Gone, but not forgotten

  • By Lauren Thompson For The Enterprise
  • Tuesday, May 25, 2010 8:19pm

In the early 1940s, America was gearing up for a world at war.

As young men from Snohomish County and across the country began to serve overseas, women were called for the first time to train for military flight. Answering that call, more than 1,000 Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) took off to fulfill a vital role in the war.

Their role was always voluntary — WASP were never considered active military. But training women for flight operations enabled their male counterparts to go into active combat.

When the war ended and male pilots returned from overseas, the program was disbanded, and many WASP returned home with little fanfare. One of those women was Lora Jane Cunningham, known to friends and family as Jane. Cunningham lived in Edmonds with her husband Frank for 54 years before passing away in 2004.

‘A second birth’

Cunningham was born in Nevada in 1919. Her father died when she was young, and she spent her childhood moving frequently around the West. Frank Cunningham describes it as a difficult childhood; his wife lived apart from her mother and sister and attended 13 different schools in 12 years.

In 1943, Cunningham was living in Arizona and became interested in flying. Once a week, she’d bike five miles to the nearby airfield to get in flying time. In a 2001 interview Cunningham did for the book “Seattle Goes to War,” she described her first time soloing: “I was looking over the side of the PT-17 and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Jane, you’re up here all by yourself. Isn’t this wonderful.’”

“It was her second birth, when she first soloed in a plane,” said Laurie Cunningham, her eldest daughter.

A friend told Cunningham about the WASP; she trained for service and was eventually stationed in Sweetwater, Texas.

“I flew chaplains to other air stations, and I flew physicians around. If I could do it, I did it,” she wrote.

Photos from Cunningham’s days as a WASP show her wearing a bomber jacket, flight goggles and always a confident smile.

“Up until that time, she didn’t know who she was,” Frank Cunningham said. “With her, becoming a pilot almost defined her, being able to say, ‘I can fly.’ It was a triumph and a joy.”

‘This came so late’

Earlier this year, the WASP were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest achievement a civilian can earn from the Congress.

Cunningham’s daughter and granddaughter, Ellyn Van Houten and Sara Van Houten, of Bellingham, traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the March 10 ceremony and receive a smaller version of the medal on her behalf. The crowd, comprised of more than 200 WASP and friends and family of pilots who had since died or could not attend, was so large the event had to be moved to a bigger venue, Laurie Cunningham said.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi presided over the ceremony and there were speeches from other congresswomen who led the effort.

“The underlying current of the ceremony was that this came so late,” said Laurie Cunningham, who watched the ceremony on C-SPAN with others in her mother’s family.

The WASP have rallied for years to be recognized for their work during World War II, she said. They didn’t receive veteran’s status until 1977 — something for which Jane Cunningham and her WASP compatriots worked hard, according to Frank Cunningham.

“The cause of becoming recognized kept them working, kept them together,” he said. “They remained active so their story wouldn’t fade away.”

How would Jane Cunningham have reacted to the WASP receiving the Congressional Gold Medal? “She would have passed out,” Laurie Cunningham said.

Her father expounded: “It was a culmination of a lifelong devotion of the WASP,” Frank Cunningham said. “Jane would have been pleased.”

Continuing to serve

After the war, Jane Cunningham did a stint as a “handywoman” with the Red Cross, serving coffee and doughnuts to those stationed in the South Pacific. She then moved to Seattle area and married Frank Cunningham in 1949 after a having a true Northwest romance — they courted in Boeing’s cafeteria.

Cunningham’s life in Edmonds was always influenced by her time as a WASP. “It defined her,” her daughter said.

While raising three kids and working a variety of jobs, Cunningham always remembered her years as a WASP. She spoke to students and groups about her experience and always attended WASP reunions. Though she never piloted a plane again, her years of national service translated into community service.

“She was a champion of goodness and doing the right thing. She identified with people who didn’t get a break,” Laurie Cunningham said. “If you didn’t want a hug, you better cross the street.”

Like her eagerness to learn to fly, Cunningham continued trying new things as she got older. “She was creative and liked using her hands. She took a life-history writing class, a calligraphy class, she was a rubber stamper,” her daughter said.

“She even took up woodworking,” Frank Cunningham said. “She couldn’t just sit around.”

In her life-history writing class, Cunningham chronicled her experiences as a WASP, which she added to her scrapbook collections of photos, notes, letters and memorabilia from that era in her life.

She made sure her story — and the story of the WASP — would not be forgotten.