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In August 1943, the Germans had just withdrawn from North Africa, U.S. Gen.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.
For those that aren’t familiar with her she died in a plane crash in Texas.
You clicked on the headline but not to worry. Pretty soon all of these amazing ladies will have passed away ... unable to submit to those pesky, young local newspaper reporters interviews that are so repetitive and tiresome for you. With any luck you'll be able to avoid any dusty old books in the library about them as well.
That was the service that these women were performing, to free up the men like Goldwater to fly in the worlds war zones, like the "hump" over the Himalayas.
Gertrude Tompkins Silver, the only American woman who is MIA.
Next month, a major effort will be made to search the ocean off LAX for her P-51D, which is believed to have crashed shortly after takeoff.
When you have been reading this same “finally discovered” headline for as many decades as I have then you have a right to get tired of it.
This article and every article like it written over my lifetime has always left off the “heroic” service of the same people that were male doing this civilian job.
Are you dissing Bryanw92’s uncle?
“BTW, my uncle was a civilian ferry pilot during WW2. He didnt get anything except a pink slip at wars end.”
I’m not ‘dissin’ anybody. Especially the ladies about which this artcle was written.
Thanks for the great photos!
The point is when everyone is a “hero” then no one is a hero.
When we give gold stars to everyone for routine, everyday service, then what do we save for people like Roy Benavidez?
“With out orders, Benavidez volunteered so quickly that he didn’t even bring his M-16 when he dashed for the helicopter preparing for a rescue attempt. The sole weapon he carried was a bowie knife on his belt.”I’m coming with you,” he told the three crew members.
Airborne, they spotted the soldiers in a tight circle. A few hundred enemy troops surrounded them in the jungle, some within 25 yards of the Americans’ position. The chopper dropped low, ran into withering fire and quickly retreated. Spotting a small clearing 75 yards away, Benavidez told the pilot, “Over there, over there.”
The helicopter reached the clearing and hovered 10 feet off the ground. Benavidez made the sign of the cross, jumped out carrying a medic bag and began running the 75 yards towards the trapped men. Almost immediately, Benavidez was hit by an AK-47 slug in his right leg. He stumbled and fell, but got back up convincing himself that he’d only snagged a thorn bush and kept running to the brush pile where Wright’s men lay. An exploding hand grenade knocked him down and ripped his face with shrapnel. He shouted prayers, got up again and staggered to the men.
Four of the soldiers were dead, the other eight wounded and pinned down in two groups. Benavidez bound their wounds, injected morphine and, ignoring NVA bullets and grenades, passed around ammunition that he had taken from several bodies and armed himself with an AK. Then Benavidez directed air strikes and called for the Huey helicopter to a landing near one group. While calling in support he was shot again in the right thigh, his second gunshot wound. He dragged the dead and wounded aboard. The chopper lifted a few feet off the ground and moved toward the second group, with Benavidez running beneath it, firing a rifle he had picked up. He spotted the body of the team leader Sergeant First Class Wright. Ordering the other soldiers to crawl toward the chopper, he retrieved a pouch dangling from the dead man’s neck; in the pouch were classified papers with radio codes and call signs. As he shoved the papers into his shirt, a bullet struck his stomach and a grenade shattered his back. The helicopter, barely off the ground, suddenly crashed, its pilot shot dead.
Coughing blood, Benavidez made his way to the Huey and pulled the wounded from the wreckage, forming a small perimeter. As he passed out ammunition taken from the dead, the air support he had earlier radioed for arrived. Jets and helicopter gunships strafed threatening enemy soldiers while Benavidez tended the wounded. “Are you hurt bad, Sarge?” one soldier asked. “Hell, no,” said Benavidez, about to collapse from blood loss. “I’ve been hit so many times I don’t give a damn no more.”
While mortar shells burst everywhere, Benavidez called in Phantoms “danger close”. Enemy fire raked the perimeter. Several of the wounded were hit again, including Benavidez. By this time he had blood streaming down his face, blinding him. Still he called in air strikes, adjusting their targets by sound. Several times, pilots thought he was dead, but then his voice would come back on the radio, calling for closer strikes. Throughout the fighting, Benavidez, a devout Catholic, made the sign of the cross so many times, his arms were “were going like an airplane prop”. But he never gave into fear.
Finally, a helicopter landed. “Pray and move out,” Benavidez told the men as he helped each one aboard. As he carried a seriously wounded Frenchie Mousseau over his shoulder a fallen NVA soldier stood up, swung his rifle and clubbed Benavidez in the head. Benavidez fell, rolled over and got up just as the soldier lunged forward with his bayonet. Benavidez grabbed it, slashing his right hand, and pulled his attacker toward him. With his left hand, he drew his own bowie knife and stabbed the NVA but not before the bayonet poked completely through his left forearm. As Benavidez dragged Mousseau to the chopper, he saw two more NVA materialize out of the jungle. He snatched a fallen AK-47 rifle and shot both. Benavidez made one more trip to the clearing and came back with a Vietnamese interpreter. Only then did the sergeant let the others pull him aboard the helicopter.
