TIMELINE: FEMALE PILOTS IN WWII
U.S. Army Air Forces uses 28 experienced female pilots to help ferry planes stateside during World War II. The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, help alleviate a shortage of male pilots. Also, famed aviator Jacqueline Cochran recruits less experienced women for the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD). They receive the same flight and ground training as male cadets.
Casualties In The Air
WAFS member Cornelia Fort is killed. She is the first of 38 female pilots who die flying for their country during WWII. Because they are technically civilians, these women are not entitled to a flag on their coffin.
WASP Program Begins
The WAFS and the WFTD consolidate into one women's flying group, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, headed by Jacqueline Cochran — who will later be the first woman to break the sound barrier. A cover article on female pilots in Life magazine captures the imagination of women across the nation. Some 25,000 apply to the WASP program. Only 1,830 are accepted for training; 1,074 earn their hard-won silver pilot's wings.
An Effort to Make WASP Military
Rep. John Costello of California proposes a bill to incorporate the WASP into the USAAF, making the women full members of the military. But there is vocal and active opposition by civilian male flight instructors, who are losing their jobs as the USAAF reduces flight training programs under the assumption that the war is going well.
June 5, 1944
WASP Under Scrutiny
The House Committee on Civil Service releases a report questioning the cost of the WASP training program and whether the women are needed when male pilots are now more available. The report recommends ending the training program but retaining the WASP and giving them insurance and other limited benefits.
June 21, 1944
An Effort to Make WASP Military
The bill to make the WASP part of the military is voted down. The publicity campaign leading up to this vote is loud and ugly: While it is important for women to release men for other work for the war effort, it is not socially acceptable for women to replace the men.
Henry "Hap" Arnold, commanding general of the USAAF, announces plans to deactivate the WASP. He allows women currently in training to finish.
December 7, 1944
Lost Last Class
The last class of WASP trainees graduates. The women call themselves the "Lost Last Class," because they know they will serve for only 2 1/2 weeks before the program disbands. The women are addressed by Gen. Arnold, who says, "It is on the record that women can fly as well as men."
December 20, 1944
WASP Fly Home
All WASP are deactivated. There are more than 900 women on duty at the time. Though a USAAF directive allows the women to fly as passengers on a military plane one last time to get home, some bases tell the women to find their own way home.
A Spirited Reunion
The WASP commemorate the 25th anniversary of their disbandment with a reunion at Jacqueline Cochran's ranch in Indio, Calif. Almost 300 WASP and their guests celebrate together. The WASP begin to talk seriously about how they are being remembered — or forgotten — by the American people.
A 'Far-Reaching' Effort
Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii introduces a bill to recognize WASP service during WWII. The bill is killed when a House committee says that recognizing the female pilots' civilian service "would be setting a precedent which could be far-reaching and expensive."
USAF announces that 18 women will be accepted for pilot training. The statement notes that "this is the first time ever the Air Force has accepted women as pilots." Many WASP realize that their work during WWII has been forgotten. The women seize the moment and the opportunity to remind Americans of their service and make a final push for recognition.
The Year of The WASP
The WASP declare this their year and are determined to be granted the recognition they earned. In November, President Carter signs into law a bill that officially declares "the Women Airforce Service Pilots as having served on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States for purposes of laws administered by the Veterans Administration." None of the WASP or their supporters are invited to the signing of the bill.
Congress awards WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, and President Obama signs the bill in July. Several WASP and their supporters are invited to the signing.
March 10, 2010
WASP Award Ceremony
The WASP receive the Congressional Gold Medal in a formal ceremony in the Capitol.
ESSAYS: WASP WOMEN
Marcia Courtney Bellassai
By her daughter, Elissa Strati
My mom was born March 5, 1919, in Hartford, Wis., then a semirural area. She followed her big sister off to college at the University of Wisconsin, the second in her family to attend. While there she caught the flying bug and entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
Fortunately her flight training courses were accepted for college credit, enabling her to graduate on time (despite devoting hours to flying and several jobs).
My mother was eventually accepted into the WASP program and graduated in July 1943 from one of the early training classes. She had a pet cocker spaniel named "Hap" in honor of Commanding Gen. Hap Arnold, whose efforts got the WASP program off the ground. Hap the dog would fly with her whenever he could. Assigned to tow targets at Camp Davis in North Carolina, Mom recalled live ammunition rounds coming a bit too close.
When the WASP were disbanded, Mom went to work for the military's Air Transport Command doing accident analysis. She soon got a call from one of the generals with whom she'd worked as a WASP to join his team in Romania. The Cold War was heating up, and while not officially a "spy," she and the other Americans in the legation were certainly asked to report on anything they might see or hear.
While there, my mother met Sgt. Anthony Bellassai, the legation's communications officer. Tony returned to the States before she did, but he met her boat when it arrived and the two eloped to Maryland. After a rare peacetime field commission to first lieutenant, Dad left the noncommissioned officers ranks and, though a reserve officer, went on to serve more than 30 years of active duty. As an Army wife, Mom was in charge of moving households every year or two throughout Dad's career, often with infants in her arms.
By the time her youngest of five was in school, Dad had retired from the Army and was working at the National Security Agency in Maryland. Mom went back to school to get a master's in library science from the University of Maryland. Forming a company with one of her former professors, she ran a number of studies for various libraries.
My mother remained actively interested in politics and, while extremely pleased with the recent honors and attention given to the WASP, said, like most of her fellow WASP, "We were only doing our duty!"
Sadly, my mother did not live to receive her Congressional Gold Medal in person; she died three weeks after President Obama signed the bill last summer. Mom slipped away peacefully, at home and in her sleep, as she wanted — "no fuss."
