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'Rie' Walker was part of war effort on the home front



Photo Credit: COURTESY OF CIVIL AIR PATROL - Hellenmerie 'Rie' served as a teenage cadet in Oregon's Civil Air Patrol during World War II and rejoined after her husband died.Hellenmerie "Rie" Walker, who served as a teenage cadet in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II and is the only surviving WWII veteran CAP member in Oregon, was honored by the U.S. Congress on Dec. 10.

The recognition came after Congress last summer passed a bill honoring those CAP members who assisted the United States during the war with medals.

Additionally, Walker rejoined the CAP as an adult and is a lieutenant colonel in the Oregon Wing of the CAP.

The Civil Air Patrol was created by Administrative Order 9 in December 1941 to provide civilian air support to aid the WWII war effort through such activities as military training assistance, border and coastal patrols and courier services.

When Rie Fiatte was 16, she joined the Portland squadron as a cadet and served from 1942 to 1944.

Walker had to buy her own uniform, and the only supplier in Portland was Nudelman Brothers. She doesn't remember the cost of the uniform, but the price to tailor it to her stuck in her mind and still steams her today.

"We had to pay Nudelman to alter it," Walker said. "I am a person who sewed her own dresses from age 10. And I had to pay them $25 to have my uniform tailored."

Walker bought the smallest size available but stood only 5 feet tall, so the smallest was too big for her. "I was a peewee," she said.

Walker remembers clearly the day the United States joined WWII and remembers what she was doing Dec. 7, 1941.

"My mother and I had gone downtown," Walker said. "I do not remember why. We got home to find an SP (security police) on the front porch. We lived above American Brake Shoe in Linnton (a neighborhood on U.S. Highway 30 north of the St. John's Bridge). We had to get federal ID to come and go from our own place because the brake yard was doing work for the government. The guard was there from then on."

When Walker joined the CAP, her squadron had 30 to 40 cadets and met at Shattuck Grade School, which is now part of the Portland State University campus. She remembers a lot of marching on the tennis court, and her squadron leader was Sgt. Barbara Brown.

"I was not good at airplane identification," confessed Walker, adding that the cadets also trained in navigation skills and use of the radio. She admitted that listening to Morse code was a bit boring.

During the time Walker was a cadet, life was vastly different from today.

"Let's put it this way, there was no flying in Portland," she said.

All non-military flights were grounded due to the war, and the Civil Air Patrol was the only non-military organization authorized by the federal government to fly missions to assist the war effort.

On the East Coast, pilots from the CAP flew coastal patrols up to 100 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean looking for German submarines, and the CAP is credited with sinking or damaging several submarines. The CAP also reported many ships in distress and was credited with saving many lives.

In northwest Oregon, any flying, which only the men could do, was done out of The Dalles at the airport on the island, according to Walker.

The Army Air Corps had four B-25s and eight P-38s, and there was a rumor that famous pilot Gregory "Pappy" Boyington was stationed there with the P-38s, although Walker never got to meet him.

Boyington was in the United States between South Pacific assignments from April to September 1942. He went on to become a Marine pilot ace in the Pacific Theater, earning the nickname "Pappy" because he was 10 years older than his other pilots.

As a CAP cadet, Walker had difficulty getting to The Dalles to participate. During the war, gasoline was rationed, and not everyone had a car. And not everyone could afford gasoline.

Another cadet, Rick Lowry, had a car, and a third youth, Johnny Schrick, had a job so he could afford to buy the gas.

Walker was one of the first 12 women in Oregon trained to work at gas stations, and while working at a Shell gas station, so she was given "the overage" of the station's portion of gas stamps because she was in the Civil Air Patrol.

So the three cadets would meet up, pool their resources and drive from Portland to The Dalles every weekend, which included riding a ferry to the island airport in those days.

Cadets did guard duty at the airport, carrying .22 and .3006 caliber rifles. Walker was assigned to guard duty by Col. Zeller, who was region commander. There were four female cadets assigned to the B-25s, and part of their training was to follow orders - immediately. They took their orders very seriously, according to Walker.

"We were doing a lot of guard duty,” she said. “I was assigned to one of the B-25s. My commander told me that no one goes over the rope (which surrounded the airplane). One of the B-25's crew members came back from town after having some beers. He was 'oiled' up. He had brought a couple of people and wanted to show them through the airplane.

“I told him no. He didn't like that. I told him to go find his commander. He did, and his commander came back with him. I told him the same thing. Oh, he was mad to be told 'no' by this snot-nosed girl who was no bigger than her gun."

In town, the CAP cadets helped enforce the blackout orders. There was a possibility of Portland being bombed since the country was at war, so there were orders to show no lights at home after dark.

"I learned quickly that the dark wasn't scary - it was the people who were in it," Walker said. “We did block patrol, walking neighborhoods to check to see if people where honoring the blackout. People would just forget."

Lt. Col. Walker left the CAP in 1944 when she got married and had a full life filled with seven children and work as a licensed practical nurse and an occupational therapy assistant. Walker also worked in real estate, property management and as an office manager.

In 1979, her husband died, and she was not sure what to do with all of her children grown up. Her youngest, Karliene, suggested Walker get involved in the CAP again, which she did.

In the meantime, at the end of WWII, the Civil Air Patrol had been transferred from the U.S. Army to the newly formed Air Force and was incorporated as a non-profit organization for volunteers.

After Walker rejoined the CAP, she served in many ways, and one great memory was chaperoning a group of 29 cadets to the Abbotsford Air Show in Canada.

"We parked 1,000 airplanes a day," she said speaking of the CAP duty of directing traffic at air shows. "There was only one accident - a pilot decided not to let young kids tell him where to park, and he drove over a pothole and broke his landing gear."

Walker also served as medical officer for encampments, and she participated in many search-and-rescue exercises. She often provided administrative support and recalled asserting herself when a rather senior pilot wasn't qualified to fly that day, so she told him so and stuck to her guns.

Walker went on to create the national regulations for the historians within the Civil Air Patrol. She also wrote a history book or two on CAP and served on the National Historical Committee for the organization.

Taking a leave of absence in 1989 to join the Peace Corps didn’t materialize after Walker was turned down because "they didn't want a grandmother in tennis shoes running around Africa telling people what to do," she said.

Instead, she joined VISTA, another volunteer program, and ended up in Pennsylvania. After a number of years, Walker moved back to Hermiston as family members needed her.

Lt. Col. Walker did not travel to Washington, D.C., for the Dec. 10 ceremony awarding the Gold Medal. At age 89, that was too big of a trip for Walker, who currently gets out only to church meetings and those of her Red Hat Society.

Instead, her 62-year-old daughter, Karliene "Korki" Vack, attended with Walker's great-grandson, Brandon Vack, 20, as her escort.

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