at Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY.
Brooksfield Texas. Saturday, March 7th, 1942.
Dad’s card is on the inside of the announcement.
He wrote to my mother on the back:
To Louise, In memory of all the lovely times we spent together. If I ever get home again I’ll drop in. I’m sure a long way from Maine now. With regards, “Gene.”
Soon, Dad received his assignment to West Point.
Dad sounds homesick. He used to tell stories about Texas. He hated the weather, infernally hot to a man from Lubec, Maine. His dating experiences were not good either. He and a buddy took two women to a restaurant for dinner.
“They were so stuck on themselves. Puffy hair and all. They thought their s#^t was ice cream.” Dad said. After a boring conversation, the two men quietly paid the bill, went to the restroom, and crawled out the window to escape a nightmare double date. I expect they wanted these women to know they were not impressed with their highfalutin attitudes.
Dad missed that woman from Machias, Maine, Louise Johnson. He must have decided to propose as they married less than a year later, February 15th, 1943.
My Dad, James “Gene” Rier, stands on the left staring up at her, smiling in apparent admiration, as she departs the train upon arrival at West Point where Dad was a pilot instructor. In 1935, Rosalind Russell had starred with Robert Young in West Point of the Air, a movie about pilot training in the US Army Corps in the early 1930s. So she came to boost the morale of the military men there during World War II and was met at the train by two (rather handsome) pilot instructors in the US Army Corp.
In 1942, Russell was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in the movie My Sister Eileen, the first of four Academy nominations. In the coming years, she won the Golden Globe for Best Leading Actress five times and a Tony Award in 1953 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Ruth in the Broadway show Wonderful Town.
According to Dad, greeting Rosalind Russell at the train that day was quite an honor. “She was beautiful,” he grinned, “but your mother is far more stunning.”
He sent a telegram to my mother, Louise Johnson, announcing his new assignment. They would soon marry and reside at West Point. Dad had undergone basic flight training at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas, at Parks Air College and was preparing to take his place in the newly expanded US Army Air Corp as a flying second lieutenant.
West Point, Stewart Field, Newburgh, NY. Tent city. Planes, planes, planes. Power glides for instrument landing and legal hedge hopping. A Beechcraft factory churns out planes for World War II.
By June of 1944, West Point had trained hundred of pilots, including the son of Dwight D Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe and the sons of other Army Generals.
My mother and father, Louise Adele Johnson and James “Gene” Rier, married on February 15th, 1943 at the Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church in Portland, Maine. Their special day was chosen because it was the day that my grandmother Harriet wed Ezekiel Johnson (and eloped) in 1908, and it was birthday of my great grandmother, Nellie Getchell Means, born February 15th, 1857.
Mom lived and worked in Portland at the time. Dad, now Lieutenant Rier, traveled there from Newburgh, NY where he was an engineer and pilot instructor at West Point, Stewart Field Air Force Base. There was a snow storm. Their families from Downeast Maine, Lubec and Machias, had a time making it to the wedding although Dad’s brother, Babe, and Mom’s mother Harriet, did. It was a long rough drive. Dad’s brother Paul, also stationed at West Point as PFC, was his best man. Mom’s maid of honor was her friend, Margaret Hadley.
After the wedding, Mom and Dad had a short honeymoon Downeast before they drove to Newburgh NY and settled into military housing for the servicemen and their wives.
Mom became a World War II bride in a marriage that lasted their lifetimes.
One of my favorite photos of that day is Mom with a wide smile. She looks so happy. There are photos of Mom with her mother Harriet, the wedding party, and the happy couple back at Stewart Field, West Point in Newburgh, NY.
The news articles…
The newspaper did not report that Dad took Mom up in the plane that day. But I know he did at least once. Dad said he knew she was a keeper when he turned the plane upside down and she laughed. Mom was always cool as a cucumber in the face of unexpected events.
Interestingly, Dad planned to take Mom up in the plane for a rollover for some time. I present the evidence. He wrote on the back of his picture.
“A snap of me. Do you think I’m getting fat? 177 lbs. I did go 152 lbs. I guess the instrument formation day and night and cross country do me good. The planes will do over 200 and sometime if I ever get the chance I’ll really show you how a stomach can roll.”
Mom never lost the trait of staying calm during an adventure. One day in the 1997, my brother David set out to fly Mom to Hanover, NH to visit me at Dartmouth Medical School. Shortly after takeoff, the engine failed. Mom didn’t bat an eyelash. After safely landing, David asked if it scared her. She told him, “Oh no. I wasn’t worried at all. Losing the engine is part of pilot training. You brought the plane back down smooth, just like Dad would.” Mom must have learned a lot about flight training at Stewart Field.
I know for sure if I had been in the plane that day the engine quit, I’d be doing some heavy breathing and stifling a scream.
My mother, Louise Adele Johnson, was born in Machias, Maine and a life-long resident. She lived elsewhere just twice in her life, the first when she and her mother Harriet moved to Portland in 1938. She lived there until early 1943 when Mom married. Then she was off to Newburgh, NY for two years while Dad was stationed at Stewart Field Air Force Base. When Dad was discharged from military service in 1945, they returned to Maine and lived in Calais for a year. Dad worked at the mill, saved money to start a business and cut the logs for a small home in the garage of their rented home. At the end of that year, Dad built a log cabin on Dublin Street in Machias where they lived until he finished the building for his business with an apartment on the second floor for them and my brother Jim. In 1949, another son joined them, my brother David. By then, Dad had nabbed the Buick franchise and had a thriving business, Rier Buick Inc.
Portland was an adventure for Mom. Perhaps following the Johnson tradition of horses and harness racing, she joined the local horse club, Abenaki, in 1942. There she made many friends, including her life-long friend Louise Bryce. Their lives became very different: Mom married, had three children and lived Downeast; Louise remained single and lived in Gorham, not far from Portland. All the same, Mom and Louise stayed in touch all their lives. Toward the end of Mom’s life, she couldn’t find Louise. Her letters had stopped. But, Mom sat with the old photo album on her lap, looked at the photos of them together. “We had so much fun together,” she said with a smile, warmed by the memories.
It’s easy to see just how happy Mom was at this time in her life, time spent with new friends and horses. It was her last year as a single woman.
The newspaper announced the new members of the Abenaki club. Mom was appointed corresponding secretary.
Photo on the right below. Mom and her dear friend Louise Bryce.
It appears there was some horsing around…