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Monday, July 13, 2020

Hattie Meyers Weaver: Life During the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918

From an early age, Hattie Meyers was fascinated with flight. At first, being a “mere girl,” she contented herself with building models in her Glen Ridge, New Jersey, home with the help of her older brother Charlie, a member of the Aero Club of New York. She recalled her first model, made of cranberry red silk from Scotland, being named the “Red Devil” for the “wicked prohibitive sound and the hope that it would raise the ‘devil’ with the long distance model record held by Percy Pierce.” Hattie’s model shattered the record (and the cellar window)! Hattie’s model success gained her entry into the “boy’s” shop in back of their house, where she was nominally allowed to participate in their endeavor to build a man-carrying glider, often taking the blame for hijinks, all for the promise of a ride in the final product.

Hattie and Charles Meyers, ages five and seven. (Photo is dated 189[9], but is most likely 1903.) NASM 9A16573  
In 1916, Charlie brought home a friend from the Aero Club of Illinois—known only as “Buck.” Hattie immediately noted that he was “a real aviator and not just a model builder” and twenty-one to boot! She also was not a fan of the black and white checkered cap he constantly wore (not knowing that this was the proud symbol of an early aviator). As they courted, Hattie learned his full name was George Weaver. After he turned down an opportunity to fly with Katherine Stinson in Japan, George and Hattie announced their engagement on June 14, 1917, with the specter of the United States’ entrance into World War I looming.

Civilian Flying Instructors, Rich Field, Waco, Texas, January 1918. George E. “Buck” Weaver is the third from the left in the seated row. NASM 9A16576 
George and Charlie registered for the war and went to work at Aeromarine. Already a capable aviator tapped as a civilian flying instructor, George was first sent to the U.S. Naval Reserve School on Long Island then to Dayton and then to Rich Field in Waco, Texas. Hattie left everything she knew in New Jersey to meet his family in Chicago on her way to joining George in Texas. They married on February 12, 1918, with George rushing in from work, washing the castor oil off his face.

George “Buck” Weaver and Hattie Meyers Weaver together in Waco, Texas, March 19, 1918. NASM 9A16575
Hattie settled into life at Rich Field as a wife, impatiently waiting for the war’s end, even as Rich Field was struck by the influenza. George received a doctor’s note for influenza for over a week’s absence in April. Effective as of October 4, all officers and enlisted men were given antiseptic treatment daily as a precaution. Hattie recalled, “The big husky men at Camp MacArthur died faster than burial and when the wind blew from there the odor gave proof.” She noted the other target—pregnant women like herself.

Doctor’s letter, dated April 12, 1918, certifying that George “Buck” Weaver was absent from work due to influenza. NASM NASM.XXXX.0171-M0000127-00300
 On November 11, 1918, Hattie and George joined the Armistice parade in downtown Waco in their Buick convertible: “Flu and babies forgotten.” George obtained a leave of absence so that he could go to Chicago with Hattie to prepare for the baby. By the time they had reached St. Louis, Hattie knew she “had a cold, sneezes and snuffles.” She arrived in Chicago with a fever and full-blown influenza. Although she had “coughs that hurt and would not stop,” Hattie was apologetic that she was a sick nuisance to her mother-in-law.

George E. "Buck" Weaver and wife Hattie Meyers Weaver pose in their Buick Roadster, October 1918. Another version of this photograph was labeled “Mrs. W pregnant, flu epidemic.” NASM 9A16574

George Charles Weaver, nicknamed “Buddie,” was born on December 12, 1918. Hattie noted that the “fever had burned off the weight, the flesh was loose on the 5 lb. 3oz. baby.” She blamed herself and her illness for the premature birth and promised “to do better next time.” George exited the room and only later did Hattie learn he had fainted. He returned to Texas soon after to receive his discharge papers. He had been warned if he was not present, he would not receive the end-of-war separation benefits package.

Hattie convalesced in Chicago under the watchful eye of the Weaver family. Her doctor insisted that she needed to be strong and nurse the baby. Her youngest brother-in-law taught her how to walk again. George wrote often. It was difficult for Hattie to learn that many of the women with whom she had made baby clothes at Rich Field had succumbed to the flu, along with their children. In a January 5 letter, Hattie wrote: “George, that grips me by the heart at nights and when Son is sleeping quietly I have to feel him to be sure he is living. I have tried to write Mrs. Blair but each time I have become deathly sick. I cannot. Oh Georgie how grateful we are.” George returned to Chicago when Buddie was eight weeks old.

After the war, George Weaver took up barnstorming. In 1920, along with Clayton Bruckner and Elwood "Sam" Junkin, he founded the Weaver Aircraft Company. George “Buck” Weaver died on July 31, 1924, from a septic blister. He was eulogized by some of aviation’s greats, including Katherine Stinson: “You [Hattie] have been very dear to and made very happy this boy whom we all loved so dearly.”

Reproduction of July 29, 1924 telegram from Katherine Stinson to Hattie Meyers Weaver regarding the death of George “Buck” Weaver. NASM NASM.XXXX.0171-M0000014-00140

The company was later renamed Advanced Aircraft and, later, Waco (pronounced wah-co, as opposed to way-co). Hattie married Sam Junkin in 1926, but he died shortly afterwards (their daughter Janet was only a few months old). The company slipped out of Hattie’s hands soon after. The Waco Aircraft Company flourished during the interwar period as Waco aircraft were operated by public, private, military and corporate owners in thirty-five countries. During World War II, Waco devoted itself entirely to war production, particularly gliders, but could not adjust to the postwar market.

Hattie and her son Buddie lived long lives. In 1929, Hattie married Ralph Stanton Barnaby, a glider pilot, but the marriage was short-lived. Hattie wrote several versions of the Waco Company history. She was one of the first women to earn a glider class C license. She studied law at the University of Washington (DC), but fell ill before taking the bar.

Hattie Meyers Junkin with son George “Buddie” Weaver, age six, January 1927. Hattie noted on the back that she had trimmed her crepe tunic with beaver from an ageing coat. NASM 9A16577 
In 1976, an episode of the hit television show Upstairs Downstairs prompted Hattie to recall her bout of influenza in a letter to Buddie: “The report again in the final chapter of the ‘Spanish’ flu that caused more deaths than the millions slaughtered in [World] War One, naturally brings me agin [sic] to my carrying you, the Armistice, (pic in my album) of my Kewpie doll body as your father was chosen to lead the parade in our Buick convertible….” She revisited the circumstances of Buddie’s birth, adding, “Since then it is remarkable how we have escaped attempts, literally on our lives.” Hattie Meyers Weaver Junkin died in 1990 and George “Buddie” Weaver followed in 1991.

The National Air and Space Museum Archives holds the Hattie Meyers Junkin Papers, the Waco Aircraft Company Records, and the Ralph Stanley Barnaby Papers. The Waco collection includes almost 25,000 drawings on paper, business records (including purchase orders for individual aircraft), and engineering reports. Ralph Barnaby’s collection holds documents from his gliding career and correspondence received late in his life from other aviation pioneers.

Hattie’s papers are digitized, containing materials from every stage of her life. Her diaries and correspondence are especially rich in the World War I and early Waco periods. She saved everything for years, including photos and cards straight out of George “Buck” Weaver’s wallet and satchel, and donated the collection to the Museum in 1983. In fact, the Smithsonian TranscriptionCenter is looking for volunteers to transcribe materials from the Hattie Meyers Junkin Papers!

Elizabeth C. Borja
National Air and Space Museum Archives

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