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The WAC: Susan Briggs didn’t set out to change the world
By Jason Lesley
She was working at the Endicott Johnson shoe factory in a job that she didn’t enjoy when she read in the newspaper that the army needed women. She went to Binghamton, N.Y., the next day, Jan. 12, 1942, and enlisted.
After completing training, she was ordered to England to join the Allied war effort. More than 70 years later, she remembers boarding the ship with her gas mask, boots and winter coat. “Sue,” she said to herself, “what are you doing here?”
That was the beginning of a “very interesting life,” she said.
The nation will celebrate Memorial Day Monday to honor the men and women who died serving their country. Thankfully, Susan Buhay was not among them.
Army brass didn’t know what to do with members of the Women’s Army Corps. They were assigned jobs like folding parachutes and other menial tasks. Susan was assigned to a P-51 fighter plane spare parts unit and eventually followed the invasion forces into France.
There she met her future husband, Archie Briggs, at the Eiffel Tower. “Our officers had said don’t go with the boys from New York because they think they know everything,” Susan said. Archie was from Long Island. When a waiter sat five bottles of champagne on a nearby table, Archie lifted one and put it on the floor between Susan’s feet. “That bottle of champagne,” she said, “was at our wedding.”
After the war, the couple started life in a one-room apartment over a bar at Third Avenue and 49th Street in New York City. They moved to Upstate New York where Archie sold insurance before going to work as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. They had four children, so Susan stayed home for 16 years before going to work at St. Lawrence University’s book store. For 18 years she ordered books, school supplies, T shirts and hats — just like she had done as a supply sergeant in the army.
Archie died 22 years ago, and Susan, at age 94, has made her way to the Lakes at Litchfield to be near her son John. “She was the rock of our family,” he said.
As a World War II veteran, Susan was invited on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., this month to tour American war monuments. She arranged to meet her son Chrisopher and granddaughter Sarah at the monument’s New York pillar.
She visited the Women’s War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery and had an opportunity to speak with Wilma Vaught, a retired Air Force brigadier general who is president of the Women’s War Memorial. Susan wanted to change her address in the army files from her mother’s home in Endicott, N.Y., to the Lakes at Litchfield. Her childhood home has been demolished to make way for an IBM parking lot, she said.
The South Carolina veterans spent the day visiting war memorials. Susan said she was most saddened by the Vietnam Memorial and the 58,000 names of those killed. She said she would have cried if she could. She had cataract surgery and no longer produces tears. She saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the acres of tombstones at Arlington.
Her lasting memory of the Honor Flight day didn’t come from Washington. The South Carolina group took a small detour to Ocean Bay Elementary School in Horry County where they were greeted by the entire third grade, teachers and staff. They lined the school’s curb, clapping, cheering and waving signs. All the veterans were presented a bag of cards from the children. “They were studying civics,” Susan said, “so they were interested in the war. They treated me like I was a star.”
When the Honor Flight returned to the Columbia airport that evening, more than a thousand people were there to welcome members of “The Greatest Generation” home.
“I didn’t intend to save the world,” Susan said. “I was running away from Endicott. I hated it. That’s how I saved myself and how I changed my life.”
A flag for Uncle Angelo
Sixty-five American flags will go up along Highway 17 south of Pawleys Island to mark Memorial Day. One is for Angelo Longo.
“When he came back from the war, he never wanted to talk about it,” said his niece, Lucille Hanley, now 85 and a resident at Ricefields with her husband Bill. She read about the Pawleys Island Highway Beautification Program’s plans to put out flags in the landscaped median on patriotic holidays and made a donation in her uncle’s memory. “I just wanted to recognize all he did.”
“Uncle Ange” didn’t need to talk about his service as the ball turret gunner in a B-17 during World War II. His family knew about it from an article that appeared in Life magazine in October 1943. Frank Scherschel, a photographer for Life, was a passenger aboard the plane nicknamed Winning Run with Longo and nine other crew members when it flew a bombing mission over Stuttgart, Germany. “We landed on a wing with four dead engines and no time for specific prayers,” Scherschel began his account. “My prayers had all been said going into Southwest Germany.”
Hanley was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but her family moved to East Hartford, Conn. Longo was her mother’s baby brother and she got to know him visiting her grandparents in New York before he too moved to Connecticut. “We became close,” she said. “My uncle being in the war was a focus for all of us.”
A crew photo of the Winning Run in July 1943 show Staff Sgt. Longo kneeling with five other NCOs in front of the four officers. His service cap is cocked over his right eye. He has an easy grin and holds a cigarette in his right hand. He was a month shy of his 22nd birthday.
The ball turret underneath the plane was usually assigned to the smallest member of the crew. Longo had to squeeze into the glass turret in a heated flight suit to operate the twin .50 caliber machine guns.
In addition to being exposed to enemy planes and flak, the ball turret gunners also had a view of the air battle. “He could see several of the planes that went down,” Hanley said.
On Sept. 6, the Winning Run was among 151 B-17s from the Eighth Air Force based in England sent to bomb aircraft plants and bearing factories around Stuttgart. The planes arrived at 25,000 feet and made three runs over the target, according to the mission history of the 303rd Bombardment Group. They were dogged by enemy fighter planes and antiaircraft fire.
On the return trip, one of the Winning Run’s four engines malfunctioned. They were still two hours away from the English coast. Oxygen was also running low.
“I think I have enough oxygen, but will somebody please check me every so often in case I run out,” Longo said on his intercom, according to the Life story.
With fuel running low, the crew starts to jettison the ammunition and buckle on their parachutes. England was in sight. The navigator found an RAF fighter airfield 14 miles from the coast. As the pilot, Lt. Jacob James, brought the Winning Run in the last two engines ran out of fuel. “We bounce twice with more noise,” Scherschel wrote. “Then there is a helluva lot more noise and we are all thrown up in the air and sideways.”
The crew scrambled out. Scherschel and James went back for the journalist’s cameras and a photo shows them sitting safe on a wing, the landing gear buried in the soft earth.
Hanley has a reprint of the Life article that she copied for her grandchildren. Her three children knew Uncle Ange, who died in 1993, but she wanted the next generation to know, too.
“You always feel that life is a wonderful thing, but you’re faced with ‘Maybe this is your last day,’ ” she said. “Thank God they made it back to England.”
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