Best Friends Reunited

Originally published in the Clear Lake Courier — January 31, 1996

Fifty-two years ago, two young South Dakota women joined the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Service). They became acquainted when they moved into the same cubicle in the WAVES barracks at Naval Air Station, Hutchinson, Kansas. Lorraine Lee was from Lake Norden and Mildred Hanson was from Altamont. Without knowing each other, they had gone through basic training at Hunter College in Brooklyn, New York. They probably traveled to Hutchinson on the same train.

Mildred remembers the train being packed, with people sitting in the aisles. However, the Pullman care occupied by the WAVES was half empty. The WA VES offered to share their car with other passengers, but the porter told them it was a government car and civilians were not allowed in it.

Lorraine remembers being parked on a siding in Wichita and seeing her Sioux Falls boyfriend in a train on the neighboring track. They talked through their windows for a few moments until one of the trains started to move.

At NAS Hutchinson, Mildred and Lorraine quickly became best friends. They learned they had been born 25 days apart. While waiting to reach the minimum enlistment age of 20, Lorraine worked for Ford Motor Company in Detroit, and Mildred welded floating dry docks in a California shipyard. Lorraine had nine brothers and sisters; Mildred had thirteen.

Mildred started out as a mechanic on B-24 (also called PB-4Y) bombers, which were being used as cargo planes. She decided working with greasy hands on a slippery surface 16 feet above the ground was not for her. She switched to maintaining logbooks instead of the airplanes themselves.

Lorraine worked in an office at the school for Navy mechanics and radiomen. When she got disgusted with the constant catcalls and whistles from the students, she also transferred to the logbook section.

The base recreation center was the social gathering place for young sailors, most of whom did not have cars and seldom went off base. Everything was free–movies, blowing (they set their own pins), and big bands such as the Sammy Kaye Orchestra. Both Mildred and Lorraine remember having a lot of fun.

When the war ended, the Navy no longer needed its WAVES. Mildred was discharged in February 1946, Lorraine two months later. Lorraine married Navy petty officer James Volheim and moved to California. Mildred went home to her parents’ farm near Clear Lake, where she met and married John Diekman.

Although the two women never heard from each other again, Mom mentioned her Navy best friend often enough that I remembered the name. As a volunteer at the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) office in Washington D.C., I have access to its computer database. My job there is to enter information on women who have requested to be added to the Memorial Register.

Out of curiosity one day, I checked to see if Mom’s old friend was entered in the register. I typed the maiden name “Lorraine Lee,” and one name popped up. It didn’t list a military rank, just a married name and a Watertown, South Dakota, address.

When I called Mom, she recognized the name “Volheim.” Her best friend from 50 years ago lived only 30 miles away!

In addition to telling Mom, I wrote Lorraine a letter. Lorraine told me later that her first reaction to my letter was shock. The second was to wonder, “How far is Clear Lake from Watertown?”

She immediately called our farm. Keith (my brother) told her Mom and two sisters were at the Dakota Sioux Casino. He described their matching vests, patterned with playing cards scattered across a green background, and added that Mom would be wearing a cap.

When Lorraine walked into the casino, she spotted one of the vests. That was Florence Paulson. Florence pointed across the room to another woman wearing an identical vest and a cap. That was Mildred, stuffing nickels into a slot machine.

Neither friend could describe for me her reaction upon seeing the other. Although both had aged, they were still about the same size, and they “sort of” recognized each other. My brothers tell me it’s easy to see why they were friends, because they’re so much alike.

Lorraine had spent the intervening years raising her family in California. Two years ago she returned to Lake Norden with her teenaged grandson. Last year she sold the family farm and moved to Watertown. She was alone and in search of a friend.

Thanks to a computer database in Washington DC, two South Dakota friends from 50 years ago are now friends for the future.

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