Solange D'Hooghe Benedetti
By her son, Jef Benedetti
My mom was 28 when she became a WASP. She spoke proudly and often about many events during her time in the service. One that sticks in my mind was the story of how the WASP came to be paid in $2 bills. It seems that the Sweetwater, Texas, town fathers were not very keen on having the women in their town because they thought they would be a drain on the economy. So, the legend goes, the powers that be got together with the Army paymaster at Avenger Field and an agreement was struck to pay the women their monthly salary in $2 bills. That way, when a $2 bill surfaced in town, the merchant would know that it had come from a WASP.
Fast forward from 1943 to 2000: Mom goes to that big hangar in the sky. In the months following, I closed the house where I lived all of my childhood. I found many treasures: her private pilot's license, her WASP logbook, the letter stating her acceptance to the WASP as well as every letter she wrote to her parents during the war. But one of the more astonishing items was a letter from the company that operated the training school to the recruits, stating that they would be paid in $2 bills.
In her later years, anytime Mom wanted to commemorate an event in my life, I received one or more $2 bills. "Dinner's on Mom," she would write. When my wife and I opened Mom's safe deposit box several days after her memorial service, we found nearly 200 $2 bills.
I've continued that tradition. When someone close to our family has had an event worth commemorating, we have included a $2 bill as a symbol of good luck, the kind of luck that got Mom through a war and through life after war.
Mom mustered out in 1944, when the WASP disbanded. She did what she called "secret work" at an Army Air Corps base until she moved with her parents, first to Arizona and then to Las Vegas, where she met and married my dad, William Benedetti. Dad died when I was 2, three days before Mom's own mother succumbed to colon cancer. Mom then went to work to support her dad and me, first as a real estate agent, then a church secretary and finally as a job developer for the state of Nevada, a job she retired from in 1987.
She kept her private pilot's license active until a radical mastectomy in 1968 robbed her of upper-body strength. The last time she flew in a commercial airliner was to visit my wife and me in 1996. My wife, Susan, had been inspired by Mom to earn her private pilot's license. During that last visit to our home, Mom, my wife and I went for a "check ride" with my wife's instructor, during which Mom piloted the plane. Once again, Mom "touched the face of God," as John Gillespie Magee Jr. wrote in his poem "High Flight," a WASP favorite. Immediately after that flight, she related the poem to me and requested that I read it at her funeral. 10-4, I said, and a little over three years later, I did.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Mom's legacy and name live on in our home today, not only through the memorabilia of her lifetime, but through our daughter, whose name is Hattie Solange Benedetti.
Mary Reineberg Buchard
By daughters Susan Mullins and Eileen McDargh
Our mom was born in 1916 in York, Pa. She was raised in a family of shoe store owners, but Mom moved ahead of her times to graduate from Temple University as a podiatrist.
Her feet might have been on the ground but her head was always in the clouds. She bought a plane with a couple of "fellers" and was a Civil Air Patrol pilot when World War II broke out. She watched the York soldiers marching off to war from her medical office window and realized that she wanted to serve. So she closed up shop, asked her dad to sell the equipment and took a train to Washington, D.C., to enlist in the WASP. In 1944, at age 28, after intense training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, Mom proudly had her silver wings pinned to her Santiago blue uniform.
Mom served as a test pilot at Marana Air Base in Tucson, Ariz. She stress-tested planes fresh out of factories and repair hangars. Once she had to put an AT-6 down in a cow field when fog closed the runway.
She lived out of paper bags on long hauls, watched some of the shorter gals tie blocks of wood to their feet to reach the rudders, and experienced the sadness of a buddy's "wash out" or another's death. To this day, she can still sing the drill songs, tell cloud formations and, we'll bet if she had to, take an engine apart. She always tilts her head skyward if she hears a plane and mutters, "Lucky stiff!"
Without a doubt, Mom's service through the WASP to our country continues as her proudest accomplishment (next to her three kids!).
After the WASP disbanded, she went to Naples, Italy, with the Red Cross. Ironically, it was not her medical background that was put to use by the Red Cross, but rather her amazing talent for designing fun socials for the battle-weary soldiers. The USO put out a packet of music called Hit Kit songs — popular tunes from the States. Blessed with perfect pitch and a trained ear, Mom kept the parties at her Red Cross Canteens jiving and singing around the piano.
Today, at Aegis Assisted Living in Laguna Niguel, Calif., or at the piano, she'll play songs (bright and often bawdy) from those war years. Her spirit of service, patriotism, fearlessness and adventure are her legacy, which she has given not only to her family but also to those who still ask her to share this unique story and time in America with them.
Millie Davidson Dalrymple
By her daughter, Gail Dalrymple
My mother has always been a courageous and energetic woman. In 1942, she was married to Bill Davidson, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. When his airplane was shot down over the North Sea, she felt she had to do something to help in the war effort. She started flight training to qualify for the WASP and was accepted.
One of her more difficult memories was the death during flight school of trainee Mary Howson. Because the WASP were civil servants without military benefits, the other WASP, including my mother, took up a collection to buy a casket to send Mary's body home to her family.
My mom received her WASP wings in May 1944. At the same ceremony, she was awarded her husband Bill's air medals and Purple Heart.
"It was quite a moment," she recalls. My mother went on to fly more than 900 hours on various missions.
After the WASP disbanded, she returned to Texas where she later married another World War II pilot, my father, Col. Edwin Dalrymple. She raised three children and became one of the first managers of a communication center for a national company.
In her 50s, she resumed playing tennis, which was the sport of her youth. At 83, she was a nationally ranked tennis player and played for the U.S. in an international women's tennis tournament in Austria.
My mother is now 90 and lives in a retirement community in Austin, Texas. She frequently speaks to clubs, organizations and groups about her WASP experiences. She is happy that the women who were WASP are being honored and is proud that she was able to serve her country in this important way.
Adeline Wolak Ellison
By her daughter, Andrea Holmquist
My mother was born in Chicago to immigrant Polish parents. Her father was a civilian pilot who urged her to take flying lessons. She was hooked at her first flight. Mom joined the Civil Air Patrol along with her dad and her uncle, also a pilot.
