Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tuskegee Airman Major Willis E. Sanderlin: the Ambridge connection

Maj. Willis E. Sanderlin
Tuskegee Airman
photo courtesy of Connie Gee
used with permission

I just happened to be in Ambridge during the Beaver County History Celebration, May 2 and 3, 2015, and was trying to decide which of the participating historical sites I should visit. My decision was helped when saw on the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmark Foundation's (BCHRLF) website that the Air Heritage Museum was having an exhibit about the Tuskegee Airmen. And that page had a link to information about "the Beaver County members of the Tuskegee Airmen" which included this:

It reads:
Major Willis Sanderlin, Ambridge--As a Top Gun Fighter Pilot with the 99th and 332nd Fighter Group, Willis was a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest U. S. military honor awarded to skilled fighter pilots in combat. After the war, he became a renowned dentist and until his untimely death in an auto accident he was a professor of Dentistry at the Harvard Medical School. His widow, Sylvia Sanderlin, grew up in Ambridge and is now a resident of Leetsdale.
Wow! Tuskegee Airman Major Willis E. Sanderlin was from Ambridge. At least that's how I, and apparently a lot of others, interpreted "Major Willis Sanderlin, Ambridge."

I hadn't known anything about Major Sanderlin before, so I was excited to have an especially interesting new research project. I thought I'd start by going to the Air Heritage Museum during the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit and see if I could find any more information about the Major there.

But soon after, I experienced one of those moments that makes me treasure my visits to Ambridge, one that left me intrigued and on a slightly different research path.

During a lunch at the K&N with fellow Ambridge history buff Bob Mikush, I mentioned the Tuskegee exhibit to him and said that I was hoping to find more information about Major Sanderlin there. Bob said, "He's not from Ambridge." Whoa, that was a startling bit of information. Bob told me that the Major was the brother-in-law of Ambridge dentist Dr. Michael Harris and suggested I talk to him.

Then mere moments later, Connie Gee, one of Dr. Harris' sisters, walked into the K&N. Some might remember her as a counselor at Anthony Wayne Elementary School. She and Bob started chatting and, well, the chat went on long enough that Mrs. Gee eventually sat with us. Bob asked her about Major Sanderlin. She agreed with Bob; Major Sanderlin was not from Ambridge. He was from Washington, D.C. and was a successful oral surgeon there. He was not born in Ambridge and had never lived, gone to school, or worked in Ambridge. As far as she knew, his only connection to Ambridge was that he had married her sister Sylvia. Then Mrs. Gee suggested that I call her brother Michael who probably knew more about the Major than she did.

So Major Sanderlin wasn't "from" Ambridge? Then what was his connection to Ambridge and what made him a "Beaver County member" of the Tuskegee Airmen?

I found a listing of Tuskegee Airmen cadets that listed Major Sanderlin's hometown as "Washington, D.C." Other sites provided the same information that the BCHRLF had on its website.

When I went to visit the Air Heritage Museum's Tuskegee Airmen exhibit, I asked some of the people there about Major Sanderlin's connection to Ambridge. They told me that all the information they had came from BCHRLF. So I emailed Brenda Applegate, BCHRLF Executive Director. She answered:
The bio that I have states that Sylvia grew up in Ambridge. You could contact Regis Bobonis. He provided information on all of the bios for what we considered the people from Beaver County. Maybe he was married while he served and his wife was living in Ambridge at the time (I am just guessing). I am sure that Regis will set the record straight.
So, then I emailed Mr. Bobonis and he replied:
The good Major was not a "Bridger". He married into a second generation Ambridge family. They spent considerable time in the Borough. 
And I finally got in contact with Michael Harris as Bob Mikush and Mrs. Gee had suggested. He said, "You want to know if Major Willis Sanderlin was from Ambridge? The answer is 'no.'" Dr. Harris confirmed that the Major was from Washington, D.C.

So, as disappointing as the facts may be, Tuskegee Airman Major Willis E. Sanderlin is not "from" Ambridge or Beaver County. His connection to Ambridge and the county is that he married Sylvia Harris, one of the children of Dr. Woodford "Woody" A. Harris and Gladys Harris, long time residents of Park Road in Ambridge.

As proud as we might have been to say Major Sanderlin was from Ambridge, that's not accurate. But the military honor roll in Ambridge's P. J. Caul Park lists many veterans who are from Ambridge who we should recognize and remember.

Military Honor Roll
P.J. Caul Park
Ambridge, PA
March 22, 2014
credit: Nancy Knisley

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