FAIRBORN — On the afternoon of Dec. 23, the friends of Maj. Ret. Yolanda Minnehan lined the street as she celebrated her 100th birthday. Those friends, some of whom came from around the world stayed in their cars, and moved through the line in a parade to congratulate the newly minted centenarian. And as Minnehan, known to friends and family as “Tipi,” will tell you herself, she has a lot of friends.
So many, in fact, that the line of well-wishers’ cars stretched all the way back to the intersection of Park Hills Drive and East Dayton Yellow Springs Road from Wickshire Senior Living in Fairborn. That selection, however, is a fraction of the people whose lives Tipi has touched, through her Army service, her support of military spouses, and beyond.
Born in Italy, “the land of Romeo and Juliet” in her words, her parents immigrated to the United States when she was four years old. When she first began attending elementary school, she knew very little English. She later went on to serve during World War II, as one of the first members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, later shortened to Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
Though for all her sweetness and biting wit, which persists to this day, her service in the military began with a lie. Barely out of high school, she joined the Air Warning Service as a volunteer in New York. Later, the Army took over the volunteer service, and in order to keep her job, she had to enlist.
She had one problem, however. Requirements for female enlistees included being at least 5 feet tall and 100 lbs. In 1942, 22-year-old Yolanda Trapani (from which she gets her nickname) stood only 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and weighed only 90 pounds.
Not to be deterred, Tipi went to her grandmother’s house two weeks before her enlistment and ate as much food as she could manage. She also found her grandmother’s “hair rat”, and tucked it up underneath her hair to make her appear taller.
“When the man came down with the measurement, I said ‘Stop, you’re going to mess my hair!’ I figured they would look at my feet, so I couldn’t stand on my tiptoes,” Tipi said.
Tipi’s spitfire personality was perfect for the job. On one occasion, as she passed a male soldier, he told her ““We don’t need women in this man’s army.”
In response, she stuck out her tongue.
Tipi went on to achieve the rank of Major in the U.S. Army. She served as a supply officer and a drill sergeant, and did her job so well that, as she tells it, the she scared the other men.
“Every now and then as a junior officer, we had to make sure the workers weren’t goofing off. One day, my senior officer, Lieutenant Wright, went to the warehouse to kick those lazy people in gear,” Tipi recalled.
Immediately, the soldiers jumped up, but when they saw it wasn’t a female officer, they sat right back down.
“‘We thought you was the army lady!’” Tipi quoted of them. “‘We scared of her!’”
Tipi met her husband at the end of the war. Barney Minnehan was part of a group of soldiers, returning from Europe, that landed at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama.
After leaving the military, she founded the Arlington Ladies, a group dedicated to ensuring no veteran is ever buried at Arlington Cemetery without someone there to honor them. She also is a founding member of the International Spouse’s Club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Many of the well-wishers that congratulated her on Wednesday were from all around the world, as she welcomed them into the International Spouse’s Club.
“She’s like a grandmother to my children,” said Inma Kusnierek. Kusnierek, who came to the United States from Spain, organized the event on Tipi’s behalf. “She’s like a mother to me as well.”
Tipi received letters from multiple local officials on her birthday, including Governor Mike DeWine, Col. Patrick Miller, commander of the 88th Air Base Wing, and General Arnold Bunch, commander of Air Force Materiel Command. USAF Materiel Command is the modern equivalent of the force that Tipi served in, nearly 50 years ago.
Rick Perales also visited Tipi in person and presented her with a House Resolution and his personal challenge coin.
“If I see you next year for your 101st birthday and you don’t have it, you owe me a drink!” he said.
Reach London Bishop at 937-502-4532 or follow @LBishopFDH on Twitter.