Honoring the WASP

One of nation's oldest book clubs here

By Joan Brown on June 23, 2016

"Book groups are like friendships," James Atlas wrote last year in a New York Times article. "Some coalesce and die out in a few years; others last a lifetime." Founded in 1941, Lakewood's Friday Book Club fits squarely into the latter category. One of the longest continuously running book clubs in the United States, and founded by military spouses, the group has spent the past year commemorating each decade of its 75-year-old history at its monthly meetings.

Luncheon menus have reflected foods popular in the past, such as the grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup lunches of the ‘40's. And programs have been based on research into common expressions, popular books, dishes, and customs of various decades. Did you know, for example, that, before they became a hit on the home front, M&Ms were a staple of GI's kits because they didn't melt into the soldier's gear?

Throughout the year, members have taken a detailed look at the history of Lakewood, the operation of local USO centers, the career of a local author, the cooperative efforts of the Greater Lakes Mental Health Center, and the Lakewood police department.

The local PBS channel KBTC interviewed longstanding members and filmed the May meeting for a program produced by Northwest Now. In tribute to a deceased club member who was also one of the Women's Airforce Service pilots (WASPs), the book club's program that day centered on the young women who volunteered to fly every kind of plane the Army Air Forces had. The planes sometimes came directly off the assembly line before they had even been test-driven by another pilot.

Betty Dybbro, a local 97-year-old WASP, explained how she had been fascinated by the pioneers of aviation like Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. As a result, she set about getting the requisite 35 hours of flying time necessary to be accepted into this special group of civilian women pilots whose work freed the men to go overseas to the battlefronts.  

Debbie Jennings, the designer of a comprehensive WASP permanent exhibit at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, explained the legacies of Jackie Cochran and Nancy Love. As a result of their efforts, women began delivering planes for the Army and, among other duties, flying fast and low right over the ground to give soldiers experience with strafing. They even towed long pieces of cloth behind them for the soldiers on the ground below to practice aiming at moving targets in the sky with live ammunition. Betty flew so low that the men scattered for fear she would crash.

Between September 1942 and December 1944, the WASPs delivered 12,650 aircraft of 78 different types. Thirty-eight WASP fliers lost their lives while serving during the war, all in accidents. Eleven died in training and 27 on active-duty. Although they were still badly needed for the war effort at the time, they were unceremoniously disbanded in 1944. Despite the fact that several commanders asked that their WASPs be allowed to stay, the Army turned them all down.

It took about 30 years after the WASP program ended before women pilots got the chance to fly for the U.S. military again. In breaking ground for them, "current women combat pilots owe a debt of gratitude to their WASP forerunners," Dybbro said. Clearly, whether one studies the role of the WASPs, Rosie the Riveter, or those who formed the Friday Book Club in 1941 to conserve resources like gasoline and rubber, women contributed greatly as part of the "greatest generation."

It is a legacy of service the membership has preserved over the years. As KBTC's Chris Anderson said, "Reading and sharing their thoughts about life in general isn't just what this one-of-a-kind club is all about. The group also spends time doing work in the community, with efforts helping mental health, public libraries, food banks, hospice care, and working with the fine arts. It's a way they share their unique camaraderie in the community."

As a grand finale, the Friday Book Club will celebrate its three-quarters of a century of continuous existence with a 1940s-style tea in June. Encouraged to dress for the occasion, the members expect to enjoy an afternoon long remembered for its bevy of vintage hats and friendship.