Blood dripped from the door as the chopper lumbered into the air. Benavidez was holding in his intestines with his hand. Bleeding almost into unconsciousness, Benavidez lay against the badly wounded Mousseau and held his hand. Just before they landed at the Medevac hospital, “I felt his fingers dig into my palm,” Benavidez recalled, “his arm twitching and jumping as if electric current was pouring through his body into mine” At Loc Ninh, Benavidez was so immobile they placed him with the dead. Even after he spit in the doctor’s face and was taken from the body bag, Benavidez was considered a goner.
Benavidez spent almost a year in hospitals to recover from his injuries. He had seven major gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel holes and both arms had been slashed by a bayonet. Benavidez had shrapnel in his head, scalp, shoulder, buttocks, feet, and legs. His right lung was destroyed. He had injuries to his mouth and back of his head from being clubbed with a rifle butt. One of the AK-47 bullets had entered his back exiting just beneath his heart. He had won the battle and lived. When told his one man battle was awesome and extraordinary, Benavidez replied: “No, that’s duty.”
Great post. Roy Benevidez was by any account a National and Texas Hero deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor which he recieved.
>>The point is when everyone is a hero then no one is a hero.
>>When we give gold stars to everyone for routine, everyday service, then what do we save for people like Roy Benavidez?
Exactly. That guy is a hero! America never has a shortage of real heroes and they’re all just regular people who behave extraordinarily in bad circumstances, so I can’t figure out why we need to create them. Even the current “Overseas Contingency Operation” is producing real heroes, but we don’t get to see them because of the media blackout of good news.
Put some panties on a scumbag terrorist’s head and you’re news. Go “Audie Murphy” in a firefight in Fallujah and Katie Couric doesn’t even think you’re worth mentioning.
Talk about a tough day at work, I love stories about heroism but that Benavidez account is so incredible.
From the heading into an overrun position of a twelve man team with only a bowie knife, to suffering almost every type wound imaginable, grenade shrapnel, rifle fire, bayonet and even butt strokes, it is way off the charts.
Once many years ago on a trip I stopped outside his house trying to decide if it was too early to stop and say hi to him, I drove on with out seeing him but his work that day should endure in the legends of warriors until the end of time.
They made a GI Joe of him about 10 years ago. http://actionheroes.homestead.com/reviewsfour.html
Unfortunately they gave him a run of the mill K-bar instead of a true fighting weapon, the all American bowie knife.
I find it hard to believe that all these people were ignored the past 60+ years and only now they are getting their just recognition.
LOL - It’s like Deja Vu all over again.
I wonder if any of these women when to Alaska after to war to become bush pilots?
Thanks for the ping PE. Go here...
for the current version of post #3 pic:-)
my uncle aged 19 was killed in the Verdun just 2 weeks after disembarking in France that last winter...my aunt was angry with him for insisting on a combat posting and quarreled with him at a family dinner right before he left...and she never got over it.
he was always a hero to us and my kids all know his story amongst others but he gets no special recognition over others like him based on his sex or race..
yes we are tired of it...this identity make up crap is so old
as for women and planes....a local ferry gal here....Cornelia Fort died doing that and has an airport namd after her and I know her niece rather well
likewise...that gal killed in Iraq immediately gets a mountain named after her by that kook governor out there
but if you want a real gutsy women pilots....check out the Soviet women fighter pilots who fought they Luftwaffe.. . . Nachthexen.
that said...women don’t often fly as well as men...like driving...yep, there are exceptions..great but one does not live by exceptions
btw...Amelia Earhart ran out of gas and couldn’t find the island she was looking for...nothing sinister...in case anyone was wondering
Unless my eyes (and old brain) deceive me...
here’s info for the youngster regarding that beautiful airplane
in post 42.
The H-1 Racer featured a number of design innovations:
it had retractable landing gear and all rivets and joints
set flush into the body of the aircraft to reduce drag. The H-1 Racer
is thought to have influenced the design of a number of World War II
fighters such as the Mitsubishi Zero, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 and the
F8F Bearcat; although that has never been reliably confirmed.
The H-1 Racer was donated to the Smithsonian in 1975
and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum.
Anyone interested in seeing the H-1 in action (cinematecally)
should get a DVD of “The Aviator”.
Just suffer through Leonardo Dicaprio’s attempt to portray Howard
Hughes (although I personally think he did made a decent try)...
for some very good aviation segments.
I’ll not give a spoiler...but it’s worth it just to see the
scene of Howard Hughes sitting down to a fine meal with Kartherine
Hepburn’s family and a discussion about “family money”.
What is it that you want us to see? A woman?
I will second that and that film was the firt time I realized that DeCaprio could in a few years do somehing like his role in The Departed
Anyone that watches “The Aviator” will want to watch the actual film that Hughes made called “Hell’s Angels” this version is a very good copy that has cleaned up the aged video and the movie is fantastic with incredible filming of the aircraft and aerial combat stunts.
If you check your library system there is a good chance that they will have a copy that you can check out for free.