Jonna Doolittle Hoppes’s new book, Jimmy Doolittle, was a memoir about her grandfather, the famous four-star general. The following profile of Violet “Vi” Cowden of the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) is reprinted by permission of the publisher.
I am sure God must grin when he watches a hawk fly. On wings spread wide, it soars above the earth with grace and majesty. And with deadly accuracy, it swoops down upon its prey. Perhaps there is no creature so magnificent.
I can’t remember a time that I didn’t envy the hawk, didn’t yearn to soar, and swoop, and climb through the clouds with such pure elation. As I sat on the stoop of our little sod farmhouse in South Dakota, I dreamed of escaping the bonds of earth. I would watch with fascination as my hawk would swoop down, zero in on a little chicken, snatch him up and fly away.
“Oh,” I would say to myself, “if only I could do that!”
So you can imagine my delight when a barnstormer landed his little Cessna on our picnic grounds during my senior year of high school.
Our nation was in the grips of the Great Depression and we had little disposable cash. But my boyfriend paid the five dollars that opened the door to my future. Perhaps there are no words to describe that first flight.
I went on to college. Worked my way through and earned my teaching credential. I taught my first grade in a little school in Akaska, South Dakota. I earned $110 a month. My rent came to $10, so I had enough left over to buy clothes and other luxuries. Within a short time, I decided that my clothing needs were more than satisfied and, if I budgeted wisely, I could afford flying lessons. I put away $10 a month, and in a fairly short time, I earned my private pilot’s license.
The airfield was six miles out of town. I didn’t own a car so I rode my bicycle to the field early in the mornings; just slipped out of bed and started the day.
The children knew.
“You’ve been flying,” they would greet me at the beginning of class.
“How did you know that?”
“Why, you’re so happy!”
On December 7, 1941, I sat listening to Artie Shaw’s music on the radio before church. An urgent announcement interrupted the program: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I could not believe it. I thought after suffering through the Great War that the world had become a more civilized place.
“This isn’t going to happen again,” I told myself. “It’s just not right.”
On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt and Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. I sent a wire to Washington, D.C.
“I have my pilot’s license and I am ready to serve.” Surely we needed planes to fly up and down our Pacific and Atlantic coasts, on the lookout for enemy submarines.
I didn’t hear back from Washington, so I made my way out to California to stay with my sister, who was expecting her first child.
That’s where I was when I received a call from Jacqueline Cochran. With the blessings of General Hap Arnold, Jackie formed a women’s flying organization for the purpose of training women, thus releasing male pilots for combat missions. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) would ferry planes from the factories to points of debarkation for shipment overseas. Would I be interested?
Would I be interested in spending my waking hours flying without having to pay for the fuel? I had never heard of WASP before, but I didn’t need time to consider the answer.
“Where do I sign up?” I asked.
The first step required an interview with Mrs. Hayward, one of Jackie’s Hollywood friends. I walked up to the front door of a home that could only be described as an elegant California mansion.
“Oh my!” I thought as I rang the doorbell and listened to chimes reverberate through the spacious interior.
Mrs. Hayward asked me a lot of questions about my upbringing and experience as a pilot. She sized me up, seemingly satisfied with my answers so far, then looked me directly in the eye and asked, “What would you do to get into this program?”
I looked around her enormous living room with its beautiful furniture and soaring windows.
“If you asked me to scrub your house with a toothbrush,” I said, re-establishing eye contact, “I would do it.”
I reported to Long Beach for my physical.
“You’re in excellent health. Twenty-twenty vision with perfect depth perception,” the doctor reported. “But I can’t pass you.”
“Why not?” I asked, my heart pounding against my ribs in an attempt to escape.
“The minimum weight for a WASP is 100 pounds.” He consulted his notes. “You weigh 92.”
“Give me a week!” I pleaded. With my German-Russian heritage, I was certain I could put on eight extra pounds in a week’s time. My sister, an excellent cook, joined my crusade with shared determination. I ate everything in sight, but on the morning of my weigh-in I came up just a tad short.
“Give me that bunch of bananas,” I told my sister. I ate every one and followed them with as much water as I could force down my throat.
“Well, you made it!” the doctor said when I climbed on the scale in my scant little hospital gown.
“I should have!” I said, pulling the gown tight over my bulging stomach. “Look at this belly!”
He started to laugh. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!” he said, shaking his head. “Do you mind if I call in another doctor?”
“Not before you sign that paper!” I told him, cradling my distended stomach with both hands.
