Answer Man

Answer Man: WASPs were indeed special people

Q. My Aunt Minnie Reed, nee Edwards, was a WASP during World War II. She was born Dec. 21, 1922, in Butler County, Mo., and died on April 26, 1996, in Belleville. I am hoping you can find out exactly what she did as a WASP during World War II. She told her sons that WASP meant “Women Are Special People.” Can you please help me solve this mystery?

— Kathryn, of Collinsville

A. If your aunt was a WASP, you can rest assured that she was indeed a special person who played a crucial war role that most Americans likely still are unaware of 70 years later.

Minnie would have been a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a paramilitary organization that flew thousands of non-combat missions covering some 60 million miles within the United States. They did everything from running strafing missions for infantry training to flying top brass around the country. By doing so, the 1,074 women who earned their wings as WASPs freed up male pilots so they could put more sting into their bombing and reconnaissance work over Europe and the Pacific.

“There were 77 different types of aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Force arsenal, and, at one time or another, a WASP flew all 77,” Carol Cain, associate director of the National WASP World War II Museum in Sweetwater, Texas, told me proudly. “There were times when they would walk out on the tarmac, and they would be reading the instruction manual of the plane that they were about to take off in.”

Unfortunately, as you’ve probably noticed, I have to couch my answer in “ifs” and “would have beens.” A check of all WASP graduates and trainees listed in the digitized records at Texas Woman’s University in Denton found six people named Edwards and three Reeds, but no Minnies. However, in the hope that she may have had a more formal first name or that you may uncover some other scrap of personal information, let me tell you more about this vital but little-known cog in the nation’s war effort — and where you can find more information:

By the summer of 1941, Jackie Cochran and Nancy Harkness Love had suggested that the U.S. Army Air Forces (the forerunner to today’s Air Force) use women pilots for non-combat missions to free male pilots for the war effort in Europe. At first, despite the urging of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold refused. Male military leaders, such as Gen. Bob Olds, who organized the Air Transport Command, were thought women were incapable of flying military aircraft. As a result, Cochran and other American women went to England to volunteer for the Air Transport Auxiliary, for which they flew the Royal Air Force’s top aircraft in non-combat roles but in combat-like conditions.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the shortage of pilots became acute. So with Love at the helm, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) went into operation on Sept. 10, 1942, at New Castle (Del.) Army Air Base to ferry planes from factories to airfields. This, however, apparently upset Cochran, who immediately returned to the United States to ask Arnold why she hadn’t been informed. After pleading ignorance, Arnold allowed Cochran to put her training proposal into action as commanding officer of the 319th Women’s Flying Training Detachment at Houston’s Municipal (now Hobby) Airport. Finally, in July 1943, the WAFS and WFTD merged to form WASP, with Love as the executive in charge of ferrying operations and Cochran as the director of women pilots.

Over the course of the group’s existence, 25,000 women applied and 1,830 women pilots ages 18-35 would be trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, the only all-female training base in U.S. military history, according to Cain. Of those, 1,074 graduated, received their wings and were deployed to 120 bases throughout the country.

“The WASP were guinea pigs,” Cain says. “No program like this had ever been tried before. The future of women in military aviation hung on how the women performed professionally and conducted themselves morally and socially. Although they were Civil Service, they maintained military standards and observed military regulations.”

Actually, their requirements were stiffer than those of their male counterparts, Cain pointed out.

“To even apply for this program, these women had to have either a private or a commercial pilot’s license — unlike male pilots, who could apply with no prior training,” said Cain, adding that those accepted into the program had to have at least 500 cockpit hours (later lowered to 200).

“They came to Avenger Field for seven months to learn to fly ‘the Army way.’ But they were here to learn to fly military aircraft. They had training in Morse code because a lot of the planes they flew were not radio-equipped so takeoff and landing instructions were a blinking light from the control tower. They had to learn mechanical maintenance, too, so if they were forced down and it was something very minor, they would be able to fix it. They studied meteorology. So they studied everything the male pilots did — on top of already having a pilot’s license.”

The 30 weeks of training included 393 hours of ground school (math, physics, maps, first aid, etc.) and 210 hours of flight training. They started out in such planes as the PT-17 and AT-6 but most would go on to such high-powered fighter and bomber aircraft as the P-47, B-17 and B-29. Once trained, they were called upon to perform a myriad missions.

“They ferried planes from hangars to their embarkation sites and transported high military ranks,” Cain said. “They towed targets for live ammunition practice. They laid down smokescreens for infantry drills. When aircraft were sent back to the United States to be repaired, WASPs were the test pilots who were the first to fly them again.”

Yet because WASPs were paid under Civil Service, they received no military benefits or insurance. In fact, they had to pay for their trip to Avenger Field for training and for their return trip home when the organization was deactivated on Dec. 20, 1944. The 38 who were killed in service could have no American flag on their coffin and could not be buried in military cemeteries. Families could not place a blue or gold star in their window to show that they had a daughter, sister or other female relative who was active or who had died in military service.

“Grueling schedules, sacrifices, gender bias and the loss of 38 women pilots apparently meant nothing,” Cain says now. “Their records were sealed and they were asked not to talk about their training. The women were expected to go home and assume their proper place in the kitchen.”

And that’s the way it remained until 1977, when Congress finally voted to grant military status to WASP, thanks to a push by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, of Arizona. During that effort, all WASP records, including letters and discharge papers were gathered and later given to Texas Woman’s University in Denton, where you can find a complete and searchable WASP roster along with a ton of additional information at www.twu.edu/library/wasp.asp. According to Kimberly Johnson, the library’s coordinator of special collections, it could be that your aunt might have been part of the Civil Air Patrol or some other organization and mistakenly thought she was affiliated with the WASPs. Both Cain and Johnson have known that to happen.

In 2002 former WASP Deanie Bishop Parrish, and her daughter, Nancy, dreamed of showcasing the organization’s historic work in a museum. On May 28, 2005, the WASP World War II Museum opened in a building that overlooks the runways at Avenger Field, where the WASPs trained. Learn more at waspmuseum.org. In 2010, WASP joined the Tuskegee Airmen and the Navajo Code Talkers when the group received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Barack Obama. As of Friday, 150 WASPs are still living, ranging in age from almost 91 to two at 102.

“Although the WASP have been left out of American history text books, denied rights, given inferior equipment and subjected to gender bias, their story is now being told,” Cain says. “The young women who fly today’s advanced military aircraft give credit to the WASP for paving the way so they can follow their dreams.”

Today’s trivia

How did certain areas on an airport field come to be called “tarmacs”?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: When Mary Young was a child in the late 1700s, she learned the art of flagmaking from her mother, who ran a flag shop in Philadelphia. Although most people probably don’t recognize her name, the early training would put her in the history books. In 1813, Baltimore was preparing for an attack by the British Royal Navy, so Maj. George Armistead asked the then 37-year-old Mary Young Pickersgill to make a flag for Fort McHenry. Eventually, Pickersgill would receive $405.90 for fashioning a flag that required more than 400 yards of fabric to make. It reportedly weighed 50 pounds and took 11 men to hoist it up the fort’s 90-foot flagpole. But on Sept. 14, 1814, it was the flag Francis Scott Key saw “by the dawn’s early light” that inspired him to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Pickersgill died in 1857 at age 81. Her Baltimore home of more than 50 years has been preserved as the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House museum. For many, the flag is now the Smithsonian’s most prized possession.

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