It was the only formal gown my mother ever owned. She bought it for the opening of the officers’ club at the Marfa Army Air Base in Texas. Doris had just become an officer’s wife by marrying Warren Neal, an Iowa farmer who’d earned his pilot’s wings.
Doris Wilson had been a waitress in Perry, Iowa, at the McDonald Drug Store, which had a soda fountain and a restaurant area.
In fact, she was serving Sunday dinner there when the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted the background music playing on WHO-Radio.
She remembered thinking that all her brothers were liable to be drafted. One by one the five Wilson brothers left to serve – two in the Navy, three in the Army Air Force.
Dale Wilson and Warren Neal, both Iowa farmers, had enlisted as air cadets in 1942. They were awarded their silver “wings” and became officers on the same day a year later – Dale at Roswell, New Mexico. Warren at Marfa, Texas.
A few months later, Doris was working at Bishop’s Cafeteria in downtown Des Moines. Her brother Dale stopped by, in his uniform, to see her there while home on furlough. He was sent to North Carolina next for B-25 combat training.
Warren was retained at Marfa as an instructor for advanced cadets. He and Doris had dated off and on since high school, and were writing each other during the war. Doris even wore his pilot’s wings on her coat.
With four brothers already in the service, and calls for women to enlist to help with “the cause,” Doris collected recommendations from teachers and had begun the process to apply for the WAVES, the WWII women’s branch of the Naval Reserve.
Warren was afraid they’d get separated forever so he asked her to get married instead.
Doris, wearing an aqua suit, and Warren in uniform were married in May 1943 in Dexter, Iowa. Warren didn’t own a car yet, so the newlyweds caught a ride to Texas with another couple.
Their first home was the Crews’ Hotel in Marfa, since everything else was full. Day after day, while Warren was instructing at the air base, Doris hunted for a cheaper place to live. But so did everyone else. Billy Crews, the hotel owner, said he didn’t know what people did after he had to turn them away. Even cots in the hotel halls were occupied, and people even lived in areas of the hospital during those war years.
“Imagine an army moving in on Adel,” – the county seat of Dallas County, Iowa – she wrote her folks, “then you have an idea what Marfa is like.”
She asked her mother to send hangers and other things they couldn’t buy, like sewing needles.
Right away, Doris was invited to a tea for officers’ wives, then a luncheon. This Iowa waitress had all of a sudden become an officer’s wife.
The luncheon was quite a “henny affair,” she wrote home, but not as bad as she’d feared.
Doris wrote her brother Dale what she thought of Texas: “Well–take a lot of hot sun, hot sand, dust, sagebrush, a few mountains, tall lean men with western hats, tight pants, and high-heeled boots, a lot of Mexicans and there you have it–from the eyes of an outsider. . . .”
A few weeks later, Warren and Doris found a home. For the next year and a half they lived in the First Christian Church.
They rented a small room in the front of the adobe church – $13 per month for the room, water, lights, a bed, and two chairs. The “bath” was unhandy since it was at the opposite end of the church, but they were so thankful to find someone moving out so they’d have a cheaper place to live.
First Christian Church, Marfa, Texas
They’d just gotten settled when they were to attend the formal opening of the new officers’ club. Another pilot’s wife invited Doris along to shop for gowns for the dance. Doris’s was nearly the color of the suit she’d been married in a few months earlier – aqua, short-sleeved, accented with lots of small ruffles.
She wrote home that she had fun at the dance and felt like Cinderella.
With the war ramping up in Europe and in the Pacific, the Air Corps tried to graduate pilots as quickly as they could. Warren worked long hours, especially when they had night-flying and cross-country trips. By then all five brothers were in the service, so Doris stayed busy writing letters.
Early that December, she wrote to Dale, then in combat in New Guinea. She ended her V-mail letter, “I’m going to let you in on a secret. We haven’t told anyone yet, but we are going to have a boy (we hope) next May.” She signed it, “Good luck & Love, Doris.”
Dale never got her message. The small letter was returned, still sealed, marked “Missing in Action.”
Decades later, I – the boy she’d hope for – was the first person to open the little V-Letter and read it.
There’s no photo of her wearing the aqua gown. I remember seeing it as a child only a couple of times among her keepsakes in the storeroom of our old farmhouse.
But now it’s been passed on to Doris’s firstborn, who eventually became the keeper of poignant family stories and letters and terrible telegrams.
Treasures, like the aqua gown, to wonder about. Did she ever get to wear it again?
To feel like Cinderella once more?
See also: Marfa by Louise S. O’Connor and Cecilia Thompson, PhD–Images of America by Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Produced by Our American Stories in August 2020–8 minutes.