Wilson Conaway didn’t care for high school in Youngstown, Ohio. “It was 1942,” he recalled. “The war was on. There were a lot of flags waving, and I wanted to be a pilot.”
One thing he did like about school was a pretty girl named Connie. “She was running around with my best friend, and he introduced us,” Wilson said. They went out a few times, but the lure of flying proved stronger than his affection for Connie, and triumphed over the drudgery of schoolwork.
So he hitchhiked to Cleveland and enrolled in the Army Air Corps. His eyes lit up when he recalled the first aircraft he flew. “I learned to fly in a Stearman. It’s a beautiful plane and great for acrobatics!”
While Wilson soared through the skies, Connie and her family moved to California. “We kept in touch by letter,” she said. Then she grinned. “I wrote to several male friends – they were all in the service.”
However, she soon saw her Ohio sweetheart again. When the military sent him to California for further training, he enjoyed home-cooked meals with Connie’s family. She said, “My mom delighted in feeding the soldiers!”
Wilson had hoped to fly the single-seat P-51 fighters, but instead was assigned to the 92nd Bombardment Group and trained to fly B-17s. “We were replacements. They were losing so many B-17 pilots.”
Eventually, Wilson, his crew and a brand new plane were sent to England. He completed nine missions over Germany. They often flew under heavy fire. “Our tail gunner got hit in the head. He’d taken off his flak helmet – but it (shrapnel) bounced off his head.” The gunner survived.
But other memories sadden him. His radio operator was killed on one of those missions. “The night before we left, we all had dinner together, and his wife and little baby came – that was the last time she saw him.”
While Wilson served his country in Europe, Connie did her part at home. In 1944, she enlisted in the WAVES (the women’s section of the U.S. Naval Reserve). “I was in nurse’s training, and I decided I didn’t like it,” she said.
Ironically, her first assignment was at the Long Beach Naval Hospital where she worked in the operating room of the dependents’ unit. She laughed. “Gall bladders, tonsillitis – all the fun stuff.”
When the war in Europe ended, Wilson and his men stayed, and for the next year and half they mapped Europe. “We had it real good because our commanding officer was on Eisenhower’s staff,” he said. “We flew to Rome, Athens, Paris. …”
And while a few French girls turned his head, none captured his heart.
Both Wilson and Connie were discharged in 1946 and returned to Youngstown. “We found each other again, back in our hometown,” Connie said.
They picked up where they’d left off in high school, and a few months later, Wilson proposed on the steps outside Connie’s apartment building. They married on Jan. 22, 1947.
Despite Wilson’s commendable war service, his lack of a high school diploma made it difficult for him to find work. Their daughter Dottie was born in 1948, and a few weeks later they packed up and moved to Whittier, Calif., where Connie’s parents still lived.
While looking for a job, Wilson met the dean of Whittier College. After hearing of his plight, the dean registered Wilson for college.
“He said, ‘If you can’t get a high school diploma, get a college one,’ ” Wilson recalled.
And that he did. The young man, who hadn’t even liked high school, thrived in college, eventually earning a doctorate in education.
He landed his first teaching job in Detroit, where he taught sixth grade for three years. While there, another daughter, Connie, joined the family in 1954.
They returned to California, and Wilson talked his wife into using her GI Bill to attend college. She received her bachelor’s in English in 1970 and taught English and home economics at a middle school for many years.
“It seems a lot of our married life, one of us was in school,” Wilson said. “When you’re young you can do anything.”
They both retired from teaching in 1990. “We wanted to get out of California,” he said. “Too many people and too much traffic.”
They spent a summer traveling and exploring their options. Connie had cousins in Liberty Lake, and the golf course proved to be an additional draw for Wilson, an avid golfer. In 1993 they left California behind.
Connie joined the Liberty Lake garden club and soon met all their neighbors. In fact, one new friend had an unusual connection to Wilson. “My friend is German and had been a baby during the war. Her house was bombed and they had to dig her out of the rubble.”
While comparing dates and times, they discovered Wilson’s plane had in all likelihood dropped the bomb that decimated her home. That fact didn’t dampen their friendship a bit.
The couple recently returned from an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Usually, spouses don’t go together, but because both are WWII veterans, they both got to make the trip. “It’s something we’ll never forget,” said Connie.
She’s also never forgotten how fortunate they’ve been. Many B-17 pilots never returned.
“I’ve told him many times, ‘I’m lucky to have you, honey,’ ” she said.
And Wilson, who left school and flew around the world only to find his true love back in his hometown, said, “I’ll tell you a secret. I love her more today than I ever have.”