Iris Gillen, who just turned 99 on April 6, was all smiles last week in her Stansbury Park home where she lives with her daughter.
Gillen talked about surviving World War II while living in England and other memories from her nearly 100 years of life.
“Turning 99 doesn’t feel so bad,” Gillen said. “Keeping active gives you a long life, keeping happy, and having happy people around you too.”
But Gillen’s real secret to a long life is black tea with cream, sugar, and sometimes milk.
“A cup of black tea might be it,” she said laughing.
Gillen was born in Kent, England, about an hour from London on April 6, 1923.
War broke out when Gillen was around 16. She remembers her parents being given ration cards.
“We had to live a different life,” she said. “You could only buy so much milk or anything. They gave you coupons and when you spent them, you couldn’t buy anymore.”
During the war, Kent was on the front lines, because of its proximity to German-occupied territory.
The region played a part in many decisive moments of the war, including the Dunkirk evacuation, the Battle of Britain, and the preparations for D-Day, she said.
During her teenage years, Gillen remembers hearing bombs going off nearly every day.
“As the war got started, the Germans were bombing London really bad,” she said. “They sent the bombing planes over us to get out there. It ruined all the buildings and there were fires everywhere…My mom was really nervous and frightened. She would look out to the sky every evening and say ‘Why haven’t they come here?’ Then they would come over and she would be scared.”
Gillen’s family had an air raid shelter in their backyard.
“My mother would be ready to go down there when they were flying over, she would get the bird in its cage, the dog would follow her, and they would go down to the shelter,” Gillen recalled. “Me and my dad didn’t go down there too much. We stayed in bed. Some people were scared.”
But during the experience, Gillen said she wasn’t afraid often.
“I always thought if you got killed, you got killed, and that was it, you know?” she said.
When Gillen turned 18, she, along with all girls at the time, were given the choice to either work in a munitions factory or join one of the auxiliary services. Gillen chose to join the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, the largest women’s service during the war with over 250,000 women.
During her time in the Women’s ATS, she was stationed near London where she held a typing job.
She remembers London officials turning out all of the city lights to keep from getting bombed and the noise the German planes made flying over.
“It was a loud, roaring sound as the planes flew over,” she said.
Gillen didn’t expect to meet the love of her life at a dance hall one evening with friends.
“The dance halls were for the soldiers for when they were on leave to get stationed in different places in England,” she explained. “A man came and asked me to dance and that was the beginning of it.”
His name was Elmo Gillen.
“We [Gillen and girlfriends] stayed at a girl’s hostel and the next morning, Elmo came to see me,” Gillen said. “My friend went down to see who was asking for me, because I wasn’t ready. When she came back, she said it was the boy I had met at the dance hall last night, and after that we just kept seeing each other.”
During the war, Gillen and her future husband corresponded via letters, because he was stationed away from Gillen for three years.
“He proposed in a letter and sent the ring over,” Gillen’s daughter Jackie Schenck said.
In 1949, Gillen traveled to Oasis, Utah to marry her sweetheart. She said they lived a happy life.
Together they had eight children, four girls and four boys, 12 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren.
“Everything that I’ve done, I wouldn’t change,” she said. “I am glad I came out here and married Elmo and had my children. I’ve been very happy.”
While living in Utah, Gillen sent a letter back to England to her mother every week until her mother passed away.
Her husband passed away in 1998. Gillen moved to Tooele County in 2020 to live with her daughter.
At 99, Gillen can still recite “Daffodils” by William Wadsworth. She often takes walks around Stansbury Park and listens to audiobooks.
To younger generations, Gillen’s advice is to be kind.
If Gillen could change the world, she would stop wars.
“Keep peace on earth,” she said.