By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter
Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2009 8:58 pm
Were Tennessee to choose a poster couple for Veterans Day or for marriage and military service, Bill and Doris Tanner of Union City would, no doubt, be top contenders. These two senior citizens — he’s 90, she’s 89 — seem ageless as they sit and reminisce about the great war of yesteryear that touched their lives when they were in their early 20s. The specter of Pearl Harbor haunted all. He went to war and didn’t come back for almost three years. And he came back a war hero, although he didn’t trumpet it. And what of her during the war years? She served the nation on two fronts — public education and aviation. She served two years in a quasi-military unit — all females, all aviators. And now, almost 70 years later, a grateful nation is about to formally recognize her wartime service and that of a band of sisters whose organization was known as “WASP” or “Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.” Brief history In their time, Bill and Doris Tanner have seen a lot of life come and go. There was the experience of the war years, of course, and after the war, the year-by-year struggle to build their lives around family, farm and community. No feature story could tell the Tanners’ story in its entirety.
As a synopsis, we offer these glimpses of their personal histories.
• Each is a native-born West Tennessean. William W. “Bill” Tanner was born Jan. 9, 1919, in Union City. Doris Brinker (Russell) Tanner was born Dec. 6, 1919, in Brownsville.
• Each was a member of the Class of 1941 at the University of Tennessee, she with an undergraduate degree in English and history, he with an undergraduate degree in agriculture.
• They had become sweethearts well before graduation.
• After graduation, they went their separate ways, she to a teaching position at Haywood County Elementary School, he to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was assigned to a unit of the 9th Infantry Division. At UT, he completed the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry branch of the U.S. Army.
• After the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, he got approved for a three-day pass and went to Tennessee to see his girl. “Pearl Harbor scared him. He knew he would be going overseas soon,” Doris said. “He wanted to get married before he went overseas because we might never see each other again.” He went back to Fort Bragg, still a single soldier. As a platoon leader with an infantry outfit, he had a duty and responsibility to the Army. But his heart was in Brownsville.
• In March 1942, he took another three-day pass. Straightaway, he went back to West Tennessee to the arms of his beloved. They were married on March 19, 1942, in Brownsville. Her grandfather, the late C.D. Russell Sr., did the honors. Their honeymoon was a one-way trip to Fort Bragg in an old car he bought from a Brownsville man. It broke down on the trip, but he was able to return to his unit before his pass expired. Doris looks back on those days and smiles. Her anecdotes about the trip across the Smoky Mountains are a large part of her precious memories. “Before we married, he said he was afraid we’d never see each other again. Well, we’ve been seeing each other for 67 years,” she quipped.
• Doris went back to teaching. For a while, that is. Bill went to war.
• Bill served with units of the 9th Infantry Division in such far-flung places as North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium and Germany. On D-Day Plus 4 — meaning four days after D-Day, June 6, 1944 — he and his unit went ashore Utah Beach during the Allies’ European invasion. From North Africa to Germany, he held a plethora of leadership positions — platoon leader, company commander, battalion executive officer and battalion commander, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Brigade, 9th Infantry Division. In his time he was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, several campaign medals and other awards and decorations. He was honorably discharged with the rank of lieutenant colonel in December 1945. As you might imagine, he headed home to West Tennessee to be reunited with his wife whom he hadn’t seen in almost three years.
• With Bill gone to war, Doris had her teaching job to occupy her days. Then a new US Army Air Force caught her attention. The year was 1942; the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) had been established by Congress. But an all-female unit, independent of WAC, was created. Doris was interested. She applied, was accepted and went to an Army Air Force Base in Sweetwater, Texas, for pilot training. In those days, there was no U.S. Air Force. America’s military aviation was part of the U.S. Army. Hence, the designation, U.S. Army Air Force. In 1949, by congressional fiat in the National Defense Act, the U.S. Air Force was created as an independent branch of the U.S. armed forces. “I was living with Bill at Southern Pines, N.C., when the call came to join WASP,” Doris said. “I won my wings in late 1943. I was in Class 44-4. We started with 95 and only 53 graduated. Our washout rate was high.” After training she was assigned to the Operations section at an air base in Douglas, Ariz. “We flew everything the Air Force had at the time,” she said. “One of our jobs was to ferry planes from factory to field, but we couldn’t fly them out of the country. Right at the last, they brought in the new B-25 to train us on twin-engine planes.” The B-25 “Mitchell,” named for Gen. Billy Mitchell, a pioneer of U.S. military aviation, was a twin-engine medium bomber manufactured by North American Aviation. About 10,000 of the B-25s were manufactured. They were used in every theater of operations during the war.
“I served with WASP two years and then came home,” Doris said. Not a veteran But unlike her husband, she did not return home a veteran, at least as far as the U.S. Army was concerned. Why? Because WASP was not a military unit. It was quasi-military, meaning maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. And that’s the way it stayed until 1977 when the female pilots were awarded veteran status. An official press release states that WASP was established during World War II to fly non-combat missions in order to free male military aviators for combat. More than 1,000 women joined the program. They ultimately flew 60 million miles of non-combat missions. Thirty-eight WASP women lost their lives in the line of duty. An estimated 300 WASP ladies are still alive today.
Recently, President Obama signed a bill into law that awards a Congressional Gold Medal to WASP. The bill passed the Senate on May 20 and the House on June 16. “Every American should be grateful for their service. I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve,” the president said. She’ll be there Doris Tanner said the president’s signature on the legislation authorizes the special gold medal to be struck. She said tentative plans are that he will award the medals at a special ceremony in Washington next March. You can believe she’ll be right there to accept hers. Published in The Messenger 11.5.09