Mom had wanted to go to nursing school but there was no money for that, so she went to work at International Harvester. When the war broke out she learned that there might be an opportunity for female pilots to train to fly military aircraft. She applied and was accepted into the 6th WASP class of 1943. She was 24 years old.
Mom said that being a WASP was a lot of work but they did have some funny moments. She and nine other WASP were ferrying BT-13s and had to stop in Blythe, Calif., for the night. The next morning, when they went out to the flight line, there was a GI on a ladder at each airplane taking parts of the planes — a cowling here, a few nuts and bolts there. The GIs said they were having a Big Dance there that night and thought that if they took a few parts off the planes, the WASP would stay and go to the dance with them. "We have only ugly nurses to dance with!" they told the WASP. The WASP replied that it would be difficult to explain why 10 new airplanes all had mechanical problems requiring another stayover.
Needless to say, the WASP made them put their planes back together and thanked the GIs for the invitation but continued on to their destination.
After graduation, Mom was stationed in Long Beach with the 6th Ferrying Group, delivering various planes from factory to bases. She was checked out in the C-47, B-17 and B-25 and passed her instrument check ride in a B-24 flying from California to Florida. At Long Beach, she met my dad, Robert Ellison, who had been hospitalized after returning from a combat tour where his plane had crashed. He had been sent to the Ferrying Division to be checked out again to return to flying status. After three dates with my mom, he proposed, and they were married on base.
After the war Dad continued to serve in the Air Force and my brother and I were born, and Mom, of course, was always an active military wife. Mom did join the Air Force Reserves, but once they learned she had two children, she was honorably discharged. It was another "sign of the times."
When Mom was a WASP and returning to base on Eastern Airlines, the pilot let her fly the airliner for about 30 minutes. She loved it, but Mom did not fly after the WASP, except for once. The base commander in Bakersfield, where my dad was based as a pilot, knew Mom had been a WASP, and offered to let her take Dad for a ride in a B-17. Of course she jumped at the chance.
I think of my mother as fearless in everything she did. When Dad got sick, she was a trooper for him. She never complained. Life hit her hard when my brother died, but again she was strong. This is how she has led her life.
And what a curious mind. She always asks questions and wants details. I know there are other children of WASP who will say, "Yes, that's my mom too!"
Maxine Edmondson Flournoy
By her daughters, Mary Ann Guthrie, Helen Pope and Boo Fields
Our mother obtained her private pilot license in 1941 through the Civilian Pilot Training program at the Joplin, Mo., junior college. In 1943 she was working for the war effort in a defense plant as a grinder, making dies for bullet shell casings, when she applied to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Mama was 22 when she was accepted as a WASP. After training in Sweetwater, Texas, she was assigned to an Army base in Hondo, Texas. Then she and several other WASP attended officer training school in Orlando, Fla., where they received the first Santiago blue uniforms issued. Mama was stationed at Hondo, Kingman, Ariz., and Orlando.
After the WASP program ended, Mama landed a commercial pilot job in Alice, Texas, flying for an oil drilling company. The pay for a female pilot was much less than the male pilots, but she was happy flying with her multi-engine-instrument rating. She could not afford an automobile at that time, so she rode her bicycle to the airport. Her boss asked a young petroleum engineer named Lucien Flournoy if he wanted to meet his pilot. The young man was surprised the pilot was a "gal," and he didn't waste much time asking her for a date, and they married the following year.
Later, Mama completed the instrument rating she had started before WASP disbanded, and Daddy bought her a plane, which she flew all over the U.S. to meetings and WASP gatherings. She was appointed to the World USO board by President Carter and traveled internationally in that function. Naval Station Ingleside, near Corpus Christi, named its USO center in her honor.
Mama had an exciting and crazy marriage of 56 years to our father, who became a South Texas oil and gas producer and philanthropist. He died in 2003. She has been an amazing influence on the lives of her three daughters and 11 grandchildren, instilling confidence in us all. She lives with a sheer determination to enjoy life and never give up through many obstacles. Her Christian faith has held her up, and she continues to be an inspiration to us all.
Marie Muccie Genaro
By Sue Genaro Legacy, Laura Genaro Holland, Cynthia Genaro LaMorticella and Michael Genaro Jr.
We think Mom was born to fly. She was fascinated with Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan's careers as a teenager and formed the Earhart-Noonan club with two of her sisters and several friends. She built model airplanes and entered one meet with her homemade gas-powered model, placing third — the only girl in the competition.
At 17 she worked at the Trenton, N.J., airport to make money for flying lessons, and then she acquired her private pilot's license, a license she had before learning to drive.
To enter the WASP program when my mother applied, you had to be at least 21 and 5 feet 4 inches tall. Mom was 21 years old and 5 feet 2 inches tall. She had to use several cushions to prop herself up to reach the rudders. Mom said she was amazed that she was accepted, and we can only guess that she got in because she already had nearly 500 hours of flight time and her pilot's license.
Given the choice to fly pursuits or bombers, she chose bombers, ferrying those large airplanes from one Army base to another so men could take them overseas. One time when Mom and her co-pilot landed a large bomber at one of the Army bases and got out to deliver her plane, one of the men directing her in said, "You must be the nurses. Where are the pilots?" Mom said, "You're looking at them! Fill 'er up!"
This spirit and passion followed Mom after her time with the WASP. She married our dad during the war. He had been her check pilot and was a captain in the Air Force. She had four of us kids — three daughters and a son who all looked up to her. When we were young, she took us to Love Field airport in Dallas to watch the planes take off and land, while she told us all about the planes, how they flew, what the noises were, and the value that "Two props are better than one." ("In a single-engine plane," she explained, "you don't have a chance if an engine fails, while with dual engines, you can still fly the plane.")
