She is a legend to those in and around Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and she recently turned 100-years-old. As part of the celebration, the community was there to celebrate.
Sitting on a bench outside her residence in Fairborn on a chilly day, Yolanda “Tipi” Minnehan is surrounded by old World War II photos of herself during her time in the Army. There are bright red balloons in the shape of “100,” American flags, a pink flower arrangement and an abundance of “Happy birthday” posters.
Car horns honked as numerous friends, family and various well-wishers celebrated Minnehan’s 100th birthday with a drive-by parade Dec. 23, 2020. Air Force ROTC cadets saluted Tipi for her service and others held decorated signs and posters outside their cars while waving at her from a safe distance.
Minnehan was born Yolanda Trapani in Verona, Italy, in 1920. Her father was a carabinieri, or policeman, who was stationed at different locations around Italy before being assigned in Sicily, where he met and married her mother.
When Minnehan was 4, the family immigrated to America through Ellis Island and she grew up on Manhattan’s East Side. It wasn’t until she attended school that she learned English.
In 1942, she managed to join the first class of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, although underweight and too short. The WAACs later became the Women’s Army Corps, where Tipi served as a supply officer until 1947.
“I was part of the New York City Air Warning Service as a spotter,” she said. “Our building was at 32nd or 33rd in NYC … near Macy’s when the Army took over the NYC civilian outfit of the Air Warning Service. I wanted to serve this country as a ‘thank you’ for welcoming my family. Joining the Army was the best thing I could do for this country in times of need.”
Minnehan said she had many memorable moments in uniform, but was most proud to be a woman in charge of a depot.
“Being a female in charge of a depot was a big deal,” she added. “I was one of three officers and the one in charge. I use to make the rounds and make sure that the workers were working and not goofing and put discipline at work.”
One day, another lieutenant made the rounds instead and rattled a group of men inside, Minnehan recalled. It turned into a case of mistaken identity.
“They stood up and when they saw that it was Lt. Wright, they sat down and said, ‘Oh it’s you,’” she said. “The lieutenant asked them what they meant and they said: ‘We are scared of the Army lady and we thought you were her.’
“The LT was upset because they did not think much of him and were afraid of me, a woman.”
Following WWII, while stationed at Brookley Field in Mobile, Ala., Tipi met a young logistics officer named Barney Minnehan.
“The war was ending and the men were coming by ship from Europe and he landed in Mobile, where I was in charge of the O1 branch depot of Air Material Command,” she said. “It was a Sunday and everything on base was closed. I met him at a brunch and sat by him and was looking over to read the name on his bracelet. In those days, we did not have name badges on our uniforms as we do today.”
They eventually married and raised three children while Barney continued his military career. Living on various bases, the family was eventually assigned to Wright-Patterson AFB and Fairborn in 1966.
Barney retired from the Air Force in 1968 as a colonel after 29 years of service and worked at University of Dayton until 1982. He passed away Sept. 2, 1995.
Minnehan never forgot her roots. She wanted to make sure her children and grandchildren knew their heritage, so she took them back to Italy over a dozen times.
Typically, a three-week trip would include train travel from Rome to Verona, Venice, Naples and Sicily. She wanted her children to make memories and build family ties that would last a lifetime.
Friends of Tipi say her hospitality doesn’t stop with her own family and she frequently invited people to spend holidays at her home, as opposed to being alone.
“She is a very well-known person at the base chapels and in the civilian community here,” said Inma Kusnierek, a longtime friend in the local area. “Whether on active duty or as a military spouse, Tipi has always found time to volunteer in big ways.”
Minnehan said volunteering is “part of who I am.”
“I’m a big believer in volunteering if you don’t need the money,” she said. “If we volunteer, we’ll have a better community. I want to help the people that need help and to make sure they are not taken advantage of.
“During the Vietnam War, the military personnel left and went to war, volunteers were needed and I made sure as the manager of Red Cross volunteers that the positions were filled and we were helping in any way we could. Don’t sit at home and watch TV, go out and help.”
Minnehan helped young people stationed at Wright-Patterson develop friendships by sponsoring a singles group at the base chapel. As part of exchanges, high school students and Italian officers attending the Air Force Institute of Technology also experienced her hospitality.
She served as volunteer coordinator at Wright-Patterson Medical Center and founded a decades-old tradition of serving luncheons every Wednesday during the Lenten season at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish on base.
After WWII, she volunteered to help lepers in the Philippines. On Okinawa, she entertained the troops by putting on plays and making costumes. While in Hawaii, she got Bob Hope to perform for service members.
In Washington in 1948, Minnehan helped found the Arlington Ladies with Gladys Vandenberg. The group’s mission is to ensure no Airman gets buried alone at Arlington National Cemetery without family and friends to honor them, as they had witnessed far too often. It took until 2016, but all service branches now have their own Arlington Ladies.
Within the Officers’ Wives’ (now Spouses’) Club at WPAFB, she set up elaborate teas and programs during her time on the board. She was among the founding members of Gold Bricks and the International Spouses’ Group, representing the Italian table every year at the International Fair.
Minnehan is fondly called a “walking encyclopedia” on WAC and WWII history. She has been a guest in many classrooms, sharing stories of her life experiences.
Until a few years ago, she continued to take writing courses at Sinclair Community College to improve her skills and record memories.
Minnehan donated her 1942 Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform artifacts (service jacket, skirt, scarf and tie) to the Air Force Museum in 1975. Two years ago, the museum held a private viewing of those artifacts for family, friends and staff.
As Tipi celebrated her 100th birthday, she shared a final reflection.
“Life is what you make of it,” she said. “Always do the best you can in everything you do, and never forget to help your country and countrymen to make a better tomorrow.”