Fernita grew up in Wichita Falls. In the 1940s, pilots were trained at nearby Sheppard Air Force Base. On Sundays, Fernita’s parents used to invite airmen to their house for lunch after church. Fernita remained a friendly and welcoming person like her parents throughout her life.
Merle Swalin was a pilot in training at Sheppard. He was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and seemed rather more serious than Fernita. One evening, Fernita and her friends were on a “cruise” and stopped to talk to two airmen. At first, Fernita wasn’t interested, but when Merle asked if they’d like some ice cream, she said OK, as she didn’t think there was anywhere nearby to buy ice cream. Merle had already spotted one, so the foursome had ice cream that night.
It was 1942 or 1943. They kept in touch as Merle moved from base to base training and eventually was going to be in Billings, Montana for a while. So Fernita took the train to Montana. They got a license and got married there.
Soon after, Merle was on his way to war. He was a pilot who flew over the dangerous “hump” to deliver supplies to Chinese soldiers fighting against the Japanese. The hump was an airway from India to China over the foothills of the Himalayas. It was the Air Force’s most dangerous airlift route because of the height of the mountains, the lack of oxygen at that height, and because of the refueling planes often referred to as “The flying coffin– the Curtiss C-46 Commando.
Over 1,000 men and 600 aircraft were lost on the 530-mile stretch of rough terrain during World War II, and that’s a very conservative estimate. It was dubbed the “Skyway to Hell” and the “Aluminum Trail” for the number of planes that failed to make it. If the winds and weather didn’t bring you, a Japanese Zero would try. Merle survived the war, they raised their two children in Oak Cliff and their marriage lasted until his death in 1990.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the picture in uniform and it would have been their wedding picture I think; note that she has a white Bible in her hand. She is my personal example of what an active Christian could be – even though both of my parents were also active in church. We are all Presbyterians. The Swalins and my family attended Sunset Presbyterian Church in Jefferson and Westmoreland while their son Richard and I were in high school. Then both families moved to Glendale Presbyterian, and Fernita and my family ended up in Oak Cliff Presbyterian when my younger sister was in high school.
I’m 76 and when the memories start to come back, they’re fun to relive. I’ve worked with children and done some of the things Fernita did for us. She was a very special person in my life and in my little sister’s life too. In fact, I guess most of us in my church youth group have never forgotten her.
—Narrated by Shirley Campbell