We weren't aware that Mom was a pilot until we were much older. We just knew that we would head out in our green Ford station wagon to the grocery store, always ending up at the airport.
She became an entrepreneur, teaching herself or taking classes to learn whatever she needed to further her dreams. She had a millinery shop in downtown Dallas with a friend, making hats and shower caps for women, and would sew all of our clothes as well as her own. Later, she became interested in nutrition and became a nutrition consultant, opening a health food store in Florida. While there she also owned and managed a small apartment complex.
When she was in her 70s, she and an ex-flight instructor friend bought a small Cessna and flew for a few years within Texas. She stopped flying when her friend became unable to see the runway very well and her landings got "too choppy" for Mom to feel comfortable with her co-pilot.
Her interests later in life became a love of investing in the stock market, buying and selling stock options, and in staying fit through swimming, walking and exercising. She also became interested in creating beaded jewelry, making us all earrings, bracelets or the piece of our choice.
She was self-taught, creative, optimistic and was always there for her family. Her energetic spirit and positive outlook gave her the fortitude to achieve whatever goals she set for herself.
Ruth Glaser Wright Guhse
By her son, David Wright
My mother had an early love of flying because she lived near Clover Field in Santa Monica, Calif., and Mines Field, which is now Los Angeles International Airport.
At 19, on weekends off from working at North American Aviation, she and a few other young women drove to Baker, Calif., in the desert, to learn to fly.
When she joined the WASP at 20, Mom was assigned to class 44-10, the "Lost Last Class of Avenger Field." After graduation — still a few weeks short of 21 — she was assigned to Aloe Army Airfield in Victoria, Texas, for tow-target duty.
Mom was there when the WASP were deactivated. Soon after that she was hired by Pan American Airways as a stewardess/purser. Through the late 1940s she flew extensively across the postwar Pacific to Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, Bangkok, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Okinawa. When her stewardess days were over, Mom married and raised me and my sister, Melinda.
When I think about Mom having been only 20 when she went through WASP training, I smile. I am a professor, and most of the young women in my classes are a year or two older than Mom was when she was flying some pretty exciting airplanes. I am sure few could do what Mom did. But who knows? Maybe many would rise to the challenge. In any case, the WASP were (and still are!) some very special women. I'm pretty sure Mom has always felt that being a WASP was her greatest achievement and that much thereafter was anti-climatic. She still looks to the sky at any sound of aircraft, wishing she were up there.
Lois Brooks Hailey
By her son, Andy Hailey
When my mother, Lois Brooks Hailey — "Brooksie" — was a young girl growing up in Reno, Nev., her dad, a dairy owner, would take her to see the barnstormers. It influenced her enough that years later, after getting her B.A. from the University of Nevada and teaching band for a while, she pooled her savings with a brother and a friend to purchase a 65-horsepower Taylorcraft. It wasn't long before she soloed. Two and half years later, she became the first commercially licensed female pilot in Nevada.
In January 1944, my mother and four other female pilots were the first WASP assigned to Biggs Army Air Field in El Paso, Texas. Years later they were known as The Biggs Five.
One of my favorite stories of her as a WASP took place on a visit back home to Reno with fellow WASP Emma Coulter. Coulter brought a pet Pomeranian named Widget with her.
During the flight, they had to make a stop in Las Vegas. After landing, the flaps would not retract. The mechanic discovered a broken worm gear and told Mom and Emma he would have to order the gear from Sears in Dallas. It would be about a week before the part would arrive. Their commanding officer gave them permission to stay and they found a motel.
It was winter and they were wearing their overcoats. Emma kept Widget inside her coat. Widget was in heat. As they walked down the street, Widget attracted several male dogs. To evade them, Mom and Emma entered a local bar with swinging doors and moved to the back. The bar owner could not understand why all these dogs kept coming through his swinging doors and he had to keep chasing them out. Mom and Emma finally decided they should just return to the motel while Widget stayed out of sight.
After the WASP were disbanded, my mother taught GIs how to fly commercial airplanes. And then, after I was born in 1949, she returned to teaching band and orchestra in the El Paso Independent School District. She earned her master's degree from Texas Western, now University of Texas, El Paso.
As life went on, though, cancer became part of Mom's life. She battled it four times between 1975 and 2003. (Her mother died of cancer while Mom was a senior at the University of Nevada in Reno.) During chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, Mom had a Polaroid picture taken after she lost all her hair. She was quite proud of it — it reminded her of her dad, whom she also taught to fly.
Mom has always had a positive attitude during adventure and adversity: "Let's just get this done so I can get on with whatever is next."
Editor's Note: Lois Brooks Hailey passed away on Apr. 24, 2010.
Alma Liegl Jerman Hinds
By her daughter, Christine Mann
My mother was born in Baker, Ore., in 1915. Her father was the brew master for the Marinoff Brewing Co. in Red Bluff, Calif., a company that no longer exists.
She took her first plane ride in 1936 and after that initial brush with the clouds, she knew she had to fly. She began flight training at the Red Bluff Airport. Part of that class included a young man who favored Stetson hats and cowboy boots and was destined to carve out a name for himself as a congressman and senator: Clair Engle.
My mother got her private license in October 1940 and was working toward more advanced ratings when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She went to Reno, Nev., where she qualified for her commercial and instructor's licenses.
The United States was at war and she wanted to help. Unable to become directly involved in the U.S. effort, she wrote to Great Britain to inquire about a program that used female pilots to ferry warplanes from the assembly lines to squadrons that were to fly them in combat.
She had just received an application from the British when she got a call saying a program for women was starting in the U.S. My mother joined the WASP in 1943 at 28. She trained in Houston, and her wings were pinned on by Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, head of the U.S. Air Force. She was assigned to a ferry squadron headquartered at Long Beach, Calif. Among the planes she flew were the Douglas C-47 (DC-3), the B-17 and the B-24 bombers.
