ELLSWORTH, Maine — More than 65 years after exchanging their vows during a post-war wedding ceremony, Wayne and Winona Dennison remain deeply in love. They endured a world war — him off fighting the Nazis, her attending college in Machias — before he hurried home “just as fast as I could get here” to find her in autumn 1945.
On a cloudy November 2011 afternoon, Wayne and Winona talked about World War II, each other and their family while seated in the living room at their neatly kept Ellsworth home. Wayne affectionately calls her “Nonie”; as he shared tales about his WWII training and aerial combat, she occasionally commented about specific incidents that occurred almost 70 years ago.
Wayne grew up in East Machias, where he graduated from Washington Academy in 1942. In midsummer 1940, he met Winona Mitchell at a Methodist campground in Jacksonville, a village located along Route 191 north of East Machias. Two years younger than Wayne, Winona hailed from Harrington.
“Our parents had camps that were close to each other,” Winona said. “His [camp] was back to ours; when we went out our back doors, we saw each other.”
In time, they liked what they saw. After Wayne joined the Army on Feb. 18, 1943, he and Winona communicated via Victory Mail (dubbed “V-mail”) as he headed to Fort Devens, Mass., then to a military post in Miami Beach for training, and finally overseas.
“I tried to enlist in the [aviation] cadet program, but they wouldn’t let you then,” Wayne recalled. “I’d lived with guns all my life, so I became an armorer-gunner.”
He received additional training at other Army posts, including Pyote Army Airfield in Texas. Soldiers nicknamed that post “Rattlesnake Army Base”; Winona chuckled as she recalled reading Wayne’s first written reference to that sobriquet.
“I never saw a rattlesnake there,” Wayne said, a smile brightening his face, too.
After completing his aerial gunnery training, Wayne joined a crew ferrying a new B-17G Flying Fortress to Great Britain. “I was the last member to come on the crew; they started in Washington State and picked up people as they came across” the country, he said.
His “Tail End Charlie” status relegated Wayne to a cramped assignment. “Every position had been taken but the ball turret,” he said. Equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns, the ball turret jutted beneath the B-17’s fuselage and swiveled with hand-operated hydraulic controls.
Because a gunner literally squeezed himself into a ball turret, the Army preferred assigning a shorter man to the position. At 5-foot-10½-inches, Wayne was not short; he sat cramped inside the round, compact metal turret. “I had to tip my head sideways to see my [gun] sights,” he said. That position caused him neck problems after the war.
Dennison’s crew was assigned to the 91st Bomb Group and the 323rd Bomb Squadron, stationed at RAF Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire, England. Wayne accompanied an experienced crew during his first mission, flown against Berlin on March 22, 1944.
German flak exploded as the B-17s bombed the target through clouds. From his ball-turret perch, Wayne saw “the plane on our right get hit.” Out of control, that plane angled left toward Wayne’s plane; his pilot slightly eased the air speed so the B-17 could move back and let the damaged bomber vanish downwards into the clouds.
“We were hit by heavy flak that day,” Wayne said. “We had 125 flak holes in the plane.”
Back home in Maine, Winona attended Washington County Normal School in Machias so she could become a teacher. She lived on campus at the school, now the University of Maine at Machias. Like so many women who knew men in the military, she could only follow the war through newspapers or radio programs — and like so many young American young women, she could only worry about her sweetheart fighting overseas.
Wayne and Winona frequently exchanged V-mail across the Atlantic. Although military censors reviewed soldiers’ letters and excised any references to operations or units, private codes relayed some information. “He’d write, ‘We went on a long trip today,’ but I wouldn’t know if it could be [to] Berlin or Poland,” Winona said.
Wayne flew his second mission with the nine aviators with whom he had departed the U.S. Led by Capt. Robert Sheriff, those crewmen would complete 35 missions together without injury and would fly in 12 different B-17s.
Nine of those planes would subsequently be lost with their crews.
Before Wayne flew his last mission on June 18, 1944, he witnessed aerial combat and destruction that would haunt him; “he had nightmares for years after he got out of the Army,” Winona said. Returning to the States, he traveled home on furlough and quickly found Winona.
The Dennisons possess a precious photo that shows them — Wayne in uniform and Winona in a blouse and skirt — snuggled side by side on a lawn outside what is now Powers Hall at UMM. They enjoyed only a short time together before he reported to a stateside post.
The Army discharged Wayne in Texas in October 1945. He immediately hied home to East Machias and then to Winona. “She was at a basketball game” at the college, Wayne said. “I went to the game and saw her across the gym. We met halfway across the basketball court.”
He gave her an engagement ring that December.
Shortly after graduating from college, Winona married Wayne on June 29, 1946. “She married me because I had a Model A Ford,” he recalled, his words eliciting a cheerful “now, you know better than that” from Winona.
After trying his hand at various jobs, Wayne went to Washington County Normal School under the GI Bill. He, too, became a teacher; he and Winona taught five years at Howland schools before moving to Ellsworth in 1958. He would serve as the Bryant E. Moore School principal for 23 years; she would teach at the Knowlton School.
The Dennisons settled into a house built for them in 1964. They have three children — John, Jim and Jane — and two grandsons and two granddaughters.
Although World War II lay seven decades in the past on this November afternoon, many memories were still fresh for Wayne and Winona. He talked about his four brothers, who all served in WW2 or Korea, and about the Washington Academy acquaintances he bumped into overseas.
Recalling particular air battles where exploding American bombers and burning German fighters filled the skies, Wayne paused briefly, then said, “I don’t know how the 10 of us came through it unhurt.” He referred to his crew.
Winona gazed at her husband before quietly commenting, “I think he knows he was very lucky.”