In my first post, I covered my grandparents’ early history in Hollywood up to the point where “Pop” asked his US Army Air Forces superiors to consider sending him overseas to join the air war instead of working in recruitment and training. They granted that request, and he immediately transferred to North Island to learn to fly Lockheed’s brand new P-38 “Lightning” before joining the 48th Fighter Squadron, 14th Fighter Group, serving in North Africa. Happily for us, my grandfather wrote a wonderful article about his experience flying the P-38. Here’s a small excerpt:
I remember walking up to my first P-38 as if it were yesterday. It was more than beautiful! It was breathtaking. The instant I saw it, I was awestruck, and something about the airplane told me that we would be great friends. All of us at North Island were trained as fighter pilots, but we had been trained as single-engine fighter pilots because that’s all we had at the time. None of us had as much as a single hour of multi-engine instruction. Then, there we were, preparing to fly an airplane with 1400hp on each side, and we had only been trained to handle a single throttle. This was an entirely new ball game for all of us. But, hey, no problem; we were fighter pilots, right? And, we were young fighter pilots, which meant we thought we were invincible.
If you’d like to read the entire piece, I’ve added it at THIS PAGE, along with some photos of Pop’s plane. It’s a marvelous story of his most famous (and dangerous) mission. He was declared missing and presumed dead, so his squadron mates divided up his personal belongings. He said it took a week to get them all back! If you click the image below, you can read the two newspaper clippings Pop saved about Mission Bizerte:
Prior to this mission, Pop had already been decorated five times for his service in the USAAF and was second in command of his squadron, but this mission earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received from Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle in North Africa. He circled the mention in the press release below (which wasn’t published until February 1943):
Back in the States, my grandmother continued to work in photo retouching and volunteered with the USO and other service organizations, anxiously waiting for letters from Ervin and counting the days until he’d return (he served a total of 45 missions in North Africa). When his duties in North Africa wrapped up, Pop was promoted to captain and transferred to command the training school at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, California, which meant he continued to fly and teach others in his beloved P-38. In early 1944, the USAAF started a gunnery school at Metropolitan, and Pop promptly gave his parents and Jeanie a photo of himself in his new role, which he thoroughly enjoyed:
Being in Van Nuys meant Pop was still close to Jeanie (who continued to share a Los Angeles apartment with another gal). On August 6, 1944, Ervin and Jean were married in a quiet ceremony in Los Angeles. Alas, we do not have a single photo of the wedding. Mimi later told me that she wore a tailored robin’s egg blue suit with a white corsage on the lapel. Pop, of course, wore his captain’s uniform. They were married in what looks like “Blomingham Chapel” on the marriage certificate, but I haven’t been able to find out where it was. Major Ralph L. Knight and Mrs. Norris Goff served as witnesses. There wasn’t time for a real honeymoon, as D-Day just a few months before had turned the tide of the war (though they, of course, had no idea how much longer it would last). The honeymoon would have to come after the war. As a gift to her new husband, Jeanie set Ervin up for a portrait and did the retouching herself. This image went on display in the studio’s window for several months, and many people walked in to ask when the studio had photographed Clark Gable! Mimi was quite proud of the fact that her good-looking husband resembled the famous star.
Jeanie absolutely relished her new role as an officer’s wife and immediately dived into her duties. Military culture was very different in the States in the 1940s and even up into the early 1960s. Officers’ wives were the movers and shakers who kept things well-oiled and running smoothly, acted as hostesses for important guests, and thought up creative ways to make life easier for men in uniform and their families. In my grandmother’s case, this meant becoming the “cover girl” for the AAF at Van Nuys Army Air Force Base. In the photo below, you see Jeanie working for the Christmas shopping service she ran for the AAF. Officers’ wives volunteered to do all the shopping, wrapping, and delivery of gifts for the families of servicemen, and Mimi was the one who coordinated the entire operation.
