Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Gift of a WASP Homecoming

The WASP's Homecoming 2015  Eighteen Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and 3 trainees, pictured in front of the National WASP World War II 
Museum in Sweetwater, Texas, attended the WASP's Homecoming 2015.  Photograph courtesy of the National WASP World War II Museum.  
Editor's Note: The Woman's Collection of TWU, housed in the Blagg-Huey Library on the Denton campus, is a source of great pride for the TWU Libraries. The largest depository in the Southern United States of research material about women, it also houses the Official Archive of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  

WASP (female volunteer civilian pilots who played a pivotal role in WWII) gathered recently at their Homecoming 2015 to visit and reminisce.  In attendance at this special event, made all the more bittersweet by the dwindling number of WASP (of the over 1,000 WASP, only 127 are still with us), was Kimberly Johnson, Coordinator of Special Collections for the TWU Libraries.  Here, Kimberly shares her very fond memories of that special weekend.     

Cruising along I-20 toward Sweetwater, Texas, conditions were wet and windy on that gray Friday.  Thunderstorms had plagued the drive from Denton; what should have been a three-hour trip became a four-hour trek.

I arrived at the National WASP World War II Museum in time for hamburgers in the hangar, and had the great honor and privilege of joining WASP Alice "AJ" Starr and her granddaughters for a wonderful dinner, and even better conversation.  The burgers, provided by Pete and Marie Hardy, were delicious.  As I soaked up the atmosphere and admired the special relationship of AJ and her granddaughters, it dawned on me how privileged I was to be there.   

After dinner we took in the beauty of a gorgeous sunset.  Just beyond the hangar doors, Stearman PTs (the primary trainers used by the WASP in the first phase of their flight training) beckoned.  As I stood there taking in the majestic view, I was given a gift that only a WASP Homecoming weekend could provide. 

Stearman PT-17 (pictured) and other historical WWII planes are on display at the National WASP World War II Museum 
in Sweetwater, Texas.  Stearmans were the primary trainers used by the WASP in the first phase of their flight training.  Pho-
tograph courtesy of the National WASP World War II Museum
Two very special people, kindred spirits of mine, were admiring the sunset.  It had been several years since I had last visited with Nancy Hoing, daughter of WASP Faith “Bucky” Buchner Richards, and Mary Holsenbeck--but in that moment it was as if time had just melted away.  That’s what the WASP do.  They become your family--and their families, your families.  As night fell and the evening came to a close, I realized the memories, hugs and conversations of the day had been gifts that would endure long after Homecoming weekend was over. 

Retiring to my hotel, I had the honor of visiting with WASP Roby Anderson, who happened to be in the lobby.  One of the best things about working with the WASP Archive is that I always have a bag full of goodies with me, to hand out to WASP.  I had with me the latest edition of the WASP News; being able to hand deliver a copy to Roby was a great feeling.  We had a delightful visit, talking about her ranch, buffalo, and her amazing class secretary, Kris Lent Gros.  Excited to receive the newsletter I gave her, Roby saluted me.  It was I who should have saluted her.

Saturday dawned, and the sun shone bright.  The storms that had hammered Texas for a month were taking a welcome break just in time for the WASP's Homecoming weekend.  I headed to the National WASP World War II Museum, only to discover that bad weather had forced the cancellation of a scheduled fly-in.  I hurried to the wishing well to await the WASP's arrival. 

Being short has its advantages--I can always get in a good place for taking pictures.  Following a WASP photo session, the group headed to Texas State Technical College for lunch and to hear guest speaker Samantha Weeks.  Sharing lunch with Dot Lucas’ children and Paulie White’s daughter, who shared with me special stories about their mothers, was a gift unto itself.  As I sat there, I thought how truly lucky I was.  Weeks took the podium after lunch and shared her experiences as a Thunderbird pilot (she may not know this, but she is represented in the WASP Archive.  We started capturing her story several years ago.)  Weeks got a great laugh from the audience, and applause from the WASP, when she made the observation that the difference between today’s military pilots and the WASP is that “the WASP needed to know how to fly every type of airplane.  Today’s pilots only know how to fly one, and they spend years learning to do that.” 

Following Weeks' remarks, everyone headed back to the National WASP World War II Museum so the WASP could autograph posters and have their pictures taken with their adoring fans.  I patiently waited my turn to say hello to the WASP, and get my hugs.  I don’t need autographs, and I have had my picture taken with the WASP many times.  The sweetest of all gifts, to me, was knowing that I have acquired many "grandmothers" over the years--and now I had a chance to spend time with some of them.

Duty called.  There was work to be done, including taking photos.  Jean McCreery put me to work getting quotes from the WASP for the Class News section of the newsletter.  And Marty Wyall--well, let’s just say I'm considering a road trip later this summer.  I'm thinking of calling it the 2015 WASP Archive Tour.  First two stops, Marty and Jean--then on to anyone else who signs up for a visit.

WASP Homecoming 2015 included food, dancing, music and guest speakers--but the greatest gift Home-
coming attendees received was time to spend with each other.  Photograph by Kimberly Johnson.  May 23, 
I met Kris Gros.  Kris and I have corresponded over the years about all kinds of WASP business, but nothing compares to a face-to-face meeting. Thinking about it now, I'm still thrilled.  I also met Pat Young, 44-10, who I have spoken to many times.  It was like seeing a family member for the first time, and the hugs were strong.  As all the WASP know, when you're from Texas, you don’t meet strangers--you meet family.  What a gift.

As the afternoon drew to a close, the National WASP World War II Museum emptied as the WASP departed for their hotels.  I reflected on the wonderful time I had had thus far--including countless hugs and endless notes on action items to attend to when I returned to Denton and the WASP Archive

As evening drew near, the clouds on the horizon grew dark, then darker.  We had been spared Mother Nature’s fury during the day, but it was obvious we would not escape what she had planned for the rest of the weekend--rain, and lots of it.  It's a good thing that in Texas, it takes a bit more than rain to slow us down.

A barbecue dinner, complete with all the fixings, was served--and it was delicious.  I had the pleasure of dining with Nancy and Mary; their company made my evening all the more special.  Good friends are irreplaceable, and I felt blessed that these two dear ladies shared so much of themselves and made my Homecoming weekend so memorable.

Following dinner, the WASP were asked to share some of their favorite stories about the WASP program and Avenger Field.  It was wonderful to hear Kay Hilbrandt, Mickey Bright, Shutsy Reynolds, and Bee Haydu share their recollections.  Years were erased from faces as the WASP shared their stories--providing a glimpse into yesteryear, and a true gift for everyone in attendance.

As the band played on, the evening, and the weekend, came to a close with dancing and merriment.  As I said my goodbyes, I realized it is always the WASP who say a WASP Homecoming is a gift--but the gift is not theirs alone.  Everyone who loves the WASP--and their history, stories, and voices--is a recipient of a gift.  It is our Homecoming, just as it is theirs.  I know that I received the greatest of gifts during WASP Homecoming 2015--memories that I will treasure for a lifetime.  I had the chance to spend time with history makers--women who dared to dream big as they flew into the wild blue yonder.  

I am honored to have received such a special gift.  I will treasure it always. 

To learn more about the WASP and their role in American history, please visit the Official Archive of the Women Airforce Service Pilots.

~Kimberly Johnson

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