943 during World War II for about seven months as a private and driver.

She has been awarded the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal, according to the White House.

Emma Didlake, right, age 110, receives mementos from retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who was born in Pontiac, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, July 17, 2015.

Before meeting Obama, Didlake stopped to visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, where she was met and honored by retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, who pushed for the memorial’s creation in 1997 and is now president of its foundation.

Vaught, who was born in Pontiac, described Didlake as a pioneer for women veterans and civil rights.

“She went into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943. She just decided to do it — didn’t ask her husband’s opinion or anything,” Vaught said in an interview.

“We honor practically all the service women who come through the here, but this is special. It’s just for her.”

Vaught handed Didlake her registration, and said she could look back at it when she turned 120.

“Are you going to live to be 120?” Vaught asked Didlake, with a smile.

“I didn’t know I would be this!” Didlake replied.

Didlake, dressed in navy slacks, bright red sneakers and a star-spangled American flag scarf, wore the green side cap of the Detroit Women’s Army Corps Veterans Chapter 67.

Emma Didlake of Detroit arrives at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia on Friday. Major Michelle Nhambure with the U.S. Army Marketing and Research Group is pushed Didlake's wheelchair.

After meeting Obama, Didlake was headed to the World War II Memorial.

Talons Out’s President, Bobbie Bradley, who accompanied Didlake, said her group connected with Didlake last year after a newspaper in Texas told her story.

Known to her family as “Big Mama,” Didlake was 38 and had five children when she “wanted to do something different” and signed up for the WAAC in 1943, Horne said.

About 150,000 women served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC, during World War II. Another 190,000 women served either as part of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps or in reserves for other branches of the military, according to exhibits at the memorial.

In mid-1943, while Didlake was serving, WAAC became an official part of the Army. An estimated 2,000 WAAC veterans are still living today, said Pat Jernigan, a member of the Northern Virginia WAC Veterans Chapter.

Didlake and her family moved from Lynch, Kentucky, to Detroit in 1944, where she joined the local NAACP chapter and later marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.

Didlake was deemed the oldest U.S. veteran based on information gleaned by Honor Flight representatives through national outreach campaigns.

Asked afterward how it meeting the president went, Didlake was still basking in the experience.

“How was it? How was it?” she said, repeating the question, with a slight smile.

Horne giggled and said, “Tell them again, Big Mama. Was it fantastic?”

“Mm-hmm,” Didlake said.

Horne said Obama asked about Didlake’s children, where she was from and how she liked the service.

Asked if it was overwhelming, Didlake quickly replied, “Yeah.”

“She was totally amazed. We both were. He is such a beautiful person,” Horne said. “To see him standing so close ...

“It’s a beautiful honor for our family. We’re just overwhelmed about everything. And the fact that she’s able to know what’s going on — not to just bring her here and she don’t know what’s happening — she knows. She’ll tell you.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736