My mother was discharged in the fall of 1944 and returned to Red Bluff, but she didn't leave flying. She owned and operated H&H Flying Service in Redding, Calif. She flew in the Powder Derby for several years.
She was truly a pioneer in her field. In 1968, she sold the flying service after the death of her husband, David. But she continued to fly until 1980 when her health started to bother her. My mother passed away in October 1997, survived by three children, David Neil Jerman, Robert Jerman and Christine A. Hinds Mann, as well as 11 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Marie Barrett Marsh
By her daughter, Kathleen Fowler
My mother was an adventurous woman of determination and courage. Not the "chest puffed out let's go get em" type of courage, but the quiet constant strength to do the right thing day after day after day.
My mother and her brother, Tom Barrett, shared a love of flying, and both had learned to fly through the Civilian Pilot Training program. In 1943, Tom was serving his country by flying C-47s on some of the most dangerous missions of World War II. At the same time Mom, age 23 and a recent college graduate who also wanted to serve her country, was accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilots program.
It took guts for Mom to leave her job, her fiance and her home in Youngstown, Ohio, and travel alone halfway across the country to Sweetwater, Texas.
After completing her WASP training in Texas, Mom was assigned to the Army Air Corps Weather Wing in Asheville, N.C. There she flew high-ranking officers of the Weather Wing around the country for meetings.
After her exciting life as a pilot, it was back to Ohio for Mom, where she married her college sweetheart. I was the second of her eight children, and when I was 19, I also started flying.
Not as a pilot like my mom, dad and brothers but as a TWA flight attendant, which was as close as I wanted to be to the cockpit. I put myself through college and started my career as a geophysicist in Tulsa, Okla.
Later in sales, I broke the gender barrier by being the first woman in a key management position; and I raised two thoughtful and loving sons. When things are difficult, it is the example my mother set that invisibly guides me and gives me courage with my work and my family.
Mom was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in late 1996. Even through those last terrible months, she showed more bravery and strength than anyone I have even known — or ever will.
My brothers and sister sometimes tell me I remind them of Mom. That is the greatest compliment anybody could ever give me. She was one terrific woman!
Kathryn Boyd Miles
By her son, David Tillinghast
My mother was born in Gunter, Texas, delivered at home by a doctor who arrived in a horse and buggy and born into a family of teachers. She vividly remembers growing up in a small town in the Texas Panhandle during the Great Depression and picking cotton on the weekends to send the quarter she earned to her sister who was in college.
Mom was working for the Civil Aeronautics Administration in air traffic control in Fort Worth, Texas, when she heard that female pilots were being organized to fly for the Army Air Corps. She passed the interview, but as a civil service employee; the WASP were unable to accept her until she had been separated from the CAA for a year. So she resigned immediately and moved back to Dallas to wait so she could become a WASP. At the end of that long year she was admitted into the WASP at the age of 22. It was the most exciting moment of her life.
During her training, she would eat, breathe and sleep flying; it was a dream come true for her. While the other girls talked of boys, she would fall asleep at night practicing her flight plans. My mother proudly served as a WASP from November 1943 until December 1944 when the program was terminated.
She has many stories, such as having to land in a farmer's field overnight owing to heavy weather and waking the next morning to a line of cars extending from the farmer's pasture to see those women and their airplanes in Farmer Johnson's cow pasture. And the time she was assigned to take up an instructor in an AT-6 who refused to fly with her, saying, "I'm not flying with any God- - - - woman pilot," and walked away. The instructor was ordered to return the next morning, which he did, and completed the instruction period with no comment, and Mom landed back at the base. As he climbed out of the plane, he turned to my mother and said, "Well, I will say you're the best damned pilot I've ever flown with."
With her WASP days over, Mom had four children and became an educator like her parents. Her appetite for adventure eventually turned to the outdoors, and in her 50s and 60s she enjoyed canoeing, backpacking, rock climbing and wilderness survival training.
After the WASP were awarded military status in 1977, my mother applied for a VA home loan. The head of the state VA told her that the WASP were not veterans in his eyes, and under no circumstances would she receive a VA loan. Because of my mother's persistence, her senator contacted the Oregon VA, asking, "Every other state recognizes the WASP as veterans — what makes Oregon different?" The head of the state VA relented, and my mother was able to apply for and receive her VA loan for her home, where she still resides today. She is quite proud of this episode, so typical of these strong-willed women who have opened doors for so many other women along the way.
My mother taught me to value education highly, and so perhaps it is no surprise that I have pursued a career in education with great pride. Through her life choices, she taught me to always choose growth. And through her courageous spirit, she taught me to always stand straight and true in the face of adversity. This is my mother's legacy to me.
Deanie Bishop Parrish
By her daugher, Nancy Parrish
This is not a story about the good old days of the 1940s. It is a story about one WASP's determination, persistence, hard work and faith that, "With God's help, nothing is impossible." It is about my mother the WASP who did something extraordinary that she had never done before — in fact, no WASP had ever done before or has since.
In 1992, the WASP were planning their 50th reunion in San Antonio. As part of the festivities, Mom volunteered to head up the luncheon entertainment to be held at the Officer's Club at Lackland Air Force Base.
Several months before the big event, Mom had one of her "light bulb moments." When she gets that sparkle in her eye — look out, because something small is going to turn into a much bigger deal. This was no exception.
"Why don't you write a song for the luncheon?" she asked. "Why don't you write a rap?" Pause. I was processing where in the heck she had even heard the term "rap," when she continued, "a WASP rap! You're the songwriter!" (To be fair, I am a songwriter and was a member of the musicians union back in the days of harmony and music that didn't sound so angry. But not rap!) So, I made a small mistake. I spoke before thinking: "Mom, rap is not music." I instantly sensed I was about to disappoint her — so I quickly added, "but, if you want a rap song, why don't you write it yourself?" Pause. "I'll give you the background beat and you can put words to it."
