Performing Tribute To Their Father’s Service
“The Pakawalups” Three-Sister Trio Honors All Veterans With Their Music
As a B-17 pilot and co-pilot with 33 missions over Europe during WWII, the late Vincent Ledray flew in some of the most intense aerial combat of the war. Assigned to the 615th Bomb Squadron/401st Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force, 1st Lieutenant Ledray saw action over Berlin, Hamburg, Schweinfurt, and at D-Day in 1943-’44. He and the airmen of the 401st Flying Fortresses played a pivotal role in diminishing Nazi Germany’s capacity to wage war.
Fellow crew member Charles Casner wrote a diary about the missions of the 401st. The group operated primarily against key military industrial sites, including factories, shipyards, missile sites, airfields, marshalling yards and submarine facilities. Ardently guarded and fortified by the Germans, crew casualties and the cost of downed and damaged planes were high. The 401st lost 95 planes in 256 missions. The attacks on the ball bearing plant in Schweinfurt, Germany were especially harrowing: “Never before have the Germans sent up so much fighter opposition…and flak was so damned thick over the target I swear you could have walked on it,” Casner wrote.
The valor and service of Ledray, World War II veterans and men and women of the armed forces are today honored by Ledray’s three daughters: Cathie Ledray Senff, Sue Ledray Murray and Vicki Ledray Grabicki. All with childhood musical backgrounds, in 2005 they formed The Pakawalups, a USO-style harmonizing trio named after their dad’s favorite B-17, the Pakawalup. Performing songs by Glen Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and the Andrews sisters, they also share anecdotes from their parents’ WWII life experiences. The Pakawalups joined the 401st Bomb Group Association and gave their first performance at a 401st reunion in Deenethorpe, England, where their father was stationed during the war.
“Our lives haven’t been the same since our first show in England; it’s just been wonderful,” Vicki said. The group sings at reunions (managed by Armed Forces Reunions, Inc.) and at a wide array of military and patriotic functions, including Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day gatherings, fairs and other events nationwide and near their hometown of Bellingham, Washington. In 2014 The Pakawalups were presented a “Certificate of Recognition” from the Lynden, Washington Lions Club at their Veterans’ Day celebration dinner.
“When we look into our audience we can see by their faces that we have transported them back to another time, a time that holds sweet and sad memories,” Susan said. “The 1940’s Greatest Generation was from a time of passion and romance, and love of country. Everyone pulled together to end the war and there really hasn’t been a time like that in our lifetime. After our performances, people come up and thank us. It’s very gratifying.”
The sisters were inspired to form the group after Vicki did research on their father’s service, including accounts from his flight log. Many of the early forays over Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe were daylight missions, especially deadly, and the escort fighters didn’t have the fuel capacity, range or firepower to adequately protect the bombers from Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Not until the advent of the longer range, more heavily armed P-51 Mustang fighter in late 1943, along with a more tightly-packed B-17 formation, did the losses begin to abate and the tide in the air turn toward victory in Europe.
“Dad said had it not been for the new P-51’s they would have never made it across the English Channel,” Cathie recalled. The 401st won two Distinguished Unit Citations for its role and had the second best bombing accuracy in the 8th Air Force. The group was often referred to as “The Best Damned Outfit in the Army Air Force.”
The sisters are currently working on a tribute CD and hope to have it out within a year, but their passion remains performing and their ranks are expanding. The sisters’ granddaughters, The Pak-A-Punches, now perform and travel with the group, as well as run the PX at 401st reunions. “Most important of all, our granddaughters are learning history directly from the veterans and their families,” Susan said. “When one of our veterans goes ‘forever aloft’ the girls cry too because they knew them and their stories personally.”
Scott McCaskey is a contributing writer for BMR.com, Account Director at Goldman & Associates Public Relations and former staff writer for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
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