Skip to comments.WWII female pilots finally get recognition
Posted on 09/12/2009 10:13:59 AM PDT by Liberty Valance
Muriel Martin spent four years helping train fighter pilots as a Women's Airforce Service Pilot, or WASP, during WWII.
Muriel Martin struggles these days to remember the years she spent as a World War II U.S. Army Air Force pilot.
The dates have run together in her mind and the details of her training and experience long ago faded into the background of a life filled with child rearing and community service.
But some days, the memories push through and she finds herself back in her 20s and in the cockpit again.
I was flying to Dallas earlier this year and looking out the plane window at clouds just like they were back then, she said. It brought back so many memories.
Martin, now 87, blames her fading recollections on age and the full life she has led since leaving the service.
When it comes to the rest of the country, though, she and the 300 other surviving members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots corps question how America could have largely forgotten what they describe as the best-kept secret of the war effort.
For years, the group has fought for recognition of their contribution. Between 1941 and 1944, more than 1,000 women from across the country were trained as military pilots and dispatched to bases such as Missions Moore Air Field.
They ferried weapons cross-country, delivered planes from manufacturing plants and towed targets during anti-aircraft gunnery practice, freeing up the men who traditionally held those jobs for combat on the European and Pacific fronts. All told, they piloted 78 different types of military aircraft and logged more than 60 million flight miles.
But when the Army disbanded the corps in 1944, the women went back to their pre-war lives without any of the honors or benefits their male counterparts received.
Just this year, President Barack Obama signed legislation awarding the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal one of the nations highest civilian honors.
And for Dorothy Lucas an 86-year-old former WASP at Moore Field who now resides in San Antonio the tribute couldnt have come soon enough.
I hoped it would happen soon, she said. Im not getting any younger.
WE CAME FROM EVERYTHING
In August 1943, the Germans had just withdrawn from North Africa, U.S. Gen. George S. Patton had completed a successful invasion of Sicily, and Lucas was a 20-year-old secretary working at the Pentagon.
Everyone was in uniform, she said. And everyone wanted to do their part.
A friend mentioned that the Army was recruiting female pilots for domestic training and Lucas knew she had stumbled on a way to satisfy her recently acquired flight bug.
My older brother, who I adored, was in the Army Air Corps then, she said. I just sort of got into it somehow and just loved it.
More than 25,000 women volunteered for the newly formed WASPs but fewer than 4 percent made the cut. Because the Army required each candidate to have logged several flight hours and to maintain an active pilots license, many of the young women that made it came from affluent backgrounds and families that could afford flight lessons.
Muriel Martin then Muriel Kiester had grown up on a sprawling patch of land in La Feria and had access to her familys private aircraft. She learned to fly with her grandfathers backing in 1944.
Doesnt everyone want to fly? she said. Growing up in La Feria, I just wanted to get way far away. I wanted to see the world.
But upon arriving in the Abilene suburb of Sweetwater where all the WASPs received their training the women were introduced to others from around the country and a form of military discipline they had never encountered before.
We came from everything schoolteachers, mothers, secretaries, said former WASP Ann Hazzard. One had even worked as a prostitute, but she didnt last long.
Hazzard, now 88 and co-owner of the Holiday Village Mobile Home & RV Park in Pharr, realized right from the start that her gender would be a constant issue during her time in the service if not always a problem.
When she arrived for her first Army physical in Fort Wayne, Ind., male soldiers werent quite sure what to do with a bunch of women in undergarments waiting for a doctor.
They looked at us like we were oddities, she said. They brought out some towels and made us wrap up in them until we could get to another room.
Other members of the female corps were ordered to report their menstrual cycles to their training sergeants amid ill-founded fears that menstruation affected a womans stability and ability to pilot an aircraft.
And while many former WASPs reported stories of strained relations with their male students and counterparts, most said that the men treated them with respect despite their gender difference.
It was a distinction that Jacqueline Cochran the most famous female pilot of her day and eventual leader of the WASPs took pains to emphasize.
When she pitched the idea for a womens pilot corps to Gen. Henry Hap Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, she won one battle for womens equality. But she emphasized among all of her fledgling pilots the importance of feminine dress and deportment while serving on a military base.
Cochran herself is said to have never left the cockpit of an airplane without reapplying her lipstick and fixing her hair.
Lucas, the San Antonio WASP, said the emphasis on appearance definitely drew attention from the male pilots but also gave the women plenty of opportunity to surprise them such as a flight she took from Mission to St. Louis with a male officer in 1943.
I could tell he was very nervous flying with a girl, she said. But he was so happy we didnt crash, he asked me out to dinner at the officers club that night.
MY OLD LIFE
The service did have its risks. Thirty-eight members of the corps lost their lives in the line of duty some brought down by gunfire in training missions, others by faulty plane mechanics.
Those deaths provided the women with their first glimpse at how the rest of the country viewed their efforts. Because they were members of a civilian auxiliary corps and were not considered actual military service members the bodies of those who died were sent home in plain pine boxes at their familys expense.
The next hurtful indication came in 1944 when Congress decided to disband the group amid pressure from male pilots who had begun to return home in the final days of the war. All records of the WASPs were ordered classified and sealed for nearly 35 years.
There was a knock on the door one day, and an officer was there, said Hazzard. He said, OK, kids, you can get dressed, get packed, and go home.
He turned on his heel, walked out and that was it.
