Because my mother is no longer alive to ask, I try to imagine the emotions that would have been swirling through her mind as she entered Penn Station on an unknown day in early January of 1944—fear, excitement—surely she must have experienced both.
It was cold then, temperatures hovered around 27 degrees—and although I don’t know for sure—I imagine her alone as she stepped up to the ticket window and swapped her hard earned cash for a one-way ticket south.
She had had months to imagine her future because in the fall of ‘43 she had received word that her application to join, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, had been accepted; an application that required 3 letters of recommendation, permission from her parents, good health and some form of flight instruction under her belt.
If she kept a diary of her train travel it is long gone, but of three things I am certain; she was less than a month into her 19th year, and she had two loves: a Navy pilot named Lon and flying airplanes.
Days later, when she arrived at Avenger Field, home of the WASP training ground in Sweetwater, Texas, a letter from Lon waited to greet her, it began:
First of all, Happy New Year. Secondly, for some strange reason, I suddenly miss you very much. Maybe it’s because my buddy keeps singing, “My Shining Hour.” I’ll never forget good old Woody Herman playing that and then that mad dash for Grand Central. Well, I’ve got a bunch of good memories to take with me if nothing else. It seems that they aren’t going to waste any time with us; I’m going to shoot a few landings aboard one of the carriers here and then I’m shoving off for either Pearl Harbor or New Caledonia. I’ll probably be here for about a week, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to get over to Sweetwater to see you. I was really looking forward to flying over there and showing you my plane, but I guess we’ll have to take a rain check on it.
On the way over I met a pilot who knew all about Sweetwater. He told me he could have got a job instructing there, but the instructors have quite a good time there, and that the girls are very nice to their instructors and check pilots, so they don’t have any trouble with their check rides. Don’t let any of those nice guys pull anything over on you just because they are instructors and officers. You’re there to learn to fly and it isn’t a country club. You can go without a few dances for a couple of months and stay in and study instead. I did and it didn’t do me any harm. If you can show your instructor that you really want to fly, without being an apple-polisher about it, he’ll go out of his way to help you along; however tell him he doesn’t have to go so far out of his way that you’ll need night work, after hours in the local nite-spot. Tell them that you’re engaged or something and after a while, the wolves will stop bothering you, and if they don’t, send me their address and I’ll write them a letter that will fix their wagon. If that doesn’t stop them I’ll come back and personally beat them into the middle of next week; after that, I’ll court-martial them (which I’ll be able to do when I get back).
When the going gets tough, and it will, just take out my wings and look at them and say, “If that dope can do it, I can.” Just don’t let it get you down, El, that’s the object of the course, to sort the softies out and to make flyers out of the ones that have something on the ball.
All you need is one little thing, whether you’re a boy or a girl makes no difference, you have to have it to play football, baseball, and the rest, and more than ever is flying—and that is guts. My father brought me up on that and I found that it works pretty swell. If you have guts you can do anything you want to so keep plugging every minute, there will be plenty of time for fun when you get your wings.
Love and X’s, Lon
She penned her response on January 10, 1944.
Hello. We’re here at last and so far everything has been too good to be true. The kids are wonderful; the food is wonderful, and the field is a dream. You know I don’t think I have ever seen all of the sky before, and there can’t be a moon anywhere else in the world like in Texas—and the sun—the sun is so red you could paint all of New York with it.
We live in barracks, and they really are barracks. We have to make our beds according to measurement, and all our things go into one little locker. Every Saturday morning we have S.M.I. (Saturday morning inspection) and I guess you know what that is. By the time we are finished, we will all be wonderful housekeepers.
I wonder so often what you are doing. Did you ever get over your cold—and Lon didn’t you know it was Charlie Spivak, not “good old Woody Herman” playing “My Shining Hour” that night we raced for Grand Central. We have Glen Gray’s recording of it on the jukebox in our “Rec.” hall.
Oh, Lonnie, the sky’s so blue I can hardly wait to get up in it! It was freezing last night and this morning, but this afternoon I can smell spring and spring is wonderful, isn’t it…
Lonnie—I’m going to write to you even though the letters may take a long time to get to you because they will eventually. I’ll be waiting for each mail to hear from you. Incidentally, now I’m a “Fifinella” and I’ll be flying with you even though you may not know it. If you say hello and don’t throw me out of the cockpit, I might even do your shooting for you.
All my love, “Irish”
And from there, their story unfolded—or as fate would have it, a mere chapter in my mother’s long life.
My siblings and I are fortunate our mother took the time to transcribe the many letters that knit her younger self to a forever-youthful Lon.
He was easy to fall in love with; smart, dashing, funny, and hopelessly romantic. In every letter, he poured out his affection for our mom.
From another letter dated July 13, 1944, Lon spoke about the prospect of the WASP’s being decommissioned:
…After spending so much on you it would be a poor investment to let you go; besides that, they would be losing one of the best pilots in the WASPS, I’m sure of it honey. It would probably be better for me if I had a wife who would keep both feet on the ground, but come what may I’d take you if you were a lady wrestler.
Say, do you gals ferry ships out of the States the way they did in the picture? (“picture” is a reference to “Ladies Courageous,” a film my mother abhorred.) Maybe you’ll have received your wings by now or by the time you receive this letter. If so, Congratulations darling, I’m so proud of you, but I knew all along that you’d do it. Besides, look at all the praying I did, and the stars, they were wonderful to me. I’ll always believe in wishing on a star and all because of you honey. Don’t forget to send me your new address as soon as you find it out. Are you through with training when you get your wings, or do you have some more? I imagine all you have to do is sit in the cockpit of the new planes for a while and then take off. Remember to keep your guard up and I won’t have to worry a bit. ‘Nite sweetheart, I love you so much—write soon and keep me informed of your last lap. Good luck.
