At a Veterans Day reception in Austin, Texas, one year ago, two World War II veterans briefly met.
She was in a wheelchair, looking proud and dazzling wearing the blue Air Force uniform, silver wings upon her chest. She was 91.
He, also proud and dapper in his blue Air Force uniform, bombardier wings upon his chest, walked up to her and introduced himself. He was also 91.
They would not meet again until a beautiful, sunny day a year later.
But this is just the end of a remarkable story.
For the beginning, we have to go back nearly 70 years, to 1943 when World War II was raging in Europe and in the Pacific and when brave Americans were serving and fighting overseas while equally dedicated and patriotic men and women at home were doing their part to support our troops “over there.”
Millie Inks Dalrymple, a native of the small town of Llano, Texas, and a University of Texas journalism graduate who loved to fly, had just entered seven months of intensive flight training, part of an ambitious and pioneering Army Air Corps program called “WASP” — Women Airforce Service Pilots – that would eventually produce 1,074 intrepid women pilots.
After her training and as one of the first women in our history to fly military aircraft, Millie went on to test-fly and ferry fighters, bombers, transport and other aircraft to and from factories and maintenance facilities to make sure that they were safe and ready for combat service overseas.
It was a vital mission in support of the air war, and a dangerous one, as evidenced by the fact that 38 heroic WASP made the ultimate sacrifice during the short 17 months the WASP program existed.
One of the types of aircraft that Millie flew and checked out was the venerable B-17 bomber, the “Flying Fortress,” a bomber that was primarily employed in daylight strategic bombing missions against Nazi industrial and military targets in the European war theater.
Around the same time that Millie was entering her WASP flight training, another young Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps — John Tschirhart — was finishing his flight training as a B-17 bombardier.
John, a young man who was born in San Antonio, Texas, had been living with his mother in a small town in France when World War II broke out. When the Nazis invaded and occupied large parts of France, John, whose identification papers betrayed his American citizenship, was in danger of being imprisoned by the Nazis. U.S. Embassy personnel advised John that it would be wiser and safer for him to leave France.
John — then 20 — made a perilous escape to America aboard a ship packed with refugees and repatriates and a few months after his return to San Antonio, he joined the Army Air Corps.
In 1943, John shipped out to Southern England and was assigned to the 305th Bombardment Group. His mission was to bomb Nazi installations and strategic targets in German-occupied Europe.
WASP Millie Dalrymple and B-17 bombardier John Tschirhart, an ocean apart, had never heard of each other and they never would for the next 67 years.
After the war, they went their own ways.
Millie raised a family, took up tennis again, worked as a substitute teacher and in other career fields and settled in Austin, Texas. In 2010, the courageous and trail-blazing contributions to our nation’s war efforts that Millie and her fellow WASP made were finally recognized when she and other WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
After flying 35 combat missions over Europe and after rolling out of a landing craft onto the beaches of Normandy just two days after D-Day, a decorated Major Tschirhart went on to serve his country in numerous roles and capacities in Laos, Vietnam, Libya and in the U.S. and finally settled in Austin, too.
Since that encounter on Veterans Day 2011, John and Millie grew one year older and both celebrated their 92nd birthday.
Sadly, the oft-quoted, grim statistic that America is losing nearly 1,000 World War II veterans every day caught up with one of them.
On Nov. 14, WASP Millie Dalrymple made her final flight.
John Tschirhart continues his life-long quest to produce a movie, Malou, about his World War II service in Europe and about a romantic interlude in France.
Of course I invited John Tschirhart to join me at Millie’s memorial services that were held at a beautiful church during an equally beautiful fall day here in Austin, Texas.
During the touching service celebrating Millie’s life, a subdued John, sitting next to me, tears welling up in his eyes, scribbled a note and handed it to me.
What John had written made me realize how small our world is, how quickly and unexpectedly time and space can shrink and how dependent we are upon each other.
While Millie and John had been an ocean apart serving their country each in his and her own way, John felt a connection registering in his mind, tugging at his heart and rekindling his emotions.
The note said: “I, most likely, flew combat missions in the B-17s she or her WASP colleagues tested.”
Nearly 70 years after flying all those dangerous missions, John felt the compelling urge to express his gratitude and admiration to one of the brave women who had been in large measure responsible for his safe return home.
As two members of the U.S. Air Force Reserve draped Millie’s casket with the American flag at the conclusion of the service, John, in his Veterans of Foreign Wars uniform, stepped smartly forward and gave Millie one final salute — a silent but heartfelt thank you from one member of the “Greatest Generation” to another.
I wonder what other poignant, emotive thoughts were going through John’s mind…
Let us never stop honoring the accomplishments of the Greatest Generation nor forget how quickly and relentlessly the last remaining members are leaving us.
Photos by author and with permission of Mr. Tschirhart and the Dalrymple family
Crossposted from the Huffington Post