Many like Lucas went back to their former lives searching for something that would recapture their war-year adventures only to be squeezed back into their old jobs and routines that now seemed hopelessly dull.
I was very disappointed, she said. I was young, cute and thin. And suddenly, I had to pay my way back to my old life.
Others like Hazzard only got into a cockpit once or twice more before giving up flying for good.
It was not until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a bill recognizing their efforts and awarding the women status as veterans which entitled them to health care benefits and GI Bill education opportunities.
For Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, that recognition came about 30 years too late for the women many of whom were then in their 50s.
She helped author the bill this year that awarded the women their congressional medals and is currently planning a ceremony to honor them in Washington, D.C.
The valor and service of the WASP is only one part of their legacy, she said in a March statement. Their success in the line of duty paved the way for armed forces to lift the ban on women attending military flight training in the 1970s, and their efforts eventually led to women being fully integrated as military pilots.
But as Martin stands in her La Feria bedroom a good 60 years after her first military flight, she says she has never felt much like a pioneer.
Despite the pilots wings encased on her wall, the painting of the T-6D plane she used to fly and the medal she was given upon her induction to the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame, she has always looked on her wartime experience as just another adventure.
I dont know, she says, rubbing her hands in modesty. I had never been thrown off a horse before. I figured I wouldnt get thrown off a plane, either.
>>But when the Army disbanded the corps in 1944, the women went back to their pre-war lives without any of the honors or benefits their male counterparts received.
>>Just this year, President Barack Obama signed legislation awarding the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal one of the nations highest civilian honors.
The WASPs did a great service for this nation, but that does not rise to the level of “hero”. Or at least it didn’t until recently where the definition of “hero” has been diluted.
What kind of recognition did male civilian ferry pilots receive?
Great photo Joe. This story really got my interest when i noticed Muriel was from LaFeria. Her maiden name was Keister and I lived on Keister lane in LaFeria and never knew the history behind it until now.
This is just more after-the-fact affirmative action propaganda. Serving as a ferry pilot in and of itself makes no one a hero or a HEROINE. And it took nothing like the courage or skill involved in going up against some very good German and Japanese fighter pilots flying, for part of the war, better equipment who are trying to kill you.
People died in factories doing a necessary job for the war effort. Did all the factory workers get the Gold Congressional Medal (or whatever they called it)?
BTW, my uncle was a civilian ferry pilot during WW2. He didn’t get anything except a pink slip at war’s end.
By the way, LaFeria Texas is 9 miles north of the Mexico border in deep South Texas. My family still has a farm (oranges - grapefruit) there. The farm is about 5 miles east of the old Rebel Field where the Confederate Air Force started. It has moved and is now called the Commemorative Air Force.
I’m sorry but I don’t think this story takes anything away from the heroism of the brave combat pilots of WW2. It just completes more actual history and is a great example of just what it took for America to actually fight and win a World War. JMHO. Your mileage may vary.
“Im sorry but I dont think this story takes anything away from the
heroism of the brave combat pilots of WW2. It just completes more
actual history and is a great example of just what it took for America
to actually fight and win a World War.”
That’s my take as well.
These ladies voluntarily took on risks that they could have
When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a news article about the one of
these ladies that took off from what is now LAX. She and the Mustang
vanished. Best guess is that they both went into Santa Monica Bay.
To never be seen again.
>> This is just more after-the-fact affirmative action propaganda.
Bingo. What would have meant something was to honor them when most of them were still around. When I was a kid, Annette Way, a WW 2 WASP, had a WW 2 F4-U Corsair in her back yard in Coconut Grove, FL. The neighborhood boys loved it. When she died, the Miami Herald virtually ignored her.
Same with the Tuskegee Airmen - Ted Turner did a cable TV program on them, and could have ended it with shots of the old geezers sitting around and telling war stories. Nothing.
Yes we owe so much thanks to those wonderful women pilots!
After 40 years or so of telling this story you would think that the headline would get updated, but it never does.
They ferried aircraft around our country. Pretty safe job for a WWII pilot, far from the “hero” class. They got the same recognition that men got for doing the same job. But NO, they were women, they deserve so much more, what a joke.
Aren't there people doing this exact same work today, flying aircraft from one domestic location to another?
Barry Goldwater was a transport pilot, flying over the “Hump”. He was “too old” to be a fighter or bomber pilot.
Signing up is the most heroic thing that anyone can do. Everything after that is just following through.
Some of the WASP pilots were attacked on the English end of their ferry flight. Some of them managed to shoot down some Jerry pilots.
Thanks Ladies for your service.
It isn’t the story that’s the problem. Its the affirmative action medal that was awarded 65 years later that is a problem. They flew planes. Some of them crashed planes and died. None died due to enemy action. There’s nothing heroic there. Like you said, it’s just part of what it means to be part of nation that is completely at war. That really is the message to take from the WASPs—when your nation is at war and fighting for its life, you contribute in EVERY way you can. Waving a flag and calling everyone in uniform a hero is not sufficient.
They aren’t the Greatest Generation because they fought a war. They earned that title because they completely retooled America in a few months to be the arsenal of democracy, and then went right back to normal, boring lives as soon as it ended.
Most of the WASPs probably never cared if they got a medal for their service because their pride in a job well-done was enough, but someone convinced Congress and Obama that it would be a good PR move to award it and use it as another “example” of how the patriarchal society of Pre-Obama America mistreated victim groups.
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