By Curt Yeomans
Not too many people can say they had encounters with a British monarch, and a future monarch, a prime minister, and got to work for a future U.S. president, all in the span of a year and a half.
Then again, not too many people did the kind of work Helen Kogel Denton did during World War II. Denton, and 11 other secretaries in the Women's Army Corps, spent nine hours a day, five days a week, from February 1944 to April 1945, typing the orders for the D-Day invasion of northern France for allied forces commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Denton, 88, a former Jonesboro and Riverdale resident, who now lives in Fayetteville, recounted her experiences to a group of 60 members of the Clayton County Retired Educators Association during their monthly meeting in Jonesboro on Tuesday.
"I can remember it [the invasion] as if it were yesterday," Denton said. "It stayed in my mind all of these years. I knew everything that was happening, because I had typed up the order for the invasion."
Denton had joined the Army, as a member of the Women's Army Corps, in 1943. She was initially a secretary for the post commandant at Fort Crook, near Omaha, Neb. At the end of 1943, the commandant received a telegram instructing him to pick one of his secretaries for a top-secret mission working for Gen. Eisenhower in England.
"I volunteered," Denton said. She and other secretaries then had to undergo training from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, on how to deal with top-secret documents.
At the time the secretaries arrived in London in January 1941, the city, was undergoing "The Blitz," in which German planes were dropping bombs on the city, at night, on a regular basis. She said the bombings limited chances for her to see much of the city.
There were some chances to go on tours, though, through the Red Cross. On one trip, a tour of Windsor Castle, Denton and 14 other tourists had a royal encounter. The tourists were in the portrait room when the doors to the room opened, and four more people entered the room.
The people walking through the door were King George VI; his wife, Lady Elizabeth, and his daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) , and Margaret.
The royal family then approached their guests, and Denton did not know what to do at first. "I'm just a country girl from South Dakota, and here is the king of England," she said. "How do you address him? Do you kiss his feet? Do you kiss his ring? And, then he was standing in front of me, and so I just said 'Helen Kogel, from Woonsocket, South Dakota' and reached out and shook his hand. He asked me what I did, and I told him I was one of Gen. Eisenhower's secretaries ...
"His response was 'Oh, do you know my daughter, Elizabeth?' and I was like 'No,' " Denton continued. "He then said, 'She's going to be driving some of your officers around.' So, I turned to her, and said, 'Oh, I hope to see you around some time,' never imagining I was talking to the future queen of England."
On another trip, this time to London's No. 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the prime minister of Great Britain, Denton and other tourists were invited to have some tea in the living room by one of the housekeepers. The door opened, and another figure from British history appeared in the room.
It was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. "He came in, picked up a cup of tea, and a scone, and then walked out of the room," Denton said. "Afterwards, I wrote a letter to my mother, telling her I had just had tea with Winston Churchill."
While the secretaries were all working on the same task, Denton said it was a topic that never came up in conversations among them. In fact, they did not tell anyone what they were doing for the military.
After the secretaries finished typing for the day, their typewriter ribbons were burned to prevent the information from falling into enemy hands. The ladies finished typing the orders in April and gave the final pages to Gen. Eisenhower himself.
"I handed the orders to him, and he said 'You have a brother stationed here in England, don't you?' referring to my brother, Jerry, who I hadn't seen in three years," Denton said. "I told him he was correct, and he said 'Here's a weekend pass, you're going to go visit him.'"
Then, two months later, the D-Day invasion happened. "It was a beautiful, sunny day, but all the day before, and the night before, you could hear the planes roaring overhead, heading towards France, and I remember thinking 'Boy, Germany is really going to get a pounding,'" Denton said. "It was a very rough day for me, thinking about what we were doing, and what our soldiers were going through, though."
After the beaches of northern France had been secured by allied forces, Denton said she and the other secretaries were sent to Utah Beach in Normandy. It was there, in a chow line, that she met Noel Denton, an Army signal corpsman, Clayton County native and her future husband.
Later, the secretaries were sent to Paris. Finally, in August 1945, they were sent home, because the war in Europe had been over a few months at that point, and the war in the Pacific was coming to a close as well.
Cathy White, president of the retired educators' group, said the organization, which meets once a month, tries to schedule speakers, like Helen Kogel Denton, who have interesting stories to tell, and valuable information that would interest retired educators.
"Just the thought of being there, and seeing these people, like the king of England, and Winston Churchill, can you imagine that?" White said of Denton. "She has absolutely lived two, or three lives."