I’d like to tell you that I knew exactly what I was getting into when I signed up for the WASP program. But I didn’t. You see, the fledgling organization grew out of a merger between Nancy Love’s Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and Jacqueline Cochran’s Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Both Love and Cochran believed that there was a “sound, beneficial place for women in the air—not to compete with or displace the men pilots, but to supplement them.” Over 25,000 women applied for this program. Standards were set much higher for women pilots than for their male counterparts. The training was rigorous and only 1,830 applicants made the cut. By the time they finished, almost 50 percent of them had washed out, leaving 1,074 graduates.
But I didn’t know any of this when I borrowed money from my sister to pay for the train ticket to Sweetwater, Texas. The Army furnished transportation from the train station to Avenger Field. Two GIs picked me up in an open truck. I expected the passenger to give up his seat and allow me to ride in the cab. However, I found myself in one of two seats in the back, with my little suitcase tucked between my feet.
A thought came to me as we bumped along the dry, rutted road. I am not competing with women anymore: I am out there competing in the men’s world. I am asking for a man’s job, so I have to start thinking that I’m not the girl, I’m the person that has a job to do and I have to do it as well, or possibly better, than most men. In fact, starting at that exact moment, bouncing around in the back of an Army truck, I needed to prove to the world that I could do it.
My heart sank with that first look at my new home. Sweetwater, Texas, is the rattlesnake capital of the world. Dusty, dry, and hot, the landscape stretched for miles in every direction in an unvarying shade of sand punctuated with tumbleweeds. I took one look and wanted to turn around and go home. If I’d had any money left, I just might have done that.
Especially after I saw the planes! “They’re so big!” I said to myself. “I don’t think I can do this!”
I shared a room in the barracks with five other girls. I was lucky; my rickety metal single bed was next to the window, so I wasn’t cramped in the middle. A communal shower with four heads separated us from six other girls in an identical room on the opposite side. It was so hot, there were days when we showered with our clothes on and let the evaporation cool our overheated bodies.
I’d arrived a week late, and by the time I got there, size 40 jumpsuits were about the only thing left. I wrapped a belt around my middle and rolled up the sleeves of my khaki wardrobe. I knew I looked ridiculous, but I didn’t care; Uncle Sam was about to provide me with a steady supply of airplanes and lots of gas.
The male instructors made training very difficult and washed out students for unnecessary things. Some of the girls entered the program with thousands of hours of flying time and still washed out. Each day of training I knew would be my last. None of us believed we would make it through.
The program required check rides with male pilots. There were four of us in a flight and my friend Betty was a basket case.
“I don’t think I can take this anymore,” she said, gripping my hand. “I just can’t do it.”
“Sure you can, Betty,” I told her. “Look—I’ll go first.”
I went first and passed.
“Betty, it really isn’t hard,” I told her after landing. “All we did was what they taught us, nothing particularly difficult. The hardest part is the landing.”
“You didn’t think it was hard?” Parker, one of the check pilots asked. He towered over me with an expression that radiated displeasure.
“Well,” I said, “we just did the same things we do every day in our training.”
The next morning I showed up at the flight line and had a check ride.
I went out and did fairly well. I didn’t mess up the landing and I followed the check pilot’s instructions without any problems. He didn’t say one word.
I found myself scheduled for another check ride the following day and I thought, “Oh brother!”
The next day I had a check ride and the day after that. For a week solid, every morning began with a check ride. Not once did the check pilot comment on my flying. By the end of the week, I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach, not even water. And I was really upset.
“I am going to get through this,” I told myself. I dug deep inside that well of determination so carefully nurtured by my parents. “I have to do this! I am going to do this!”
I climbed up in that P-19 and flew the socks off that little plane. My check pilot remained silent. But he didn’t wash me out.
When Jacqueline Cochran pinned on my wings, I covered them with my hand and said, “No one is ever going to take them away from me.”
We represented all women. It always bothered me when women expected certain privileges just because they were women. The WASP competed in a man’s world and carved out a place in it for women. We proved that an airplane couldn’t tell the difference between a male and female pilot, only between a good one and a bad one.
But flying was still a man’s world. When I arrived at Avenger Field, male cadets still trained there. We weren’t allowed to talk to them or even recognize them. It seemed like a silly rule, but one I could keep.
On my way to the Post Exchange one dry, dusty afternoon, one of the cadets whistled at me. I turned and gave him a dirty look. About that time, Jackie Cochran spotted me and called me into her office.
“You aren’t supposed to talk to the cadets,” she said.
“I wasn’t talking to him. I just looked at him.”
