Dean Kahn

Sisters’ musical act packs emotional wallop for veterans

The Pakawalups — sisters Cathie Ledray-Senff, left, Sue Ledray Murray and Vicki Ledray Grabricki — perform at The Willows retirement home in Bellingham Friday, Nov.13, 2015. The sisters named their group after the B-17 bomber their father Vincent Ledray flew in WWII.
The Pakawalups — sisters Cathie Ledray-Senff, left, Sue Ledray Murray and Vicki Ledray Grabricki — perform at The Willows retirement home in Bellingham Friday, Nov.13, 2015. The sisters named their group after the B-17 bomber their father Vincent Ledray flew in WWII. pdwyer@bellinghamherald.com

Sue Ledray Murray of Bellingham stays busy as a grandmother and as the manager of an insurance office. Vicki Ledray Grabicki of Bellingham keeps active as a collage artist. Cathie Ledray-Senff, a former teacher, lives in La Conner, where her husband runs a business.

Twice a week, the fair-haired sisters make time in their separate lives to meet at Sue’s house to rehearse together as the Pakawalups. That’s the name of their singing group modeled on the Andrews Sisters, the three sisters who sold millions of records with their upbeat, positive songs during the big-band swing era of the 1930s and ’40s.

The Ledray sisters call themselves the Pakawalups because that was the name of their father’s favorite B-17 bomber. Vincent Ledray flew with the 401st Bomb Group (Heavy) in the 8th Air Force. He participated in 34 bombing missions in 1944, mostly targeting heavily defended German targets, including factories, shipyards, missile sites and airfields.

Just as the Andrews Sisters toured with the USO to bring their songs of hope and fun to World War II troops, the Pakawalups perform their three-part harmonies at veterans’ gatherings, retirement homes, fundraisers, and other community events. For the aging veterans in their audience, hearing songs made popular by the Andrews Sisters can summon feelings ranging from happiness to grief.

“Our songs take them back to a time that has a lot of emotion for them,” Cathie said. “We are singing memories alive.”

Vincent Ledray’s children learned of his wartime experiences as he lay dying from cancer.

After the war, Vincent Ledray worked as a telephone company technician. He and Bonnie, his wartime sweetheart, had three daughters in quick succession. (The sisters politely decline to give their ages: “We like to have a little mystery,” Cathie says.) They also have a younger brother, Jim.

Growing up, the sisters sang in church and school choirs and participated in school musicals. Later, Cathie sang in a rock band.

The Pakawalups came together as Vincent Ledray was dying of cancer in 2004. His children recorded conversations with him, including about his wartime experiences, of which he had said little before.

We just clicked with the Andrews Sisters songs.

Vicki Ledray Grabicki of the Pakawalups

Vicki was researching the 401st Bomb Group Association and learned it would be holding its 2005 reunion at the England airfield where their father had been based. The sisters booked tickets to the reunion, hoping to learn more about their father’s past, to meet some of his wartime colleagues, and to lay roses at the grave of a crew member killed during the war.

They offered to sing at the reunion but didn’t hear back about their request. In England, the sisters weren’t on the program at the reunion, but when the room’s energy began to lag, the association president asked the sisters to sing. Their music energized the gathering, and they now perform regularly at the association’s get-togethers.

“We just clicked with the Andrews Sisters songs,” Vicki said. “A lot of oomph in their voices.”

The Pakawalups perform about 10 songs at each show, intermixed with stories about the songs, their parents and themselves. Recently, Larry Murray, Sue’s husband, joined the group to sing the male part in songs the Andrews Sisters performed with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

Practice is important for the Pakawalups because they choreograph their own stage moves, and the Andrews Sisters’ performances are intricate challenges to master.

“If you don’t rehearse them every time, you lose them fast,” Sue said.

For Cathie, the joy comes from honoring their father, pleasing their mother; and putting in time with her sisters and then performing with them on stage.

“That’s what our true harmony is,” she said. “As sisters, we’ve all come together.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

Dec. 7 show

The Pakawalups will perform holiday carols and WW II-era songs at a gathering for people 90 and older, and their guests, at 1 p.m. Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, at Lairmont Manor, 405 Fieldston Road. Lunch is free for those over 90; younger guests pay a small charge.

Reservations are required: 360-647-1444 or info@lairmontmanor.com.

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