JOSEPH – How does a young English girl who served in the Royal Air Force end up in Joseph, Oregon? To tell the full story would take a long time to tell – just about 100 years. That’s because Gladys Huffman will turn 100 in January.
But for this Veterans Day, she’s one of the few World War II veterans left in Wallowa County — and the only one still living at the Alpine House in Joseph.
Born in January 1920 in Birkenhead, England Huffman was just 19 when Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler’s Sept. 1, 1939, invasion of Poland.
Like many of her countrymen — and women — she wanted to join the war effort. At first, she volunteered as an air raid warden and spotter in her hometown. Both Birkenhead and Liverpool were prominent shipbuilding centers and thus, targets of the Luftwaffe — the German air force.
“We had an anti-aircraft gun parked right outside our house,” she recalls, saying she was based near her home.
She even remembers after one Luftwaffe raid, the building in which she was taking shelter was hit and heavily damaged, but she and others survived in the basement.
“We didn’t know how we were going to get out until a pickaxe came through the wall and somebody asked if we were OK,” she says.
As an air raid warden, she helped enforce blackouts during the Blitz — Germany’s early, unsuccessful effort to bomb Britain into submission that culminated in British victory in the Battle of Britain — and after a bombing by the Luftwaffe she would call in where emergency services were needed. She says that on one occasion, her family spent 10 days in an air raid shelter.
She says the bombings during the Blitz and the blackouts were the worst parts of the war she experienced personally.
“You couldn’t see anything (at night),” she says. “You couldn’t even see the street signs to know where you were. That was the hardest to take.”
Of course, the worst experience for her and her family was what happened to two of her brothers, Reginald and Victor Favager, who also were in the RAF.
Huffman said that one night, during the same raid over occupied Europe, both the Lancaster bombers her brothers were aboard were shot down. Victor, who had lied about his age and enlisted at 17, was killed and Reginald, 19 at the time, was taken prisoner. Reginald was captured near the site where the Germans were doing rocket tests and he was accused of being a spy.
“He was treated very badly by the Nazis,” she says, adding that he did survive the war.
As a plane spotter, she would identify whether flights of planes were friend or foe and count the numbers of enemy planes. Later, she became one of the early volunteers in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
“At first, the RAF didn’t want women,” she says. “You had to be able to do a man’s (desk) job to release him to go to the front.”
Later on, she says, as Britain got more desperate for manpower, women were conscripted, something American women haven’t experienced.
Huffman was given a job as an accountant handling the finances of British and foreign pilots. That’s how she met her first husband, Willard W. Davis.
An American, Davis went to Canada to try to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“He wanted to go in right now” to be a fighter pilot, Huffman said.
But since the process of becoming a pilot with the RCAF was going to take too long, he instead got his wings with the air force of the Polish government in exile. He got his training and wings from the RAF, wore an RAF uniform, but flew in a squadron with Poles and other non-Brits.
Davis flew for the Poles and the RAF until America came into the war in December 1941.
“He wanted to fly under his own colors” and transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces, Huffman said.
The couple married in June of 1943 and her RAF service ended. By then, the Allies were pushing back on nearly all fronts, but Davis didn’t want his bride in harm’s way and sent her to America.
But that in itself involved danger. She sailed on the RMS Aquitania – a former ocean liner – to New York and at times was chased by U-boats.
“It was kind of scary to know they were following you,” she says, but added there was no serious danger since the Aquitania was so much faster. She said no U-boat ever got close enough to fire a torpedo.
After V.E. Day in May 1945, Davis served in the U.S. Army of Occupation in Germany and had his new family join him there. That’s when Huffman became a U.S. citizen.
“He said it would be better being in Germany with a U.S. passport than a British one,” she says.
She said Davis died in 1954, of a heart attack, induced by the stress of the war.
Today, Davis has four daughters, 16 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
In 2018 she moved to the Alpine House since her daughter, Gockley, was living nearby and had lived in Joseph for 16 years. Gockley moved to Peck, Idaho, this year.
Huffman said she had visited Wallowa County once before moving here and fell in love with it.
“It’s the most beautiful part of the country,” she says.
Even after her daughter Gockley moved to Idaho, Huffman wanted to stay put because of the accommodations in Joseph, she says.
She’s also made a flock of friends at Alpine House.
Murphy says Huffman is well liked by all there.
“She looks out for other people and helps others,” Murphy says. “But she’s feisty — she keeps people in line.”
Resident Mike Williams agrees.
“She’s a great friend of mine,” says Williams, who helps her with her TV and her mail.
“She says, ‘Thank you, honey’ in a flirty manner,” Williams says. “I love it.”