Flying Bombers in World War II
Stories my mother told me.
- By Melissa Jordan
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
(Page 3 of 4)
While waiting for her westward transfer to go through in the spring of 1944, Mom was chosen to go to Orlando, Florida to participate in the WASP’s first Officer’s Training Course. Efforts were under way to militarize the program and grant commissions to the women. But male civilian pilots, fearing a loss of their draft-deferred status, lobbied hard against the militarization bill, and opposition grew in Congress. The press railed against the women, calling them “the powder puff brigade” and questioning their value to the war effort. By June 1944, the militarization bill was defeated in Congress, and by October, the remaining WASPs were informed that the program would be shut down in December.
While the training course in Florida kept my mother from the chance to fly fighters, it opened another door for her. Just a few days after arriving in Orlando, she met a young officer on a weekend trip to Daytona Beach. A whirlwind romance led to a June wedding, and in just a few weeks, my mom was expecting her first child. She didn’t want to stop flying, but a side effect of her pregnancy was altered depth perception; she found herself landing airplanes above—and not on—the runway, so she tended to overshoot the landing. “Hard on plane and pilot,” she explained. WASPs had married and gotten pregnant before, but while other women in those circumstances had been granted a leave of absence, Mom wasn’t told that she could take one. With no other alternatives, she resigned from the WASP in August 1944. She was not allowed to write—or even sign—her own resignation letter. In a box of my mother’s papers, I found a copy of that cold form letter, stating that she wanted to quit simply to be with her husband. Years later, her frustration over the resignation boiled over, and in 1979 she wrote a letter to the Air Force noting that she “resented the implication that [she] would quit for a frivolous reason.” The only response she got was a form letter and instructions for applying for her honorable discharge.
On December 20, 1944, the WASP organization was disbanded; the women had to spend their own money to get home. Their groundbreaking, patriotic work swept into the footnotes of history, many of the pilots were embittered. It would take 33 years for the women to be granted veteran status through an act of Congress.
By 1950, my mother had three young children. She had not given up her aviation ambitions, though. She told me that on the day she took the exam for a commercial license, she had no money for a babysitter. The only woman in the room, she took the test with an infant over her shoulder.
Eventually, though, with a rapidly expanding household of rambunctious children and a shoestring budget, my mother realized her aviation career had ended. It was a choice, she said, she was happy to make. She had grown up in difficult circumstances, without the love and attention of her own mother. While flying was her passion, she was willing to pass up time in the cockpit to lavish affection on her kids. I always admired that my mother never seemed bitter about giving up her wings. While she never denied that she missed being in the cockpit, she never resented her kids for grounding her. Rather, she was determined to expose me to as much of her flying world as possible.
As we grew up, our mother’s anecdotes about WASP life became part of our everyday lives. My mother had been indelibly marked by her wartime experience, and stories of flight and the war were as commonplace to us as fairy tales are to other children. But as the last of nine kids, I know I was, in many ways, more fortunate than my older brothers and sisters. My mother was 44 years old when I was born, her hair already salt-and-pepper when I was in grade school. No longer chasing a whole herd of kids, she had more time to tell me her flying stories and share her memories.
My childhood was punctuated with airshows, visits to aviation museums, and WASP reunions. I was named for one of Mom’s classmates, as was my sister Mary. I loved seeing her with her friends, bound by a unique experience. Virtually no one outside our family knew Mom was a pilot, so the reunions raised her spirits.
When I was five, our family moved from New Jersey to Moline, Illinois. While my teenage sisters were less than thrilled to leave the East Coast, for a grounded pilot, Moline was a choice spot to land: small airport, an easy four-hour drive to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and—just an hour down the road—Galesburg, Illinois, home of the National Stearman Fly-In. Together, my mother and I painted compass roses at small rural airstrips and washed airplanes to raise money for the Moline chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s flying group. She taught me about map reading, using a silk map of the China-Burma-India route, given to her by a pilot who’d flown the Hump, the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. She quizzed me on aircraft silhouettes, and taught me the basics of flying. Now and then, if she got wind of a unique aircraft making a stop at our airport, she’d pull me out of school to see it.