And here’s a news clipping using the same shot (Pop’s name is misspelled as “Irwin”):
Because married officers’ housing hadn’t yet been built on the Van Nuys base in 1944, for the first six months of their married life, my grandparents rented a cottage on the grounds of actor Edward Everett Horton’s Encino estate, Belleigh Acres (get it? “Bellyachers”!). Horton had built a palatial house for himself and beautiful cottages for his mother and siblings as well. He sometimes rented out spare cottages to friends (including F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1938-39). Pop told me that Horton loved to throw lavish parties, often hiring a full-sized swing orchestra to play from 8pm until the wee hours of the morning. Capt. Ethell’s military duties meant he couldn’t stay up dancing the night away, but Jeanie sure did! She was a popular dance partner and also liked to play bridge with Horton and his family members. Pop said you never knew who would turn up at a Horton party–anyone from Ginger Rogers to the Marx Brothers might be there, swimming in the pool, drinking at the bar, or jitterbugging on the dance floor. While Horton lived in a sumptuous house and collected rare antiques, Mimi said he was a total penny-pincher and kept incredibly detailed ledgers of every expense, down to the last bottle of Coca-Cola. The photo below shows Jeanie looking trim and chic in 1944. She is (I believe) standing on the lawn at “Tuffy” and Liz Smith’s house, but Pop also told me at one time this was the grounds at Belleigh Acres, so I’m not sure which memory is correct:
It was a fun half year for Erv and Jeanie, but, after married quarters were built at the Van Nuys Air Field, Pop decided it would be better for his career to live on base. Jeanie also helped acclimate the wives of trainees to life in the AAF. Married quarters were pretty sparse and could feel a bit like living in a college dorm, so she worked with other volunteers to help families set up their quarters to be comfortable and homey on a small budget.
Whenever Erv had time off, he loved to take Jeanie for drives in his beautiful convertible and get together with friends:
The war continued to grind on, and my grandparents served in many capacities all the way to the end. Pop loved the Army Air Forces and decided he’d like to remain career military no matter how the war came out. He told me later that a deciding factor for him was Mimi’s brilliance as a military wife. She absolutely shined in her role and was instrumental in helping him get ahead and become indispensable to his superiors. If you’d ever like to take a closer look into the culture of the American military in the 1940s and 1950s, I highly recommend Allan Carlson’s book, The American Way: Family and Community in the Shaping of American Identity. Carlson’s chapter on the military is revealing and insightful and helped me understand how crucial military wives were to the success of their husbands. It made me doubly proud of my grandmother for all she did. Her role as Pop’s wife became a loved career that she excelled at.
At the end of WW2, Americans breathed a long sigh of relief and hoped they were headed into a new era of prosperity and innovation. To celebrate, my grandparents took that long-awaited honeymoon and drove the famous Route 66 from LA to see the Grand Canyon, which neither had ever visited. They enjoyed the drive as much as the destination, and my grandmother told me they lost count of all the Burma Shave signs because there were so many!
The USAAF transferred Capt. Ethell to March Field in Riverside, California, where he continued to keep up his flying skills in fighter planes, including P-51s left over from the war, and, later, the early jets. Jeanie made a warm and wonderful home with her own decorating style. To the end of her life, Mimi’s favorite color was red, and she recovered a nine-foot couch in a beautiful red and white floral toile that I still remember sitting on as a child. She loved feminine touches like ruffled curtains and lamp shades, and she became quite house-proud, hosting dinners and cocktail parties wherever she and Pop lived. In 1947, Jeanie gave birth to my father, Jeffrey Lance Ethell, at the newly rechristened March Air Force Base (the USAAF became the US Air Force in 1947). She and Erv absolutely doted on their only son, and Erv looked forward to introducing him to the joys of flying. Jeanie loved being a mother and was in danger of spoiling my father to bits, but Erv taught his son military discipline with a smile: showing up on time, being prompt to respond, quickly standing when a superior or elder entered the room, and even making his bed to military standards (I learned to mitre corners from Dad!). He also introduced his son to dozens of amazing people in the Air Force, which paved the way for my father’s career as an aviation historian and pilot later on.
