Woman in historic Paine Field photo identified

MUKILTEO — Many decades have passed, but Tude Richter instantly recognized the woman in a World War II-era picture in Sunday’s Herald.

“That’s Helen Lee,” said Richter, 88, who recalled her own mother volunteering with Lee as part of the Aircraft Warning Service. During World War II, civilian spotters were trained nationwide to watch the skies for enemy aircraft.

The photo is included in Steve K. Bertrand’s new book “Paine Field,” part of the Arcadia Publishing “Images of Aviation” series. In the book, the woman isn’t named. But Richter, a lifelong Mukilteo resident, knew her well. “I loved her, she was wonderful to us,” Richter said.

Helen and Fred Lee owned Lee Grocery, a wholesale grocery business in Everett’s Riverside area. The couple lived near the Mukilteo Pioneer Cemetery, Richter said.

She said her mother, Peggy Zahler, was often on watch duty with Helen Lee. Zahler taught at Mukilteo’s Rosehill School.

After Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, there were two watch towers in Mukilteo, said Christopher Summitt, a Mukilteo Historical Society vice president. The tower in the picture was just off Mukilteo Speedway near Fifth Street, overlooking the water, he said.

Before satellite systems and electronic sensors, the Aircraft Warning Service was operated by the U.S. Army’s Ground Observer Corps. It was active through May 1944. Volunteers were to contact the local sheriff if they saw anything suspicious, said Summitt, a Boeing employee who leads tours of the Everett plant and Future of Flight Aviation Center.

Along with enemy aircraft, watchers looked for incendiary “Fu-Go” balloons, he said. In 1945, a Japanese fire balloon killed six people in Oregon.

Summitt’s wife Margaret, also active in the historical society, said their daughter, Isabella, dressed as an Aircraft Warning Service volunteer — with an original blue AWS armband — at the Mukilteo Lighthouse Festival several years ago.

Richter was 15 when World War II started. Recalling her mother’s four-hour lookout shifts, she said, “I’m not sure they knew what they were looking for.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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