It was the only formal gown my mother ever owned. She bought it for the opening of the officer’s 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.
WW II caused so many changes. Some were good. Some were heart-breaking.
After high school in Iowa, Doris Wilson played basketball for her tuition at the American Institute of Business in downtown Des Moines, worked at Bishop’s Cafeteria for two meals a day, but had to drop out when her Navy brothers couldn’t keep up with her $10 a month rent.
She ended up waitressing–for Parrish’s Cafe in Guthrie Center, and later in Perry at the McDonald Drug Store, which had a soda fountain and restaurant area. In fact, she was serving Sunday dinner to the after-church crowd at McDonalds when the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted the background music playing on WHO-Radio.
One by one her five 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 cadets in the Army Air Corps in 1942. They were awarded their “wings” and became officers (2nd Lieutenants) on the same day a year later–Dale at Roswell, New Mexico. Warren at Marfa, Texas.
A few months later, while working again in downtown Des Moines at Bishop’s Cafeteria, Dale stopped by, wearing his uniform, to see her there while 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.
But with four of her 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 WW II women’s branch of the US Naval Reserve.
Warren was afraid they’d get separated forever so asked her to get married instead.
Doris, wearing an aqua suit, and Warren in uniform were married in May, 1943, in Iowa. Warren didn’t have a car yet so they 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 that he didn’t know what people did after he had to turn them away. Even the cots in the hotel halls were occupied.
Some had to live in the hospital during those war years.
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 had feared.
She wrote home often, asking her mother to send hangers and other things they couldn’t buy–even sewing needles. “Imagine an army moving in on Adel”–a town in Dallas County–she wrote, “then you have an idea what Marfa is like.”
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.
First Christian Church, Marfa, Texas
They rented a small room in the front of the adobe church–$13 a month for room, water, lights, a bed, and two chairs. That’s all. The “bath” was unhandy since it was at the opposite end of the church, but they so thankful to find someone moving out so they’d have a cheaper place to live.
They’d just gotten settled when they were to attend the formal opening of the new officers’ club. Another wife invited Doris to shop in the town of Alpine for formal 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.
The other woman loaned Doris a pearl necklace and bracelet. She wrote her folks that at the dance she felt like Cinderella.
With the war really 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 wrote a lot of letters.
Early in December, she wrote to Dale, then in combat in New Guinea, that she was expecting a baby, and that he was the first person in the family she’d told.
A few days later, she learned that he was Missing in Action.
Dale never got her message. The small V-Mail letter was returned to her, still sealed–marked “Missing in Action.” Decades later, I (the “boy” she’d hoped for) was the first person to unseal and read it.
Doris lost all three younger brothers during the war.
There’s no picture of her wearing the aqua gown. I remember seeing the lovely formal as a child only a couple of times, among her keepsakes in the old farmhouse storeroom.
Now it’s been passed on to Doris’s firstborn–who eventually became the keeper of poignant family stories and treasures–to wonder about.
Did she ever get to wear the gown again?
To feel like Cinderella once more?
For more stories about Doris Wilson, Doris Wilson Neal, click on her name in the tags below.
See also: Marfa by Louise S. O’Connor and Cecilia Thompson, PhD–Images of America by Arcadia Publishing, 2009.