“Well,” she said, with a touch of mischief in her eyes, “you’re not supposed to look at them either!”
* * *
Forty-five-mile-an-hour crosswinds swept Love Field. Grounded, we sat around the flight room waiting for the winds to change or the weather to improve. Groups of girls visited, laughter bubbling up from shared exploits.
“Let’s go flying.” A self-assured check pilot, with an overlarge chip on his shoulder, loomed over me.
“Nobody’s flying today!” I answered.
“Well, if you can’t fly in 45-mile-an-hour crosswinds, you can’t fly.”
Can you imagine? I think he looked around that room and picked me out because I’m tiny. But my spirit wasn’t tiny.
“I will show you!” I thought, my eyes never leaving his.
It was an old airplane, a twin engine with a big tail wheel. The wind blew so hard that the tail kept whipping around and it took all my strength—arms and legs and everything—to hold her steady just to taxi onto the runway. As we rolled into take-off position, he shut down one engine, forcing a single engine procedure on take-off. I feathered the one engine and upped the power on the other side. It took some doing, but I got her airborne on the first try.
“Let me shoot a landing,” he said.
I relinquished the controls. He made a good landing.
“Now you do it,” he told me.
Well, I really greased the plane on my landing [made a perfect landing]. I nursed my anger and tapped a strength that came from that well deep inside me.
“OK, shoot another one.”
So I did. I could have flown a bathtub that day, and I think he knew it.
“Let’s go back to the field,” he said.
We went back to the field and check pilot Williams pulled him aside. I could tell Williams was angry and hoped he wouldn’t cause a scene.
“Well, how’d she do?” Williams asked, a little pulse beating in his cheek betraying his anger.
“You know, she can fly!”
My first assignment was ferrying a plane from Love Field to Newark, New Jersey. Our basic training included only a few cross-country flights and they were relatively short.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” I told my commanding officer.
“Sure you can, Vi. Look,” she spread a map out on the table, “do you think you can fly from here to Columbus?”
I looked at the map. “Sure, I can do that.”
“OK, how about from Columbus to Pittsburgh?”
I studied the map. It wasn’t that far. “I can do that.”
“Well, how about from Pittsburgh to Newark?”
“I can do that, too.”
“OK, now let’s put it all together.”
And I did. In fact, in a relatively short time, I became so accustomed to cross-country flights that I could fly from Dallas or Long Beach to Newark without maps. I knew all the calls, how far between checkpoints and just how long it would take. It because so routine that sometimes, when we flew in groups, we’d have picnics in the air. A bunch of us would pick up box lunches from the Red Cross and take them with us.
“I’m eating my sandwich,” someone would call out over the radio, and we would all eat our sandwiches.
“I’m eating my apple.”
I swear you could hear the crunch of crisp apples in that silent bowl of the sky. Each of us sat in our own plane enjoying a picnic over the airwaves. We had such fun!
After paying my dues, I earned the right to lead some of the flights. I worked out the flight plans and kept the group together. When I was in charge, I would take off first, using the radio to communicate with my fellow pilots. Each mission required code names and I’d call out, sometimes over a restricted frequency, “Leader Coconut took off.”
“Coconut One took off,” the next pilot called out.
“Coconut Two took off.”
“Coconut Three took off.”
And so on, until finally we would hear from the tower.
“Will the Coconuts please get off this frequency!”
But by that time, we were together and on our way.
Oh, I love flying! And I love the clouds. Sometimes I would be flying in a group and see a pretty cloud. I’d scoot over and take a closer look at it. And I’d hear one of the other pilots on the radio say, “That’s Vi out there sitting on the clouds again!”
I was one of only 114 women selected for pursuit training. Men and women trained together and were broken into units of four per instructor. There were three men in my group of four, and with these guys, I felt equal. I mean, they accepted me as a fellow pilot. But our instructor had never flown with a woman before and was a basket case.
“Well, how’s she doing?” one of the guys would ask.
“I don’t know,” our instructor would answer. “I just don’t know if she can cut it.”
You are washed out in three days if you can’t make the grade. And on that third day, I was really worried.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “this is probably going to be it.”
I went up with our instructor that morning and he was on the controls the whole time. I mean, I never got the feel of that airplane—ever.
When we landed, he looked over at me and said, “You know, that was a lousy landing.”
“I know,” I said. “That was yours. You know, you haven’t let me fly one time! I never got a chance to fly at all!”
He looked at me. “I’ve never flown with a woman before. I just knew I couldn’t let you go. I would feel responsible if something happened to you.”
