Pistol Packing Mama

It seems in life we all have people around us that have positively touched our lives in some way. Some people come into our lives briefly and others for a lifetime. This past week, Sarah, one of my best friends throughout my life came to visit me here in The Netherlands. I cannot explain how special it is for friends and family to come here to visit. This connection is something my family needs and I’m sure other expats do as well. As an expat you are sent thousands of miles away from the people you love. So to have them with you even if for a short time is wonderful. And this visit was full of lifetime memories.

As Sarah and I settled into our routine as we always do…. Coffee, wine, laughing and a continuous game of Dummy Rummy that has lasted for 30 years, we began to talk about the history of the area. World War II events happened all over this area. Just like when you’re in the North East in America and remembering the American Revolution or in the South and remembering the Civil War, it’s difficult to be in a place like The Netherlands and not pay respect to the victims and the hero’s that emerged from WW II. We are both “Fly by the seat of our pants” kind of girls. Not really needing an agenda but only the knowledge that we will be together and will have fun!

I’ve developed my very best “Julie the Cruise Director” agenda, picking out places for friends and family to visit and finding fun memories for them to take back home with them. We went to Belgium, the Kinderdijk, all over Eindhoven, biking, shopping and ended with a fun day in Amsterdam. But along the way we did something else.
We always, always, talk about the love of our parents and how much we miss her mother and my mom and dad who have all passed. And we always talk about Sarah’s dad, Al Stanwood.

Al and Jean Stanwood

Sarah’s dad is one of those people, who have always been a very special presence not only in his own children’s lives but in mine as well. I grew up two houses away from the Stanwood’s. Immediately Sarah and I became best friends and grew inseparable. Many nights and days were spent at the Stanwood home and at their country home or Prop as they called it. Sarah’s sisters Marion and Susan, would usually join us playing with Barbie’s, Legos, cards, board games, ping pong, tents, swimming, all things and everything kids love to play with. Their older brother Al, was already off to school. Throughout this time, Mr. and Mrs. Stanwood were both there guiding us, feeding us (memories of the best spaghetti ever!!), driving us around and keeping us out of trouble. Always a cheerful safety post in the background of our childhood lives.

Mr. Stanwood was a pilot for General Motor’s company for 30 years. As a child, Mr. Stanwood was there, then he’d be gone, then he’d be back again. Just short trips off to work... then back to watch over his beautiful family. He retired early and as he had had his children later in life, he was able to enjoy most of their high school years cheering from the crowds as his girls swam for their local club teams and high school team.
But this week, with Sarah and I surrounded with the history of World War II our discussion led back to the early years of her father, before he had children and a family. It’s funny how even as adults, it’s difficult for us to think of our parents as young adults, with lives that didn’t include us, that didn’t revolve around the lives of their children, a life that led him as a young man off to a war that was far away from home. A life in my opinion, A Hero!

World War II… Enter a kid from Providence, Rhode Island. A 21 year old graduate from Bryant College sent off to fight a war in the South Pacific, far from his family and friends. 

He flew a plane called the Pistol Packing Mama in the 22nd bomb group. He flew 93 missions with only 15 of those not being shot at by the enemy. Several of those missions were against Japan’s flying ace Saburo Sakai. Mr. Stanwood also flew in the controversial mission where Lyndon B. Johnson allegedly won his Silver Star for bravery. LBJ’s plane never made it into the battle, but the Pistol Packing Mama was there! 

Mr. Stanwood received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a decoration awarded for heroic or extraordinary achievement while on aerial duty. After the war was over Mr. Stanwood was chosen to fly General Curtis LeMay around the world. He later went on to work and fly for GM. He married the love of his life, Jean, and together they raised 4 beautiful children.

The man I knew as a child was “Sarah’s Dad” or Mr. Stanwood. He was a calm, peaceful, God loving, family man, and still is. At 93 years of age he is still as beautiful inside as he is out. Mr. Stanwood has served his country proudly, been a pillar of his church and community in Plymouth, Michigan and above all a loving husband, father and grandfather. 

The Stanwood Grandchildren

If that’s not the definition of a hero, I don’t know what one is. I’m proud to call Mr. Stanwood not only a mentor in my life but also my friend.

I can still hear him singing “Shave and a haircut…. Two bits!” 


  1. Erma Raines DodsonJune 26, 2014 at 6:54 AM

    Oh, how much I've enjoyed this article - thank you so much. I was privileged to have the Stanwood girls on the Bulldog Swim Club team working out in the Bentley High School pool, located in Livonia, MI

    I loved the entire family. Al was always in the balcony watching the swimmers practice. I was so impressed with Al,s attendance each time. Fathers usually didn't attend practice for their daughters - but always for their sons. Outstanding family - each and everyone!


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