By Keith Barnes
KENLY — Former Kenly resident Martha Collier, now of Florence, South Carolina, said she was surprised when she received a letter in March 2016 addressed to her with a return address listed as “Department of the Air Force.”
“When I saw the letter, I could not figure why someone in the Air Force was trying to contact me or how they found me,” said the 72-year-old Collier.
She read on.
The letter was from a man who identified himself as retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Charles Kirwin of Billings, Montana.
Collier said she didn’t recognize the name and thought at first it might be some sort of hoax.
Kirwin explained in his letter he was an amateur historian working on a project to identify and build basic biographies on World War II Women’s Army Corps weather observers and forecasters.
He said one of the names on his list was Dorothy L. Woodard who had served in WWII as both a weather forecaster and observer and was one of the first five female forecasters in Air Force history.
Martha Collier was familiar with the name — Dorothy Woodard was her mother.
In his letter, Kirwin asked Collier for any information she had about her mother as it related to her WWII service and sought Woodard’s portrait for his archives.
Collier wrote back to Kirwin and provided him with as much information as she knew.
Collier said she was born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in 1946 and had always known her mother served in the military during World War II and was stationed in Carlsbad. Collier and her mother settled in Kenly in 1948.
Woodard had taught elementary school prior to her military service and returned to teaching after the war. She later managed the M.R. Woodard Store in downtown Kenly in the early 1960s before taking a teaching job at Kenly School, where she taught math and science in middle-school grades, according to her daughter.
Woodard also served on the Kenly Board of Commissioners during this time, the first woman in history to have done so.
Woodard graduated from high school in 1964 and married Mayo Collier Jr. of Kenly in 1968.
The couple moved to Salisbury and later to Florence, South Carolina, in 1979, where they still live.
Collier said she and her mother stayed in touch constantly during these years, although very little was mentioned about her mother’s military service.
“She downplayed it and just sort of let it drop,” said Collier.
Dorothy Woodard died of cancer in February 1993 and was buried in the Kenly Cemetery.
Collier said the next time the subject of her mother’s military service came up was when she received Kirwin’s letter in 2016.
After sending the requested information, Collier said she received an email from Kirwin shortly afterward with an update on Kirwin’s research about her mother.
“Your mother was a pioneer in the United States Air Force,” said Kirwin. “She was one of the first five females to graduate from the Army Air Force forecasting school at Chanute Air Field, Illinois, and her name was mentioned in the Air Force weather history book titled ‘Thor’s Legions,’” he wrote.
Collier said she’d previously been told her mother’s records were probably lost in a 1973 fire in St. Louis. Kirwin confirmed that.
Collier said she’d also been told mother was the only woman from Johnston County to have served in World War II.
Kirwin said all the information he gathered on her was being sent to the 557th Weather Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for inclusion in the Air Force weather archives.
In May, Collier’s friend Jim Myers, a Florence man who participates in military funerals, suggested she check for military records on her mother at the Johnston County Courthouse.
Collier said Deidra Creech of the Johnston County Veterans Service Office helped tremendously in the research and found her mother’s enlistment and separation from service dates. Records were likely difficult to find because her mother had enlisted under her maiden name and separated under her married name.
Collier said her mother was discharged from the Army Air Force Base at Carlsbad, New Mexico, and married a soldier named William R. Klein.
Collier was born a year later in Carlsbad and when Klein was discharged, they all moved to his hometown of Buffalo, New York.
Collier was 18 months old when she and her mother returned to Kenly.
As the search progressed, Collier began thinking about getting a military stone to be placed at her mother’s gravesite in Kenly — not so much for personal reasons, but for the sake of history.
Through Creech’s efforts, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approved the request and the stone was sent to Chip Coley of Kenly Monuments, who installed it in late August.
“I had always known my mother was a WAC and had been stationed at Carlsbad, New Mexico, but I did not know she had been in the Air Force,” said Collier.