I had thrown down the gauntlet. I had challenged her. She picked up her pencil. "How do I start?"
I got out my drum machine and laid down a rhythm track. After I handed it to her and left the room, I heard the tape recorder — play, reverse, play, reverse, over and over.
Dad and I were not completely convinced she could do it, but from the moment I challenged her, she was absolutely determined that she would do it. Finally, she found the rhyme pattern and a good solid line for the chorus. Hours later, "We got the Stuff, the Right Stuff" was born.
Not only did she write a rap song, it tells the entire history of the WASP in about four minutes. When she asked if I would sing it, I knew that this time I could not disappoint her. I arranged it and laid down all the tracks.
It begins: "Way out in West Texas where the water is sweet, with cactus and rattlesnakes six feet deep, They cut off the top of a big old hill and they called it Avenger, Avenger Field."
Mom contacted WASP Julie Stegge, who had been a Ziegfeld Follies dancer. Julie put on her sequined hat and danced to the WASP rap for the 50th reunion. Boy, could Julie kick! Ask any WASP who was there, and she will tell you that this single semi-musical moment was the hit of the entire convention. The rap was played, Julie kicked and Mom smiled. Talk about your standing ovations? It was awesome!
It has been 17 years, and the WASP still talk about it. The only WASP rap ever written! But, Mom admits, she had a little help. With God's help, anything is possible. Yes, it absolutely is.
Flora Belle Reece
By her daugher, Connie Kay Fox
My mom has three loves: God, family and aviation. When you walk into her home, the first things you notice are the airplane wallpaper, various airplane pictures and wall hangings, a shelf with miniature airplanes, and a sign that says "Flying is the 2nd greatest thrill. Landing is the first."
Flora Belle was the third of four children, born in Sayer, Okla. Her father was a Baptist preacher and her mom was a homemaker, pianist and seamstress. She became interested in flying by watching the birds while helping her father farm. She learned to fly at the age of 18, before she learned to drive. In the beginning, women had to be 21 to join the WASP and had to have 200 hours of flight time, which was later reduced to 35 hours. Mom borrowed money from her brother to get those 35 hours to be accepted into WASP training.
Mom's birth certificate mistakenly had her older sister's birth year listed, so she entered the WASP at 19, with no one the wiser.
Mom thoroughly enjoyed her WASP service and especially each time she flew. It was upsetting to her that she had entered the program "illegally" and told her instructor her true age. He said, "We'll just wait and see when they send you home." It didn't happen, of course.
Once when she was learning to land, doing touch and goes, the instructor got out at the far end of the runway and told her to do several on her own. When he indicated she could land, she did so and taxied to the hangar — forgetting to pick up the instructor. She immediately ran back to walk in with him.
On another flight, low on fuel, she had to land in a farmer's field. She thought she had damaged the plane and would be sent home. So, she waited nervously to hear about the condition of the plane from the instructor. Finally she approached him to see what was going on. He told her the plane was in perfect condition. She asked why he had let her stew about the outcome so long. He replied, "Now we're even for the time you made me walk back to the hangar!"
After WASP deactivation, Mom received her instructor's rating and flew charter flights in Oklahoma City. She married her high school sweetheart, Ralph Anderson Reece, in late 1945, and they moved to California while expecting the first of three children. After retirement, my parents spent about two years in the Peace Corps in Malaysia, India and Thailand.
They were married 62 years before my father died. My mother still lives in their home. She is very active with her church — she joined a missionary group in the Philippines in June — regularly presents her WASP slideshow and speaks to military groups, schools and community organizations. She participates in WASP functions and a women's aviation organization called Ninety-Nines, and she still flies. She has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. And she spends her time, as always, with her three favorite loves: God, family and aviation.
Mary Frances Laraway Smith
By her daughter, Sarah Wasner
At 23, my mother was working at the New Rochelle Airport in New York, sweeping floors in exchange for flying hours. It was a long and frustrating process, but then the call came for female civilian pilots to join the WASP. My mother reported to Sweetwater, Texas. She often told us, "It was the happiest time in my life," with an added disclaimer that, of course, getting married and having us four children was "also" the happiest time in her life.
After the WASP disbanded, she went on to teach at Arthur Murray's dance studio, and then later became the mother of four children, living on Long Island in Westbury, N.Y.
She was always adventurous and creative. My mother braided rugs out of our old clothes to cover the floors of our 200-year-old farmhouse. She brought the world to her doorstep as an American Field Service host, taking in several foreign exchange students throughout the years. She worked at the Westbury Library and was always engrossed in books. And she acted in and later directed the Westbury Community Players theater group for several years, turning out at least four plays per year. Directing was her next passion and she gave local wannabes a chance at their own fame.
Even though my mother never resumed her flying "career," she never lost her "daredevil" spirit. She was an extraordinary woman of courage and great depth.
Had the same opportunities been afforded women in the service then, as they are now, it is certain she would have continued in her military flying career. She passed away in 1990 at the youthful age of 68 and is buried as a veteran WASP at Calverton National Cemetery in New York along with our Coast Guard father, Robert D. Smith.
My mother was a tough act to follow and we each do our best to carry Fran "The Vixen" Laraway's strength and daring in our own lives. We often reflect on what must have been truly an exciting adventure for the women of the WASP, worth retelling again and again.
Edith Upson Smith
By her daughter, Keith Rubin
My mom joined the WASP at 23. Upon graduation, she was assigned to the Training Command Base at Frederick, Okla. — advanced training for Air Force cadets.
My mom was a flight instructor and test pilot and she was involved with engineering and operation flights.
One night Mom had to fly a mechanic from Frederick to Oklahoma City to pick up a spare part for a plane. When she requested landing instructions, she was asked for the highest rank aboard. If there was a high-ranking officer on the plane, the base would prepare a VIP welcome with staff car. Since as a WASP, mom was civil service and had no rank, she gave the mechanic's rank, which was "corporal." The tower assumed the UC-78 had been stolen or hijacked, so they were met with a "follow me" jeep full of military police who escorted them to a separate parking area and thoroughly interrogated them. Finally, after apologies, they were given the airplane part and sent on their way.
