Flying Bombers in World War II
Stories my mother told me.
- By Melissa Jordan
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
(Page 2 of 4)
WASPs went through 22 1/2 weeks of training as rigorous as the training male Army Air Forces cadets received, but the women skipped gunnery and formation flying. Simply surviving training could be risky: 11 women died before reaching graduation. My mother told stories of near disaster, such as climbing into airplanes that were sometimes missing pieces of equipment here and there. Once, during a posting to New Castle Army Air Base, she tried to land an AT-6 at night. The whole flight had been beset by mechanical problems, and, on approach, neither my mother nor the tower could tell if the landing gear was down. Mom described flying that Texan in circles over the Atlantic Ocean for more than an hour to burn excess fuel. She was terrified upon landing, but to everyone’s relief, the gear was locked down and all was well.
Although the work carried significant risks, that time in my mother’s life created some of her most treasured memories. When she talked about her WASP days, she always said that she would not have traded the experience for anything. “I just loved it,” she would say. “If I had to pay them for the privilege, I still would have done it.” She talked not just about her love of flying but also about the satisfaction of carrying out a patriotic duty.
Mom graduated from training at Avenger on September 11, 1943, and was posted to the Air Transport Command at New Castle Army Air Base. During her time in the WASP, she flew Vultee BT-13 trainers, Cessna AT-17 Bobcats, Douglas C-47 transports, and, later—much to her delight—North American B-25 Mitchell bombers. “Most of us would never have gotten near these planes any other way,” my mother once said. “Who would have had enough money to put gas in a B-25?”
On occasion, the women’s challenges were compounded by chauvinism. With great amusement Mom told me a story in which she and several other WASPs delivered aircraft to a coastal base. After approaching the field in tight formation, the pilots executed a series of flawless landings. When the women hit the hangar, the mechanics were laughing. The ground crew explained that a rather blustery Navy officer had watched the WASPs approach and land. He’d declared that because of their precision and skill, the group had to be Navy men. When the women started hopping out of the airplanes, the officer’s face burned red. Embarrassed, he didn’t stay to commend the pilots on their expertise.
But sometimes the bigotry led to sabotage, as my mother wrote in a letter home:
“Yesterday it cleared up enough for me to take off so I tore into my zoot suit, snagged a Red Cross car for my bags & went out to the line—no PT19A—no little silver ship in sight ever—nothing but B26’s and dive bombers! An hour later when it was too late to take off, I finally located my baby in sub-depot minus a prop & with a big hole in the wing which 2 mechanics & the cap’t in charge were frantically covering. I’ve never yet gotten the story but somebody sure did me dirt!”
Thirty-eight WASPs died in service, including several of my mother’s classmates. Paula Loop, one of her dearest friends, died in the crash of a BT-13 near Medford, Oregon, and Mom was dispatched to escort her body home to Oklahoma. As civilians, the WASPs received no benefits and had no right to a military funeral—not even a flag for the coffin.
When Mom’s brother Franklin, a naval aviator, was lost in the Pacific theater late in 1943, she requested a transfer to a western base to be closer to her family. But coming back to New Castle after a ferry mission early in 1944, she discovered the WASP barracks empty; her entire unit had been assigned to another base to fly pursuit aircraft. She had not been sent on to pursuit school because she’d already requested a transfer. For her whole life, my mother regretted the decision. “I opened my mouth when I shouldn’t have. I would have been in fighters otherwise. People make their mistakes. I wish I hadn’t made that one.”