All my love, Lon
And in spite of the raw fact that I would not exist had he lived, I couldn’t help but feel the void he left in the world, and my mother’s heart when the news broke that he had been gunned down.
In a box that contains pieces of her WASP memorabilia, along with the many letters he wrote to her from the South Pacific, is a newspaper clipping, despite the brittle state it is easily read:
Ensign Lonnie Ring, U.S. Naval Airforce, 20 years old, and a graduate of the Pelham High School was killed by the Japanese while parachuting to earth from a plane that had been shot in the Pacific area.
He was killed in the battle of Leyte Gulf, his parent’s received word on Thanksgiving Day.
In 2007, 53 years after their last letters were written, my mother granted an interview to the Virginia War Memorial, about her experience as a WWII WASP; just yesterday I unearthed the VHS tape of the unedited interview and watched it.
Seeing her sitting before the camera it was almost as if she were in the room with me and I found myself wanting to direct the commentator and implore him to ask different questions, to dig deeper into the reservoir of memory while he had the chance. Later, I found myself swallowing anger toward him when he asked her about her fiancé’s death.
“What happened when you found out? How did you cope with that?” he asked of her.
“What—that he was killed?” she responded, staring wide-eyed at him.
He must have nodded yes for an uncomfortable silence ensued. And I watched my mother, in all her grace, wrestle with buried emotion. Her eyes landed on her lap, a telltale sign that she was fighting tears, then once she was composed, she looked back at him.
“I think the way anyone would. It was devastating.”
Memorial Day is upon us, although the origin of this day of remembrance is not completely clear, I think we can all agree that the intention behind its having become a national holiday was to provide people a time to honor those individuals who served our country and sacrificed their life doing so.
This year I find myself paying homage to Ensign Lonnie Ring, of the U.S. Navy, a man whose love for my mother wrapped itself around her in a way that saw her through one of the most rigorous experiences of her life. But beyond that, his ability to love her so openly helped shape her expectation of what it meant to be loved, a gift I dare say that lasted her lifetime.
Life Breath Present says
What a wonderful opportunity to have in reading your mother’s letters and being able to see her as the woman she was then and throughout her long life. Wow! I was so captivated by the story you told and practically in tears reading of young Ensign Lonnie’s life and the beautiful impact he had on your mother for the rest of her life! Thank you so much for sharing and bringing to light the true reason for Memorial Day celebrations 🙂
Elin Stebbins Waldal says
Thank you so much for reading and for your lovely comment.
Lisa Froman says
This was an exquisite read. So lovely on so many levels.
I can see it perfectly (and I can tell you miss your mom, too). Thanks for sharing this!
Thank you Lisa! And how right you are…
What a beautiful blog post, Elin. Your mom was so courageous to buck the societal constraints of that time period. How fortunate you are that your mother kept her letters so you can document these memories and pieces of your past.
Thank you Pat. You are so right…I feel so lucky that she saved the actual letters and she even transcribed some. Theirs was a lovely piece of her history…
Mary Lanzavecchia says
This is such a beautiful tribute, Elin, to your mom, to Lon, to all the men and women we honor today. In bringing one story to life, you brought the whole of Memorial Day into focus.
Thank you Mary!
Lois Alter Mark says
An amazing story and the perfect representation of this day. I love learning more about your mom through her letters and am sad that future generations are unlikely to come across letters like this and that whole histories will be lost. This is a beautiful tribute to an incredible woman and the man who loved her. They are both inspiring.
Oh how I agree about the future generations, Lois. I somehow doubt the text messages and such will share the story the way these gems did and still do. Thanks for your kind words.
Karen D. Austin says
Thank you for sharing a moment from history through the very personal view of letters between two people — one of them your mother. History books cannot convey the depth of emotion and the impact on the individual as well as a post like this can. It’s very kind of you to take the time to write this up so carefully. Fascinating and moving!
How true that is, Karen. History books can be so stale, while letters bring one into both the emotion and the goings on of an era. Thank you for your comment, very appreciated.
Carol Cassara says
how lovely. for some reason the letters written back them speak so much more intimately tha today’s texts, emails skypes. I really felt what it must have been like for them. your post did them justice.
Thank you, Carol. Indeed…some of it was the vernacular of that era, sort of corny, yet sweet and heartfelt all at the same time. Thank you for your nice comment.
Wow, I wish I had letters like that from my parents. Thanks so much for sharing them. Made me kind of weepy but in a good way. What a wonderful way to commemorate this great day!
Thank you Carolann. Oh how I get that weepy thing too, their story did make me cry.
Corinne Rodrigues says
Thank you for sharing this. It took me back to the correspondence my parents had when Dad was serving in a war zone. Made me long for a time when we wrote letters to each other -so much more meaningful.
I think this is a lovely tribute to brave young man with a big heart!
Thank you, Corinne. How wonderful that you have letters too. I feel so lucky that my mother and father saved so much of their correspondence in addition to the letters from Lon. It is such an incredible way to know them in a different light. Thank you for being here and for your comment.
Laura Lee Carter says
LOVE this LOVE STORY! I provided a link to this piece from my “How To Believe In Love Again” website… hope that’s OK.
Oh my goodness, thank you Laura Lee! And of course it is OK. Very appreciated.
Clinton Power says
Wow! This was a truly beautiful tribute to your mother. I found it honest, touching and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing Elin.
Thank you for taking the time to read my Memorial Day post about my mother, Clinton. And thank you also for your kind words.
The tears of enjoyment are streaming down.
So so beautiful.
I guess future generations will find texts with weird initials, as words, equally enticing.