In April of 1949, Capt. Ethell was transferred to command the 39th Fighter Squadron. My grandmother promptly made herself and my two-year-old father matching shirts with the squadron’s famous “cobra” insignia patch on the front:
On June 25, 1950, Communist forces in North Korea attacked South Korea, including a small US force that had been stationed there since the country was divided up informally after WW2. The United States urged the newly formed United Nations to push through a resolution for the US to send military assistance to South Korea. My grandfather was quickly dispatched with the 39th Fighter Squadron to fly reconditioned P-51s (now called F-51s) from WW2. In what had to have been the most surreal experience of his life, Pop was stationed at Ashiya Air Field in Japan and “commuted” to the war, flying long-range missions daily for reconnaissance and ground attacks on targets in Korea before landing back at the base. My grandmother and my father moved to Japan with Pop and lived a fairly normal life on base, sending Pop off to war each morning and welcoming him home each evening. I can’t imagine how my grandmother managed to keep up a cheerful and normal existence for my father with the anxiety of Pop’s daily missions on her mind, but she did. She gave Pop a photo that he carried with him on each mission, signing it “Your baby, Jeanie.” That photo is now framed and holds a place of honor on my desk:
Pop became famous on base for his grilled steaks, and Mimi was known for being a gracious and beautiful hostess. My father spent ages three to six playing with other children on base and touring around Japan with his mother. Below is a shot of my grandfather sitting on the wing of his F-51, painted in tribute to his amazing wife:
My grandmother posed for the photo that became the basis of this nose art before the move to Japan. Here’s the original:
And here’s my father, squatting on the wing of his father’s plane (Mimi is just visible at the bottom left, looking up at him):
After the Korean War came to a frustrating stalemate in 1953, Erv and Jeanie returned to the States, taking some time off to visit Erv’s parents in Oklahoma. The photo below shows them at a 1953 Christmas party at my great-grandparents’ house in Lawton. Thousands of airplanes were decommissioned after the Korean conflict, and many were sold on the civilian market. My father begged his dad to buy a P-51, saying it would be worth so much in the future and would be great fun to fly. Pop always regretted that he didn’t take his son’s advice, as he could have paid about $1,200 for a fully operational P-51 — a Warbird now valued in the millions! From the time Dad was tall enough to sit on a thick phone book and see out the cockpit window (age eight, according to my grandfather), Pop taught him to fly. He earned his private pilot’s license at age 16 and absolutely loved flying any chance he got. Like father, like son!
The next stop for the Ethell family was Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, where Capt. Ethell served in the Strategic Air Command for several years. This was the Cold War Era, and fears of nuclear attack were quite real. My dad remembered having to do drills at the base school to learn how to hunker down under his desk in case of attack. Mimi recalled Puerto Rico with fondness, saying it was one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen with its colorfully painted houses, exotic trees and flowers, and beautifully dressed ladies. Unfortunately, we have no photos from Puerto Rico, though Pop insisted they used their new color camera to take quite a few. I spent years trying to find those images in our family files, but they never turned up and seem to be lost to history. I would love to see how Mimi dressed in 1950s Puerto Rico! The family returned to the States in 1959, and my father played in Little League and did all the normal childhood things a young American boy would do, even while growing up in the military:
Around April, 1959, the Air Force transferred Capt. Ethell to Andrews Air Force base near Washington, D.C. Having lived all their married life on the West Coast (except for Pop’s time in North Africa and the family’s short stint in Puerto Rico), they were thrilled to be in the nation’s capital and often took day trips into the city to enjoy the museums and historical buildings. My father went to school on base until age 14, then attended Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. He also continued to fly with Pop whenever he had the chance. Mimi kept up her reputation as the hostess with the mostest and had an incredible collection of cocktail dresses for evening receptions and military balls. Those gowns would later serve as the bulk of my dress-up trunk from the time I was three years old, and I adored every sequin and bead. Sure wish we had photos of those dresses from my early years before I wore them into shreds! Thankfully, my sister has shared scans of the photos from her own collection, showing Mimi dressed smartly in clothes I remember (and some of which I still have packed away) from the 1950s and ’60s. My grandmother kept her clothes meticulously repaired and stored them in hanging zipper bags to prevent fading and moth damage. When she died, we found everything neatly stored on padded hangers or folded into tissue paper in her closets and dressing room. I think this is one reason we can still find vintage clothes from the 1940s to 1960s in mint or near-perfect condition–their owners took care of what they had and stored them properly. Mimi would never have dreamed of putting a wrinkled dress onto a hanger and cramming it into the closet! (Something I still have to learn….)
The last photos I have to share are from my late father’s collection and show my grandparents with me as a baby.
If you’re still reading all the way down here, thanks for hanging in there while I’ve taken a trip down Memory Lane. It has been a total joy to research my grandfather’s service record and trace his and Mimi’s life from the early 1940s to 1972. I’m so very thankful that both of them told me their stories while they were still living and that Pop left me his scrapbooks and so many notes and letters. Theirs truly was an amazing generation. They gave so much, sacrificed so much, and worked hard so their children and grandchildren would have a good future. May we never forget.
I still have one more post in me to wrap up this series. Next time I’m going to share my grandmother’s beauty secrets and her daily routine for keeping her skin lovely and her figure trim all the way into her 70s. No crazy diets required. No gym memberships. No plastic surgery. Common sense, good posture, and classy dressing…stay tuned!
Click HERE for Part III!