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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

The Grand Old Dames of Bristol High School Class of 1938

Updated: Jan 21


Lois (left) and Ruth (right) Morris dressed in uniform for their jobs at Miles Laboratories, Elkhart, Indiana.

Dora Belle Keller and my grandmother, Lois Eleanor Morris, were not exactly friends at Bristol High School in Indiana. After graduation in 1938, they went their separate ways.


Lois’s family moved to Elkhart where, as war-time production ramped up, she and her younger sister, Ruth, went to work at Miles Laboratories. Miles Laboratories produced pharmaceuticals and packaged foods for the war effort.


Photograph of George Simpson in military uniform.
One of the many photographs George Simpson sent Lois.






Photograph of the Miles Laboratories building during World War II
Miles Laboratories during World War II














Lois also did her patriotic duty, writing to at least one soldier, George Simpson, who was stationed in Brazil (possibly Recife). He sent her photographs and exotic gifts—such as a necklace made of seeds that intrigued me as a child—and a marriage proposal, although they never met in person. She categorically rejected the latter offer. After the war, Lois completed normal school (teacher training) and attended college for a couple of years in La Sierra, California, and Berrien Springs, Michigan. After teaching school in Marion, Indiana, and Vandalia, Michigan, for two years, she married an Army veteran, Paul Fox, and settled near Marcellus, Michigan, where they raised a family of three children.


Dora Belle took the more adventuresome route. Born on May 3, 1919, to Frank Reuben and Pearl Sarah (Boyer) Keller (1887-1955; 1895-1966) in Elkhart, Indiana, she grew up in Washington Township near Bristol. While Pearl raised Dora Belle and her older brothers, Eldon Berle and Burton Frank, at home, Frank worked for the New York Central Railroad.

 

World War II profoundly affected the Keller family. While the only surviving Morris son, Eldon Laverne, was too young to be drafted and the daughters became war industry workers at Miles Laboratories, two of the Keller children joined the Army.

 

As a machinist at Foster Machine in Elkhart, with a wife and daughter at home, Burton avoided military service. However, Eldon Keller—also married, but with no children—was working for the Platt Trailer Company when the draft swept him into the Army. He served in Company D, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. He experienced combat in Italy and France, and was on the cusp of entering Germany when an artillery shell hit him in the head, killing him instantly, on January 24, 1945.

 

Dora Belle Keller in her Women's Army Corps uniform.
Dora Belle Keller in her Women's Army Corps uniform.

Meanwhile, Dora Belle worked at S. S. Kresge Store (forerunner of Kmart) in Elkhart after high school, and then became a telephone operator. While Eldon Keller fought in Europe, his sister enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps, going to Des Moines, Iowa, for basic training. On April 29, 1944, in Indianapolis, Indiana, she was sworn into the Air-WACs and assigned to the 3341st Signal Service Battalion. 

 

The 3341st Signal Service Battalion sent “the first WAC contingent” of fifty-four women “on duty on the Continent.” It is unknown exactly when Dora Belle was sent to Paris, but she may have been among the “180 enlisted women…on duty in the Paris Signal Center by early 1945.” She was certainly part of the “five hundred Wacs [sic]” who “served the Signal Corps in the COMZ (communications zone) as telephone operators, cryptographers, draftsmen, artists, clerks, and drivers of message center courier vehicles, releasing technically trained men for forward areas.” (George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris, The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 Through 1945), 143)

 

In Paris, Dora Belle worked as a telephone operator and lived in the Hotel California. Food was not plentiful—mostly mutton, which Dora Belle came to despise. So, when an officer, living in the Paris suburbs, advertised a steak dinner, she was eager to go. It was at this dinner that she met war hero and career army officer, Captain James Leland Pence (1914-1965).

 

James had enlisted in the Army in 1934. He became an officer in 1942. When Dora Belle met him in Paris, he was a decorated veteran of D-Day. As the commanding officer of Company A, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, James landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Although wounded while disembarking from the landing craft, he


ignored his painful wounds and immediately set about in reorganizing his men. In this effort, he constantly exposed himself to intense machine gun and artillery fire. Refusing all efforts to get him under cover and to dress his wounds, he continued in his movements up and down the fire-swept beach spending every effort toward getting the attack under way again until he collapsed from the effects of his wounds. (The Wall of Valor Project)

 

For this event, James was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. His list of awards would ultimately include a Bronze Star Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster, Silver Star, and Purple Heart.

 

However, in Paris, James was much more interested in getting to know Dora Belle. The Women’s Army Corps leadership was all too aware of the need to safeguard the pioneer organization’s reputation. Women in the Army might be accepted as a wartime necessity, but there were plenty of critics. Among the critics’ concerns was the moral behavior of female service personnel. Thus, James had to acquire the permission of Dora Belle’s commanding officer in order to date her. By the time James was transferred to Washington, DC, the couple was engaged to be married.

 

Among the Parisians Dora Belle met, she made a lifelong friend in a girl named Jacqueline. Their two families would later reconnect when James’ post-war military career took the Pence family back to Europe.

 

Dora Belle’s own World War II service earned her the Army Good Conduct Medal, Women's Army Corps Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. She achieved the rank of corporal before her discharge in 1946. (Military Women’s Memorial Register)

 

A role among the pioneers of the Women’s Army Corps, travel to Paris, being in Europe when the war ended, and a war-time romance may have seemed the epitome of adventure—perhaps even the stuff of movies—for this small-town Midwestern girl. But the adventure was far from over.


On December 14, 1945, Dora Belle was among 212 WACS who departed Le Havre, France, aboard the troop transport ship Athos II. With the war over, everyone expected smooth sailing to New York City. That all changed seven days later. On December 21, the WACS were enjoying a social hour in the officers’ lounge when a tremendous wind hit the ship around 1:30 p.m. With the Atlantic gale blowing 124 miles per hour and the ship rolling fifty-two degrees with each wave, soldiers, WACS, and furniture were thrown all over. The ship was blown off course and ended up in the Azores Islands. The most dramatic part of the story, though, came when the WACS were ordered to the bowels of the ship to serve as human ballast in an attempt to stabilize the vessel and keep it from capsizing. Dora Belle recalled standing knee-deep in water when she shared the story with her daughter. Rescued by another troop transport ship, the Enterprise, Dora Belle and her fellow WACS finally arrived in New York on January 14, 1946.


James and Dora Belle were married on June 20, 1946. They had one daughter. James retired from the Army in 1957, and the family settled in Elkhart. After James died in 1965, Dora Belle renewed her acquaintance with Bristol High School classmate Jack Lyon (1921-2018). They married on August 27, 1977.


In their later years—after their children were raised, after they retired from careers—both Lois and Dora Belle started attending reunions of the now closed Bristol High School. As the years went by, one-by-one classmates died until it was the ladies’ shared survivorship that created a bond in their senior years. The small-town girl and the world traveler became the grand old dames of Bristol High School’s Class of 1938, along with one man, Jack Commons, who outlived them all.

 

Photograph of Lois Morris Fox and Dora Belle Keller Pence Lyon seated in a convertible car.
Lois (left) and Dora Belle (right) at their 80th Bristol High School class reunion in 2018. They, along with Jack Commons, were honored in the homecoming parade and rode through town in convertible automobiles.

Dora Belle died on July 24, 2019, at the age of 100. Lois died on December 31, 2021, just eighteen days before her 101st birthday. Jack died on January 17, 2023, at the age of 103.

 

Special thanks to Dora Belle Lyon’s daughter, Pamela Thompson, who graciously shared family stories and photos and answered questions for this article.

 

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