Pauline Gower, who had pushed so hard to get women in the cockpit, had only a brief time after the war to indulge her passion for flying. In 1947, shortly after giving birth to twin boys, she died of a heart attack. She was 36.
Many of the women who ferried airplanes for the ATA experienced the postwar years as something of a disappointment; the war had been the pinnacle of their flying careers, and afterward, a huge number of male combat pilots were available, so women’s opportunities in aviation were limited. Of course, some women no longer yearned to fly. For Rose and MacDonald, the experience was intimately bound up with the war. Both women left the ATA to raise families; neither expressed regret about the decision.
Acknowledgment of women’s service in the ATA was slow in coming. Like the WASP, who were accorded veteran status in 1977 and finally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on July 1, 2009, the women of the ATA waited more than 60 years for recognition. In September 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented award badges to the surviving members in a ceremony at 10 Downing Street.
But since the award was not given posthumously, many women (and men) who served were unrecognized. Molly Rose was one pilot who did attend, escorted by two of her three sons. She particularly enjoyed the pre-ceremony reunion at Maidenhead, near White Waltham airfield, the ATA headquarters.
Brown said, “We now have medals for those people who are veterans of the war. We have medals for those who served in the land army. It is right, in my view, that we have recognition for the women Spitfire pilots who did so much to protect and defend the air force and other services.” Nigel Griffiths, Labour member of Parliament for Edinburgh South, added: “Frankly, without the efforts of the ATA, the Luftwaffe could have overwhelmed us.”
Getting aircraft into the hands of combat pilots during World War II was an enormous undertaking. By war’s end, the women and men in the ATA had delivered more than 300,000 airplanes.
Yona Zeldis McDonough, a writer who lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, New York, is the author of four novels and 19 books for children.