“Well, look,” I said, realizing that I had nothing to lose. “I’m here. I’m volunteering. And if I am stupid enough to make a mistake, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
“Well,” he said after a moment of silent contemplation, “you can fly again tomorrow.”
He was really surprised that I could fly. It never occurred to him that a woman would be able to fly a pursuit plane.
And that’s exactly what I did! My orders would have me taking a P-51 from Dallas, Texas, to Long Beach, California. In Long Beach, I would pick up a different plane and fly to Newark, New Jersey. Or we’d fly to Wichita, Kansas, to pick up a Bamboo Bomber. We’d kick the tires and if the wings didn’t fall off, we’d climb in. Once you got your orders, you checked out an airplane. I mean, what you really did was buy that airplane. It was yours. If you had to stop halfway to your delivery point, you sent a message back to the base so they would know where that airplane was and where you were.
One night I sent a message that said, “Delivered a P-51. Mother and plane doing fine.” The guy reading the messages at about four o’clock that morning got a kick out of it.
I was an eager beaver and would happily pass on my seven-dollar per diem and sleep overnight on an airliner so I could start another round of deliveries the next morning. The WASP had very high priority with the airlines. Only the presidential party could bump us. One time, I kept track of my meals: I didn’t eat two meals in the same state for three days.
I only experienced one close call. I flew from Dallas to Long Beach. I called in for my landing instructions and the tower called back.
“You’re on fire. You need to circle the field and we’ll clear the area for your landing.”
I couldn’t see the fire, but I circled as instructed, and set the plane down on the runway. My training taught me to evacuate as soon as possible, so I grabbed the plane’s papers, my sock full of make-up and scrambled out. I stood there about 10 feet away from my plane—its locked wheel on fire, spewing smoke from the friction—with my ship’s papers in one hand and my sock of make-up in the other. “Oh, my gosh!” I thought to myself. “I’m such a girl!”
I never lost that quality…I mean being a girl. My room in the barracks at Love Field reflected my feminine side. It came with a single metal bed and a board along one wall for hanging clothes. I fixed that room up. I made a bedspread and curtains for the window and a curtain to hang over the makeshift closet. It looked so cute! Even my base commander appreciated my efforts.
One night he asked me to hang around the barracks to greet some special guests. I wasn’t happy about the assignment.
“But there’s a dance tonight!” I argued. “I want to go to the dance!”
“I think they’ll come in early and you can still go to the dance.”
I could hear the music from the club as I sat fuming in my room. But it all worked out in the long run. President Truman had called Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell back to Washington. The general, his pilot, copilot and their wives were our guests for the night. I felt really bad for the women. Here they’d flown in from San Francisco with their black negligees and plans for a romantic rendezvous, and they were stuck in our barracks!
“What are you flying?” Vinegar Joe asked me.
“I can’t believe you’re flying the Mustang!” he said. “I think that’s wonderful.”
He asked me to join them for breakfast and I did. What an amazing man!
General Stilwell wasn’t the only one who didn’t realize women were flying pursuit planes. I landed the P-51 at one field, pulled over to the hangar area, and a guy jumped on the wing.
“Where’s the pilot?” he asked.
“What do you think?” I responded. “That the pilot jumped out and I was just playing around and decided to jump in?”
* * *
I was flying on December 20, 1944—the day they disbanded the WASP. I could not believe we were being deactivated. I stood at the airfield and looked across a sea of P-51s just waiting to be delivered. Most of the guys coming back were bomber pilots, not yet cleared in pursuit planes. We volunteered to deliver them. For a dollar a year, we would have flown those things for them…heck, forget the dollar!
It was the saddest day of my life. You see, I had this job to do, and it was just about finished, and they told us to go home. Just like that.
I think I felt the prejudice at that time more than any other. I felt that I was doing a great job, helping my country, sacrificing my ordinary life. Then a decision was made: they no longer needed me. I almost felt like what we did didn’t matter that much. It was so easy for them to disband us. Like we were used, but not appreciated. I think most of the WASP felt that way for a time.
But we did matter. Our job was important. It just took 33 years for us to get our veterans benefits.
And now, when I look up at a hawk soaring, I share his exultation. In fact, at 89, I jumped out of a plane with the Golden Knights. My partner was a black aviator and as we were drifting down, floating through that capsule of air, it dawned on me just how much things had changed.
“Mike, do you remember all the prejudice against black pilots and all the prejudice against women pilots? And here we are just floating down together and having such a wonderful time.”
And he said, “You know, Vi, things have changed.”