After the WASP were disbanded, Mom went on to marry and raise three children. Although she never flew again, Mom has lived by her creed that "Challenge is a key to happiness."
She has always been mentally and physically very active. We do not remember a day she did not read a book or do crossword puzzles. She took up golf and went on to be a two-time club champion. Mom resumed playing tennis after nearly four decades away from the game and until recently had spirited doubles matches with three men three times a week. About 13 years ago, Mom was given her first computer. She became so knowledgeable that she is a monitor at the computer club and helps teach others to use them.
She designs and produces her own greeting cards and made a DVD of her WASP experiences that she has sent to her classmates. Before her 88th birthday, she joined Curves and she enthusiastically works out at least three times a week. Next on her list of challenges? To master Spanish and tai chi!
Alice-Jean May Starr
By her daughter, Julia May Starr
I was always aware that my mother, Alice-Jean "AJ" May Starr, was a pilot. My brother and I had airplane posters in our rooms. Alongside The New Yorker and Better Homes and Gardens, there were Aviation Week magazines on the coffee table. Our Easter baskets held balsa wood gliders instead of extra candy.
When I was 6 years old, my mother and I drove to a nearby airport, and we climbed into the cabin of a single-engine plane, whizzed down the runway, and took off. We flew over our town and our house. My dad and brother were out on the side lawn, waving up at us. I was completely unafraid and completely captivated by the new way I was able to see the things I knew so well: from the air.
Sometimes people didn't believe me when I told them my mother was a pilot, but overall I heard very little talk of "girls can't do that," and I didn't believe what I did hear. Why would I?
In childhood, I didn't understand what World War II had been about, but I had a very special resource into who and what the WASP were all about. My mother is an artist, a cartoonist. In 1947, she self-published a book of the cartoons she had drawn on hotel stationery in spare moments of downtime when she and her fellow ferry pilots were delayed by darkness or weather as they flew back and forth across the United States.
In Army Air Corps language, stopping for the night was called Remaining Over Night and abbreviated as R-O-N. That became the title of my mother's book: R-O-N: A WASP Cartoon Scrapbook.
I loved the drawings and the funny captions, and I felt like I knew the people and the airplanes my mother depicted. Many of the cartoons featured characters I understood to be real people, including AJ's bay mates from Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and the ferry pilots assigned to Romulus, Michigan. The planes my mother flew as a WASP included the P-39, P-40, P-47, P-51 and P-63. These planes were the precursors of today's fighters, and they had fierce names: Airacobra, Warhawk, Thunderbolt, Mustang, Kingcobra. Her favorite plane to fly was the P-51 Mustang.
My mother's cartoons show the WASP coping with all kinds of situations from weather and aircraft idiosyncrasies to interactions with male pilots and encounters with civilian citizens. Her humor ranges from ironic observation to dry wit, and outright comedy.
By the late 1970s, when the WASP were fighting to get their veteran's status, I read more history, saw photos and movies, and even attended a WASP reunion, finally meeting some of the female pilots I'd seen characterized in my mother's book.
What I didn't find out until less than 10 years ago is that during her wartime service, my mother drew hundreds of cartoons, far more than the 80 or so that comprise R-O-N. So now we're working together on a new book, as my mother recounts more stories to me using her pilot's logbook and other references.
Bea Smith Thurston
By her daughter, Crystal Thurston
My mother learned to fly as one of six sisters whose father had been a pilot in World War I. He taught his daughters to fly and was proud when my mom was chosen to train to be among the first female pilots in the military. In her letters home from Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, she wrote about how many women "washed out" each month, but she kept going expecting to be the next to go.
She loved flying ("had fun doing spins and stalls 'til I was blue in the face"), but there were a few uncomfortable remarks in her letters home about being among the first women trained by men: "Started maintenance today — which looks like it might be fun. Only drawback is that all the time he's trying to explain something to me, mechanics walk by with the usual whistle and 'What you got there, Joe?' "
Needless to say, she earned her wings and when the government ended the program after the war, she applied for jobs to be a pilot. I found letters of reply like this one: "At present we are not hiring female pilots."
My mother's independent spirit inspired me to fly around the world as a Pan Am flight attendant. When the WASP were later struggling to be recognized as a branch of the military, I was inspired to work for women's rights as a labor union chair. We won the right to be married along with other rights that had previously been denied flight attendants.
My mother was extremely proud when the WASP finally gained the right to burial in Arlington Cemetery. We were all proud of her two years ago when she was buried there complete with horses, cannon shots and Taps. She would have loved the congressional medal that is now being awarded.
After WASP, she went on to marry, raise five children, be a high school math teacher and real estate agent and, in her later years, become president of the WASP. It was fun seeing her enjoy some respect for the WASP in her later years, although — surprisingly — many still know nothing about this groundbreaking group.
Janet Wayne Tuch
By her daughter, Alyce Woodfield
My mother died in 2004, but I believe the WASP was the single most important aspect of her life — one of those instances that define your character, alter your passion for existence and sooth your soul with satisfaction.
It's not that Mom loved her husband and two children less, but she could love them more because her personal passion had been fulfilled.
She shared only bits and pieces of WASP stories, recounting the puppy the girls had smuggled into the barracks, the "trap door" spiders they watched in the evenings, and how the girls felt the necessity to shake their clothes in the mornings in case a tarantula or snake had taken residence. She spoke of barrel rolls, snap spins and slow rolls during aeronautical training. And, she spoke of the one trainee who forgot to fasten her seat belt and fell from a Stearman while in flight. Her parachute was successfully deployed but she elected not to complete training.
