October 28, 2018 

 Terry Frei


Edna Middlemas. (Courtesy Middlemas family)

In her later years in Greeley, Edna Middlemas downplayed the fact she had been awarded the  meritorious service version of the Bronze Star for her work as Edna Heinecke in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

“She used to say, ‘You know, I just got the Bronze Star for keeping my mouth shut,'” her daughter, Diana Reese of Salida, said Sunday.

There was a lot to keep her mouth shut about.

Yet as the letter of recommendation and the Bronze Star citation her children discovered in a file after her death at age 102 this past July in Greeley made clear, there was more to it than that.

She hadn’t even shown her children the medal itself until the week after their father, Burt Middlemas, died in late 2004 and they talked Edna into opening up her trunk of military effects.

At the pivotal Yalta Conference in February 1945,  the forces of Germany were on the verge of defeat and the Allies began to plot post-war European strategies.

Edna, a WAC stenographer who had graduated from what now are known as Greeley Central High and the University of Northern Colorado, transcribed and took notes about the communication among those present.

Those present included President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union Premier Josef Stalin.

Among other things, and this is presumption because Edna took seriously the order to remain discreet until the day she died, she documented that the leaders agreed that only unconditional surrender from Germany would be acceptable.


 Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Josef Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Edna Heinecke was there, too. (Associated Press photo.)

The recommending letter and citation praised her for not just taking notes and contributing to the official report, but also for her accuracy and portrayal of the words, tones and messages exchanged by the leaders. As the documents also noted, she helped coordinate communications for the conference.

But would she ever tell her kids about it? Even when they asked? Even many years later after many World War II documents had been declassified? Not even something innocuous about, say, Churchill’s cigar?

“Oh no, oh no, oh no,” her son, Harry Middlemas, said emphatically Sunday from Grand Junction. “Oh no, that would be way beyond anything she would do. First of all, it would be bragging or showing off. And, second, I’m sure she was told that was top secret and that stayed top secret with her. We joked with her some about it. We’d say, ‘Mom, that was 40 years ago …’ Or whatever. We’d say, ‘Surely you can talk about it now.'”

Nope. She wouldn’t.

“She was very tight-mouthed for years and years,” her daughter, Mary Christiansen, said. “We said to her for years, ‘Mom, the war is over. You can talk now.’ But she took it seriously that she had a high security clearance and wasn’t supposed to talk. She didn’t talk even long after it was over.”

Also during the war, Edna served as a WAC in North Africa, Iran, Italy, France and Germany. As the war raged around her, she worked with Gen. Carter Magruder, one of the U.S. forces’ most influential war planners and logisticians.


 At Edna Middlemas’s 98th birthday party: Steve Reese (son-in-law), Diana Reese and Mary Christiansen (daughters), Harry Middlemas (son); Edna, and Randy Reese (grandson). (Family photo)

To those three children — Diana Reese, Harry Middlemas and Mary Christiansen — Edna Middlemas was “Mom.”

Just “Mom.”

She would have been 103 on Friday.

This will be the first time her three children – a blended family, yet one in which all three kids wholeheartedly consider Edna their mother — won’t be able to celebrate her birthday with her, and it will be wrenching.

“I’m going to celebrate that day, celebrate having such a fantastic mom who was such a great role model,” Reese said. “I know she’s in a better place. I miss her terribly. I’m going to be celebrating a life well lived. She was so humble. Talking about herself wasn’t something that she did.”

Said Harry Middlemas: “If anything, it will be a day of celebration. She was not one to brag on herself. Every once in a while, you could get her to talk, but it wasn’t anything you could get her to carry on about.”

This remarkable woman spent much of her life in Greeley, moving to the area with her previously nomadic family in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression. Edna Heinecke was 14. Her father, Rev. Harry Heinecke, was a minister, preaching at First Presbyterian Church (now Cornerstone Community Church) and other churches in Northern Colorado region.


 Edna Middlemas. (Family photo.)

After her UNC graduation, Edna went to work in a Greeley real-estate office. Soon, she took a Civil Service exam and virtually immediately was summoned to Washington D.C. to work in the War Department. Although Edna didn’t talk about it, Mary Christiansen theorized that her score was off the charts. “She really wasn’t looking to go to Washington, but they called her,” Christiansen said.

In 1943 — with the U.S. fully involved in the European and Pacific Theaters — she joined the Women’s Army Corps, becoming a “WAC.”

Soon, she was working with Magruder and significantly contributing to the American war effort on the planning and communications front, including at Yalta.

She did share a few stories — ones she didn’t consider violations of her secrecy mandate — about her service with her children and others, but not many. One was about mischievously going Absent Without Leave, journeying to Rome and joining in the celebration of its liberation, accepting two weeks’ confinement to barracks as her “punishment.”


 A young Edna Middlemas early in her WAC service. (Family photo.)

After three years of post-war work in Washington, Edna in 1948 resumed working for Magruder, who became chief of staff of the Army, including at the Pentagon.

She married Burt Middlemas, a World War II Navy veteran and court stenographer for the Department of the Army, in 1957. It was the second marriage for each. Edna had been  briefly married in the early 1950s, when she was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in London. Burt was a widower and the couple met when both taught Sunday School at Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia.

When Burt retired, the couple moved to Greeley — in Edna’s case, it was a move back — in 1972 and Edna continued to work at home as a subcontracting transcriptionist until the mid-1990s.

She was active in several local groups, and she and Burt loved to square dance and travel.

Burt died in 2004.


 Edna Middlemas at her 100th birthday party in 2015. (Middlemas family photo.)

Mary Christiansen taught for 32 years in Fairbanks before coming to Greeley to live with Edna in her final years, serving as her primary caregiver in the Middlemas’ Greeley home. Edna loved going to Fat Albert’s, including to celebrate birthdays, and to the Egg and I for breakfast. And as long as she was able, she went to concerts and shows.

“Lots of people asked her, ‘What’s the secret to a long life,'” Christiansen said. “She always said, ‘I’m interested in living.’ She didn’t worry, she didn’t stress, and she believed that things happened for a reason.”

Edna was slowed after she suffered a fractured femur last in 2017 and underwent a hip replacement at age 102, and she died on July 15.

Few knew of Edna’s World War II and subsequent service.

“I think her friends and people knew that she was a WAC during World War II,” Reese said. “They knew dad had worked at the Pentagon and mom had worked at the Pentagon. But, yes, it was mostly under the radar.”

That’s just the way they were.