The Women's Airforce Service Pilots must have been an extraordinary group of accomplished, independent and competitive women. Mom, however, only recounted the camaraderie. The following excerpt, written by Mom, illustrates the enthusiasm of the young women entering the WASP.
Janet Wayne Tuch - WASP
Like most of us, I always wanted to fly. As a child, I sent in cereal box tops in order to receive little "cub wings" which I still have. After graduation from high school, I completed the Civil Pilots' Training course and earned my private license. During my second year of college, I read about the WASP program and, of course, wrote immediately, requesting acceptance. The coveted telegram from General "Hap" Arnold informing me to report to Avenger Field at Sweetwater, Texas, arrived in March, 1944.
After the long trip on an antique train from Chicago to Sweetwater, I arrived to an overbooked hotel. The next morning I caught my first glimpse of Avenger where two "6"s (AT-6) had collided in the traffic pattern the previous day and had been pulled off to a nearby field. But, I was young, fearless, and, of course, immortal, as we all were.
My most terrifying flight experience came on our 500-mile cross-country flight from Avenger to Blyth, Calif.
After making a fuel stop at Deming, N.M., we headed for our next stop, Tucson, Ariz. A thunder and lightening storm suddenly loomed ahead of us. Most of the girls and instructors turned back to Deming. Others, landed in the desert.
Not realizing how dangerous the storm was becoming, I flew on and became lost among the mountain peaks north of Tucson with lightening, rain and darkness surrounding me. Fortunately, we had completed our instrument training. I tuned into the Tucson radio range station and miraculously found the beam that guided me into Tucson.
No one else flew in that night and rather than continue to Blyth the next day, we were told to return to Sweetwater. I am sure that some of our members remember that X-country and their own experiences. At that point in my life, I eliminated the word "fearless" and substituted the word "stupid". (I have also eliminated the words "young" and "immortal" from my vocabulary.)
Ruth Hagemann Wheeler
By her daughter, Sylvia Wheeler
My mother grew up mostly in El Campo, a very small south Texas town about 60 miles west of Houston. The family moved to Dallas in the mid-1920s where my mother graduated from high school. The Great Depression hit about that time. She ended up with a job in a major law firm where she put her secretarial skills to good use.
In fact, her skills brought her to the attention of the head lawyer, who had his own plane. My mother would go out to the airport with him and write letters on the ground while he was up in his plane. This got real old, real fast! She was determined to fly herself. Imagine — a Southern belle wanting to learn to fly! She told me that, as a joke, her boss sent the fire brigade onto the field as she landed her solo flight. She was not amused!
As a WASP, my mother had to be a superb pilot. She told me a story about landing in Salt Lake City on one Sunday morning. Having finished all the ferrying formalities and settled into her lodging for the night, she desperately searched for anyplace where she could beg, borrow or steal fingernail polish remover. After all, no self-respecting Southern female could be seen for long with chipped fingernail polish, war or no war. Alas, in the end, finding none, she just picked all that polish off instead.
Another story that amazed my mother to the end happened somewhere in the Midwest. As usual, she ferried a plane to a small-town airport. Commercial lodging was unavailable, so she was directed to a family home where she would spend the night. The family, noting that she had on a uniform, asked what was her part in the war effort. Upon telling them that she was a pilot, she was met with total disbelief.
She said she had brought in a plane and would return to her base tomorrow. The family absolutely refused to believe that she could actually fly the plane herself. They were totally convinced that the military must be more stressed than anyone realized, because how would they think a female could possibly be part of the Army Air Corps?
After the war, my mother married the aforementioned boss and believed every word society and government put out: Go home, have babies, please your husband — the war is over now; we don't want you to do male-oriented jobs anymore. She did — or tried to do — all of the above.
Evidently, she needed a cause to which she could contribute, and she found one: Sunday school superintendent at the neighborhood Methodist church. It colored my childhood and that of all my friends. She kept this unpaid job for at least 35 years.
One day, I saw a WASP reunion letter on her desk. From then on, we went to the reunions. It was my hope that I could start to erase the social stigma she felt from being a WASP and give her some idea of the enormity of her wartime efforts.
Lillian Lorraine Yonally
By her daughter, Lynn Yonally
My favorite story from Mom is how she met my dad. She was flying tow targets, and he was the captain of the artillery unit. The men used live ammunition and had the shells dipped in paint so they could tell how accurate they were. Several of the shells came way too close for comfort to my mom's plane, and she decided to look up the head of that group and tell him what she thought about his gunners and that they should be more careful.
She got quite heated in her discussion with him and when she finished (telling him where he could take his guns and place them!) he asked her out on a date. Their first date was a drive out in the desert with a bottle of champagne, which she finished and then promptly fell asleep. He drove her home, and they continued their correspondence during the whole war until he asked her to marry him when he returned from Europe.
I found their letters several years ago and have always been amazed at how they kept their romance going during such difficult times and over the great distance. We need to remember these stories when we think our life is hard!
My mom also has a set of color slides of her service, which are some of the only colored pictures taken. Many of them were of planes she flew and of their training classes. You were not supposed to take any pictures of planes and training because of security but she did anyway and had them all processed by her dad back in Boston.
After the war she went back to Long Island and worked as a secretary for a company working on autopiloting technology. Before the war she had also been a control tower operator at Grumman Field Long Island.
She married my dad and moved to Ohio, raised six kids, worked three jobs at one time to keep the family afloat.
I was fortunate to live in the same town as my mom when I got married and had kids. When I worked, my mom walked my kids to school every day. We lived in the north country of New York, and often it was 30 below. But my kids walked and had a hard time keeping up with their granny. They still remember those walks and how fun my mother made them. And they can tell their kids they walked to school uphill in the winter. One of my daughters is professional crew on the tall ship Pride of Baltimore. Climbing rigging and sail-making are some of the skills she has as well as shipbuilding. My other daughter climbs rigging to set audio speakers for an arts center. They are fearless like their grandma!